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首頁 > 尼泊爾 學術面面觀 > Cultural Identity of Nepalis in Assam 印度尼泊爾移民的文化認同

  • Cultural Identity of Nepalis in Assam 印度尼泊爾移民的文化認同
Poonam Sharma/Tsing Hua Univ.



Migration from Nepal to Assam

Human migration has always been a very important and complex phenomenon. It involves the movement of humans from one place to another with various purposes like education, employment, political and religious movements, etc. Individuals, groups or communities who migrate from one place to another are termed as ‘migrants’ or ‘immigrants’. Migration takes place due to various push and pull factors. Push factors are those that force migrants to leave hardship or uncomfortable circumstances to a new place with comparatively better means of livelihood. On the contrary, pull factors are those that attract migrants to come and reside in a place of relatively comfortable conditions. Push factors are always stronger than pull factors to cause a migration. However, ideas and notions among the migratory communities, groups and individuals, might create conflicts between the indigenous people and their assimilation with the new culture.

In this article I will highlight the case of the Nepali Immigrants who settled in the Indian state of Assam.

Migration between India and Nepal is not only historical but a contemporary phenomenon that is taking place until today without any hindrance. With the annexation of Assam by the British government, a new era of migration was opened and several groups of migrants started to penetrate the state of Assam. The Nepalese migrants formed one of the major groups of migrants, along with the Bangladeshis and other groups. After India achieved independence in 1947, three years later in 1950, a bilateral friendship treaty was signed between the Governments of India and Nepal popularly known as the ‘India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship’ in which among other important things it was agreed upon to allow free movement of people of the two countries. Therefore, virtually open border made the migration of Nepalese to India very common.

Push factors like the scarcity of agricultural lands, ever growing population, high rates of taxation and interest have compelled several generations of some Nepalis to seek alternative forms of livelihood in India. These factors affected not only the rich but also the poor migrants. So they chose to continue the job they have in India. India has since a long time remained one of the major destinations of the Nepalis. But since the last few decades the number has decreased when Nepalese also seek and do migrate to other places like Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Gulf countries. Still, India draws the most Nepali migrants for convenience and its distance from Nepal. Moreover, migrants consider India as a stepping stone to migrate to developed nations when they can’t get visa from Nepal to their desired destination. In this case, India is the first choice to stay for some time and get the required documents.

Although most of the migrants chose to reside in the cities and towns of Assam fulfilling their own causes of migration such as work, study, religious visits and many more, still many of them settled in the forested areas and engaged in works like supplying of milk and fuels to the urban dwellers in nearby cities and towns.

Some of them originally came from the mountainous and harsh regions of Nepal. They moved to the forested regions of Assam with the hope for better agricultural outcomes, cattle breeding and higher income with their agricultural harvests. At the same time, life in the cities and towns is more expensive in compared to that of the villages, thus many migrants avoided the cities with the intention to earn and save more, which is quite difficult in the cities (photo shows a forest in Assam; source: http://www.team-bhp.com/).

Nepali Migrants of Assam

The Nepalese have been one of the most migratory communities. India since the time of the British has been a favourite destination for the Nepalese. The British not only recruited the Nepali soldiers in the British army but also civilian Nepalese were to work as manual labourers. The civilian Nepalese migration happened mostly in Assam and the hilly districts of Bengal where Nepalese came and settled down in large numbers. Most of the Nepalese immigrants had migrated to Assam under the British rule as labourers to work on various projects. However the India-Nepal borders being porous, Nepalese migration continued to Assam. While in the year 1901 only 21, 347 Nepalese were in Assam, the Nepalese population increased to 4, 32,519 constituting almost 2 % of the total population of Assam. Due to similarity of social and religious norms with India, many of the Nepalese immigrants settled down in Assam and maintained families. The children of these erstwhile immigrants, the second generation Nepalese,  being born and raised in Assam were acculturated to a great extent to the Assamese way of life such that they start thinking themselves as Assamese and as an Indian and not as a Nepalese.

