People & Politics

The dragon bites its tail – Part II

By Kanak Mani Dixit

17 October 2018

FROM THE ARCHIVES: A longform piece on Bhutan’s Lhotshampa question [1992].
A Lotshampa refugee at a camp in Jhapa District of eastern Nepal showing his Bhutanese passport. Photo: Alemaugil / Wikimedia Common

A Lotshampa refugee at a camp in Jhapa District of eastern Nepal showing his Bhutanese passport.
Photo: Alemaugil / Wikimedia Common

(This article was first published in our July-August 1992 print issue. Also read Part I and Part III of the reportage.)

No more a backwater

Bhutan was still an economic backwater at the end of the 1940s. The economic, cultural and social interaction and sustenance was almost exclusively with the north. The forested southern hills, the malarial jungles of the Duars and, beyond, the India of the British Empire, held little charm to the pastoralists of high valleys.

As Rose writes in The Politics of Bhutan, Nepal had “pervasive cultural, economic and political ties to the South, whereas Bhutan (was) a Buddhist society in which traditional ties, at least until 1960, had been to the north.” All that changed with the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959. Overnight, there was a historical shift as Bhutan’s external and economic relations spun 180 degrees to realign with India.

With this reorientation, the value of the southern hills to the Drukpa rulers was also to change. In the traditional economy, this region had no role other than as a source of modest revenue, that too as the Nepali settlements grew in the last century. Over the 1970s, however, it became clear that the south was not only of strategic importance as the gateway to India, but also in itself a storehouse of riches for the modem economy. It was the southern districts that had the cardamom plantations, orange groves, ginger crop, minerals, and hardwood forests. Even the rivers whose source was the Himalayan snows had to traverse to the south before their flows were substantial enough to be tapped by hydropower projects. All major industries had to be based in the south, close to raw materials and to the plains market. The north, the fountainhead of Drukpa culture and identity, had two resources: conifer timber and tourism, with the possibilities of the latter held in check by a cautious clergy.

The realisation that the south had become a potential economic powerhouse must explain in part why the Drukpa elite turned against the Lhotshampas. The Chukha Hydropower Corporation is a case in point. Inaugurated in 1938, the plant suddenly started injecting huge amounts into the national exchequer. Any social scientists (there are few in Bhutan, though) could have predicted social and political repercussions from Chukha.

Says Dipak Gyawali, a Nepali water economist who has studied the societal impact of large dams, “Mega projects bring mega dislocations to society. Those who control the distribution of the additional revenue have the power to destroy social exchange mechanisms and economic balance.”

The Chukha bonanza, which started accruing in 1988 clearly provided Thimphu with the self-confidence to move ahead with its plans for the south. Chukha, perhaps, showed the rulers the riches that lay within their grasp but for the Nepali speakers of south who had the potential of agitating for their share.

A Thimphu ashi (princess) who back in the late 1960s used to arrive at her Darjeeling school in a battered, dusty Mahindra and Mahindra jeep today drives around in a late model air-conditioned Mercedes. What would she do or not do to ensure that she does not end up back in the jeep?”

King and Tshongdu

The present King’s father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, made the reforms which brought Bhutan part of the way into the present century. He set up the Tshongdu, or National Assembly, initiated a cabinet system of government and made the monarch accountable to the Tshongdu. The Tshongdu became more powerful in 1968 after King Jigme Dorji surrendered his right to veto bills. The following year, again upon his insistence, it was decided that a reigning monarch could be impeached if two-thirds of the Assembly supported a vote of no-confidence.

But regardless of these innovations, Bhutan’s political and legal system remained ‘primitive’. Fundamental freedoms – of expression, speech, press, religion, association – are absent. To organise political rallies is considered ‘anti-national’. Arrest can be arbitrary, long-term imprisonment without trial is kosher, and there is no doubt remaining of the systematic use of torture and extra-judicial punishment. Any action against the Tsa-Wa-Sum is, as approved by the Tshongdu in March 1990, treasonable and punishable by death under the Thrimsung Chhenpo legal code.

