Ethnic Identity, Conflict and Nation Building in Bhutan

Smruti S. Pattanaik,Researcher,IDSA


Ethnic identity has become a significant source of instability in a modern state. The source of threat posed to the modern state can be attributed to the internal socio-political disturbances due to the evolving identity of a community as a nation, which has produced certain disturbing trends that resulted in instability. The process of nation-building has proved to be an uphill task for the elites of modern nations. To create a balance between ethnic identity (primodist group identity) and national identity with the right mixture of diversity of ethnic diacritics within a state has proved to be a challenging task. The identity of the state with any particular group or groups residing inside a single dominion makes the deprived groups (groups outside the preview of such inclusion) perceive that they are being dominated by others which makes assimilation difficult. In this complexity of nation building, minority groups often feel marginalised, which further strengthens the feeling of alienation. This, if not taken care of in time, might lead to a situation where the very foundation of the state security is jeopardised. In the context of South Asia, there are many communities who were initially marginalised. But due to growing awareness about their rights, these groups have become more vocal in putting forward their demands, sometimes resorting to seccessionist movements which has posed a great challenge to security. South Asia can be described as an ethnic mosaic which can be considered as the potential source of any future conflict based on ethnic identity rather than nationality. Bhutan is no exception to this environment. A country which was known for its peaceful serenity has become a cauldron of ethnic conflict.

Bhutan is a plural society having different ethnic and linguistic groups and two major religions i.e. Buddhism and Hinduism. The recorded history of Bhutan dates back to the 7th century. Another important aspect which should be mentioned here is that like the Nepalese, the present ruling ethnic group, the Ngalongs, are an offshoot of the Tibetans. The present ruling elites had migrated from Tibet around this time. According to Michael Aris, an expert in Tibetan history, "If one were to apply the label of 'indigenous' to any people in would be tempted to focus on a very small community of jungle-dwellers...known as the 'toktop'...They were once a people who appear to have spread over the whole country and who have now all but disappeared under the impact of fresh migration or military defeat from the north."1

The national identity as conceived by the elites of Bhutan is synonmous with Drukpa identity (the followers of the Drukpa Kargyup sect of Buddhism). The term Drukpa is very loosely defined and has a broad parameter "...the different ethnic groups in western, central and eastern Bhutan are called Drukpa because of their shared religious beliefs not because they form a single culture or ethnicity...In common usage, however, the rubric term Drukpa has slowly begun to be synonmous with Bhutanese..."2 Mostly all the Ngalongs, Sarchops and other smaller communities like the Khengs, Brokpas, Doyas, Lepchas, etc. practise Buddhism and Lhotshampas (southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin) practise Hinduism. Thus, there is a greater degree of socio-cultural variation which stems out of religous practice. The conflict which started initially as a problem of illegal migration turned into a protracted ethnic conflict having far-reaching implications for the peace and internal stability of Bhutan.

The recent conflict in Bhutan has exposed the inner contradictions in the Bhutanese society. The tiny Kingdom which wants to come out of isolation and build a strong nation has been caught between the dichotomy of nation building and the ethnic aspirations of a section of population who are of migrant origin. In the present context, the whole gamut of the conflict stems from different interrelated factors. The factors which are gaining importance in the context of Bhutanese plural society are national identity vis-a-vis ethnic identity of the citizens and various constituents of the concept of national integration and conflict arising out of implementing this integrationist policy in a plural society.

History of Nepalese Settlement

Before going into details of the present crisis, it is important here to discuss the history of the Nepalese settlement in the foothills of Bhutan because lately many of those who were driven out of the country for various reasons have been categorised as illegal immigrants. Thus, it is pertinent here to trace the year of their settlement to arrive at a logical conclusion that they are a part of Bhutanese society and polity and thus an integral part of the Bhutanese national identity. The Nepalese migration to Bhutan had started in the 19th century, more specifically after the Treaty of Sinchula in 1864.3 Nepalese migration to Bhutan is closely associated with the Bhutanese migration to Sikkim, Darjeeling and Duars of Assam. Most of the Nepalese came to these areas as plantation workers or to work in various development projects undertaken by the British administration.4 Moreover, as recorded in history, it was Kazi Ugyen Dorji, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, who was in charge of the southern foothills of Bhutan, who had encouraged the Nepalese settlement in Bhutan because of labour shortage.5 The economic transformation brought about by the industrious Nepalese in Darjeeling and adjoining areas made Dorji employ the Nepalese for the twin purpose of development of southern Bhutan and to fulfill his commitment to pay annual rent to the central government in Bhutan.6 All these factors cumulatively, along with the reluctance of the Bhutanese to settle in the malarious, hot and humid part of southern Bhutan, led to the choice in favour of the Nepalese. Successive British missions that travelled through Bhutan to negotiate with the Bhutanese rulers to open up a trade route to Tibet have revealed the presence of the Nepalese in Bhutan since the early 19th century. The early mission undertaken by British Political Officers Charles Bell and J.C. White also noted the presence of the Nepalese in the western valley.7 Among other officers who travelled to Bhutan for various reasons and have recorded the presence of the Nepalese, are Major W.L. Campbell, F.M. Bailey, Williamson, B.J. Gould, Capt C.J. Morris.8

