The dragon bites its tail – Part I

The dragon bites its tail – Part I

FROM THE ARCHIVES: A longform piece on Bhutan's Lhotshampa question [1992].

(This article was first published in our July-August 1992 print issue. Click here to read Part II and Part III of the article.)

Travelling east on the highway from Siliguri to Guwahati, looking north, the green of the Indian flatlands gives way to the blue hills of Bhutan. Beyond the low-lying monsoon clouds, up in the Bhutanese districts of Samchi, Chirang and Geylegphug, unfolds a story of cultures in collision.

A ruling minority feels threatened that its identity is about to be swamped by a growing majority. It decides to counter this threat by a well-planned programme of depopulation. The rulers know the world well. They are astute and use every available advantage: the remoteness of their country, manipulable media, the weakness of all outsiders for 'last remaining Shangrilas', and the blessings of a giant southern neighbour that obligingly turns a blind eye.

The country is Druk Yul, land of the Thunder Dragon. The guardians of the Dzongkha language and the Drukpa Kagyu traditions of west Bhutan have decided to protect their identity, and the losers are the Nepali-speakers of the south. The large-scale suffering of the southerners – Lhotshampas in Dzongkha – has yet to make a mark even in the subcontinental consciousness. The story remains largely unreported. Thimphu zealously guards its image and the little it has allowed to leak to the world media has been through the eyes of carefully vetted journalists and academics.

Many are therefore surprised to learn that Bhutan is home to communities other than the Ngalung Drukpas of the west Bhutan, and that there are Nepali-speakers in such large numbers. Coffee-table books on Bhutan ignore the Lhotshampas and tourist brochures are most perfunctory. Nepali-speakers populate large stretches of the eastern Himalaya and the attitude is – if there is a problem, "they can always go back to Nepal." Drukpa Bhutan, in contrast, is felt to be worthy of cultural preservation for it is the last remaining Lamaist Mahayana Buddhist kingdom, a guardian of Tibetan traditions lost in the home country itself.

Bhutanese unification

In the early 1600s, when the reformist Gelugpa sect was ascendant in Tibet, monastic intrigue forced a Drukpa Kagyu monk Ngawang Namgyal to flee south through the Himalayan divide. This charismatic and strong-willed cleric, entered a rugged and beautiful land populated by aboriginals and earlier immigrants of the 'un-reformed' Nyingmapas. Ngawang Namgyal was a unifier; he is to Bhutan what Prithvi Narayan Shah is to Nepal. By 1639, he had defeated the Tibetans, consolidated the fiefdoms of the area and established himself as a theocrat whose spiritual and temporal rule would continue through successive reincarnations, known as the Shabdrung, into the twentieth century. The Drukpa Kagyu order, which he headed, provides the defining identity of the Kingdom of Bhutan today.

The builders of the British empire were quite willing to leave Bhutan alone as long as it made no trouble. When once in 1865 it did, the British went to war and extracted a treaty, which forced Bhutan to cede (or lease, for annual payments were made) the contiguous plains, known as the Duars. This was how Bhutan lost its tarai and today the country begins where plains meet hills.

The freedom of the Shabdrung system gave ample opportunity for the Bhutanese regional warlords, the penlops, to bicker. The British eventually decided that a centralised kingship was more in their interest. Ugen Wangchuk, fourth ancestor of the present king and penlop of Tongsa, in central Bhutan, was available and willing. It did not matter that the Mahayanic Buddhist traditions did not provide ideological support. With the agreement of the clergy and the nobility, Bhutan's Shab drung system was packed off in December 1907. As the American political scientist and scholar of Himalayan states, Leo E. Rose, writes in The Politics of Bhutan (Cornell University Press, 1977), the monarchy came first, and the theocratic rationalisations for the Jul/Aug system were "appended" thereafter. "The Wangchuk dynasty lacked the traditional, ideological legitimation that has been so crucial to the survival of monarchies," in Nepal and Thailand.