Presently, public trials are being held of 41 “ngolops”, or “anti-nationals”, the most prominent among them being D K Rai, an electrical engineer and former Secretary-General of the Bhutan People’s Party (BPP). The trial, being played out in the square before the High Court in Thimphu, is for “anti-national” activities.

According to the Student’s Union of Bhutan (SUB), an exile opposition group that was begun underground in Sherbutse College in central Bhutan, proceedings before the “farcical court” are being used to dupe the world into believing that a “judiciary” exists in the country, “while hundreds [of] others still languish in jails without trial.” SUB also claims that royal pardons and amnesties granted to so-called ngolops are orchestrations to gain international sympathy. “Prisoners are released prior to events like the Colombo SAARC summit, and the Amnesty Team visit.”

Today’s Tshongdu is a conservative body that is, even more than King Jigme, the propagator of Drukpa culture for all of Bhutan. The Tshongdu articulates the sensitivities of the monastic order, the top-level bureaucracy and the feudocracy that together rule the country. A breakdown of the present Tshongdu shows that 77 (51 per cent) of the members are Ngalungs, 58 (38 per cent) are Sarchops and 16 (11) per cent are Lnotshampas.

The most inflammatory, and at times even racist, pronouncements relating to the Lhotshampas have come from the members of the Tshongdu. They vocalise sentiments that sophisticates like Foreign Minister Dawa Tshering would never let escape their lips. “As Lhotshampas have proved themselves untrustworthy, ail Lhotshampas in government service should be retired,” says one Assembly member. According to another, Karma Tshering from Tshangkha, “We hope that these ngolops will be given capital punishment and publicly executed.”

To what extent is the Tshongdu a parliament which incorporates principles of popular participation? A C Sinha, a professor of sociology who has just published the book Bhutan: Ethnic Identity and National Dilemma (Reliance, 1991), says the Assembly is made up of “the traditional ethnic chiefs or village headmen from the hills or the pliable, loyal and faithful subjects of southern Bhutan.” Sinha says the Tshongdu lacks the ability to provide the Government with “critical and frank review of its performance.”

King Jigme, as chief executive, sometimes appears to be using the Tshongdu’s avowed conservatism as a battering ram for his Government’s policies. Reports in the government-owned Kuensel weekly paint the picture of a bellicose Tshongdu membership being pulled back from the drastic action against the Lhotshampas by a benevolent King Jigme. It is difficult to say how much of this tussle is genuine and how much it is a charade.

Back in the 1960s, the present King’s father had to battle it out with the Tshongdu before he could force through his programme of modernisation. Once, King Jigme Dorji was even forced to point out that all of Bhutan’s heritage did not deserve preservation and that the imposition of certain Drukpa rules and regulations would cause unnecessary hardship to minorities – the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese and the Tibetan refugee settlers who had distinct cultural traditions of their own.

The present King had his own row with the Tshongdu during its October 1991 session, “one of the most emotion-charged National Assembly sessions the kingdom had ever seen,” according to Kuensel. After passing resolutions on all aspects of the “anti-national problem in southern Bhutan,” including the “extradition of ngolops”, “identification of ngolops and their collaborators,” “withdrawal of citizenship identity cards” and “implementation of the Citizenship Act”, the Speaker took note of the almost total unanimity of opinion among the members to stop development activities in the southern districts.

At that point, King Jigme intervened and reminded the members that they had already entrusted him with the responsibility of finding a permanent solution to the ngolop problem. If the authority and power to decide on how to go about finding a solution to the problem was not in eluded with the responsibility and accountability involved, it would be impossible to find a proper solution to the ngolop problem. The King then pledged to abdicate if he did not succeed in finding a lasting solution.

After the King’s outburst, the members “requested his kind indulgence and understanding” and pledged their complete loyalty, support and confidence in him. The Tshongdu resolved that the responsibility of finding a permanent solution to the ngolop problem should be entrusted entirely to the King along with all the prerogatives and powers as would be deemed necessary.