In addition to this there are some government documents which register that though the British had no official role in bringing the Nepalese to Bhutan, it was Ugyen Dorji who encouraged Nepalese migration, perhaps after being subjected to the British pressure.9 The dissidents of Nepali origin, however, claim the settlement of the Nepalese as much before the recorded history of the British or the government. They have cited that many Nepalese artisans from Kathmandu went to Bhutan to build monasteries. Among 108 monasteries built by them, Paro Kiyachu and Bumthag Jamphel Lakhags are the most significant. It is believed that these artisans settled in the valleys of eastern and central Bhutan.10 This source also claims that when Guru Padmasambhava came to Bhutan to preach Buddhism, he brought an entourage of Nepalis who later settled in Bhutan. There are others who believe that the first Shabdrung brought Nepalis by requesting King Ram Shah to send troops to guard the frontier of Bhutan.11 The government sources confirm that "since the reign of Deb Minijier Tempa (1667-1680), Newari craftsmen who were renowned for their artistic skills in metal work were commissioned by Bhutan for execution of religious objects and casting of statues."12 But there is no evidence of these people settling in Bhutan. Moreover, the claim made by the refugees is not supported by any historical fact about their settlement in Bhutan. Thus, it is safe to rely on the British mission reports.

Before detailing the perception of Bhutanese elites regarding the constituents of national identity, one should be well versed with the fact that the concept of a separate identity for both the communities in Bhutan emanates from their religion and culture. The Government of Bhutan at a point of time described Hinduism as compatible. Thus, while restrictions were put on activities relating to Islam and Christianity, there was a sense of accommodation towards Hinduism. In spite of their presence in Bhutan for more than a century, the Nepalese have maintained their unique tradition and culture. This is because the identity of the Nepalese as a distinct ethnic group stems from the fact that they belong to a different religious, lingual and socio-cultural group. Moreover, the Nepalese "as a distinct cultural group, are very proud of their tradition and, in fact, they look to Nepal and India as the centres of their civilisation, historical achievements and religious piligrimage. As the Nepalese elite castes abhor beef, polyandry and widow remarriage prevalent among the Brugpa Lamaists, and they themselves practise ritual purity, personal and food pollutions, there is definitely a cultural gulf between the two communities."13

Policy of Accommodation

The policy of the Bhutanese government can be compartmentalised into two distinct phases i.e. policy of accommodation (1958-80) and policy of absorption (1980 onwards). The Lhotshampas were first conferred citizenship of Bhutan in 1958. It was decided in the National Assembly that "the Nepalese of Southern Bhutan should abide by the rules and regulations of the Royal Government and, pledging their allegiance to the King, should conscientiously refrain from serving any other authority (such as Gorkha). They should submit a bond agreement to this effect to the Government."14 The explicit reference to the Gorkha in the pledge reflects the susceptibility of the Bhutanese elites towards the loyalty of the southern Bhutanese.

Citizenship rights to the Lhotshampas not only gave them legitimacy but conferred on them political and economic rights at par with other communities of Bhutan. The National Assembly (Tshogdu) which was established in 1953 gave representation to the Nepalese for the first time in 1958, thus including them in the decision-making process. The southern Bhutanese were represented in the Bhutanese civil services at par with the ethnic Bhutanese. In the National Assembly, other than Dzongkha, the national language, the debates were translated into English, and Nepalese. The national official newspaper of Bhutan, Kuensel, also has three editions--English, Dzongkha and Nepalese. Till 1988, the Nepalese were free to study in their mother tongue and teaching was imparted in Nepali. The Nepalese were also taken in the Army and police and were included in the Cabinet and judiciary.15 There was no restriction on the Nepalese to open pathsalas to learn Sanskrit or to celebrate Hindu religious holidays and maintain their culture, tradition and wear their unique dress.

Till 1980, the government never interfered with the social life of the Lhotshampas. However, the situation across the border made the Bhutanese government nervous. The Gorkhaland movement essentially directed at the gratification of ethnic aspirations of the Nepalese in India, oscillating between the demand for autonomy and seccesionism under the current of Greater Nepal, sent alarming signals to the Bhutanese elites. Sikkim's merger with India was the historical fact which gave vent to such an apprehension. To quote Dawa Tshering, the Foreign Minister of Bhutan, "...just a century ago there were no Nepalese in Darjeeling hills and Sikkim, areas contiguous to us. The imperial gazetteers are historical proof of that. Now they constitute the overwhelming majority, they have political power and they are undisputed leaders in the region. This is a historical experience for us."16 The demographic threat in the case of Bhutan was portrayed as a security threat to its existence as a small nation having a unique identity. "They want to take over" one official lamented, referring to the apprehension of the Nepalese forging a common political entity which might see "...Bhutan to be a part of Greater Nepal."17

Apart from the abovementioned factors, what added to their discomfort is the geographical contiguity of southern Bhutan to the Nepali dominated areas of India. Moreover, the Nepalese were suspected to have revolutionary ideas because of their close interaction with the Indians and Nepalis living beyond the border, and the democratic environment that prevails in those countries. It made the region politically vulnerable to the influence of neighbouring countries. The Nepalese are politically more conscious and outward looking people compared to the ethnic Bhutanese who are more conservative due to the lack of political education and political socialisation. According to Leo E. Rose, their political orientation can be attributed to the following reasons:

"They are recent immigrants, stemming from the very different (and in some respect antagonistic) Hindu cultural and value system and are generally resistant to integration into Bhutan's tradition social community and political culture...their more natural line of association runs south and west rather than north. Moreover, a few of the Nepali Bhutanese have been socialised in Indian political values--democratic, Marxist and Hindu orthodoxy--either before migration to Bhutan or as a part of their education across the border in India...The political traditions of Bhutan, including perhaps those surrounding the monarchy, are not deeply ingrained in the Nepali Bhutanese and their loyalty to the system is sometimes questioned."18

The Nepalese political orientations were evident in the early Fifties. The influence of the freedom movement of India and later the fall of the autocratic Rana regime in Nepal, provided the Lhotshampas with much needed impetus to their limited political exposure and they formed the first political organisation known as "Jai Gorkha Solidarity Front."19 The objective of the organisation was to protect the interest of the southern Bhutanese' largely agricultural needs. The movement fizzled out because of its limited appeal and the fear that it might affect their land ownership rights in Bhutan.20

The present crisis which has emerged as a challenge to the security of Bhutan is the dichotomy between ethnic identity and national identity. The Bhutanese identity emphasises the Dzongkha language, the dress code of the major communities i.e. Kho and Kira, typical Bhutanese dress, and other etiquette that are included in the cultural edict known as Driglam Namzha which was introduced as the theme of the Sixth Five-Year Plan. However, a reference to culture and customs was made during the fiftieth National Assembly.21 It may be pointed out here that the policy of nationalistic cultural "orientation" had started even as early in 1977. It was decided to adequately acquaint the graduates educated outside Bhutan with the Bhutanese programme of socio-economic transformation.22 The identity of the Nepalese stems from their distinct socio-cultural and religious beliefs, their distinct language, food habit and dress.

Policy of Absorption

To construct a framework for one King, one country and one people, Bhutanese nationalism with its unique ingredients of Ngalongs culture and way of life was introduced. Justifications for the policy were wrapped with apprehensions of a small country facing demographic threat from people of migrant origin. As a result of the introduction of various partisan policies to preserve its sovereignty and culture as described by the King, the people who till the late Eighties had perceived themselves as a part of the Bhutanese socio-political system, suddenly felt that they were being alienated in different sectors of the government and that their loyalty was suspected in spite of their presence in Bhutan for more than a century. A major shift in the policy towards the Lhotshampas took place in the late Eighties. As has been discussed elsewhere, the early Eighties saw tumultuous political activities in Nepal and by the Nepalese in India.

Marriage Act of 1980

Keeping in mind the relations resulting from marriages between the Nepalese on either side of the international boundary which encourages further immigration, the government introduced the Marriage Act, 1980, restricting marriage with non-Bhutanese by laying down certain penalties in terms of promotion and other benefits.23 It is important to mention here that earlier, to encourage inter-ethnic marriages between Drukpas and Lhotshampas, the government which had announced a cash reward of Nu 5,000 increased to to Nu 10,000 if the marriage lasted for five years.24 But this policy failed to achieve the anticipated results due to various socio-religious constraints which prescribe the marital relationship within the Nepalese community. The Nepalese perceived this as a policy aimed at them because it is they who mostly have marriage relations outside Bhutan because of caste and other considerations. Thus, the Marriage Act was largely resented by the Lhotshampas because it affected them. One of the provisions of this Act stated: "Promotion shall not be granted to a Bhutanese citizen married to a non-Bhutanese beyond the post she/he held at the time of his/her marriage." This provision had a retrospective effect of being effective from June 11, 1977. Such a person shall not be promoted beyond the post of a subdivisional officer. Moreover, any Bhutanese citizen employed in the National Defence Department or in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs shall be removed from such services after his/her marriage to a non-Bhutanese. They shall not get facilities enjoyed by other citizens. Moreover, they are not entitled to education or training abroad. However, later it was clarified by His Majesty that a non-national spouse "would be granted special residential permit and would be entitled to health, education, and other social benefits extended to the citizen of the country."25 The grant of special residence permit is limited to marriages prior to the coming into force of the 1985 Act and not to those which took place thereafter so as to prevent anybody adopting the method of marriage as a means to migrate.26 This was perceived by the Lhotshampas as a move to prevent them from getting married outside the international boundary.

Citizenship Act of 1985

The Citizenship Act of 1985 put up more hurdles regarding both acquisition and termination of citizenship. It is more rigid and stringent compared to the 1977 Citizenship Act as far as naturalisation is concerned. Contrary to the 1977 Act, where single Bhutanese parentage was required for granting of citizenship, the 1985 Act stated that only in cases where both the parents are from Bhutan, a child born to such parents will be a Bhutanese citizen by birth. Other significant provisions of the 1985 Citizenship Act are in case a non-national marries a Bhutanese national, the offspring of such marriage and the spouse can apply for Bhutanese citizenship. For the non-Bhutanese spouse, it includes 15 years residency, ability to speak, read and write Dzongkha proficienttly, possessing a good moral character and having no record of acting or speaking against the King, country and people. Moreover, the government has the power to reject any application without citing any reason.27

The rules for termination of citizenship are ambivalent in nature. The 1985 Citizenship Act lays down two conditions. Apart from making annual registration in the Census Department compulsory, the clause relating to the termination of citizenship reads that "any citizen of Bhutan who has acquired citizenship by naturalisation may be deprived of citizenship at any time if that person has shown by act or speech to be disloyal in any manner whatsoever to the king, country, people."28 This clause affected the Lhotshampas because many of them are naturalised citizens. It is interesting to note that through this clause, the government curtailed any dissent whatsoever to the policies undertaken in the name of national integration.

