Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru meets King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck during his 1958 visit to Bhutan.
Photo: Public.Resource.Org / Flickr
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru meets King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck during his 1958 visit to Bhutan. Photo: Public.Resource.Org / Flickr

The dragon bites its tail – Part III

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Part III of our longform reportage from 1992 on Bhutan’s Lhotshampa question.

(This article was first published in our July-August 1992 print issue. Also read Part I and Part II of the reportage.)

Thimphu high society

Drukpa society is made up of a small educated super-elite of perhaps no more than one thousand (mostly male, even though the traditional society is matriarchal) and a large peasantry. The former are all in bureaucracy or in business, with their interests intimately tied with those of the state. There is no peer support for non-conformists who might question the basis for policies of state, such as the hardline crackdown against the Lhotshampas.

According to Rose, there is a "virtual non-existence of competing elite groups" in Thimphu, which means that there are no dissident members from among the traditional elite nor the modernised bureaucracy. To the extent that Bhutan has "no non-official educated elites of any size or significance", therefore, Thimphu is an intellectual backwater. There is no one to challenge programmes designed and implemented by the administrators of the country or the conservative monastic order. The Lhotshampa civil servants who have dared to ask questions are all in exile or prison. Those that remain are increasingly marginalised, but remain silent.

Om Bahadur Pradhan, Minister for Trade and Industry and highest-ranking Lhotshampa, is son of Nyaulibabu, one-time commissioner of Samdrup Jonkhar. He has served as Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. Pradhan is a student of Drukpa Kagyu philosophy, speaks fluent Dzongkha and is married to a Sarchop. Some refugees who know him well consider him "more Drukpa than the Drukpa." A former colleague of Pradhan is angry that he does not use his access to the King: "Why does he not speak? He knows his father settled Nepalis in eastern Bhutan upon the express request of the Bhutanese government."

Says Bhakti Prasad Sharma, an activist who was recently released, "Om Pradhan is in a fix. He is disillusioned, but he is neither here nor there." However, Pradhan did recently arrange for a group of Nepalis to approach the King with a petition detailing discriminatory treatment, and at the autumn 1991 session of the National Assembly, he did remind members that "not all Lhostshampas were ngolops".

The reticence of the Bhutanese civil servant is not a new phenomenon. It has been evident for decades among Bhutanese diplomats at the United Nations and at international conferences, and more recently at SAARC parleys and at ICMOD in Kathmandu. Today, this unwillingness to speak up has become a great asset as inconvenient questions are never answered.

The bureaucrat´s extreme caution on political matters is also born of economic self-interest. The First Class Gazetted Officer and ranks above have perks that best all South Asian counterparts – including the facility to buy a new vehicle every five years, easy access to Royal Bhutan Insurance Corporation´s beneficence of low-interest loans, and duty-free liquor privileges. Much of the real estate in Bhutanese towns are bureaucrat-owned. Pradhan is said to have four mansions besides the one he lives in, and Dawa Tshering is the second biggest real-estate tycoon in Thimphu.

Tshering, who has the distinction of being the world´s longest serving foreign minister, has emerged as the spokesman of the Government´s policies, even though it is said he was not part of the original coterie that planned the exercise. The Lynpo apparently got wedded to it after his daughter married into the new royal family. Lynpo Tshering is the son of a Kalimpong Chinese and was brought up in a Nepali household there. He has a Bachelor of Laws degree and was a hostel superintendent in Kalimpong before he landed it big in Bhutan under the tutelage of late Prime Minister Dorji.

There might be little ´intellectual culture´ in Thimphu, but there is plenty of high society to reap the largesse of the foreign donors and tourism, and economic policies that are increasingly tailored to suit the needs of a few. The jet-setting Drukpas are within striking distance of an exclusive Western standard of living. Druk Air´s BAe 146 jet allows them instant access to New Delhi and Bangkok. The Bhutanese highways, built and maintained courtesy the Indian Border Roads Organisation (known locally as 'Dantak'), carry Toyota Land Cruisers and air-conditioned sedans with ease. Plebeians and Indian traders drive Maruti Gypsies.