King Jigme was born on 11 November 1955 and became the fourth King of Bhutan in 1972 at the age of 17. His reign has seen increasing centralisation of power in the Royal Palace. The ability of the Tshongdu to impeach the monarch was abolished in 1973.

Some of the King’s critics in exile maintain that in part the problem in southern Bhutan has its origins in his matrimonial links. In October 1988, King Jigme formalised his marriage with four sisters, the daughters of an ambitious businessman from Talo in Punakha District. According to BNDP’ss Dhakal, “a mistake in private life” (i.e. the royal marriages) might have led to the change in King Jigme’s attitude towards the Lhotshampas. “The King was forced to make a political pact with the traditionalists. In exchange for legalising his marriages, the King would implement a Bhutanisation programme and a set of schemes to reduce the population of Bhutanese Nepalese.”

King Jigme is said to be simple, matter-of-fact, and unostentatious. He lives, mostly with his senior queen Dorji Wangmo, in a log-cabin palace near Tashichho Dzong complex, which houses the Secretariat and the Tshongdu. The monarch is well-liked by both diplomats and foreign journalists, who jump to give him the benefit of the doubt. According to Indian journalist Narendra Kumar, writing in the Calcutta Statesman, the King is “handsome like a Greek God, is courteous to a fault, publicity-shy, a teetotaller.”

Says a Western Ambassador to Thimphu, “The King is very austere, very dedicated to the cause of the people… when they say that people have access to him, it is true. It is quite different from the Nepali monarchy during the Panchayat years.”

Before the troubles began, King Jigme was much liked by the Lhotshampa population as well, probably in the belief that his liberalism would save them from the conservatism that lurked just below the Druk Yul’s calm surface. “This was a hard-working king who was really in touch with development works around the country,” recalls Om Dhungel, a senior civil servant who came into exile in May.

Some refugees in the Jhapa camps who say they have worked closely with the King, firmly believe that he is being hoodwinked by subordinates, while others are just as convinced that it is King Jigme, and he alone, that is the master mind behind the depopulation programme.

Even though the King has been touring the southern regions extensively since 1990 (23 times, reports Kuensel) those who were present at the time in Samchi, Chirang and Sarbhang say he was kept remote from the public. Despite the large crowds gathered at stage-managed events, only handpicked representatives were allowed to speak to him. The majority preferred to remain silent because of threats of dire consequences by the Dzongdas and Dungpas. These much-publicised trips south have public relations value internationally because they show King Jigme’s much-vaunted accessibility, but they do not seem to have provided him with insights on what is really going on.

On 14 July 1992, King Jigme once again travelled down to Geylegphug when he learnt that there was a mass exodus of Lhotshampas from Sarbhang. He reminded a gathering of peasants of all that his government had done for southern Bhutan and asked them not to leave their homeland in the hour of need. A few men and women came to the mic and said now that they had received His Majesty’s assurance, yes, they would now stay. But it did not work. The day after the King returned to his palace, the Nepali-speakers of Sarbhang, including those that had promised to stay, were shown the door by the local administrators.

Perhaps the King means well, but he does seem to have succumbed to coterie which desires cultural purity and unhindered economic access to the southern lands. For all his reported good intentions, King Jigme seems incapable of discerning his goal amidst a web of intrigue and vested interests that has been spun around him, especially since his marriage. Five of the most powerful members of the administration are related to the “new royal family”, as opposed to the Wangchuk family. They include Home Minister Dago Tshering, Foreign Minister Dawa Tshering, Social Services Minister Tashi Tobgyel, and Bhutan Army chief Gongloen Lam Dorji. Further, the Joint Secretary in the Planning Commission is Their Majesties the Queens’ elder brother; the final authority in deciding Bhutanese citizenship is the youngest brother.