The Census Exercise of 1988

The problem assumed the present proportion when the 1988 census was taken only in the five southern districts of Bhutan. The census exercise of 1988 sent shock waves to the ruling elites of Bhutan. The census result of Samchi district in southern Bhutan revealed that its population had almost doubled within a period of ten years. The basis of this census exercise was the 1985 Citizenship Act. On the basis of it, people were divided into seven categories.29 Categorisation was done by a committee of 12 persons, including three village elders.30 However, as the refugee sources put it, "The village elders were allowed little or no role and very few southern Bhutanese were included in the census team."31 Some people who were previously given Bhutan citizenship identity cards during the 1979-1981 census exercise, were categorised as illegal immigrants and were required to leave the country.32 The basis of ascertaining citizenship was "any documentary evidence whatsoever (land ownership deeds or document showing sale/gift/inheritance of land, tax receipt of any kind, etc.) showing that the person concerned was a resident in Bhutan in 1958 and is taken as a conclusive proof of citizenship."33 Thus, people who had been residing in Bhutan for generations were declared illegal immigrants because of non-possession of such documents. There is a possibility of many people not having tax receipts because there was a system of paying tax in kind.34 Many people who live in Bhutan do not own land, because due to the government's policy, many southern Bhutanese known as Sukumbis were given land and settled in 1970.35 These people could not prove their residency before 1958. Though there were southern Bhutanese as a part of the census team to give credibility to the team verifying identity during the census exercise, as a scholar has put it "The state selects and nominates Nepalese to the various formal bodies, who are more pliable and do not necessarily represent the popular feelings of the Nepalese."36

Policy of Driglam Namzha

The sense of security that emanated largely from the growing Lhotshampas population, made Bhutan apprehensive about its identity as a distinct nation, its culture and Mahayana form of Buddhism which the Bhutanese consider as unique and exclusive. Apprehensions surfaced over whether illegal migration of Nepalese to Bhutan can alter the ethnic composition of the Bhutanese society and reduce the Drukpas and other ethnic groups to the status of minority in their own country. The government realised the dangerous implication it can have for the identity of Bhutan with its unique Mahayana Buddhism and culture. To deal with this, the Bhutanese programme of Driglam Namzha was introduced in the form of a Royal Khaso (decree) on January 16, 1989, as a part of the Sixth Plan document. This cultural edict, as explained, includes "such virtues as respect for teachers, the sovereign, parents and elders; the institution of marriage and family, civic duties and behaviour that keep together the strands of the Bhutanese social fabric emanate from the source."37 Supporting the policy of integration, the King of Bhutan stated, "Our culture and tradition provide us with a unique identity to help us to protect our sovereignty. That is why we give so much attention to them. We must feel Bhutanese. Otherwise we will not be able to survive."38

In a bid to assimilate the Lhotshampas, many measures were undertaken. In 1988, the programme started with the concept of "one nation one people." It was clarified that "since Bhutan is neither an economic nor a military power, so the only factor we can fall back on which can strengthen Bhutan's sovereignty and security is our identity, our different identity, we are really the last bastion of Himalayan Buddhism."39 Justifying such a need for a national identity in Bhutan, the King pointed out that there is a tendency among our people to identify themselves more closely with nationalities of other a large country (ethnic) diversity adds colour and character to its national heritage without affecting national security, but in a small country like ours it adversely affects the growth of social harmony and unity."40

To gauge public mood, the government held a referendum in 18 districts of southern Bhutan. Though it was claimed later that the cultural edict was accepted overwhelmingly by the Lhotshampas, later popular resentment in the form of public demonstration proved that the government was wrong in the assessment of the people's opinion. The discrepancy between the real feelings of the people and the posture taken in front of government officials was due to two reasons. First, the people were too scared to articulate their opinion. Second, the representatives of the people are not elected through any kind of democratic means. From 1980 onwards, election of people's representatives was discouraged. Instead, District Administrative Officers were made to nominate them. Thus, the 1990 demonstration by the Lhotshampas against cultural imposition proved that the government was not given true feedback regarding the people's opinion. Moreover, it can be further inferred that the present system of government, without a free Press, political parties and freedom of speech and expression, does not leave much scope for ventilating of grievances.

A dress code was introduced as a part of the national integration scheme. While applicable only on formal occasions, in practice it was required to be worn everywhere "except by the Bhutanese operating modern machinery in workshops, factories, etc., where the use of Kho was inadvisable...Any person violating this rule was to be arrested and was liable to imprisonment."41 This dress code was not acceptable to the Lhotshampas because it was inconvenient for them to wear in the hot and humid weather of the Terai region. Moreover the material used for making this dress was quite expensive. It was not that the representatives of the Lhotshampas in the National Assembly did not ventilate the reluctance of the people to abide by the dress code.42 But the government did not pay any attention to their opinion. If the dress code is not followed, there is fine of Nu 500 for the first offence, Nu 1000 for the second, and rigorous imprisonment if the same offender is caught for the third time.43

