Social Science Baha


Double-Edged Words

Exposure to liberal democratic values of the West does not necessarily translate into a similar outlook among Nepali immigrants

Deepak Thapa
The Kathmandu Post
17 November 2016

First, a quick quiz. Why are there no Mexicans in China? Answer: because they have the Great Wall.

That, I was told, was the reasoning provided by one pro-Trump Nepali-American (yes, such specimens do exist) on the need to ‘build the wall’ along the US-Mexican border. Obviously, I thought that was a joke, and so I told the person who had been part of that conversation and was relating the story to me. But, no, the statement appears to have been meant in all seriousness, and my relationship with the interlocutor being such that he would not be pulling my leg, I have to believe it was actually said.

The person who had made that ridiculous assertion about the wall is an IT professional and perhaps one of those who cannot see beyond the confines of his binary world of zero and one. But leaving aside the racism inherent in that statement or his ignorance that he, too, is a victim of that same impulse, it is also symptomatic of a phenomenon called kicking away the ladder. That literally means that once you are in, you ensure that no one comes after you. It is a common enough affliction and we also saw that on display among some British-Nepalis who were all for Brexit.

Someone like the IT chap above is likely to be an aberration, and we do not know much about the Nepali diaspora in the US. Fortunately, there are Indian scholars who have looked at their own communities, and despite the many differences, we can try to extrapolate some of their experiences to Nepalis living there.

One of the charges against the Indian-Americans is their social and religious conservatism, a trend that has been observed in migrant communities everywhere, with their sense of dislocation and attempt to hold on to what is comforting, which often are culture and religion. I have heard what sounds like a plausible story that when a faculty chair was endowed in Columbia University in 2004 through contributions raised mainly from the Indian community in the US, the original plan was to name it after BR Ambedkar, arguably among the most famous Columbia alumni. But upon objections from the ‘upper caste’ donors, who predictably were not keen on the Dalit leader, it was named instead after Jagadish Bhagwati, a professor of economics at the university.

Then, there is also the charge that Indian Americans are among the major financiers of the Hindu Right back home, as part of the ‘Yankee Hindutva’ movement initiated by the small business owners who began feeding off each other’s biases. Devesh Kapur from the University of Pennsylvania writes that ‘the evidence that Indian Americans harbor prejudices against Muslims is compelling’ even though he also argues that ‘the evidence that the Indian diaspora is a primary or even an important factor in fueling religious conflict in India is weak’.

Kapur was also recently interviewed by Nepali journalist Prashant Jha on this seeming contradiction between a well-educated Indian population, most of whom support the Democratic Party (and, in Kapur’s words, are ‘way more liberal than the average Americans’), but also continue to support the Hindu fundamentalists back home, strongly manifested in the rapturous welcome Narendra Modi was given in New York a couple of years ago. According to Kapur: ‘People take events like support for Modi as support for the BJP. Many may support the leadership of Modi, but not necessarily the reactionary agenda of elements of the RSS.’

As someone who is an expert on the American Indian diaspora, we just hope that Kapur is right.

The differences between the Indian and Nepali communities in the US are manifold, and that is without even considering India’s place in the strategic considerations of the US or the possibilities of a billion-strong market that has American multinationals salivating. The size of the Indian-American population is huge—now comprising almost 1 percent of the total. It has a much longer history. To take one indicator, it was reported recently that some 10,000 Nepali students had left for the US in the past year; that is the kind of number Indians had achieved way back in the 1970s.

Then there is the class difference. Indian-Americans are much better educated than their Nepali counterparts—in fact, better than any other ethnicity in the US—and hence have higher earnings. Part of the reason for the rapid increase in the Nepali population is due to the diversity visa scheme that allows anyone with a high school degree to enter the US, and hence a significant proportion of Nepali-Americans toil at menial jobs whereas Indians are generally professionals.

Unlike the Indians, Nepalis in the US are woefully under-researched. But one study among the American Nepali diaspora dating from the mid-2000s had concluded that exposure to liberal democratic values of the West does not necessarily translate into a similar outlook among Nepali immigrants and that many carry their social and political prejudices from back home and retain them even as they adjusted to their new lives. One can, however, safely presume that all Nepali-Americans would like to be treated no differently than other citizens of the country they have adopted, and would like to avoid being subjected to the kind of systematic discrimination that has been proposed by Donald J Trump and his hate brigade. In other words, Nepali-Americans are more likely to be at home with the inclusive policies espoused by the Democratic Party.

It is this convergence between some influential elements among the Indian Americans and the Nepali Americans on the kind of policies they would like in their respective home countries that is worth noting. Hence, even as they presume to all the rights of equal citizenship in the US, the rightist Indian Americans clamour for harsher treatment of Muslims back home and turn a blind eye to atrocities against Dalits and tribals. Likewise, the rightist Nepali Americans first welcomed king Gyanendra’s failed attempt to introduce his version of the Panchayat system, and after the demise of the monarchy were joined by others who stand for everything that smacks of illiberalism, whether it is railing against the secular state or the granting of recognition to the marginalised sections of society to lead a life of dignity and progress. The kind of anti-Madhesi vitriol coming out of Nepalis in the US during last year’s blockade was but one indication, as was the silence over KP Oli’s repeated denigration of Madhesis over that period.

There was a news report recently that some Madhesi leaders were quite stumped upon hearing from Oli himself that he was no fan of Donald Trump’s given the kind of views the president-elect has of American society. I think that proves the point about double standards this piece is about. 


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