High society is almost totally Westernised. The dasho who gives a speech on cultural purity will enter the toilet cubicle of the Druk Air jet out of Paro Airport as soon as the seatbelt sign is off – to struggle out of his gho and emerge transformed in jacket and tie. At the border town of Phuntsholing, next to the bus stop, men and women change from traditional to Western attire, or vice versa, jettisoning their Drukpa identity with apparent ease. In Thimphu, under cover of the night, the children of the elites drive to celebrate the National Day with all-night jam sessions, in jeans and skirts.

It is a lifestyle in a dreamland which, goaded by Western and Indian plaudits, is increasingly divorced from Southasia. Thimphu´s ruling class rarely visit the south, except to reach the Indian border. There is little empathy in Thimphu circles for the Lhotshampa peasantry which populates the south, and whose best and brightest actually work amongst them. As a Kuensel reporter admitted, it was only the killing of a Ngalung Dungpa at Geylegphug in mid-May that "brings to the Bhutanese people the real gravity of the disturbed situation in the kingdom", whereas before "reports of terrorism in remote villages were vague in their anonymity and distance".

In Thimphu, self-righteous indignation tends to greet Lhotshampa demands for equal treatment. "Especially in the period from October to December 1991 (around the very conservative National Assembly), mutual distrust (between the Northern and Southern Bhutanese) was at a peak, with Drukpas very tense and defensive," says one development agency report to headquarters.

A Drukpa official passing through Kathmandu in May (who also did not want to be identified) clearly encapsulated the view from Thimphu when he said: "You must not believe this talk of Thimphu´s closed culture. Actually, the people in Thimphu are by nature open. The young intellectual group is sharp and will act. There is no racism as such, but a feeling that this thing should be allowed to take its course. A minister like Dago Tshering might seem to be hardline to outsiders, but he is articulating the threatened feelings of the Drukpa elites and commoners alike. Democracy will probably come when the society is ready for it. Meanwhile, let us not bullshit the farmer. The main thing is to educate the population, which is why there is so much emphasis on education in the national budget. The southern problem has emerged not as an initiative of the Government but as a response to the anti-King activities. Those that call themselves refugees are not leaving because of brutality. Their departure was voluntary."

Ngalungs such as the official quoted above, when asked about their society, will emphasise its egalitarian aspects, the absence of caste, and the links each family has with the home village. But it does appear that the class structure is becoming rigid to exclude not only the Lhotshampa, but also a majority of the high mountain peasantry which remains remote from Thimphu's bustle. Inter-marriages and enmeshing of interests among the elite families – the Wangchuks, the Dorjis, or the newly ascendant family of the Queens – results in a see no evil, hear no evil mentality.

Opposition in absentia

So, who are the ngolops? Going by Government pronouncements, the most dangerous one would be Tek Nath Rizal, who was the first Lhotshampa leader to be harassed into exile. Abducted and brought back to Thimphu, he is today the senior most ngolop in prison.

Rizal was a civil servant who had impressed the King with his straight talk and dedication and had risen to become member of the Royal Advisory Council. In April 1988, when alarming reports arrived from Chirang of discriminatory implementation of the census, Rizal and another Councillor from the south took the help of Thimphu's Lhotshampa civil servants in drafting a petition and submitted it to King Jigme.

"The people of southern Bhutan most humbly beg Your Majesty for protection and relief," the petition stated, asking that he disallow the retrospective effect of the 1985 Citizenship Act. The petition recalled that the review of the 1977 Citizenship Act had been done at the initiative of the southern Bhutanese, who fully shared the concern about possible settlement of illegal immigrants, "… to view the people with suspicion and to blame them for allegedly colluding with the immigrants to secret them into the country is unfair and unjust."

Rizal's action was considered treasonous, and he was imprisoned for three days and his Councillorship terminated. In the face of increasing harassment, he left the country at the end of 1989 with two associates and ended up in Birtamod, a junction town in Jhapa District of Nepal. There they set up the People's Forum for Human Rights (PFHR) "to fight for political equality in Bhutan and to inform the world about the happenings within".

With the assistance of Ratan Gazmere, then a lecturer at the National Institute of Education in Samchi, a booklet Bhutan: We Want Justice was produced by the exiles. Rizal and his two companions were abducted from Birtamod by Nepali police and taken to Kathmandu. Waiting on the tarmac was the Druk Air jet with V. Namgyal, King Jigme's aide de camp and chief of the Royal Bodyguards. They were handcuffed and taken to Thimphu.

Soon after the abduction, thinking perhaps the leaderless Lhotshampas would not react, the government legislated the wearing of the gho and the kira "for all Bhutanese at all times".