Says Dhakal, “These young inter-related turks posted in key ministries are the backbone of the higher Bhutanese oligarchy and the architects of the southern political problem.” Says another refugee bureaucrat, “The cause for the southern problems is within the King’s immediate family, the programmes are made outside.”

Meanwhile, as the “new royal family” has centralised power, the King’s three sisters and his paternal uncle Namgyal Wangchuk, all of whom once had charge of key ministries, have been sidelined.

Says a former Drukpa official (like all Drukpas interviewed for this article, he wished to remain anonymous), “His Majesty does want to know the real suffering of the Nepalis, but the officials will never allow him to meet them. These people will never tell the King what he does not want to hear. The top brass in the army and the various lynpos (ministers) are colluding to such an extent that even the king is powerless.”

Western acclaim

A Western ambassador who is concurrently accredited to Thimphu and New Delhi, said in a recent interview: “Bhutan is a beautiful and well-preserved country, and the present Government is manned by very dedicated people. There is probably no other like it in the Third World. In Thimphu, they know exactly what they are talking about. The Bhutanese authorities take the initiative, they provide information when asked, and are very persuasive.”

This awe for the acumen of Thimphu administrators is matched by an appreciation of their lifestyle. The same ambassador: “Everything in Thimphu is on such a modest scale. When you are invited by a minister to his house, it is a family affair. Their hospitality is warm but so frugal. The government guest house in Bumthang is so simple: where else can you have a log fire like you can in Bumthang? The point the Bhutanese make is straightforward: we cannot afford to be swallowed by the Nepalis. They are still at a stage when they feel that the Nepali population is not at a suitable level. As soon as they feel that they have administrative control over the south, things will get better.”

When learned sahibs keep reminding you of your uniqueness, sooner or later you will begin to believe it. A change in self-perception leads to change in world view. Friends and associates become adversaries, if they have the ability to wrest your exoticism away and leave you where you were, a little-known and unimportant pocket hidden between the folds of the eastern Himalaya.

After the takeover of Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s exile, Bhutan came to the notice of Western travel writers as the kingdom where Tibetan (Mahayana) Buddhism remained sequestered. Nepal was only half-Buddhist and, anyway, was soon to sacrifice itself on the altar of mass tourism. In contrast, Bhutan’s picture postcard image has remained constant – green fields and forests leading up to monasteries that cling to clouded cliffs. High-cost, low-volume tourism has helped Bhutan’s exoticism to linger.

This incredible little country is ruled by a monarch who is modern, speaks chaste English, and yet is fervently in favour of maintaining cultural traditions. His country-in-the-clouds is doing “everything right” as it tackles development, Westernisation and international diplomacy. He is clever enough to “learn from the mistakes of Nepal”. He is out to save Bhutanese culture, forests and way of life. It is difficult not to support such a man and his programmes.

International acclaim has helped fuel Drukpa rejection of the Lhotshampas for their potential to ruin this idyll. The Druk Yul political chieftains took to heart the image that travel writers helped create in their coffee-table books. They decided to recreate the country in the image held by the West – culturally pure and ecologically pristine.

The glossy publications, and the Bhutan Government’s own tourist brochures, tell the world that ‘Bhutan’ equals ‘Drukpa’. One such popular picture book, Guy van Strydonck’s A Kingdom of the Eastern Himalayas: Bhutan (Editions Olizane, Geneva 1984), with 169 pages, has a single sentence on the Lhotshampas; they are “farmers who arrived in the country at the end of the 19th century and are now fully integrated Bhutanese citizens”. The rest of the book is on the Ngalung lifestyle and institutions, their Dzongs (forts), the western valleys, close-ups of monks and dashos, and whirling dancers. There is not one picture of a Lhotshampa, even in background.

The Drukpa image of Bhutan derives from the core regions of Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Tongsa, whose “religio-cultural and political practices were accepted as the national ones”, according to A C Sinha.

