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Overseas caste among military migrants: the migration and settlement of Nepalese Gurkhas in Britain

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posted on 2022-03-28, 09:27 authored by Mitra Pariyar
This study is based on ethnographic field research involving participant observation and semi-structured interviews, conducted in England between 2012 and 2013. I am not a soldier, but I was born and brought up in a Gurkha village and town of western Nepal. I have known many Gurkhas and their families for a long time, both in Nepal and England. As a student, I lived in a Gurkha community in East Oxford in 2008 – 2012. I was in England, closely observing actress Joanna Lumley’s popular campaign for Gurkha settlement rights – which she won in the spring of 2009. The British have traditionally recruited Nepalese men from specific castes/ethnic groups from particular locations. Thus, majority Gurkha immigrants belong to the four middle castes of Nepal: the Gurung, Magar, Rai and Limbu. So, the mass migration of Gurkhas dramatically changed the composition of castes within the Nepalese community in the UK. Until recently, the latter was dominated by, as elsewhere, Nepal’s elite groups, i.e., high-caste Bahuns and Chhetris. Now they suddenly found themselves in the minority in the UK. Furthermore, over the years, Gurkha caste associations have risen up rapidly, both in their numbers and sizes. In this rare diasporic vantage, the Gurkhas became not only preponderant, but increasingly assertive. I will demonstrate that, as Gurkhas attempted to mobilize themselves against the traditional authority of high castes, the diasporic community became increasingly polarized along the caste line. I argue that this fast-paced reinstitution of caste among Gurkha immigrants must be understood in the contexts of: 1) The transnational influence of Nepal’s ethnic politics, spearheaded by many middle castes and/or ethnic groups in Nepal, which has sought to challenge the traditional authority of high castes; and, 2) Post/colonial policies on the recruitment and organization of the British Gurkha Army, wherein caste has been a central principle. In other words, I show that in part Britain itself is responsible for strengthening Nepalese caste on its soil. My thesis thus presents new lenses for understanding diasporic caste: British colonial history and transnationalism. Much of the past research on overseas caste, which were mainly centred on indentured communities in former British planation colonies like the Caribbean, Fiji and Mauritius, have claimed that caste lost its force. These historiographical analyses blame colonial policies of recruiting and organizing coolies on the estates, wherein caste seemed to have little significance. There are some studies of caste among Indians and Pakistanis in Western countries, who emigrated after the World War II. These scholars demonstrate some significance of caste overseas, but they do not pay attention to the postcolonial impacts. Nor do they delve into transnational connections, which may have either directly or indirectly contributed to the revival of caste in the diaspora. Lastly, this study informs policy. Over the years, Britain’s political class has been divided on proposed caste legislation. The UK is grappling with the first issue of this kind in the Western world. In an unprecedented move, low-caste Indians spearheaded a campaign to outlaw caste discrimination, which they claim is essential to protect them from alleged bigotry and intolerance in the hands of high-caste Indians. The latter, however, have vehemently opposed this demand, claiming that caste has never been a problem in the diasporic community. The debate has also divided a few scholars that dared to delve into this sensitive topic. I suggest here that the debate needs to be widened. Here I demonstrate the saliency of employing particularly the concepts of transnationalism and colonial history in order to get a better understanding of diasporic caste.


Table of Contents

Introduction -- Chapter One. Caste in the Gurkha regiment : a colonial historiography -- Chapter Two. Unbroken chains: Gurkha migration and caste -- Chapter Three. Performed caste identities : diasporic public sphere -- Chapter Four. Caste as anti-caste : contesting high caste authority -- Chapter Five. Perpetual suffering : British Nepalese ‘Untouchables' -- Chapter Six. Caste in an unlikely country : contexts of the host society -- Conclusion -- Bibliography.


Bibliography: pages 318-376 Theoretical thesis.

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Sociology

Department, Centre or School

Department of Sociology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Amanda Wise

Additional Supervisor 1

Selvaraj Velayutham


Copyright Mitra Pariyar 2016. Copyright disclaimer:




Great Britain


1 online resource (376 pages) colour illustrations

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