Dzongkha was made an important language by reducing the use of other languages though Bhutan is a multilingual country. According to Leo E. Rose, "It is a language of administration, and the lingua franca of the country--at least to the extent there is one. It is also the language used (along with the Tibetans) within the Drukpa religious establishment, which makes it a medium of communication on a limited but important scale throughout most of the is language of home in western Bhutan...The linguistic character of western Bhutan reveals that Dzongkha is generally understood only by those people who live in the vicinity of the Dzong itself...the government officials from outside usually require an interpreter to communicate with the people of their area of jurisdiction."44 It was made the working language in the National Assembly in 1980 though Nepali was used in the deliberations. However, from time to time, certain sections of the National Assembly members had demanded that only Dzongkha be used in the National Assembly. The government took measures to strengthen the use of Dzongkha. "It was resolved that correspondence, accounts, signboards of offices, house numbers and milestones would as far as possible be written in Dzongkha."45 Moreover to reduce the use of Nepali, the teaching of Nepali in the southern Bhutan schools were stopped in 1988 when the New Approach to Primary Education (NAPE)46 was introduced. The reason for dropping this language as explained was, "Nepali is the national language and lingua franca of another country...was only serving to accentuate the dichotomy of two distinct national cultures in Bhutan."47 Text-books were prepared by the Department of Education to educate people in the national language and adequate grace marks were given for the students of southern Bhutan in Dzongkha.48 The government, however, maintains that until 1988, Nepali was being taught upto grade five in all the primary schools in the south as a third language and not as a medium of instruction.49

Grievances of the Southern Bhutanese

In the National Assembly there is no proportional representation for the ethnic Nepalese. Though the exact ethnic break-up of the population is not available, one can be sure about the disproportionate representation of the southern Bhutanese. In a 151-member National Assembly, the southern Bhutanese have only 16 representatives and only one of them is serving as a Cabinet Minister. His Majesty, the King of Bhutan, accepted the unfairness of the representation when he said in an interview, "In the south, the representation is not fair. When my father established the National Assembly in 1953, no one had an idea about it and nobody wanted it. So, when he forced its creation, the seat representation was done on an adhoc basis. We had no census. It definitely needs to be changed in accordance with the demographic distribution in the districts."50 The under-representation of Lhotshampas does not give them any weightage in the decision-making process as they can always be overriden by the majority belonging to the Sarchop and Ngalong community. There is no secret ballot system and most of the legislations or important policies are approved through consensus. Hence, the present National Assembly which is packed by such nominated representatives is seen by many in southern Bhutan as nothing more than a rubber stamp Assembly. The King "is still not only the Head of the State but the ruler of the country, and the decision-making process continues to be concentrated in the Palace."51 The paternalistic and populist postures attempt to endear the King to the average subject. The young graduates of the National Voluntary Service attribute their selection, stipend, maintenance, guidance and ultimate awards, then postings, increments, promotions and overall career to the King. The rural folk, are obliged to the royal sovereign for all developmental activities or special welfare programmes because such steps are new to them.52 Thus, the King has a mass support base among his citizens regarding policies because the people are hardly exposed to any idea about democracy or government by the people. In this kind of society, political socialisation and political education are highly improbable propositions. "It was not that most Bhutanese were resistant to modern concepts, they never heard of them."53 The absence of mass media for their exposure to the world outside has been systematically delineated. The ban on satellite television helps in the survival of the the present system. The strengthening of feudal elements in policies can be exposed from the following facts. The no-confidence motion against the King which was initially adopted during King Jigme Dorji's rule by the thirtieth National Assembly in 1969, was increased from two-third to 50 per cent in the thirty-sixth National Assembly. Later this was rejected by the same National Assembly in its thirty-ninth session and the representatives of the Assembly accepted, and affirmed their faith in a hereditary King. Though Bhutan shed its isolation and started the modernisation process in the early Sixties "...the Bhutanese were determined to be selective about those facets of modernisation that would be introduced in Bhutan. Such total alien institutions as political parties were, of course, anathema."54 Thus, it is the Lhotshampas who are politically more informed through their interactions across the international boundary.

The Nepalese also have a series of religious grievances. The monk body is represented in the National Assembly. But considering the fact that a good number of Bhutan's citizens are Hindus, a request for a representation of a Hindu pandit was turned down citing limited membership of the Assembly.55 Dussera was declared as a national holiday only in 1980. However, the government banned Kirtan Sanghs in 1988.56

The Lhotshampas feel that they are under-represented in the civil services. In 1960, the bureaucracy was modernised and was more organised. By 1972, there were a number of departments, organised on a more "modern basis that exerted substantial authority on virtually all subjects. Decision-making became the virtual monopoly of the Thimpu 'boys' who, on most occasions paid little attention to the views of local leaders scattered all over the country or even their representatives in the National Assembly."57 The data of regionwise representation in the civil services indicates a bias in favour of the northern Bhutanese since the Lhotshampas are more educated than other Bhutanese In twelve dzongkhags (district), there are 120 schools with 36,798 students and enrolment ratio is 40 per cent, in five southern dzongkhags and one dungkhag (sub-division) there are 80 schools, 31,054 students and enrolment ratio is 81 per cent.58 In the civil services, the northern Bhutanese constitute 73.50 per cent and the southern Bhutanese 26.50 per cent.59 Lhotshampas maintain that "the top positions inevitably go to Drukpas."