While in recent years, Assam has seen a series of agitations against foreigners notably the Bangladeshi immigrants as well as the Hindi-speaking population. Interestingly the Nepalese population has hardly been victimized. So I argue that even though the native Assamese has accepted the Nepalese as more Assamese than foreigners, there is still a kind of social-discrimination prevalent. There is a kind of discrimination on the socio-cultural front which gets apparent on several occasions towards the Nepalese in Assam.  However the anti-foreigner, anti-Hindi speakers and nativist trend is taking a toll on the psyche of the Nepalese in Assam such that a lot of them suffer from identity crisis on the cultural perspective despite their efforts to get assimilated in the Assamese society. Coupled with the fact that due to local politics and lack of job incentives in Assam, many of the Nepalese youth from Assam are seeking recourse to going back to Nepal, which serve as a major conduct to go overseas for job opportunities. Many of the Nepalese youth have married to women from Nepal and have immigrated either permanently to Nepal or else maintaining houses in Assam as well as in Nepal. This phenomenon is certainly not restricted to unemployed Nepalese youth in Assam but even those who have a stable job in Assam are keen to go back to Nepal as they somehow do not see a stable future in Assam for various reasons, notably lack of job opportunities, excessive nepotism, corruption, militancy problems and most crucially the discrimination which is very clearly portrayed on several social and cultural occasions by the locals.

Does Nepalese in Assam have cross-cultural identity?

Migration as a result turns several societies as culturally plural i.e. ‘people with distinct cultural and social backgrounds comes together and gives rise to a society of great diversity’ as stated by John W. Berry. In such a plural society with plural culture, generally the culture vested with more power in its side is considered to be the dominant one while the culture vested with less power is the non-dominant culture. Therefore in such a society, an individual migrant or a group of migrants will follow some crucial strategies of acculturation.

This article primarily focuses the cross-cultural identity of the Nepali migrants settled in the Indian state of Assam. The earlier generation of Nepali migrants of Assam preferred to get integrated and assimilated with the Asamiya people (natives of Assam). Even most of these migrants preferred to identify themselves as Nepali-Asamiya (fulfilling both the characteristics of being an Asamiya and a Nepali), but during the period of Assam agitation (1979-85), the Nepali migrants along with Bangladeshis and Hindi-speaking migrants were considered suspicious and doubted as spies. However, the Nepali migrants were the ones to face less hostility and insult compared to other ethnic migrant communities and this was due to the reason that they did tried and were able to cope up with the Asamiyas both socially and culturally to a great extent in the land of Assam.

A primary research was conducted by me during July-August, 2013; this was basically carried out to understand the cross-cultural identity of the Nepali immigrants residing in the Indian state of Assam. In this research, the respondents responded to a set of questions raised in both long and short interviews regarding their cross-cultural identity in a distant land like Assam. Thus, out of the 52 total interviewed Nepali immigrants 40 i.e. approximately 77% of the Nepali migrants agreed and believed that they have formed a cross-cultural identity in Assam; they have accepted the various Assamese cultures while at the same time hold the original Nepali-cultural identity that connects the Nepali immigrants with  their home country. They like to call themselves as a ‘Nepali-Asamiya’ i.e. the mixture of a Nepali and the Assamese culture. On the contrary, 12 of them i.e. approximately 23% out of the total respondents denied the idea of a cross-cultural identity, these immigrants firmly responded that they are still pursuing their original ‘Nepali-Cultural’ Identity and also denied that they have never formed any cross-cultural identity and don’t wish to form it either. But, both the groups of migrants believe that there is a lot of discrimination when it comes to the social front. There are several occasions when they feel that the Nepalese are being marginalized and looked down upon by the local peoples. During this study it was found out that the former group of migrants have tried to mingle with the locals within the local culture and society. But, the response from the locals was not equal on most occasions; there were incidents when the migrants are bound to feel that they are outsiders.  Based on this primary data, this article brings into limelight that most of the Nepalese have greatly assimilated to the Assamese way of life, but there is still a sense of discrimination between the locals and the migrants, however these discriminations are not portrayed directly, but of course indirectly on several occasions, through behaviours, attitudes, some specific vocabulary, etc. which is not unnoticed by the Nepali migrants.


The majority of the Nepalese in this study residing in Assam have turned cross-cultural as far as their cultural identity is concerned. I would draw the conclusion that although the Nepali immigrants in Assam have tried to integrate themselves into the Asamiya way of life and especially the children of the immigrants, they suffer from a deep sense of identity crisis. Though as compared to other immigrant communities in Assam, the Nepalese community has been able to assimilate to a great extent in the Assamese society but the stigma of being a foreigner still exists.  Though subtle, bias against the Nepalese community exists to a great extent in Assam and this gets reflected in the way the Nepalese are perceived by the local people. Given these facts, at this time a new trend has started where many Nepalese youth are going back to Nepal not only in search of identity but also in search of a more stable live vis-a vis Assam which is engulfed in militancy and insurgency problems over the past some years. However, since many of the Nepalese have already turned cross-cultural, it remains to be a matter of concern that how the people of Nepal will respond to this Identity, which they will counter. Lastly, I would like to conclude that the ‘Cross-Cultural Identity’ of the Nepalese in Assam remains a crucial topic to be explored and studied deeply from a broader perspective in the future.



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