With the Shabdrung (at least temporarily) out of the way, the kings of Bhutan began to rule in earnest, consolidating their hold on the country while walking the fine line between the Tibetans and the British. The third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, who ruled from 1952 to 1972, introduced major reforms, such as establishing a national assembly, abolishing serfdom, and beginning development programmes.

For all his sagacity, however, King Jigme Dorji was not above abetting the 1964 assassination of Jigme Palden Dorji, his friend, adviser and Prime Minister. Jigme Palden Dorji, who came from a Kalimpong-based clan of well-educated Bhutanese, had been Bhutan's liaison with the British. He was popular, worldly wise, and a threat to a monarch who had begun thinking of his dynasty.

Nepali settlement

The southern hills of Bhutan used to be heavily forested and malarial. A Drukpa official who served there in the mid-1950s recalls that, "In those days, Drukpas were afraid to spend even one night in the south. No northerner would ever go down there, other than for brief spells during the mid-winter".

It was the Dorji family of Kalimpong that opened these southern hills to Nepali immigration, encouraged by the British who were employing Nepalis in their tea gardens in nearby Darjeeling. The settlement and administration of southern Bhutan was carried out through a special dispensation given to the Dorji family, first by the penlops and later by the Government. They set up a system of tax collection similar to that of Nepal at the time and engaged Nepalis as collectors, such as Gajaman Gurung, who was for long a power to reckon with in the Samchi region. A prominent family of Subbas became commissioners for Chirang, and over flow from these two regions were resettled further east in Samdrup Jonkhar under the authority of J B Pradhan, who was known as Nyautibabu.

A special affinity grew between the Dorji family and the Nepali-speaking peasantry, which rarely came in contact with the penlops of the north. The Kalimpong-based Dorji rule, though feudocratic in character, was based on an understanding of 'Nepali culture'. This was not the case with Drukpas who were to come later as administrators and representatives of the Government in Thimphu.

Though it is likely that Nepalis have continually migrated from Nepal and the Indian hills eastward into Bhutan and beyond since the 1700s, most migration probably occurred between the mid 1800s (especially immediately after the Bhutan-British war of 1864) and the 1950s. Geographer Haika Gurung believes that most of the movement was not directly from Nepal, but "step-migration" from adjacent Indian regions.

For perhaps a century, because there was minimal interaction, there was little or no conflict between the Nepali-speakers of the south and the northern population of Drukpas. The only point of contact was during the payment of annual taxes to the authorities. After the assassination of Prime Minister Dorji in 1964, Thimphu assumed direct administration of the south, assigning a special commissioner for southern Bhutan. Even under the new system, it did not seem to matter that the Nepali-speakers were different from the Drukpas. After the mid-1980s, it seemed to make all the difference.

The retired Drukpa official quoted above says, "In the old days when Bhutan was poor and needed cash, we invited the Nepalis in. The money collected from Samchi was taken to the Paro penlop. From Sarbhang, Chirang, Phuntsnoling, Tala, Kali Khola, Dagana, too, money flowed into Bhutan's coffers."

Recalls the official, who like all Drukpas interviewed for this article preferred to remain anonymous: "In the old days, there were strict rules prohibiting new settlements, and the system was tight because you needed data to collect taxes. Following the assassination of Jigme Palden Dorji, the Government assumed direct control, and the system became more slack. Lhotshampa landlords, particularly in Samchi did bring over illegal sharecroppers to do the labour-intensive work in the plantations, but their number was not large. And this did not happen in the inner districts like Chirang."

Some scholars, however, believe firmly that Nepali migration is more recent. Tampas K Roy Choudhury, a history professor at North Bengal University, writes that the Nepalis posed a serious demographic challenge only after fresh immigration followed the introduction of the First Plan in 1958: "The Nepalese were mostly workers lured from Nepal or Darjeeling district by construction agents."

The dragon turns

For a while, it did look as if Bhutan was the one place where cultures could meet without clash. Communal harmony seemed possible as the Drukpa Government appeared willing to allow southerners to share in the country's wealth. This blunted the ever-present political desires of a more-educated Lhotshampa population. According to Rose, the "comparatively liberal approach" towards Nepali-speakers in the 1950s and 1960s "tended to make Nepali Bhutanese unresponsive to suggestions that political organisations and agitations were required to attain community or regional objectives".