There is every reason to appreciate the western Bhutan’s heritage and lifestyle; yet the overwhelming emphasis on the Ngalung ignores the population groups that are equally significant if not as interesting to outsiders. These include, cumulatively, the Sarchops; the Brokpa ‘aborigines’ of the high valleys; the multi-ethnic Nepali-speakers of the lower hills; as well as small concentrations of Totas, Santhals, Doyas and Rajbanshis.

The game plan

Even though Bhutan is a relatively easy country to govern, the Thimphu government is also among the more efficient in the developing world. The bureaucratic elite is almost entirely educated in the public schools of India and has a common work ethic, which also meshes with that of the King. Solidarity among the rulers, and the ‘manageability’ of their small, under-populated, resource-rich country, have enabled them to fine-tune development policy.

Perhaps the major accomplishment of the King’s administration (there has been no Prime Minister since Jigme Palden Dorji was assassinated) has been its ability to keep India placated even as Bhutan explores the boundaries of what the 1949 treaty of friendship allows. Today, Bhutan even has the leeway to negotiate independently with China on demarcation of its disputed northwestern boundary. While Nepal still dithers in indecision over selling hydropower to India, Thimphu is already earning from the Chukha Hydel Project. Since 1962, Bhutan has made a success of its postage stamps, which are renowned the world over for their “thematic value and technical excellence”. The Government even has the gumption to run (through agents) lotteries in India, which are said to turn in profits in the crores.

King Jigme’s administration is sharp, disciplined and responsive, with a reputation of “getting things done”. It is this administrative acumen that has been brought to bear against the Lhotshampas. The result has been devastating in its efficiency.

Somewhere along the way, a plan evolved. Its goal was to defuse the Lhotshampas’ demographic threat, and intricate details were worked out. A census would be taken again under more discriminatory criteria; Drig Lam Namzha would be strongly enforced; all political opponents would be termed ngolops and terrorists; schools, hospitals and services in the south would be closed; requirement of No Objection Certificates would be slapped on the southerners; all land found to be ‘illegal’ would be confiscated and northerners invited in.

This is what a confidential report of a Western bilateral development agency had to say about the period July 1991 to January 1992: “At this stage many ethnic Nepalese do not feel welcome any longer in this country. In the last year, they have been treated as second rate, in principle suspect, citizens. Their participation in public life has been made extremely difficult. There were no schools, no health facilities… sale of produce was difficult, trade licences were withdrawn and employment opportunities were initialised. If one then adds the fear of physical violence, it is no wonder that many families see no future in this country and decide to leave.”

A well-thought-out strategy of depopulation and ‘cultural cleansing’ is underway, and since February 1992 has been at its most aggressive. The picture emerges that the government’s hope is to empty the country of a large number of its legitimate Nepali-speaking citizens until their proportion is brought down to a ‘manageable’ level. Ratan Gazmere, who is now in Jhapa, says he learnt from reliable intelligence sources that the plan is to bring down the Nepali-speaking population down to between 15 and 20 per cent of the country’s reduced population. Foreign Minister Tshering told a visiting ambassador a few months ago that it was absolutely vital to “balance the demographic equation”.

The plan is being sold internationally with astute diplomacy that exploits all possibilities: Nepal’s fear of India, India’s fear of a pan-Nepali resurgence, the West´s soft spot for oriental Bhutan and a reluctance to bait India, the weakness of journalists when confronted with a kingdom in the clouds, and so on. Bhutan must rid itself of as many Lhotshampas as possible before negative international pressure builds up.

To give the benefit of the doubt to the Thimphu strategists, it might all have started innocently enough, with a simple idea that Bhutanese must be Bhutanese; One nation, One people. But, as the various parts of the plans were implemented successfully, the enthusiasm grew and stricter implementation followed. Before long, Bhutanisation had a momentum all its own, and the strategists seem to have gained confidence in their ability – as long as the world remained silent – of ‘reclaiming’ their country for themselves while the Lhotshampas were bundled off to Nepal, “where they belonged anyway”.

