Love Has No Barriers: Transnational Migration of Nepalese Brides to India

Aarushi Sharma, Diya Shah, Kritika Litoriya, Prachi Jain

The picture shows a Nepalese bride with an Indian groom at the border minutes after their wedding. The conspicuous presence of the state in a cross-border marriage motivates this photo essay.

Marriage has always involved certain mobility, of either one or both spouses, however, ‘cross-border marriages’ are under scrutiny because of the way they affect state priorities and concerns. “These marital unions challenge boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in at least two different ways: established definitions of both the ‘good and legitimate citizen’ and the ‘good family’”. The state imposed status of ‘migrant’ to these marriages involve the blurring of lines between cultural and ethnic homogeneity within a national territory. In this essay, we look at the transnational marriage between Nepalese women and Indian men and the migration of these brides to their husband’s home country. Often, the Indian state’s paranoia regarding the movement of these women is also because of this idea that they are stereotypical foreign ‘mail-order’ brides who marry due to poverty, opportunism, and lack of agency. It is noteworthy that although this is a narrative of migrants moving from the Global South to the North, it is being replicated in the South as well. 

Constable used the term ‘global imagination’ to suggest that in a transnational marriage, people imagine themselves as being in a different social geographical location. This imagined social geographical location facilitates the emergence of transnational ‘marriage-scapes’ which are driven by one’s social imagination of gender, sexuality, and modernity. This is particularly true for women. Migrant Nepalese women negotiate their gender roles in both the sending (Nepalese) and the receiving (Indian) communities. And hence it is important to note different economic factors, familial obligations, cultural fantasies and personal motivations as well as their relation to wider regional, national, and transnational processes. These are not hypergamous marriages shaped simply by economic geographies, but also ‘cartographies of desire’ which the states want to monitor. 

“Nation-states establish boundaries between those who do and do not belong and in the process produce various dichotomies: the body of ‘citizens’ versus the body of ‘foreigners’ and the ‘imagined national community’ versus ‘ethnic or religious others’.” This othering in India could be on the basis of language, physical appearance, region, race, caste and class barriers. In the case of Nepalese brides (who marry Indian grooms), one can understand the othering and also, a fixation, on the skin colour while perceiving their bodies. Fixating on certain characteristics of the body and discrediting others acts as a way of defining the body through the gaze of the constructor. In such a situation, the autonomy of the individual body shifts to the one who defines it. The social and economic worth of the body is defined by the way it is perceived in society. This fixation then becomes fetishishized, where all other factors of their bodies are rendered useless and the gaze is fixed upon their skin colour or other physical attributes. These attributes become fetishized and  affect the norms and beliefs around ideas of marriage. They (Nepalese brides) are preferred for their skin colours (in India) and their ‘worth’ in the society is reduced to this factor. Therefore, one can see the way race/ethnicity  a particular kind of body as well as a perceived erotic sexuality of these women are fetishized for the purpose of marriage. This also affects the politics of belonging of a ‘migrant’ spouse in her partner’s nation. 

The lines of cultural and ethnic homogeneity are blurred as these transnational marriages also threaten the normative vision of the ‘good family’ that produces the new bodies of society and nation. In this case, the Nepalese brides- their skin colour and other physical attributes of the new bodies that these women (re)produce, might also be a concern, especially if these bodies look more Nepalese than Indian. According to Benedict Anderson, nationalism shares more similarities with kinship than with political ideologies. The family is the unit through which the nation also (re)produces itself. The Indian state realises the crucial role that women play in this unit and thus, a foreign influence on bodies that would be the future citizens of the country is alarming and creates another paranoia in the state’s mind. This point is particularly relevant in explaining the logic of controlling family and especially marriage migration. The nation-state relies on specific, gendered visions of kinship relations in order to reproduce itself physically and culturally. The state often has certain ideas of ‘doing family’ and these marriages that involve ‘uninvited members’ challenge the ideals of marriage. In order to deal with this paranoia, the state creates certain policies and laws, to make the integration of transnational marriages and the ‘foreign’ spouse, tough, and does not give a space to them in the national fold very easily. 

When a cross-border marriage between an Indian man and a Nepalese woman takes place, and the wife migrates to the husband’s country, spatial migration might occur immediately, but it takes a long time, often years, before any form of legal migration happens. When the wife migrates spatially before her legal status changes, it is often because of state policies. According to the Indian citizenship laws, a foreign national is considered for citizenship only after seven years have passed since the wedding between them and an Indian citizen. This institutional barrier to citizenship creates many problems for the transnational couple in question, including but not limited to the lack of employment opportunities. This barrier also poses the question of why states take time before legally recognizing a citizen — it can be thought that this is the state’s way of checking if the marriage has not happened just to acquire the state’s citizenship and waiting for a specific length of period allows the state to be convinced that the marriage is ‘real’ and has no ulterior motive. If that is indeed the case and the state thinks that waiting it out would eliminate (by ending up in divorce) all possible ‘fake’ marriages, it is worth noticing that transnational marriages are in fact at a higher risk of divorce within the first four years of marriage and foreign wives who acquire citizenship have actually a lower risk of divorce and dissolution of marriage.

To conclude, by looking at transnational marriages especially in the case of Nepalese brides and Indian men, the essay attempts to understand the relationship between individual (private) marriages and state anxieties. It aims to explore the fetishism surrounding Nepalese brides in India — both at the societal and at the state level. At the societal level, there is a fixation around their different physical appearance and color while at the state level, the concern is also about whether the marriage is even ‘real’ — about love — in the first place and not just a tactic to get the state’s citizenship. The state might also fear the progeny the marriage produces  and the affect the Nepalese mother would have on them. The state thus makes it tough for these women to get the Indian citizenship. Hence, we can say that love indeed poses many barriers for these transnational couples!

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