You would not know it seeing lone Nepalis at work on the streets all over India, but there are a number of groups intent upon organising them and providing them a level of protection. Almost all these groups are politicised, however, with links to parties and factions back in Nepal. While Nepalis have had organisations in India for nearly a century—to fight Rana rule in Kathmandu or to protect the Nepali language, an India-wide organisation for Nepali migrant workers was begun only in 1959 when one D. Ale, an associate of the communist leader Pushpalal Shrestha, started the Akhil Bharat Prabasi Nepali Kalyankari Sangh (All India Emigrant Nepali Welfare Association). Its activities were concentrated in Uttar Pradesh and in Calcutta.
The two most active umbrella organisations of the migrant Nepalis today are both of left orientation, the Emigrant Nepali Association (ENA), associated with the mainstream Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninists), and the All India Nepali Unity Society which is linked with the more radical “Mohan Bickram group”, although now divided into two acrimonious factions. The centrist Nepali Congress has floated its own “Nepali Samparka Samitis” (liaison committees) with branches, it is said, in the main cities of India.
“The Unity Society, set up in November 1979, with its Maoist ideology, is the strongest organisation among Nepalis in India,” claims its New Delhi-based General Secretary Bamdev Chhetri. The society is spread over 22 Indian states and has a temporary membership of 60,000 and permanent membership of 125,000, he says. Mr Chhetri´s claim to supremacy would be challenged by ena, which has 11 regional organisations all over India and “regular” membership of 30,000. A major distinction between the two is that the Unity Society accepts all Nepali-speakers as members, whereas the latter concentrates on Nepalis from Nepal only.
Ram Chandra Bhandari, of Palpa District in central Nepal, is the Bangalore-based member of the Central Committee of the ENA. Mr Bhandari, who works as chief of security of Bangalore´s Holiday Inn, says his association´s activities are extremely varied, “from organising volleyball games among Nepali teams of various regions, to holding cultural activities during festivals. We respond to police action against Nepalis, confront employers who harass our members, resolve disputes, fight for compensation, help stranded pilgrims, conduct funeral rites of those without family, and so on.”
According to Mr Bhandari, the main political plank of the ENA is to fight the Restricted Area Permits (RAP) which restricts Nepalis from travelling to the Indian Northeast. “This clearly goes against the provisions of the 1950 treaty between India and Nepal as it stands, which calls for equal treatment of each other´s citizens. As for the RAP, if they did it in Assam and Meghalaya yesterday, tomorrow they will do it to us all over India. Already, in Karnataka, Nepalis cannot get employment cards from government offices.”
The ENA also believes that the open border between Nepal and India should be controlled, says Mr Bhandari, and a passport system be put in place between the two countries. Asked whether this will not go against the interests of the migrants, he responds, “We are not asking the border to be closed. The migrant labourers will have passports and will enter India with proper visas. That way we will at least know our numbers and strengths.”
As to why migrant organisations invariably have communist leanings, Mr Bhandari replies, “We migrant Nepalis are entirely made up of the majdoor barga (working class), so we support the left.” And truth be told, the Foreign Department of the CPN (UML), Nepal´s main opposition party, provides guidance to the ENA through a Chief Adviser (Pramukh Sallahakar). That post is presently filled by Gopal Shakya, of the CPN (UML) Central Committee member, who is based in Delhi.
C.P. Mainali, CPN (UML) leader who spent three years in India organising migrants in the early 1980s, says that earlier the party´s involvement in India had been concealed. “I would have preferred that our work in a foreign country not be out in the open, but that is how it is now. On the other hand, we have made it clear that we are involved only with the welfare of Nepali workers in India and in seeking application of international labour standards. We will not get involved in Indian politics. As a politically motivated social organisation, the ENA understands that while we must agitate lor the right of Nepali labour in India, the real fight is back home in Nepal.”
“By that token, the Nepalis in exile are very committed politically,” says Mr Mainali. “When Nepalis were thrown out of Meghalaya in 1986, or during the Indian blockade of 1988, they were the first to bring out processions. During the People´s Movement in 1990, too, they helped with people and money.”
And yet, there is much resentment among the migrant leadership against the party functionaries in Kathmandu for having neglected the cause of the workers in India. Says Mr Bhandari, “During the Panchayat era, it was the migrant community which supported the opposition politicians of Nepal during their days in exile and underground. And yet, even the comrades have failed to raise a voice on behalf of the migrants once they gained power.” says Mr Bhandari. His colleague in the ENA of Bangalore, Laxman Prasad Upadhaya, claims, “We migrants are more nationalist than the Nepalis of Nepal.”
The Chairman of the Nepali Congress-supported Nepal Students Union (India) is Rajaram Pokhrel, who is based in Benaras. He complains that the party leaders, once they ensconced themselves in Kathmandu, have let the organisation go to seed. “All our leaders started politics in India, but now they hardly look back.” Pointing at the furniture in the union office, he says, “Bisweswor Prasad Koirala wrote his book on democratic socialism sitting on that chair, using this very table. All these have lost their political significance now.”
Conceding that the leftists have stolen the march in organising Nepalis in India, Mr Pokhrel says, “Forget financial support, today we do not even receive intellectual support from the party. How is it possible to organise poor emigrants without some financial backing?”
While it is highly unlikely, whatever their antecedents, that Nepali politicians will in future pay much heed to the migrants in India, there would be some advantage for the divided organisations themselves to join forces. There is such a move afoot, according to Mr Chhetri of the Unity Society, at least at some level. “We are trying to set up an intellectual platform to study the numerous challenges facing migrants. This will be a place for Nepalis of India to gather regardless of their party affiliations.”
A good thing, if it happens.
(With reporting by Kanak Mani Dixit)