The 1985 Citizenship Act, the 1988 re-census, the Drig Lam Namzha code, the language policy, became the tools that began to be applied. The proof is in the silent, overgrown orchards of Samchi where today only rhesus monkeys roam; the youths hanging around listlessly at crossroads in the townships of Jalpaiguri District in West Bengal; or the broken spirits of torture and rape victims in the refugee camps of Jhapa.

Thimphu claims that the Nepali-speakers in the camps are actually illegal migrants – labourers from work gangs brought in to build the Bhutanese roads who stayed back, or those brought in privately to man the orange groves and cardamom plantations. The argument might be called ingenuous, were it not for the fact that the international community, and even the local politicians in the refugees’ own host community of Jhapa, are believing it.

Bhutan has always been strict about importing labour. In the past, the Dorji administrators of southern Bhutan kept close tabs on population movements, because revenue had to collected. In building roads and development projects (including Indian labourers to build Chukha), the Government ensures that there is efficient repatriation. In 1986, Nepali road labourers who had managed to remain behind were all rounded up – 15,000 individuals – and trucked out of the country. The refugee leaders say that Lhotshampas supported the action against illegal migrants.

What needles the Drukpa authorities as much as the presence of illegal migrants are the marital links that Nepali-speakers insist on making with non-Bhutanese nationals. Because Nepalis of all castes and ethnicities have a limited marriage market to choose from within Bhutan, many bring brides from outside. To counter this deviation, during the golden years of cultural harmony in the 1970s, cash incentives were introduced to encourage inter-Bhutanese (primarily Nepali-Drukpa) marriages. But the process of assimilation was obviously too slow for the impatient men who had taken over the country’s running.

The best non-Bhutanese spokesman for Thimphu’s present policies is Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, till recently editor of the Culcutta Statesman, who writes: “The kingdom has been increasingly worried not about its own subjects of Nepalese origin, but about constant flow of illegal immigrants from Nepal, Assam, Meghalaya and parts of West Bengal. Hence the 1958 cut-of date which is so bitterly resented… Indeed, the present agitation began only when a census was carried out in 1988 to weed out clandestine migrants.”

Code and census

In support of the drive towards One nation, One people, a royal decree was issued in 1988 demanding strict nationwide observance of Drig Lam Namzha, a code of social etiquette specific to the Ngalungs.

In one stroke, many years of building towards a united Bhutanese population was destroyed. Had it been voluntary, the package sweetened with economic incentives, it is likely that Lhotshampas would have gradually accepted at least the outward trappings of dress, etiquette and perhaps even language. But, as the King and senior officials have conceded, local officials ‘misinterpreted’ the decree and vehemently implemented their version. An investigation team was dispatched to bring extra-zealous officials to book, and half-hearted punishment was meted out to a few, but the code remains in force.

As Drig Lam Namzha was implemented, tailors hiked the price of ghos and kiras – traditional Drukpa male and female garments supposedly made from locally woven Bhutanese cloth, but actually mass-produced by factories in Ludhiana, Punjab. The heavy material is inappropriate for the south’s summer heat, but was made mandatory for the home, the field, office and school. While requirements are said to have been relaxed, the dress code continues to provide ample opportunity for harassment by the police. Penalty for a going without a gho is a week’s labour or Nu 150, of which the apprehending officer is allowed to pocket half.

In Thimphu, offices come to a standstill in the late afternoons as everyone goes to learn Drig Lam Namzha, which involves tuition in Dzonkha, and training on how to wear the Kamni scarf and how to bow with it, how to sit, how to address others, what hairstyles to keep, and so on. As the code was introduced, the teaching of Nepali in southern schools was dropped in February 1989.

While Drig Lam Namzha affected the Lhotshampa’s cultural identity, the census made refugees out of citizens.

A deliberate and well-organised policy of intimidation was set in motion to “encourage” the Lhotshampas to leave. Walk into any refugee camp and scores of refugees carrying Bhutanese citizenship identity cards will recall intimidation that ranged from being victimised by hooligans let loose on communities to the psychological distress of proving citizenship before dour officials.