Protest and Eviction

All the above reasons were enough to ignite the growing disillusion and dissatisfaction of the Nepalese towards the Royal Government. The census exercise of 1988 based on the 1985 Citizenship Act changed the fate of many Bhutanese from citizens of Bhutan to non-national or illegal immigrants. It is pertinent here to point out that import of labour has been banned since 1971 in government and private organisations except for the Ministry of Trade and Industries which was permitted to import labour "for imparting training...and take the responsibility for the imported labour." It was further decided that such labour cannot use land and should be transferred every year.60 All these precautions establish the fact that with such cautiousness on the part of the government, it was not easy for the non-nationals to settle in Bhutan in such large numbers as the ruler of Bhutan claims whenever any reference to the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal is made.

Demonstrations were organised against the Citizenship Act of 1985 and the census exercise of 1988 which put many people in the bracket of illegal immigrants. It is pertinent here to point out that there is no freedom of speech and expression in Bhutan as per law. In the past when a proposal to extend the right of freedom of speech and expression was made, it was rejected by the National Assembly because "most of the members felt that granting of freedom of speech and expression to the people, although good in principle, was premature in view of the general backwardness of the people and their lack of was resolved that the public would not be granted freedom of speech at present."61 To express their dissatisfaction, the Lhotshampas, in a strongly worded pamphlet, circulated as the voice of the oppressed people of Bhutan, asserted the ethno-cultural distinction and superiority of the Nepalese settled in southern Bhutan. The pamphlet titled, The Gorkha People of Southern Bhutan, Must Unite and Fight for our Rights stated: "We Nepalese have a far rich tradition and culture which is derived from the oldest religion in the world which is Hinduism and that our Nepalese-Hindu culture is immensely more superior to the cheap and concocted version of Sino-Tibetan customs, the Drukpa are so proudly calling Diglam Namzha."62 It further warned the government against any cultural imposition and stated, "We the Gorkhas of Southern Bhutan are not only the majority but we also have seventeen million brothers and sisters in Nepal and over 10 million in India...there is every possibility that the borders of the Gorkha state...will join...we Gorkhas must unite together and create another Gorkha state in Bhutan and extend the borders of Gorkha states along the Himalayas which has always been the rightful home of our people."63 The pamphlet was explicit about the threat in its contents and warned that the King "will soon go to the way of his late uncle, the Chogyal of Sikkim...If the present racist policy of Bhutanisation is not stopped, as one large and strong fist that will strike a lethal blow and once and for all remove the evil Drukpa regime."64 It further stated that "we must call upon the support of our brothers and sisters in Nepal and India in the liberation struggle against the despot Drukpa King and his corrupted Drukpa government."65 To succeed in its tactics to voice its protest against the government policies, Bhutan People's Party (BPP), a political party in exile now, had used violence and forced the people to come for the rally organised by it against the cultural imposition.66 The party President, R.K. Budhathoki, a former employee of the government put forth the 13-point demand to the King on August 26, 1990. Later, two Councillors of the Royal Advisory Council from southern Bhutan, Teknath Rizal and B.P. Bhandari, presented a petition to the King charting out the grievances of the Lhotshampas. However, the government, terming them anti-national, arrested and later released them, and they took refuge in Nepal. Later, Rizal with the connivance of the Communist government in Nepal, was abducted brought back to Bhutan where he is still languishing in jail.

The government came down heavily on the demonstration which was organised in the tiny town of Chirang in southern Bhutan to express genuine dissatisfaction. This led to loss of life and property. Many people left Bhutan and took refuge in India and were later shifted to the refugee camps in Nepal maintained by the United Nations Commission for Human Rights (UNCHR). Many people who were just present during the demonstration out of curiosity were evicted since they were considered as conspirators in these anti-national activities and were made to sign voluntary immigration forms. Moreover, as has been pointed out earlier, the Bhutanese Citizenship Act has laid out in clear terms that any person who by act, speech or deed is considered to be disloyal to the King, country and people, will forfeit citizenship. This is also evident from a circular of the Home Ministry that reads, "Any Bhutanese national leaving the country to assist and help the anti- nationals shall no longer be considered as a Bhutanese citizen. It must also be made clear that such people's family members living under the same household will also be held fully responsible and forfeit their citizenship."67 There were recent reports in Keunsel that the government is planning to evict relatives of the so-called anti-nationals.

For Bhutan, the security implications are much larger. The terrorist activities committed by the dissidents inside Bhutan have become a major security threat to a tiny kingdom like Bhutan with limited resources, an under-developed economy and a very small security force. According to a government report:

"Since 1990, 913 families were robbed...destroyed 29 schools, 12 health units, 5 agricultural service centres, 4 animal husbandry facilities, 45 police and custom checkposts and offices, forest range offices and government houses... they had burnt down or destroyed 60 village houses, hijacked 64 vehicles and destroyed 36. They had also destroyed 15 rural drinking water schemes and more than 63 km of irrigation channels at the Takali and Lalai irrigation project which had been constructed for the benefit of the people of Gelephu. The Ngolop terrorists had assaulted 667 Bhutanese people, embushed and attacked the security forces 66 times and had killed a total of 71 Bhutanese citizens."68

Some of the terrorists are even operating from the camps of Nepal which strengthens the evidence of such cross-border diaspora involvement.69 However, the accusations and counter-accusations by both the parties involved has worsened the situation. The former Nepalese Deputy Prime Minister, Madhav Kumar Nepal, made a statement saying that "Bhutan will suffer the same fate as Sikkim if it wants to protect its nationalism by driving out Nepalese."70

