Cracks in paradise


Ethnic strife threatens Bhutan kingdom’s peace

Refugees in Garganda tea estate in West Bengal
Refugees in Garganda tea estate in West Bengal

Bhutan’s most widely recognised symbol, the dragon, is starting to acquire a malevolent look as a brewing ethnic crisis shows every sign of snowballing into a revolt. Seldom in its slumberous history has the tiny Himalayan kingdom (population: 1.3 million) faced a problem of such serious dimensions. And it is a crisis which is not only likely to split the country down the middle, but also bring the monarchy’s continuing existence into question.

The root cause of the current unrest is the ongoing attempt to ‘Bhutanise’ the country. This has alienated the Nepalis who constitute 40 per cent of the population. About 10,000 of them, according to official Indian estimates, have crossed over to India seeking refugee status, and have formed a political party, the Bhutan People’s Party (BPP), which seems to be functioning from Indian soil.

The Nepalis have also enlarged their demands, from the restoration of human rights to far-reaching political reforms. Clearly, egged on by the developments in Nepal, they now want the restoration of a modicum of democracy in Bhutan.

Not that all this has sparked off tensions between India and Bhutan. The two countries have reacted predictably. The Indian Government, anxious to maintain good relations with the one ‘friendly’ South Asian country, last fortnight foiled a planned long march to Bhutan by deploying paramilitary forces.

On the other side, the Royal Bhutanese Army took up positions, and a virtual curfew was imposed in the border town of Phuntsholing. The Bhutanese Government declared that those who had left the country were Ngolops (anti-nationals) and they and their family would have to forfeit their citizenship.

That the issue is grave is clear from the fact that while the Nepalis resent the ‘Bhutanising’ of the country, the Bhutanese are alarmed at the proliferation of Nepalis. The Government even suspects the Nepalis’ loyalty. A senior official feels most northerners look upon the Nepalis in the south as foreigners. Says Dago Tshering, the deputy home minister – and arguably the second most powerful man in Bhutan – while justifying the decision to stop teaching Nepalese in schools: “In our experience the Nepalis identify more with Nepal than with us.”

Consequently the Government has been trying to stem the growth of the Nepalis, even as it emphasises Bhutanese traditions. Alongside initiating a vigorous family-planning campaign in the south, a uniform code of conduct, namely ‘Driglam Namzha’, consisting of more than 30 injunctions, has been sought to be implemented. Since April last year the Bhutanese Government has borne upon the people to wear the national dress- the ‘Kho’ for men and the ‘Kira’ for women.

The women were also asked to cut their hair short and Dzonkha, the language spoken by the Drupkas in the north, was made compulsory. In an extraordinary move, the Government not only empowered the police to impose fines on people violating the code but, as an incentive, also allowed the police to pocket half the amount. Predictably the police went berserk and Thimphu now reluctantly acknowledges that the implementation of Driglam Namzha’ could have been more tactful.

The Bhutanese plea that its sole intention was to preserve its distinct culture rings quite hollow. For, in both Thimphu and the towns in the south, Hindi films are regularly shown, and cassettes of even blue films are freely available. The elite dress in western clothes, and play games like golf and squash.

And because the Dzonkha script is still being evolved, much of even the Government’s correspondence is done in English. Apologises Dago Tshering: “It is my fault actually. I find it easier to write in English.”

The real crux of the problem is the sharing of the national cake. Says an official: “In Bhutan both schooling and health facilities are free. Who wouldn’t like to come and settle here?” Government spokesmen claim that in one district alone, Samchi, as many as 20.000 unauthorised immigrants have been unearthed, and most of them are Nepalis. That the Government has been seeking to weed out unwanted people is made clear by the census operation it started in 1988.

The Nepalis on the other hand are aggrieved that the cut-off point has been fixed as 1958. Says Dhan Bahadur Pradhan, now in a refugee camp in the Hantupara tea estate in India: “Even my grandparents were born in Bhutan but in 1958 there was no system of any citizenship certificate. Now I am being asked to show evidence of citizenship.”

Tshering: Harsh measures
Tshering: Harsh measures

Meanwhile, the tea gardens in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal are swarming with refugees. In the three tea estates of Garganda, Hantupara and Dumchipara alone, there are around2,000. Hari Prasad Adhikari, a former member of the Bhutanese National Assembly, claimed at Garganda that there were 26 such camps on the Indo-Bhutan border.

Adhikari himself claims to have left behind three children and his wife at Geyelepug. Among the women who have sneaked across are students who escaped from the hostels without informing their parents. Says Archana Chetri, a student of class nine at the Samchi high school: “Our hair was forcibly cut by the teachers, we were abused as foreigners and we heard reports of Nepali girls being raped – we decided to escape.”

Virtually everyone in the camps has a horror story to tell. D.B. Rai, a contractor, was arrested last year and released in February under a general amnesty declared by the king. But Rai claims to have been tortured and released only after he signed a bond saying that he would refrain from political activities. Says he: “My licence was seized and when I got back home I was ostracised.” Finally, Rai and his wife crossed over to India, leaving three of their children with his sister.

Thimphu accuses the Nepalis of indulging in subversion from across the border – of kidnapping and killing people. The Government is also dismissive of the rebel leadership, which is mostly in young hands. Most of the refugees too appear to be in their 20s or early 30s. Also many of them admit to be carrying on business in Bhutan, lending credence to the Bhutanese Government’s allegations that it is businessmen, affected by the census, who are behind the unrest.

But the fact that as many as 10,000 of them have left the country looks ominous, and neither Thimphu nor New Delhi can wish away the situation. The rebels are likely to receive help from the Nepalis living in India – support has already been pledged by the Gorkha Liberation Organisation led by Chhatre Subba.

At Thimphu, the greatest apprehension is over the possibility of a pan-Nepali movement promoted by Kathmandu. As for New Delhi, it fears that large numbers of idle Nepalis along the Indo-Bhutan border will create trouble. As one official says:
“The Bodos, agitating for separation from Assam, may join hands with the Bhutanese-Nepalis.” But at the moment, as they run short of funds, and hundreds of them fall sick, the rebels are seeking the offices of the Indian Government to get themselves a rapprochement in their home country.

Says Khadanand Adhikari, a former member of Bhutan’s National Assembly: “A single phone call from Delhi would be sufficient to restore peace.” But peace seems a distant mirage. The resentment and the call for democracy and majority rule is unlikely to die easily. In the months to come, the dragon kingdom clearly faces a trial by fire.

Published in India Today on September 30, 1990

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