Migration as freedom, migration as dukha

Niranjan Kunwar | July 23, 2015

“An important international event and a great opportunity for emerging young scholars,” declared Gerard Toffin in his opening remarks at the Annual Kathmandu Conference on Nepal & The Himalaya. Toffin is a Distinguished Emeritus Director of Research at CNRS, Paris. Sitting next to him, Vice Chair of Social Science Baha Basanta Thapa reiterated the importance of the social sciences, noting that many problems in Nepal – the traffic, for example – have sociological roots. He also expressed a wish to conduct separate sessions in Nepali and English, acknowledging the mixed audience and highlighting the need to be sensitive to various languages.

Two of the four panels that took place on Day One of the three-day conference brought out diverse narratives related to the interlinked topics of youth and migration in the Nepali context. Titled “Dukha at Home and Abroad: Nepali Transnational Labour Migration,” the first panel featured Jeevan Raj Sharma, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and Anna Stirr, Assistant Professor at the University of Hawaii. Both researchers summarized papers they presented to the conference and described their fieldwork. “Widespread narratives of migration always involves dukha,” explained Sharma. But migration is also associated with freedom. “How do we understand this conflict?”

In order to explore his thesis – “Migrants are not just workers (producers) but also consumers” – Sharma travelled with Nepali migrants from Palpa and Rolpa to Mumbai and Delhi during the summers of 2004, 2005, and 2014. Despite long hours and abusive working conditions in India, Nepali migrants are lured by Indian trains, wide roads, drinking and sex, explained Sharma. “Consuming helps these young men make sense of themselves as men.” Hence, contributing to the steady flow of labour from Nepal to India which remains the most accessible country for Nepali migrants despite the fact that out-migration to India has halved since 2001.

Stirr focused on the question, “Why are all migration songs about dukha?” She studied a traditional form of folk song, termed the “viraha song”, tracing its origins to the thirteenth century. Eventually she herself discovered that folk songs are not actually all about suffering. A fluent Nepali speaker, Stirr started her session by singing, later explaining how the tradition of viraha songs brings out a nexus of emotions. The process of sharing emotions – not just dukha – also results in joy and solidarity, helping men and women bond with each other.

The second panel, titled “Youth and Nepal”, featured researchers who were either in the middle of their studies or presenting theses that were somewhat shaky. Their work addressed various issues plaguing Nepali youth in both rural and urban settings, ranging from mass hysteria among adolescent girls in Khotang, young Nepali boys who only aspire to own an Enfield Bullet, and the idea of education as “time pass”.

The Annual Kathmandu Conference on Nepal & The Himalaya will take place at Hotel Shanker until July 24, and features 25 panels with over 80 researchers.


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