For every Nepali, whether in Nepal or abroad, the idea of Nepal shapes their convictions and outlook towards the world. Most Non-Resident Nepalis (NRNs) would probably say that Nepal matters to them, and they would like to matter to Nepal. As such, the fondness and passion for all things Nepali is an integral part of the communities of Nepalis living abroad.

 While NRN stands for Non-Residential Nepali, over the years, numerous other amusing backronyms have evolved — such as ‘Not Really Nepali’ because though they were Nepali in origin, their citizenship spoke otherwise and ‘Never Relinquished Nepali’ because although they resided in a foreign country, they had never relinquished their affection for Nepal and its people. But noting the outstanding contribution of the Nepali diaspora to Nepal and the world, I’ve concluded that they are none other than the ‘National Reserve of Nepal’. 

What makes NRNs important is their long and illustrious history, from Tulsi Giri, who lived in Sri Lanka for a very long time and later came back and became vice-chair of the Council of Ministers, to Manisha Koirala, who spends a considerable amount of time in India having an illustrious career in Bollywood.

 I believe the idea of Nepali-ness unites our NRNs and they, in turn, embody the diversity and pluralism of Nepal.

 The origin of the NRN community can be broadly categorized into four waves.

The first wave preceded the era of imperialism in South Asia before the 19th century, comprising an assorted collection of travellers, teachers, traders, artists, and merchants who, despite societal norms, bravely left Nepal to forge their destiny in the outside world. This wave could include the Buddha in ancient times to Arniko and merchants who travelled to Tibet and South Asia.

The second wave involved the forced migration of Nepalis as indentured laborers in many parts of British India, including the tea gardens of Bengal and Assam to Burma in the east. Moreover, during the first and second World Wars, Nepalis fought as mercenaries for the British, leaving Nepal to fight in many countries across the world.

The third wave was the tragic displacement of Nepalis from their motherland due to the Maoist insurgency. Many Nepalis fled the country in search of opportunities abroad as life in the villages had been compromised due to the conflict.

The fourth and final wave of migration is the phenomenon of skilled Nepalis seeking educational and professional opportunities in a globalized world. This can be further subdivided into two distinct categories: highly educated Nepalis who go abroad to study then they stay on and more modestly qualified migrants who go abroad for work and choose to remain. This latter category generally see their migration as temporary and driven by economic necessity. They remit a large share of their earnings to Nepal, often a larger share than high-earning professionals. 

 But even in this latter case, both sets of migrants remain closely connected to Nepal, whereas the earlier waves might not have been, albeit not out of choice. Even for migrants in the second half of the 20th century, means of communication and connection with their homeland were few and far in between. The postal system was unreliable, there were few phones, and the internet didn’t exist. 

 Today, NRNs are more privileged. At the click of a button, they can communicate with their families back home and remain updated about happenings in Nepal. They are also generally much more successful than the previous generation. So inevitably, Nepal tends to regard them with a sense of pride and investment. Not only are NRNs net contributors to the economy and society, but also a positive reinforcement of Nepal’s image abroad.

 Nepalis abroad have become millionaires and founded successful businesses. For example, the Melbourne Institute of Technology, a leading school for technology and innovation in Australia, was co-founded by Shesh Ghale, an NRN.

Nepalis are also the go-to community for security professionals. Until 2020, only Nepalis, apart from local Malays, were allowed to be hired as security guards in Singapore. The Gurkha Contingent is a line department of the Singapore Police Force consisting primarily of Gurkhas from Nepal. The contingent takes part in counter-terrorism and special guard roles in the nation. 

Nepal has the most significant remittance inflow as a share of GDP in the South Asian region and the fifth highest in the world. Remittance is proportional to over 20 percent of the GDP at this moment. There is also the concept of ‘returnee entrepreneurship’ where entrepreneurs who had once left Nepal in search of better opportunities have now returned home to invest their newfound skills and capital. Some well-known businesses, like Himalayan Java, Sanima Bank, and IME Group, were founded by NRNs or Nepalis who returned home. For many, the primary reason for their return was a desire to contribute to their homeland, more of an emotional decision than a financial one.

 The diaspora has also been a pivotal contributor to humanitarian causes. During the earthquake of 2015, rescue and relief efforts were organised by NRNs from around the world. They not only collected and distributed funds but also volunteered physically and virtually. NRNs rebuilt more than a thousand homes in various districts in Nepal, albeit the status of those homes has been criticized

The diaspora’s engagement during Covid-19 has also been quite significant. The diaspora has been able to organize telemedical consultations, lobby for vaccines, and, in some cases, even distribute rations to people in need.

 Apart from their material contributions to Nepal, there have been breakthrough intellectual contributions. There is enormous potential for research collaboration between Nepal and the world, especially between Nepali expatriates attached to international universities and their colleagues back in Nepali universities. Recently, Israel’s Tel Aviv University signed an MoU with Kathmandu University to promote cooperation in science, technology, and research. 

 NRNs like fashion designer Prabal Gurung, chef Santosh Shah, writer Manjushree Thapa continue to be the torchbearers of a diverse Nepali identity to the world. They are an embodiment of Nepal’s soft power, the ability of a country to attract others because of its society, culture, and political values. Hollywood, Levis, Coca Cola, and Apple have done more to burnish the image of the United States than any war they’ve ever fought. 

 As the 10th Non-Resident Nepali Association convention nears, two significant agendas set forth include passports and voting rights. These issues are certain to be contentious, as Nepal does not allow dual citizenship. Conservative Nepalis might look down on those who’ve left the country for greener pastures but moving abroad out of financial compulsion or even just out of choice does not make them any less Nepali.

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