Nepali-speakers were allowed to rise up the ranks in the bureaucracy. They demanded and received citizenship in 1958, and marriage between Nepalis and Drukpas were encouraged with cash incentives. The signboards were in Dzongkha, English and Nepali, and all three were taught in schools. In 1980, the Nepali festival of Dasain was declared a national holiday. The King granted Dasain Tika to Nepali-speakers, who willingly wore the Bhutanese national dress olgho and kira on official occasions. The King proposed the construction of a Hindu temple in Thimphu, and encouraged the absorption of more Nepalis into the army and police.

As a memorandum presented in July to members of the Indian Parliament by refugee leaders states, "the forces of economics, politics and social sciences were already tying together, irrespective of ethnic lineages, all Bhutanese people through common interest and common destiny." The idyll was shattered in the mid-1980s. A fuse lit in 1958, when the country began its drive for economic modernisation, eventually reached the powder keg. "Until the early 1980s the different ethnic groups in Bhutan were living in a happy atmosphere of brotherhood. But as 1985 gave way to 1986, and the Sixth Five Year Plan of Bhutan was unfolded, almost overnight the Government started to maltreat the southern Bhutanese," says D N S Dhaka, an engineer and economist who is now General Secretary of the Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP) in exile. The King declared that the preservation of tradition and culture was a priority of the Plan. The Lhotshampas' downfall had begun.

The Lhotshampas were actually the second community to have a falling out with the Drukpa elites. In 1974, the Government had cracked down harshly on Tibetan refugees in Bhutan, ostensibly for conniving with the late King Jigme Dorji's Tibetan spouse Yanki, to wrest the throne for her son. There was persecution, jailings, in any reported deaths; the Tibetans were given the choice to either become Bhutanese citizens or "follow the Dalai Lama" and leave the country.

There had always been a certain ambiguity in Bhutan's endeavour to catch up with the world. The elites, earnest modernisers educated in Darjeeling public schools, were extending their control over a land steeped in Umaist culture. At some point, however, modernisation was bound to come up against the traditionalists' world view and the modernisers' own economic self-interest. When that time arrived, inevitably, the rulers decided that Nepali-speakers threatened not only Bhutan's socioeconomic and political status quo, but their culture, too. Ambiguity gave way to Drukpa chauvinism, spearheaded by single-minded bureaucrats who had a green signal from the King.

As educated Drukpas returned from the Indian schools and needed employment slots, the Lhotshampas were marginalised. Nepali signboards were painted over and the language banished from the classrooms of the south. Senior Nepali civil servants, those that still remain in the civil service, are now cowed and pushed aside. D K Chhetri, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former Ambassador to Bangladesh, for example, was ousted from the presitigious Foreign Ministry and made Secretary-General of the Bhutan Olympic Committee. The Foreign Minister Dawa Tshering apparently told him to step aside as "the situation is not right at the moment". Says a friend of Chhetri's, now a refugee,"At least he got to go to the Barcelona Olympics."

In early August 1992, Hari Chhetri, Second-Secretary in the Embassy in Kuwait and the penultimate Lhotshampa in the Foreign Service, defected straight to exile in Kathmandu rather than return and await marginalisation.

Fear of engulfment

The present monarch. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk told the Reuters news agency in February that Bhutan is facing "the greatest threat to its survival since the seventh century." Which was when, according to legend, Guru Padma Sambhava brought Buddhism to Bhutan, flying in from Tibet on the back of a tiger. The Drukpa 'nation' was established much later, in the 17th century.

Towards the beginning of the Sixth Five Year Plan (1987-1992), it appeared that the main danger to Drukpa culture was modernisation through exposure to the outside world. Television antennae were dismantled, tourism curtailed, and the Drig Lam Namzha code of cultural correctness implemented. Before long, and as the Lhotshampas reacted to-the code's strict implementation, the enemy became not modernisation but the Nepali-speakers of the south.