A 1958 National Law, which was the first effort to define who was a “Bhutanese”, provided for citizenship by birth, registration of land holdings and naturalisation (five years’ stay). A census and land survey were carried out in 1972, which served as the basis for issuing nationality certificates.

In 1980, another census was conducted and citizenship identity cards distributed, and with it “the government completed the huge task of identifying Bhutanese citizens and distributing identity cards,” says Shiva Kumar Pradhan of the Bhutan People’s Party (BPP). “But with the 1985 Citizenship Act applied new criteria of citizenship, and made them retrospective, declaring all previous government action of granting citizenship as null and void.”

The attempts to implement the 1985 Citizenship Act through a census was not begun immediately, probably because the Gorkha National Liberation Front in adjacent Darjeeling District had just begun its agitation. Thimphu did not want any GNLF-inspired violence ruining its careful plans. The census was begun again in 1988, just after Subhas Ghising achieved his Hill District Council.

Amidst strident opposition from the south, the Tshongdo in November 1988 expressed satisfaction with the 1985 Act. In order to assist implementation, the authorities classified Bhutanese into seven categories, F-l to F-7. Only those who had land tax receipts for the year 1958 were given F-1 status and regarded as bonafide citizens. Other categories were denied the status, including ‘re-immigrants’ who had worked and lived outside Bhutan, children of non-Bhutanese spouses, and so on.

F-l was therefore the category to hold, but the retroactive application of citizenship back to 1958 papers was an atavistic requirement without precedent. No other proof of citizenship is accepted, including what had earlier been acceptable: the sathram (land registration) number, house registration number, payment of taxes, and the goongdawoola labour contribution.

Under the census-cum-identification exercise, Lhotshampas who had been trained abroad by the Thimphu government, who had worked for decades in the army or police, who have been Bhutanese teachers for all their working lives, who had ‘non-national fathers’, all were made illegal immigrants at the stroke of a pen. Citizenship cards issued in 1985 with the seal and signature of King Jigme were valueless.

Until January 1992, a No Objection Certificate (NOC) was required for all Nepali-speaking individuals who sought employment, admission in schools, trade licences, or even permission to leave the country on official work. Any whiff of an involvement in “anti-national” activities, even by distant relatives, meant that an NOC was unavailable. The NOC requirement has now been lifted, but the point is moot as F-l status-holders are also being evicted. If there is a ngolop in the family, the whole family has to leave, if not the neighbours and the whole community. The definition of ngolop varies, and can be applied loosely to all Nepalis-speakers that have left the country. To some Drukpa, all Southerners have become ngolops.

The confidential bilateral agency report quoted above says, “Individuals are held responsible for the deeds of family members. Furthermore, there are no clear guidelines for the term ‘family members’, and many have been forced to apply for emigration by signing the voluntary leaving certificates. Many of these families would be early settlers (1890-1930) who fall well within the 1958 census criterion.”

Recent arrivals in Jhapa say eviction is across the board and need no longer depend on the 1985 Act criteria. Villages are being emptied regardless of whether the inhabitants have citizenship papers, 1958 land-tax documents, or records of service in the bureaucracy, army or constabulary. Lately, even those who helped dungpas and dzongdas as informers (“Chamches”) to identify so-called illegals, or served extra-zealously as soldiers or prison guards, are arriving as refugees. A number of refugees have identified Lhotshampa policemen who they say had tortured them in Bhutan. “If you would turn against your own kind, what would you do to us?” the Drukpa administrators reportedly tell the chamches when dismissing them.

Thakur Prasad Luitel, of Danabari Block in Geylegphug, 52-years-old and born in Bhutan of a father who moved from Sikkim, says the 1988 census gave him F-I status. He spent 9 months and 12 days in Phuntsholing and Thimphu jails, during which time he says he suffered extreme mental and physical torture. Meanwhile, his teenage daughter died at home for lack of specialised care. “When they released me, I thought my punishment was over, but then the Geylegphug Dungpa called us and said we must all get out.” Luitel says the Lhotshampa prison guard who tortured him in prison has been sighted in one of the refugee camps.