The first refugees began to leave Bhutan. They were housed with the help of West Bengal´s ruling party CPI(M) at Garganda, a tea estate community in Jalpaiguri, where large sheds of a tea companies were made available. The PFHR and the Students Union of Bhutan combined forces in early 1990 to establish the Bhutan People´s Party in Garganda.

Later, the refugee camps in India were dismantled and refugees who did not have relatives and friends all moved west into Nepal, where they began to populate the banks of the Mai Khola in Jhapa. The BPP, meanwhile, established an office in Kathmandu and began a media campaign. But the Kathmandu media's reach was short, and the BPP ended up preaching to the converted.

As the Bhutanese programme of depopulation progressed, not only the southern peasantry but also the high-level Lhotshampa civil servants in Thimphu started feeling the heat. Ten civil servants fled in April 1991, and others followed. The arrival of these senior bureaucrats, some of whom had helped draft Rizal's original petition to the King, provided a degree of political articulation not previously present Unexpectedly, however, their presence sparked infighting and rivalry among the refugee front ranks.

The politico-bureaucrats who entered the scene first tried to carve a niche for themselves within the BPP, but they claim to have found a party that was ill-organised, lacking realistic programmes and a constitution or ideology. Above all, they criticise BPP leaders of harbouring idealistic visions of a 'free Bhutan' without searching for realistic ways to push forward the agenda of return.

Unable to make headway with the BPP, some civil servants joined the Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan (HUROB) which, as PFHR´s successor, was involved in managing the refugee camps. Others decided to form the Bhutan National Democratic Party, as a 'democratic alternative' to the BPP. The new party was launched in the fall of 1991 in New Delhi, signifying a shift in lobbying focus.

Rightly or wrongly, the BPP is identified with the left, while the BNDP sells itself as the moderate party to which the Thimphu Government will have to turn to for negotiations when the time comes. King Jigme did tell Reuters that the southern problem could be solved through "honest, sincere and genuine dialogue", but that "dialogue had been difficult with the BPP… because they had no clear leader".

For their part, the BPP stalwarts regard the BNDP as a party of well-to-do interlopers out to wrest away a movement that they have nurtured from the start. One European journalist who has her sympathies with the BPP says the BNDP people is made up of 'armchair activists' who "tried to get the movement under their control, confused everyone, tried to divide the movement, but did not succeed".

Pratap Subba, who presently works for HUROB as an organiser at Pathari camp, says he left the BPP because of differences in ideology and strategy. "The public should be the last weapon to use; instead, they gave the call for mass rallies against the government with no back-up support. There was no media coverage, and a lot of false talk to mislead the people." The BPP, says Subba, "spends more energy fighting the other refugee organisations – SUB, HUROB and BNDP – than for the cause of return."

S K Pradhan, General Secretary of BPP, accuses the BNDP of dealing a fatal blow to opposition unity and sowing "absolute confusion" among the refugees. "They want security and a comfortable stay in Kathmandu, whereas our people are on the ground, organising in the Duars, the Hill Council areas, and even within Bhutan." Pradhan says the BPP plans to restart agitations "within 1992" but will not divulge details as to what form they will take.

Try as they might to give a non-ethnic colour to their politics, the parties in exile have failed to enlist a single prominent dissident, either Ngalung or Sarchop, in their struggle. BPP´s Pradhan claims some Drukpa membership, but they are not visible. The BNDP stated at its founding that it expected "to dilute the allegation of ethnic-led struggle", but the few Sarchops in exile have not yet come on board.

BNDP´s General Secretary Dhakal remains hopeful that the distinct political choices presented by two parties will allow "liberal thinkers from the Sharchops and Ngalungs to take a political stand on the crisis in Bhutan."

What Bhutanese politics in exile lacks, clearly, is a figure to rally behind. "Because we lack a leader, there is a dilemma in the camps," concedes Subba. Such a figure exists in Tek Nath Rizal, which is probably why Thimphu does not release him even when his cellmates have been let go earlier this year. After a long stay at the army-controlled Rabun a prison in central Bhutan, he has recently been moved to the Central Police Prison in Thimphu.

Does Rizal have what it takes to lead the refugees back to Bhutan? A refugee teacher who knew Rizal since childhood says, "He has charisma and obvious honesty. He has the ability to bring unity among the refugees. But I do not think he had the theoretical grasp to put forward the design of the new Bhutan after we go back."