King Jigme and his senior officials all use the term "endangered species" to describe Drukpas, and point constantly to Sikkim, where a Nepali majority curtailed the rule of the Chhogyalin 1973.

In January, Foreign Minister Tshering told the Calcutta Statesman, that if the "influx" of illegal immigrants continued, in another two decades Bhutan would be turned into "another Sikkim and Darjeeling". King Jigme told the Reuters correspondent that "in the next 10, 15 or 20 years… Bhutan will no longer be a Bhutanese nation. It will be a Nepali state… just like Sikkim."

Southern Bhutan attracted Nepalis, he said, because of its free education, free health services, higher wages, and the availability of good land for cash crops and cereals.

The refugee leaders in the camps of Jhapa, meanwhile, are incredulous that the King, his officials and gullible foreign diplomats continue to speak of an "influx" into Bhutan when there has been an "exodus" these past couple of years and whatever loopholes existed for illegal immigration were firmly sealed in early 1988.

The northerners' fear of being swamped by the Lhotshampas is real, however. When the rallies spearheaded by the Bhutan People's Party (BPP) shook the southern districts in September and October of 1990, Thimphu residents waited in dread for Lhotshampas who they thought would at any moment be marching up the highway from Phuntsholing. But are there grounds for such fear or is it paranoia?

A pamphlet prepared by political exiles in early-1988 finds the very ideal of a cultural threat laughable: "Someone learned in cultural anthropology must tell the administration that culture lives or dies by its strengths or weakness. Is Drukpa culture so fragile that it will collapse in the presence of Nepali culture? Such a fragile culture is not worth preserving."

The pamphlet goes on, "Once Chhogyal Raja of Sikkim ruled his country in a [brutal and uncivilised] way but that consequently led the country to become an Indian state. And at present the Drukpa rulers are marching the Chhogyal way." Such language could hardly have helped instill confidence in Thimphu's Samtheling Royal Palace.

North Bengal University's Roy Choudhury takes Drukpa fears more seriously. "In the last decade ethnic problems in neighbouring Sikkim and West Bengal have caused great consternation in Bhutan. Gorkha militancy in Darjeeling arose further Bhutani suspicions about Nepali settlers. They could hardly ignore the fact that the Nepalis had gradually wiped out the Lepcha and Bhutiya communities as political elements in Sikkim."

Whatever its basis, the cultural anxiety of the Drukpashas expressed itself in an unfortunate programme of depopulation. But does cultural anxiety alone explain the Government's heartlessness towards the Lhotshampas? What else accounts for the obvious insensitivity of the dzongdas and dungpas (District Administrators and sub-divisional officers) as they chase the Lhotshampas from the southern hills?

Despite the bluster of the pamphlet and intermittent militancy along the southern border, the Lhotshampas' assertion of cultural identity as 'Nepalis' hardly posed a challenge to the political order. Indeed, it is plausible that Nepali-speakers saw the economic advantage of remaining 'Bhutanese' and might have lived within Drukpa strictures – as long as the regulations did not violate their deeper cultural identity of being a Bahun, a Tamang or a Rai.

There is no indication that the Nepali-speakers were, as of 1988, organising to topple the crown or invade the north. Nor does it seem probable that anyone was seriously contemplating asking India's help to 'do a Sikkim' on Bhutan. It is more likely that, as the Nepali-speakers became politicised against the 1988 census exercise and implementation of the Drig Lam Namzha code, the Thimphu decision-makers decided to nip the 'Lhotshampa problem' before it even budded.

Lhotshampa allegiance

Excerpt from a Kuensel report of 30 May 1992, "While many of the people felt that it was good riddance that some of the Lhotshampas were leaving the country, others felt that there might be a sinister motive for these people to leave without anyone forcing them to do so. 'I believe that these people are leaving with the sole objective of slandering the government by claiming that they are being thrown out,' said Tshongpa Tshela, the president of the Tongsa business community."

