Over the past decade international labour migration from Nepal to the Middle East and Malaysia has increased significantly. The number of Dalit migrants is also rising rapidly. A large number of studies have been conducted focusing on the economic impacts of international labour migration from Nepal. So far research has not looked at inter-caste relations, and in particular at old institutions of patron-client (balighare) exchanges, and how economic and socio-cultural relations may be changing as a result of labour migration. Based on household and individual surveys and in-depth ethnography, this paper seeks to explore some of these issues.

As a part of the ESRC-funded project ‘Caste, Class and Culture: Changing Bahun and Dalit Identities in Nepal’ (ES/L00240X/1), data was collected in 2015–16 from a census of 575 households, and in-depth survey from 1,211 individuals. Data was collected in eight neighbouring villages in Kaski district, as well as in migration destinations both in Nepal and abroad. The caste groups included in the study are both non-Dalits (priestly and non-priestly Brahmans, Chhetris, and Gurungs) and Dalits (Kami, Damai, and Sarki). 219 individuals (about half of them Dalits) included in the survey are either currently working in the Middle East or Malaysia or are returnees.

The preliminary results from the study show that most of the patron-client-based balighare links have either been abandoned or transformed to a large extent. Some old caste-based taboos have been broken and roles redefined. While some traditional non-cash-based occupations have been completely abandoned or are practised to a lesser extent, others have adapted to cash and market-based economy. Due to insufficient labour, farming is in decline. With respect to commensality, more than four in five respondents have/had Dalit (or non-Dalit) work or house-mates in the country of their destination. Except for a few cases, caste practices (such as untouchability) did not become a barrier for their commensality. However, over half of them believe that they could/cannot continue the same level of relations in the private domain when they return to Nepal.