The departure is carefully choreographed. Villagers of Samchi describe the dungpa and other officials sitting before voluminous records. A Lhotshampa is led in to try to prove his 1958 status, and there are any number of ways in which he can be ‘found out’ – for example, of having hidden a marriage with a non-Bhutanese, or having been silent about a working stint in India and so on.

When families are declared ‘illegal’, they are forced to sign a ‘Voluntary Leaving Certificate’ which states that they are leaving of their own free will accepting the compensation that is provided. Each family is then asked to have a black and white group photograph taken and to bring in eight copies for the files before they depart. Refugees also speak of tape-recordings or video-recordings in which officials exact verbal confirmation that the departure is voluntary.

‘Travel expenses’ are paid out of the ‘compensation’ for the properties Lhotshampas leave behind. In Samchi, the ‘compensation’ was initially set at Nu 40,000 per acre of paddy field, but this figure was continuously scaled downwards until families got no more than Nu 4,000 per acre. In Chirang, some villagers who had been put behind bars had Nu 2,000 per month of prison stay deducted from the ‘compensation’ they received. A few families managed to steal away without accepting compensation or signing the government’s forms, while others collected as much documentary evidence of their house and lands as they could to prove at some later date that the property was theirs’.

Dal Bahadur Rai is an Indian national who works as a guard in a tea-estate in Jalpaiguri District, just astride the open border. His Bhutanese neighbours are the villagers of Ahaley and Chargharey, in Ghumauney Block, Samchi District. Rai says: “In Ghumauney Block, there were 684 households. Today, there are only four. They are of the Mandal (headman) whose name is Homagain, Dataram Rijal, Bhakley Giri and Chandru Magar. When the rate for paddy fields was 32,000 rupees per acre, the Dahals of Ahaley sold 10 acres and made good profit. But then the rate came down and now the government gives only 3,000. Rather than take the money and give up their land forever, people like Parsuram Kafle and Sete Sanyasi sneaked away before the Dungpa could force them.”

Across from Rai’s property in Jalpaiguri, the fields are empty and the villages silent. The next step is said to be the announced programme of resettlement of northern Drukpas in the vacated lands of the south. According to the Secretary of Bhutan’s Department of Survey and Land Records, more than 47,000 acres of illegal land have been freed in Samchi alone, and the Tshongdu for its part has resolved that “illegal land holdings in the southern districts should be allotted first to security force personnel and the Militia Volunteers”. The Chief Operations Officer of the Royal Bhutan Army has expressed “deep appreciation for the proposal”.

“The government’s idea of a permanent solution for Bhutan’s problem seems to be that of a more mixed population in the southern districts,” says the bilateral development agency report quoted above. It adds that currently preparations are underway for the first such resettlement in Samdrup Jonkhar District.


~ Kanak Mani Dixit is founding editor of Himal Southasian.

~ This article was first published in our July-August 1992 print issue. Also read Part I and Part III of the reportage.


More readings on Bhutan

Kanak Mani Dixit’s comprehensive longform piece on Bhutan’s Lhotshampa question – ‘The dragon bites its tail’: Part I | Part II | Part III (July 1992)

Aletta Andre on Bhutan’s 2013 elections and the struggle of stateless Lhotshampas. (October 2013)

Reena Mohan on the challenges faced by filmamakers in Bhutan. (September 2013)

T P Mishra on resettlement and naturalization for Bhutan’s Lhotshampas. (January 2015)

Ross Adkin on civil service hopefuls in Bhutan and the country’s contemporary literary culture. (August 2016)

Dawa Gyelmo on how collection of a fungus known as cordyceps, or ‘fungus gold’, generates both cash and controversy. (February 2016)

short story from Bhutan by Gopilal Acharya. (September 2016)

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