So, the BNDP and BPP are not on talking terms, either in Kathmandu drawing rooms or in the Jhapa camps. Regardless of their different approaches, however, neither party has yet succeeded in breaking the impregnable diplomatic and media barricade that Thimphu´s master diplomats have erected around themselves.

"So far, exile politics has reflected our upbringing in Bhutan. In the beginning, we had no political culture, knew nothing about forming a party, or about ideology. So, we have been learning," says Dr Bhampa Rai of HUROB. He is concerned that sooner or later the refugees will become pawns in party politics of Nepal. "Nepali politicians must look at us refugees – not as Leftists or Democrats, but as Bhutanese. When we go back, then of course we will divide along where our ideologies lie."

Ratan Gazmere is despondent about the state of exile politics. "The PFHR we started was to have been a non-partisan organisation fighting for human rights. Coming out, we find that refugee politics is steeped in power struggle. Those of us who have just come out see it as our prime responsibility to bring people together, to have unity, and to internationalise the issue."

Bhakti Prasad Sharma, who was released in December along with Gazmere, says, "The movement is in shambles. There is no united front because an element of ego has crept in." The five erstwhile prisoners, he says, were "very concerned and are talking to each other. The coming months are critical, and the priority should be to return with dignity. We can fight for reforms in Bhutan, but only after we go back. Human rights and democracy cannot go together, one has to precede the others."

Bringing up the question of human rights and democracy, Sharma has put his finger on one of the principle issues up for discussion. The political crisis in southern Bhutan, coming as it did soon after Nepal's successful "peoples' movement for human rights and democracy" of April 1990, suddenly thrust political novices forward as refugee leaders. These leaders picked up the terminology presented to them by the Kathmandu tabloids. The Bhutanese problem, too, became, simplistically, a movement for human rights and democracy. Whether this was realistic, was a different matter.

BNDP's R B Basnet, one of the senior bureaucrats who came out in 1991, has no doubts, "Political reforms are necessary to guarantee human rights. It is not possible to have respect for human rights in the absence of democratic institutions." This might be true, but the word 'democracy' is as anathema to Thimphu´s aristocracy as it was to the Ranas of Nepal in the 1940s. It is unlikely that the Druk Gyalpo would be as amenable to opposition demands for democracy as Nepal's Sri Panch was in the Spring of 1990.

The pages of Kuensel amply demonstrate how remote the Thimphu rulers are from accepting the one person, one vote principle. In October last year, Foreign Minister Tshering asked the Tshongdu not to be confused with the anti-national's campaigns against dress, language, custom and religion. They had "a much more deep-seated, long term objective", which was "the introduction of multi-party democracy".

Once democracy was introduced, warned Lynpo Tshering, the Lhotshampas would be in a position to form the government in Thimphu and take over the country. The combination of "ethnic demands" for constitutional monarchy, multi¬party system and proportional ethnic representation in the National Assembly and the Cabinet, he said, would be "a highly lethal one for the Bhutanese monarchy".

King Jigme says that he does, ultimately, when he thinks the time is right, wish to relinquish the heavy burden of monarchy. In nearly a dozen interviews over the last two years, he has said in almost identical words, "I do not think that monarchy is the best form of government. I would not oppose democracy as long as I am fully confident that the political changes are for the greater good of our people." Between a King who says he wants democracy, but not now, and a Foreign Minister who says never to a multi-party democracy, there is very little room for negotiation by the parties in exile.

The militancy in southern Bhutan, some of which took place with the apparent acquiescence of the BPP, was just the thing Thimphu needed to blow the issue out of proportion. While a few of the militants who infiltrate the border areas might have links with the BPP, others seem to have been acting independently. "These could be unaffiliated youth who are seeking revenge for evictions, lootings and torture and rape of family members," says Om Dhungel, a civil servant who recently came into exile.


Some of this low intensity militancy appears to be occurring still, providing Thimphu authority with further public relations advantage. Both BPP and BNDP claim, however, that the Kuensel has gone overboard in blaming every robbery, murder and accident that occurs in Bhutan these days on the ngolops. Indeed, Bhutan no longer has crimes other than those committed by us "anti-nationals".

