NRIs in Nepal
By C.K. Lal
The clamber into the hills from the plains below is as old as history. The Mahabharata mentions the Kirat Kings of the
Himalayas, and Emperor Ashoka trekked to the birthplace of the Buddha and erected a pillar on the spot. Adi Shankara is believed to have set the tradition that only Keralites Brahmans of a certain sect could be eligible for priesthood in the holy shrine of Pashupatinath. Raja Harisingh, the Tirhut king of Karnataka origin, fled to
Kathmandu valley upon pursuit by the invading Muslim army and founded a culture that continues to give the valley its distinctive identity. But all these visitors didn’t come in hordes, and were easily assimilated into the local population. The early 20th century clearing of the Tarai forests by the nobles of
Kathmandu valley, and an almost simultaneous famine in the neighboring states of
Bihar and Awadh, forced many Indians to choose a life of considerable difficulty in the plains of
Nepal. Over time, they came to be known as Madhesis – people of the Madhes. Never a term of endearment, Madhesi has degenerated into a label of scorn, and can mean anything from being devious, dirty, cruel, uncouth or – a plain Indian.
Not Man, a Madhesi
Old-timers insist that there is no exaggeration to the following anecdote, and that it is based on real life. In the days when there were no toilets, the ladies of noble families also visited the banks of Bagamati to attend to the calls of nature. Some of them had servants. These servants were instructed to shout ‘Man’ to save the ladies the embarrassment of exposed derriËres. On one misty winter morning, a servant could not recognize a Madhesi and did the shouting as per the instructions. The lady sat up, threw a glance towards the intruder, and resumed her business nonchalantly. The ignorant servant was duly reprimanded, “Didn’t you see? He was a Madhesi, not a man.” Ladies go to toilet nowadays, but this attitude has not changed much.
In the Hindi blockbuster of all times, Ramesh Sippy’s ‘Sholay,’ a mother would instill the fear of Gabbar in her child if it wept at night. The goblin evoked in the
Gods is handier – mothers here simply have to mention a Madhesi, pronounced Madishe. The symbol so taken is often a poor little Bihari with a jute sack on his shoulders, calling from house to house collecting empty beer bottles and old newspapers. Braving the stray dogs, abusive natives, resentful street children and a less than tolerant police force, these hapless scavengers provide a service without which
Kathmandu would become one huge refuse dump. Nobody is grateful. The government has already levied a tax on their cargo, and there is clamor for more levies on them.
Onion, Potato and Tomato
Until Biharis came with their cycles, street vendors were almost unknown in the Valley. These days, one can buy anything from carpets to cosmetics, fruits and vegetables, utensils, toys and tin-food from these very enterprising salesmen from across the border. Their Nepali is a joy to hear and lends itself so well to caricature that Nepal Television cannot produce a single soap without them. They do not take offense if haggled with rudely. Even their merchandise compares well in price and quality with the those in the burgeoning departmental stores in
Kathmandu. And what do they get in return? Eight to ten people lodging in dingy basements, abuses from anyone with an urge to vent his or her anger, and a small profit at the end of the day to money-order back home to Laloodom.
There was a time when Marwaris were respected as sahujees. No more. These days, they are depicted more as practitioners of unfair trade practices. They are assumed to be harmful for the nation’s economy, in spite of being one of the largest private sector employers and the largest tax-paying community. If a local smuggler is caught sneaking in goodies, he is dismissed as a misguided person. To turn him into an object of sympathy, associate his name with any manipulative Marwari – real or fictional. The clamor of blood would be astounding. This, despite the fact that no big-time Marwari runs his show entirely on his own – the norm, rather than the exception, is to have a local noble as a sleeping partner, often with a controlling interest. Many Marwaris insist that people of their community who arrived from
Burma in the 1970’s cheated the government and gave them a bad name. Be that as it may, the fact is that they have become minor players in foodstuff and textiles, lucrative trades that they had dominated for years.
Plumbers from Udisa, electricians from UP, carpenters from
Bihar, bricklayers from
Bengal – one can’t build a house without them these days in
Kathmandu. Contractors love them – they work longer hours for lower payment. Owners like them too – they hardly need any holidays. But the traditional craftsmen from Kirtipur and Madhyapur are not happy about these aliens who have undercut them out of the market. Hence a call for their ouster can arouse frenzy. At middle class dinner tables, much concern is shown about Indian domination of the Nepalese labor market, but come daylight, these bleeding hearts go to Kopundole, Baneshwar or Kalimati and hire an Indian hand at nearly half the going rate of a comparable Nepali laborer. Free-market and jingoism survive cheek-by-jowl without any contradiction.
Labor and Religion
Even Nepali employers do not like local laborers. Apart from being too easygoing, they are often considered to be potential troublemakers. They prefer Madhesis instead, whose lower salaries, longer working hours and lack of rights to organize make them attractive. This has resulted in a situation where almost all garment workers are Indian. Indian dyers man the Nepali carpet industry and till yesterday, nearly all machine-men were Bengali. A large number of these immigrants are Muslims who take up the whole thoroughfare in front of the
Palace for Jumma Nawaz. It does not help the flow of traffic that Fridays are half working days. The Kashi,
Ajab, Nepal attraction for the Indian tourists is gone. Earlier they were amazed to see a more beautiful valley than
Kashmir peopled by more devout Hindus than in
Benares. These days, Muradabadi Muslims dominate the brass-ware market and Kashmiri Muslims enjoy a near monopoly in high-end handicrafts sales. Once again, a case of Hindu Shangri-la gone sour in the only
Kingdom of the world.
Having nothing to differentiate them from their temporary immigrant brothers, Madhesis who have made
Nepal their home find themselves at the receiving end of much misplaced scorn. Consider the Nepali proverb that a dead Madhesi more cunning than a living Nepali; picture a Pahariya Bahun with his Yadav compatriot from the plains, and one might have to turn the old adage on its head. Any Madhesi is suspect in the valley. They have to keep proving their allegiance to the country, very much like Hindus in
Sri Lanka and Muslims in
India. This is ironic in a way, because Madhesis have less dependence on
India than many Pahariyas who have, for generations, been saluting the tricolor for their livelihood. Madhesis pretend to support Pakistani players in Indo-Pakistan cricket matches to impress their friends, but go home and weep in silence over
India’s defeat. This would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic. If not for themselves, the Indian team should get into the habit of winning every now and then to keep the morale of the Diaspora high.
India’s largest diplomatic establishment in the world, barring
England, with whom they have an altogether different kind of relationship. What this diplomatic corps does to keep employed is a mystery. The Hindi term for a country bumpkin is “Vadheshi.” One thing is for sure, these diplomats do not stoop low enough to associate with local Madhesis – no matter whether resident or immigrant.
(CK Lal is a prolific columnist)
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