Victims or adventurers?

William Crawley critiques an enlightening study that offers a fresh perspective on Nepalese migration to India

Much of what is written about migration from Nepal to India focusses not on the numbers involved – with a largely open border between the two countries it is difficult to present movement of people between them as a major policy priority – but on the social ills of sexual exploitation and trafficking of Nepalese children and young women into India’s cities.  There is an acknowledged and probably justified female gender bias both in academic research and policy-related activism.

This short and illuminating study by social anthropologist Jeevan R. Sharma takes a complementary perspective, also deliberately gendered, but interpreting migration data from a specifically masculine point of view. Taking what he calls a ‘livelihoods’ approach in Crossing the Border to India: Youth Migration and Masculinities in Nepal, Sharma views migrants not as victims whose choices are determined solely by lack of economic opportunities, but as dynamic actors in a process in which their actions are shaped by a gendered masculine social experience.

For many young Nepalese men, he argues, migration is a strategy to enable them to escape the regimented social order of village life and attain experience of independence in a ‘distant world’. That distant world may be a Mumbai slum, and employment opportunities are likely to be very uncertain and exploitative. Nevertheless, the author asserts, for the young migrants emancipation from a traditional backgroundand from the ‘structural violence’ of social disadvantage in rural Nepalmakes it worthwhile. It is seen as a ‘rite of passage’ for young men. And they may do well.Teenage boys grow up and return to Nepal as independent adults.

Historically there has been, over centuries, a reciprocal reliance of the Nepalese hill economy on the plains and urban economy of its southern neighbour. Employment in India, often domestic in nature, provides a valuable supplement to meagre farming incomes. Similar practices have been common in the past, involving contracts or informal agreements for children – mainly boys – from hill regions within Indian territory to undertake domestic work in return for board and schooling.  Both India and Nepal have adopted child protection legislation within the past ten years. But this book doesnot examine the impact and effectiveness or otherwise of such legislation, nor does it draw what would be interesting parallels with internal migrants within Indian territory. The research is specific to the village and region in which field work was carried out – Palpa district in the central southwestern Terai area, close to the Indian border town and railway at Gorakhpur. The author himself comes from the area; he accompanied some of the young men across the border and was a witness to the often humiliating checks and procedures to which they were subjected.

Sharma’s evidence, though part of foreign-managed research agenda presented at a Scottish university and published by an American firm, ticks all the right boxes for local authenticity. But the conclusions from this local research are not necessarily valid in the wider context of cross-border migration.

The book is illuminating in showing how rural livelihoods have been progressively divorced from farming and the land. Recruitment of so called ‘Gurkhas’ to the Indian and British armies had been a major factor but is declining. Since 1985 foreign recruitment has been regulated by law; opportunities have become fewer, and there is a greater awareness among potential recruits and their parents of the dangers of army work. In the author’s field research in Palpa foreign military service remains a strong aspiration, especially among the less prosperous section of the community, the Magars. Many of themstill see army recruitment as being ‘at the centre of what it means to be a man’.

Another growing factor in migration has been employment in road-building and construction, which has been a major part of the programme of bikas,ordevelopment, promoted by successive governments and international institutions. But the idea of development in turn promotes a perception that the traditional village lifestyle is stuck in the past, motivating young men to escape by migrating to India –some of them run away without telling their parents.

Sharma shows howpatterns of media and communications, especially radio, have had a major impact on consumption.Palpa has three FM stations which are widely heard locally, reinforcing the early advances that Nepal made in local and community radio in the 1990s at a time when India lagged behind, as in many respects it still does. Mobile phones have proliferated despite fears of misuse by Maoist activists, which in 2004-5led to a near total block on reception

This book highlights a newer view among social anthropologists of the nature of their discipline. The ‘colonial’ perception of Nepal as ‘a closed exotic society’ whose rural population has been sedentary and immobile is problematic, in that it overlooks the degree of social mobility over many generations. In assessing the balance of victimhood among migrants, Sharma points to the vulnerability of women left behind by migrant men, but on the positive side he sees migration as promoting a change in social roles, as women take on tasks formerly performed by their absent menfolk. His gendered masculine approach may be on controversial ground, at odds with campaigners and activists, but it gives a fresh and challenging perspective on an important matter of current debate.

Dr William Crawley is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in the University of London, and a former head of the BBC Eastern Service

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