The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Monday, December 22, 2008

We shall return to Bhutan BY HARI PRASAD ADHIKARI

The Bhutanese of Nepali and Sarchop origins did not come to Nepal to savour camp cuisine or to ask the international community to donate clothes and huts as the royal government of Bhutan has been accusing them of doing. They would not have been forced to live on handouts had they been permitted to live in peace in Bhutan. They had houses to reside in and enough land to till. They had jobs. They were making a good living in Bhutan. But they were evicted from their own houses and their jobs taken away by the royal government at the behest of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk (KJSW). The royal government confiscated everything they possessed including their Bhutanese citizenship. The harsh and racially discriminatory laws of 1985 superseded the 1958 citizenship law. The reason for such punishment being meted out to the Bhutanese of Nepali and Sarchop origins was their call for democracy in Bhutan.
Initially, the evicted Bhutanese obtained refuge in Assam and West Bengal for about two years. From there, the Bhutan People's Party (BPP) organized peaceful demonstrations in various sub-divisions and district headquarters. Between 1990 and 1992, tens of thousands of Bhutanese participated in the demonstrations to demand their political rights.

The BPP guided and provided logistic support for the demonstrations from Garganda, its headquarters in exile. The office was kept under constant surveillance by the West Bengal Police and intelligence agents of both the state and the central governments. On several occasions, the superintendent of police and the deputy commissioner of the district met the top leadership of the BPP and submitted its political demands to the king through the central government. The deputy commissioner of Jalpaiguri often participated in the meetings called by Bhutan's Home Ministry regarding the Bhutanese refugee crisis.

After having received asylum in India for two years, the Bhutanese were rounded up by the same Indian police force, packed into trucks and transported to the Nepal border where they were dumped at the Mechi Bridge in Jhapa. Suddenly finding itself confronted by thousands of Bhutanese refugees who were dying daily of diarrhoea and starvation at its doorstep, Nepal had no choice but to act to save them. Finally, Nepal invited the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to intervene.

Since then, the Bhutanese refugees have been fighting for democracy in Bhutan. They have been trying to reach a political solution as the humanitarian assistance being provided in the UNHCR-administered camps cannot be taken as a permanent solution. The refugees held a bicycle rally to Phuentsoling Gate which marks the entry point into Bhutan. They also marched to Thimphu and staged a satyagraha. During these peaceful movements, thousands of refugees were jailed and many injured. A number of them died on the way to Bhutan. One was shot dead by West Bengal police at the Mechi Bridge.

Along with the public demonstrations, bilateral talks were held to allow the refugees to be repatriated with dignity and honour, but they got nowhere. Bhutan did not budge an inch. One of the reasons for not permitting the refugees to return to Bhutan was India's opposition to the process of repatriation and its tacit support of Bhutan's policy of ethnic cleansing.

The root cause of the Bhutanese refugee crisis was the plan crafted by King Jigme Singe Wangchuk and his henchmen to completely rid Bhutan of Nepali Bhutanese. Accordingly, the king imposed Drukpa dress and language code on the Nepali-speaking people. (Drukpa is a sub-sect of Kargyukpa of Mahayana Buddhism.) Subsequently, he asked them to produce documents to prove their nationality. Land tax receipts of 1958 were one of the documents demanded. Many could not produce this paperwork because they were born after 1958. A newly recruited militia under the direct command of the king was detailed to detain the disqualified people. The militia tortured them and raped the women. Men were murdered and their property looted. Many Bhutanese left for safer places to escape the terror. The leaders sought asylum in India and Nepal.

We had hoped that the Nepal government would mobilise support to speed up the repatriation process. But our hopes were shattered when Nepal accepted Bhutan's proposal to categorize the refugees. This was the original concept of KJSW. We thought there was a fresh chance when Nepal and Bhutan signed an agreement at the time Dr. Bhesh Bahadur Thapa was foreign minister. It was agreed that the refugees categorised as one, two and four were eligible for repatriation. Unfortunately, this plan too fell apart when the third country settlement plan was brought forward to crush the two-decade-long democratic movement. This brought disunity among the refugees who were divided into those supporting third country settlement and those advocating repatriation

Whatever be the situation now, we still hope that the Maoist-led government will push for the repatriation of Bhutanese refugees. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal should meet Jigme Y. Thinley and press the case for repatriation. If Bhutan continues to insist on third country resettlement, Nepal should hold frank talks with India, China and the United States. India cannot side with the dictator and prevent thousands of people from returning to their country. The tyrant who has committed crimes should be tried in court. The fast changing political situations in Nepal and North Bengal, where Nepalis are demanding a separate state to be called Gorkhaland, have given some hope for the refugees. The Maoist-led government should make itself clear that it backs repatriation. Let India and Bhutan know that they cannot block the process of repatriation. Nepal must guarantee the right of return of every Bhutanese.

(The writer is a former National Assembly member of Bhutan.)

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