Marginalised Dalits in International Labour Migration: Reconfiguring Economic and Social Relations in Nepal

I am pleased to share my new article published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. In this article, I have ethno-graphed my own community – resistance, negotiation, migration and changes – all in one!

I have also attached a pdf in the service of my own community. Hope you will find it an interesting read.

I welcome your feedback.

Best regards, Ramesh Sunam

PhD Student

The Crawford School of Public Policy

Australian National University (ANU), Canberra


Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. 2014. Volume 40, Issue 12, pages 2030-2048. DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2014.948393

Marginalised Dalits in International Labour Migration: Reconfiguring Economic and Social Relations in Nepal

Full text of the paper (courtesy of the author*): International migration and Dalits_Ramesh

 * Ramesh Sunam


International labour migration continues to rise in Nepal affecting the livelihoods of many people. In this article, I draw on ethnographic research with Dalits, a marginalised group, to examine the role of international labour migration in altering migrants’ economic and social space in their places of origin, once affected by Maoists’ ‘people’s war’. In particular, I explore how Dalits have used their agency to contest caste institutions by mobilising financial, human and symbolic capitals accumulated through migration. Much of the existing studies highlight the economic side of migration paying little attention to the social and cultural dimension. This article seeks to complement these analyses by illustrating how Dalits repudiate caste relations that have shaped their experiences of exploitation and domination.

Comments on Ramesh Sunam (2014); Marginalized Dalits in International Labour Migration: Reconfiguring Economic and Social Relations in Nepal, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (August 14, 2014).

I congratulate Ramesh Sunam for his scholarly article written very well to depict the realities of Dalits of Kuka village, not much different from the Dalits who live elsewhere in Nepal.  I hope to see more of his scholarly writings on the challenges and progress faced by our Dalit communities and people on everyday life.

At the outset, I must make a suggestion to Sunam and other Dalit scholars that we should stop thinking or considering all Bahuns as priests and all Chhetris as warriors. Only one or two Bahuns in the village are Brahmins by their attributes to be able to perform any priestly task; all others are called Bahuns by caste of birth, but not by priestly act. Likewise, it is questionable how many people or their immediate fore-father of Chhetris in Kuka village would have fought any war- potentially none or a few, that too as foreign mercenary if at all anyone had joined Indian or British Army. In fact, many from Dalits also have actually fought wars as a part of British or Indian Army. Also, there have been many Dalits who fought as Maosts’ Army men or women. So, there is no such thing as ‘Priestly’ caste or Warrior’ caste anymore. We should stop attaching priesthood to all Bahuns and War-lordship to Chhetris at least in any scholarly writing.

It is commendable that Sunam considered in this paper to use the collective noun “Dalits” to relate to Pariyars of Kuka village. He could easily have chosen otherwise to refer Pariyars, the study subjects as one of the caste among Dalits, and focus on the issues as applied to Pariyars only. Instead, he deliberately chose to use the common name to place the study at the heart of Dalit community.

The paper reiterates to confirm my long held notion that Maoists were the force to reckon with, when it came to venturing a new order for empowering Dalits in the rural areas of Nepal. In the particular case of Kuka village, if the Maoists ‘people’s war’ effect on caste relations was weak and still not long-standing in the village, any resistance of Dalits against caste-hegemony could be overpowered by so-called upper castes over time, by some means of reversing what may be considered as “transgression” due to some transient effect.  The paper showed the evidence that Maoists’ revolution effects still persists in the villages. I am now worried what will happen once those effects gradually wither away. I am also wondering if there is some way, we can create an alternative force that can sustain the effects for long time- I am imagining the possibility of a force that does not have to be violent and anti-establishment (anti-state), but can be protector of the state law such as Anti-Caste Discrimination and Untouchability Act (Offenses and Punishment), 2011 or some sorts of human rights group; or is it the Police force’s job to protect the citizens by defending the pro-dalit laws that are now in place (But, this could happen only when we have a pro-dalit state!)? If the recently created pro-dalit setting in the rural areas is not sustained by some regulatory, human rights or even external mechanism, the practice of caste discrimination, which is hundreds of years old or deep rooted in the society, can comeback more heavily against the minority Dalits. It is very hard to imagine how Dalits, who make up only 11% of the village population so vulnerable and disadvantaged in many ways, can resist the overpowering of the rest of the population in defending their newly acquired agency and maintaining the new order in the society for long.

Sunam presented a beautiful picture of new order brought about by international labor migration such as the story of Jaman, who could transform himself as a liberated Dalit when he returned from foreign employment, with wealth, trade skills and self-confidence. It is unlikely that all Dalits would be so successful in walking through his feet. In olden days, when I was young, as I remember vividly now, many British Gurkhas of the villages used to return to their villages in more strong social and economical position, but quickly they used to be absorbed into the local rural setting to till the land, herding cattle, collecting fodder for buffalo and do all traditional rituals. After 10 years, they would not be too different persons, despite the fact they would have received handsome British Gurkha pensions. If this setting is applied to our non-skilled Dalit migrants returning home, their conditions would be rather worse. Now, due to globalization and other infrastructural changes in the villages, they don’t have to suffer much upon their return. as they can now resort to some trade or new occupations that they might have experienced abroad. Still, we need to be wary of the situation that foreign returnee Dalits would not necessarily have a better life upon their return to their village.

I certainly agree that international labour migration is one of the phenomena aggressively happening in recent times in rural Nepal. To some extent, this can strengthen Dalit agency by removing some of their traditional constraints to fight against otherwise status-quo caste-hegemony. It is about breaking the traditional barriers through some new elements that facilitate countering the hegemony of caste-supremacy. Introduction of any new force or element that the so-called upper caste group may not have any control over would act as means to counter traditional caste-hegemony. However, we should be mindful that in particular case of international labour migration, it is happening en-mass from the rural areas of Nepal- this is almost uniformly happening to every caste, and more so to so called ‘upper’ castes. And, in the long run, this may not be any special advantage to countering the caste discrimination, as it is likely that the status-quoists so called ‘upper’ caste fellows who are also undertaking international labour migration in much larger scale than Dalits can easily mask the advantageous position of Dalits.

Dr. Drona Rasali, PhD, FACE*

Vancouver, British Columbia Canada.

* Fellow of the American College of Epidemiology

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