"One Nation, One People" became the rallying slogan of the Government. "Because Bhutan is small, it cannot afford to have too many divided identities." And the Ngalung Drukpa culture would provide the single identity to the populace.

For the Drukpa official searching for clues, there were probably enough to reveal where Lhotshampa loyalties lay. When the Drig Lam Namzha cultural code was implemented, for example, some Lhotshampa students at the Teacher Training Center in Paro might belt out Sri Maan Gambhir, the national an them of Nepal, to taunt the Drukpa students. Even after King Jigme started his own Dasain tika ceremony, Lhotshampas still waited for Radio Nepal to announce King Birendra's tika before starling their own ceremonies. When a village mandal or headman, would be over-strict with Drig Lam Namzha, youths would discard their gho in defiance and don the Nepali labeda surwal.

To the Drukpa, this was a clear case of rebellion against the Tsa-Wa-Tsum, the King, the Kingdom and the Government (the three elements of  Bhutan). But refugee leaders insist that by such acts the Lhotshampas are emphasising their cultural identity and not their political allegiance. "Bhutanese Nepalis, when they wait for the Nepali king's tika indicate their Nepali cultural roots. There is nothing political in this," says R B Basnet, President of BNDP.

How Bhutanese the Nepali-speakers of Bhutan are depends on how you define'Bhutanese'. If asked to choose between being Drukpa Bhutanese and Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, the Lhotshampas would overwhelmingly opt for the latter. `Nepali culture' implies a mix of many ethnicities, some of them subsumed under a generic Nepaliness, others retaining distinct tribal and caste identities. But the enforcement of a Drukpa identity affects equally the Newar, the Kirat, the Tamang or the Bahun/Chhetri.

For a while Drukpa administrators appear to have toyed with the idea of divide and rule – during the census exercise in the south, for example, some dungpas tried to encourage the perception that the Bahun/Chhetri were monopolising leadership among the Lhotshampas.

Ratan Gazmere – an Amnesty International "Prisoner of Conscience" who was released in December 1991 – recalls Sangey Thinley, an officer of the Royal Bodyguards advising him in prison, "Bhai, this movement is in the interests of the Bahuns and Chhetris and you will soon be sidelined." Says Gazmere, now in exile in Jhapa,"There is certainly an attempt to divide Nepalis, but it will not work because the oppression and evictions are cross-ethnic."

Indeed, the refugee rolls, lists of torture victims and other such information indicate that the suffering runs across caste, ethnicity and gender. One list of death in police custody reads: Chhetri, Sharma, Gurung, Limbu, Rai, Kami, Karki, Adhikari and Pokhrel. Another list of rape victims reads Luitel, Gurung, Rai, Sherpa, Chhetri, Basnet, Guragain, Thukpawalni, Gotame, Sunar, Magarni, Kharel and Niroula. The leadership in exile includes Basnet, Budathofci, Chhetri, Dhakal, Gazmere, Pradhan, Rai, Sharma and Subba.

Bhampa Rai, a doctor who as General Secretary of the Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan (HUROB) heads the refugees' effort to organise themselves in the camps of Jhapa, agrees that, like elsewhere in the Nepali-speaking diaspora, there are ethnic disparities among Lhotshampas. "But that is for us to sort out once we get back to Bhutan. The Government is mistaken if it thinks it can divide us in opposition."

While Lhotshampa allegiance to Thimphu's political authority was still unquestioned, by mid-1988 the King and his coterie knew full well the feeling towards Drukpa-flavoured Bhutanisation. Cultural indoctrination, mildly pursued, might have been acceptable to Lhotshampas who saw clear advantages in health care, education, employment and economic well-being which Bhutanese citizenship, rather than Indian or Nepali citizenship, afforded them. In time the Nepali-speakers would feel fully 'Bhutanese', as the Drig Lam Namzha desired. Lhotshampas would begin to acquire Drukpa cultural traits and, in fact, they appear to have been willing to go that distance. But the implementation of a rigid policy by zealous administrators and army and the police officers seems to have been unbearable.


This article was first published in our July-August 1992 print issue. Click here to read Part II and Part III of the article.


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)

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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