The implications of the present problem can be gauged from the fact that most of the subversive activities which were carried out by the BPP and other organisations had the tacit help of the transnational ethnic actors. The Chhatra Sabha, and the Gorkhaland Liberation Organisation are suspected of giving some of the rebels arms and guerrilla training, just as the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League extends moral support.71 Apart from this the local population and the leftist elements in the Duars and in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, have sought the support of, and assistance from, Nepal, particularly from the radical Marxists. Recent reports indicate that "...apart from supplies of medicines and rations, arms are being smuggled to the BPP...some sections of the BPP are making all possible efforts to procure arms and explosives both from Nepal and through contacts with militant elements in the north-eastern region of India."72

Ventilating a similar kind of threat perception, BNDP President R.B. Basnet, said, "Bhutan is a strategic area and the Government of India would not like any kind of disturbances like the present one. If the Government of India does not help to resolve the crisis, there is a possibility of a Pan-Nepali movement." However, the movement is in a formative stage and mobilising Nepali public opinion in India will depend on the future political agenda of the disgruntled groups in the Duars of India. It is not only the leaders but the people in the refugee camps and especially the younger generation, who are feeling restless that the time is running short for the movement to be resolved peacefully. "If the government does not give a decisive push towards the establishment of democracy, one can visualise a sharp increase in terrorist activities in Bhutan as a means to achieve success against the repressive regime. This repressive measure, if continued further, may drive the people to overthrow the Monarchy and establish a Republic."73

The current situation is that in spite of seven rounds of bilateral talks that have taken place between Nepal and Bhutan, it still evades an early solution. Though both the governments had agreed upon the categorisation, the change in the stance and the intransigent policy pursued by the parties involved are important reasons why the solution is still a distant dream.

The present conflict which has assumed such proportions can be attributed to the vigorous integration postures that are adopted by nation states. The policy to absorb a particular ethnic group by dissolving their ethnic identity is not viable and can produce conflict as has happened in the case of Bhutan. The pre-1985 policies, as pursued by Bhutan, had given the southern Bhutanese space to keep their ethnic identity intact. The language and dress of the Nepalese was never a threat to Bhutan's unique identity--why did it became so significant suddenly? It is the democratic aspiration which scared the elite, not the demonstration by the southern Bhutanese. Referring to the refugees in the eastern Nepal camps as illegal immigrants is not going to solve the problem. It amounts to non-recognition of the problem. Bhutan has to look into the problem realistically and has to be more accommodative and sympathetic in its approach towards this problem. Any tough stand on its part will provide only temporary relief. The hundreds and thousands of refugees in the neighbouring country who have many grievances against the government, might be led to align with terrorist groups operating in this part which will compound a major security threat to the country and the ruling elites.



1. Michael Aris, Bhutan: The Early History of the Himalayan Kingdom (Delhi, 1980), pp. xvii-xviii. Also refer to D.F. Rennie, Bhotan and the Story of Doar War (New Delhi: Manjushri Publishing House, 1970), p. 3-6 to have an account of the early settlers.

2. D.N.S. Dhakal and Christopher Strawn, Bhutan: A Movement in Exile (New Delhi: Nirala, 1993), p. 46.

3. A.C. Sinha, Bhutan: Ethnic Identity and National Dilemma (Delhi: Reliance Publishing House, 1992), p. 36.

4. B.S. Das, The Sikkim Saga, (Delhi, 1983), pp. 5-6.

5. Jigme Y. Thinley, Bhutan: A Traditional Order and Forces of Change: Three Views From Thimpu (Thimpu: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1993), p. 3.

6. Sinha, n. 3, p. 37 and Nari Rustomji, Bhutan: Dragon's Kingdom (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 161.

7. J.C. White, Sikkim and Bhutan (Delhi, 1984), p. 113.

8. For the account of the abovementioned officer, refer to Peter Collister, Bhutan and the British, (London: Ser India Publication, 1986), p. 166-194.

9. Thinley, n. 5, p. 3.

10. Bhutan National Democratic Party, March 16, 1993 as cited in Christopher Strawn, Falling off the Mountain: A Political History and Analysis of Bhutan, the Bhutanese Refugees, and the Movement in Exile, unpublished monograph (Wincosin, 1992) p. 41.

11. Ibid. Also refer to Youth Organisation of Bhutan, Bhutan Cries for Justice (Kathmandu, n.d.). p. 4; Bhutan Solidarity Group, Agony of Bhutan: An Appraisal of the Basic Issues Involved in the Current Turmoil in the Kingdom (Delhi: Third World Studies, 1992) p. 18.

12. Thinley, n. 5, p. 4.

13. Sinha, n. 3, p. 228.

14. Government of Bhutan, Eleventh National Assembly Debates, 1983, res.3, p.1.

15. Sinha, n. 3, p. 223.

16. Economic Times, March 23, 1993.

17. Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1992.

18. Leo E. Rose, Politics in Bhutan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 47.

19. Strawn, n. 10, p. 135.

20. Rose, n. 18, p. 112.

21. Refer to the Fiftieth National Assembly Debates, Spring 1979, res. 40, p. 30.

22. Sinha, n. 3, p. 207-8.

23. For the details of the Marriage Act, see INHURED International, Cultural Cleansing: A Distinct National Identity and the Refugees from Southern Bhutan (Kathmandu: 1993).

