The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Monday, July 3, 2006


Allegations Against Southern Bhutanese

[ 2006-7-2 ]
By Hariprasad Adhikari

The allegations of the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB ) heaped on the Nepalese Bhutanese in Bhutan or living in the camps of Jhapa and Morang in Nepal have changed over time. In 1988, they were the ?disgruntled people? from south Bhutan. In 1990, they were ?anti-nationals? and in 1990-91, they became ?terrorists?. In 1993, they were Nepalese from northeastern India, poor and hungry for land and jobs or ?Nepalese? from Nepal itself. In 1996, they were ?illegal economic immigrants?, and in 2000, most of the refugees were Bhutanese nationals who left the country after completing emigration formalities of the RGOB, designed during the period of eviction as a voluntary migration form (VMF ).It did not stop there. The Royal Government accused the refugees of being conspirators of a ?Greater Nepal?. They were supposed to be working covertly in collusion with the then Chief Minister of Sikkim Nar Bahadur Bhandari, Subhash Ghishing of Darjeeling and Nepalese Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to create a pan-Nepali state extending from Mahakali in the west to the Brahmaputra in the east. The Bhutanese Foreign Minister, Dawa Tshering, did not even hesitate to accuse the Nepali Bhutanese for working towards the Sikkim episode in tandem with the people from the border areas. The last allegation by the Royal Bhutanese government has been that the ?people in the camps are highly influenced by the Maoists.? Democratic movementThese are some of the propaganda rhetoric that the RGOB has been spreading to confuse the world community at large and to discredit the movement for human rights and democracy in Bhutan. The erratic shifts in statements and strategies must be seen in the light of the growing popularity of the democratic movement and the RGOB?s last ditch effort to kill the popular uprising.The Royal Government planted the seeds of dissent from the day it decided to implement in 1988 the unilateral racial discriminatory Citizenship Act of 1985. The National Assembly members of southern Bhutan had opposed this Act as well as the Citizenship Act of 1977 deliberately designed to deprive the citizenship rights of the common Bhutanese, particularly those with non-Bhutanese spouses and of Nepalese ethnicity in Bhutan.This Act affected mostly the southern Bhutanese. The Nepali Bhutanese live in Samchi, Chhuka, Daga, Chirang, Sarbhang and Samdrup Zonkher districts which border the contiguous Nepali settlements in India. Besides, the district of Darjeeling was the hub where Bhutanese children schooled, besides being the recruitment centre for expatriate workers, particularly after Bhutan?s opening to socio- economic development programmes.It being one of the important regional education centres for Bhutanese, many of the educated Bhutanese (irrespective of Nepalese Bhutanese) took spouses from Darjeeling and Kalimpong. The RGOB has, thus, alleged it as a strategy of the Nepali Bhutanese to change the country?s demographic balance.Perhaps, the RGOB?s story about ?illegal economic immigrants? is meant for international consumption, especially targetting the European countries, Australia and America. Taking into account that these countries are sensitive to economic migrants, the RGOB has designed its ethnic cleansing policy under the cover of ?illegal immigrants?. True, a large number of expatriate construction workers were brought into Bhutan from India and Nepal, particularly for road construction in the 1960s and 1980s.The Indian border road engineering force, namely DANTAK (semi military force of the Government of India), was responsible for recruiting expatriate workers who were engaged in the construction and maintenance of highways and development infrastructure. These labourers were registered with the local authorities at the border outposts, and their stay in Bhutan was closely monitored. During the working days, they were not allowed to move without prior permission from DANTAK. The attendance of the workers was taken three times regularly - early in the morning before boarding the vehicle for work, lunch time at mid-day and in the evening when they arrived in their camps, stationed at least 10-15 kilometers away (in the forest) from the local villages.Expatriate labourers were allowed to visit the market places only on Sundays along with the monitoring authorities of DANTAK, who accompanied them. Therefore, the allegation that the refugees are ?illegal immigrants who settled in Bhutan? is baseless and fabricated. Those recruited for the government services were issued non-residential identity cards for specific periods and for specific places. They were escorted up to the Indo-Bhutan border by the joint authority of the RGOB and DANTAK to ensure that they left the country once their assignments were over.In fact, the Royal Government was already jittery by the activities of the Bhutan State Congress in the early 1950s, and wanted to take chances in allowing the expatriate workers to mingle with the local population, particularly of Nepali ethnicity. The last thing it wanted was political instability. Even the movement of Nepali Bhutanese, from one district to another, was put under surveillance. It was impossible for anybody to continue to stay illegally in Bhutan without coming to the notice of the Royal government.Obviously, the propaganda war was to malign the democratic movement and leave behind in Nepal as many Nepali Bhutanese as possible by delaying the process of repatriation. The Government of Nepal naively walked into this trap by agreeing to categorise the Bhutanese refugees into: (a) Bhutanese forcibly evicted, (b) Bhutanese who ?emigrated?, (c) non-Bhutanese people and (d) Bhutanese with criminal records. Upon realising the RGOB?s strategy to convert the political problem into legal wrangling, the Nepalese government is trying hard to correct its earlier mistake by acquiescing to international pressure, particularly from those who pay for refugee upkeep.Ministerial talksSo far, Nepal and Bhutan have completed 15 rounds of Joint Ministerial level talks since they first met officially in 1993. The two governments have formed a Joint Verification Team of Bhutan and Nepal. But the categorisation of the Bhutanese refugees has come to a standstill after the verification of the Khudunabari camp. The stumbling block in the negotiations is on the category that supposedly ?emigrated? according to the emigration law of Bhutan that was legislated targeting this category.Clearly, according to international refugee laws, Bhutan is wholly responsible for this category, as there is no grain of doubt about their Bhutanese nationality. Therefore, the so-called ?emigrated group? will have to be repatriated first before anyone else returns to Bhutan.

(Adhikari is former National Assembly member of Bhutan.)

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