By Narayan Sharma
The Bhutanese refugees, stranded in one of the most protracted-refugee situations, have finally opted for the Third-Country Settlement (TCS) in large numbers. The fight for repatriation for the last 17 years has been inconsequential insofar as that has borne them no return whatsoever.
A three-dimensional approach involving a sincere commitment on the part of the Druk regime, a cogent and a coherent refugee policy on the part of Nepal and an active participatory role of the international community, including India, would have been a way out towards locating a comprehensive durable solution. With none in track, refugees have opted for the third country resettlement plan.
The 17 years of ordeal have witnessed a phenomenal change: The refugees have been classified into 4 categories by Nepal and Bhutan, in their perusal of bilateralism. Bhutan had its goal defined: to preempt the possible return of refugees. And politics of classification was actually a strategic move towards that end. What coerced the then democratic Nepal to grant legitimacy to Bhutan’s ploy is unknown. It has benefited Nepal in no way. One of the bizarre outcomes of classification has been to brand thousands of innocent refugees terrorists. They include many children below 10 years of age!
Back in Bhutan, a constitution was drafted and subsequently “endorsed” by the citizenry. While Bhutan observers were busy lauding the commitment to democracy of the fourth king, over 1/6 citizens were losing their right to return. The international community ignored the clandestine agenda of the king perpetrated through the constitution in the garb of democratizing the Bhutanese polity.
Bhutan’s constitution remains a bizarre exclusionary document, framed with criminal intent of de-Bhutanizing the refugees in particular and excluding the southern Bhutanese from the mainstream political process in general. How could one explain the exclusion of a third political party formed in Bhutan, the exclusion of over 80,000 southern Bhutanese from the electoral roll in the recently concluded elections, let alone excluding the refugees and the political parties in exile?
A new “democratic” government is in place in Bhutan, led by staunch royalist Jigme Y Thinley, an infamous refugee bully. Refugees’ hope of return has been lessened presently as the Druk regime has now the possibility to further procrastinate the issue with the new-found alibi of people’s representatives needing to decide the issue.
The host Nepal has witnessed the most phenomenal changes, with the Maoists inching towards making the next government. They have, inter alia, the challenge of defining the Bhutan policy vis-à-vis the refugee issue. Their ideological tilt might warrant them forestall the process of TCS, but will that be a politically expedient course for them to adopt, when the United States and other core countries, including a number of international organizations, have invested quite heavily in the process? It is time the Maoists defined their refugee policy.
A solution to any refugee problem involves certain essentialities. It needs to balance the right of people to return on the one hand and respect their informed decision on the other. A voluntary and informed decision is possible only when all the options available are availed of. The TCS offer presently underway is being exercised sans other options, namely local integration and repatriation. This is explanatory of the possibility that refugees might be opting for TCS owing more to push factors like, augmenting frustration in the protracted refugee situation, insecurity of life, depleting assistance, amongst others, than available pull factors.
It is to be remembered that 2007 was a tumultuous year in the life of the refugees. They lost quite a few lives to the bullets of Indian security forces during the course of their peace march to Bhutan. The year also witnessed an increased animosity between the refugees wishing to opt for TCS and those championing for repatriation, especially under the aegis of the newly formed leftist forces in exile.
The credit of all stakeholders that the security situation in the camps have been efficiently taken care of and one ardently hopes that the Maoist government ensures the wellbeing and security of all the refugees in and outside the camps.
The impacts of emergence of a new government in Nepal are yet to be felt vis-à-vis the Bhutanese refugees. Some issues of critical concern emerge. And it is on the new dispensation in Nepal to appropriately address them.
Will the Maoists reverse the refugee policy adopted by the outgoing government? If so, that would mean forestalling the TCS process underway which however is fraught with the propensity of generating greater catastrophe and in turn discrediting the Maoists. Together with the agenda of New Nepal, the new government has an important role to play in taking the Bhutanese refugee situation to an acceptable, logical conclusion. Will not the change in host Nepal embolden their ideological Bhutanese brethren who might push through their own agenda more vociferously against the wishes of many who would wish to settle abroad? What policy would the Maoists adopt in case of such an eventuality?
A comprehensive solution package for the refugees should break the refugee deadlock. While continuing with the TCR process, efforts towards enabling a dignified repatriation of all the willing refugees should be initiated. That tests the diplomatic skills of the new dispensation as the process entails dealing with an escapist New Delhi and a hawkish Bhutanese prime minister whose refugee approach has been outrageous all through.