24. Government of Bhutan, Sixty-Eighth National Assembly Debates, Spring 1987, res.9, p. 10.

25. Government of Bhutan, Sixty-Seventh National Assembly Debates, November 21, 1998, res.2, p. 2.

26. Government of Bhutan, Sixty-Seventh National Assembly Debates, n. 25, p. 2.

27. For details, refer Bhutan Citizenship Act 1985.

28. Government of Bhutan, The Southern Bhutan Problem: A Threat to Nation's Survival, (Thimpu, 1992), p. 57.

29. F-1 genuine Bhutanese, F-2 returned migrants, F-3 "drop outs" cases i.e. people who were not around at the time of the census, F-4 a non-national woman married to a Bhutanese man, F-5 a non-national man married to a Bhutanese woman, F-6 adoption cases (children who are legally adopted, F-7 non- nationals i.e. migrants and illegal settlers. Refer to Amensty International, Bhutan: Human Rights Violation Against the Nepali Speaking Population in the South (London: December 1992), p. 5 as cited in INHURED International Culture Cleansing: A Distinct National Identity and the Refugees from Southern Bhutan, n. 23, p. 16.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Amnesty International, Bhutan: Forcible Exile, Summary (London, 1994), p. 2.

33. Government of Bhutan, Anti-National Activities in Southern Bhutan: A Terrorist Movement (Thimpu: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1991), p. 35.

34. See Government of Bhutan, Sixteenth National Assembly Debates, Spring 1961, res.6, p. 6 where taxation in the form of butter and meat is mentioned, which was abolished in the same National Assembly.

35. In 1970, land was allotted to landless people of southern Bhutan in the following order or priority (i) flood affected people; (ii) people who do not possess land from the beginning; (iii) people separated from a house owing to insufficient land, Thirty-Second National Assembly Debates, Spring 1970, res.7, p. 4.

36. Sinha, n. 3, p. 238.

37. Thinley, n. 5, p. 19.

38. Rose, n. 17, p. 47.

39. New York Times, March 23, 1993.

40. James Clad, "The Kukhri Edge," Far Eastern Economic Review, December 20, 1992, p. 22.

41. Kho is a long dress worn by men, Thirtieth National Assembly, Spring 1973, res.29, p. 9.

42. See Fifty-First National Assembly Debates, Autumn 1979, res 19, p. 14 where the members of Samchi and a few other southern districts expressed their wish to be exempted from wearing the national dress as they feared criticism from some members of their community.

43. Times of India, March 21, 1990.

44. Rose, n. 18, pp. 42-43.

45. Government of Bhutan, Fifty-Seventh National Assembly Debates, Autumn 1981, res.27, p. 21.

46. The decision to exclude the language as a separate subject was taken on several technical grounds after prolonged years of debate among the education policy makers which included international educationists as well...consensus for a need to reduce the number of subjects led to the decision to drop Nepali from the formal curriculum in the southern schools...for those who are genuinely interested in studying the language there is no restriction on private tuitions and joining Sanskrit pathsalas. Refer Thinley, n. 5, p. 27. Also refer to Thirty-Fifth National Assembly Debates, (1971), res.14, p. 13.

47. Rose, n. 18, pp. 6-7.

48. Government of Bhutan, Fiftieth National Assembly Debates, res. 31, Spring, 1979, p. 29.

49. Thinley, n. 5, p. 20.

50. In an interview to Antara Dev in Sunday, vol. 17, no. 19, October 28-November 3, 1990, p. 28.

51. Rose, n. 18, p. 156.

52. Sinha, n. 3, p. 210.

53. Rose, n. 18, p. 109.

54. Ibid.

55. It was further clarified that representation of some monks of different monastries could not be accommodated due to the same reason. Refer Fifty-Second National Assembly Debates, Spring 1979, res.46, p. 39.

56. Sinha, n. 3, p. 207.

57. Rose, "The Nepali Community in the North-East of the Sub-continent," paper presented in a conference on Democratisation, Ethnicity and Development in South and South-East Asia, August 20-22, August 1993, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

58. For details, refer to Government of Bhutan, n. 33, pp. 81-21.

59. Data collected from the Royal Civil Service Commission, November 1, 1995, Thimpu.

60. Government of Bhutan, Twenty-Fifth National Assembly, Autumn, 1966, p. 4.

61. Government of Bhutan, Thirtieth National Assembly Debates, Spring 1969, res.11, p. 5.

62. The Voice of Oppressed People of Bhutan, The Gorkha People of Southern Bhutan Must Unite and Fight for our Rights (n.d.) pp. 4-6.

63. Ibid.

64. Ibid., p. 4.

65. Ibid., p. 6.

66. Carol Rose, Flight From the Thundering Dragon: Refugees' Stories from Bhutan, Institute of Current World Affairs (The Crane Rogers Foundation, US, 1991), Kathmandu, p. 1.

67. Circular dated August 17, 1990, circulated by the Home Ministry of Bhutan, as cited in INHURED International, n. 23, p. 31.

68. Keunsel, vol. 11, no. 50, December 21, 1996.

69. The Bhutan Review, January 1993, p. 1.

70. Punerjagaran, no. 76195, as translated and reproduced in Nepal Press Report, April 27, 1995, p. 93.

71. The Statesman, September 2, 1992.

72. Bhutan, n. 33, 1991, p. 8.

73. The Independent, September 4, 1991.