"If these are infiltrators, would it not be more likely that their victims would be Drukpa? How is it that most of the crimes are against defenseless Nepali peasants?" asks BNDP´s Basnet. He believes that much of the mayhem is the work of undisciplined units of the Royal Bhutan Army and Police. Many refugees in the camps maintain that the Bodo, known to them as Meche, as well as Nepali and Bengali goonda hooligans from India are taking advantage of the lawless situation created by the government., Many recount reports of dungpas and "chamches" threatening "to let loose the Meches" on Lhotshampas who refuse to leave.

"The use of violence by infiltrators and the burning of schoolhouses was a massive blunder," says a Western ambassador who is accredited concurrently to New Delhi and Thimphu and believes that Lhotshampa militants have been active in the South. "The government might have exaggerated the threat, but we are not in a position to judge how much."

What is intriguing about the militancy, actually, is how little of it there is considering who Bhutan borders. Adjacent lies the extreme leftist hotbed of northern West Bengal; the Bodo insurgency hugs the southern jungles; and the radicalised cadres of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) are a stone's throw away in the Kalimpong sub-division of Darjeellng district. Besides, the Duars are populated by sympathetic Nepali-speakers who could provide all the cover and protection militants might need.

In January this year, Dawa Tshering told pressmen in Dhaka that "radical groups like communists, leftists and Naxalites in India and Nepal were partonising terrorists against Bhutan. This is not the picture one gets as the refugees continue to file out meekly as a government asks them to leave their land. Lynpo Tshering likes to recall the image of "the martial Gorkhas", but the specimen arriving at the camps by the hundreds each day in cramped truckloads is that of a poor, confused peasantry that has no energy left to fight.

Nepali Police Sub Inspector Horn Jung Chauhan has been manning the Karakbhitta border checkpost since the refugees started arriving in late 1990. "You cannot expect any militancy from this lot," he says. "These villagers come with long khukuris slung down their sides, but their sahaas (strength) is gone. Sometimes I ask them in exasperation, why this timidity?"

Lhotshampa militancy clearly is long on rhetoric and short on action. The 1988 pamphlet Bhutan: We Want Justice, produced by the PFHR group in Birtamod, was hardly timid when it warned that "… a whirlwind of rebellion will shake the hills of Thimphu and bring down the rising towers of terrorist power…We shall hold on to our religion, our culture, our language and our land with our ´TEETH´. We shall fight until we win."

This bluster was also present in loose talk by BPP cadres of "revolution" and the impression created of a well-organised military operation. "We do not even have money to eat, where would we buy the guns and ammunition," asks one member. Being a loosely run organisation, it is possible that the party has its share of ´wild cards´, but the BPP´s General Secretary Pradhan forcefully denies that his organisation has ever espoused militant violence.

Such protestations have little effect against the proven ability of the Thimphu propagandists to reach the media with the proper "spin". Lynpo Tshering told the Statesman in January this year that sophisticated weapons were being brought "all the way from Afghanistan and Peshawar for use by the BPP terrorists against us."

A person who was at Garganda when it still housed large numbers of refugees says that at one dim- he did see 100 or so guns, "but practically nil of them were antique muzzle-loaders."

Even the little Lhotshampa militancy that is occurring might peter out as the BPP, too, takes the high road of diplomacy, and as news spreads of free rations in the refugee camps in Nepal, courtesy | UNHCR. But there is every likelihood that militancy bred of frustration will ignite, and much more dangerously, if a negotiated return of the refugee population looks remote.

Blind developers

Aid agencies love Bhutan because here in the eastern Himalaya, at last, they have found the one country that might yet prove that the ´development´ they propagate, works. Here is a land that is exotic, backward, with a benevolent monarch, a Westernised bureaucratic elite, under¬populated, but with ample resources.

UN agencies, bilateral donors, and international NGOs regard Bhutan as a laboratory to prove their legitimacy, and the brochures they all bring out are tinged with wonder. In February 1992, UNDP´s Chief William Draper waxed lyrical about Bhutan leading in "sustainable development" and providing a model for others, quite unmindful of the fact that the factors that come together for Bhutan (history, climate, green cover, population and geography) do not for most developing countries. One Western ambassador who was recently in Bhutan conceded that, "The aid agencies have great sympathy for the Drukpa point of view, not because what they are doing is right, but because their culture is threatened."

Bureaucratic efficiency and the buzzword "absorptive capacity" does make Bhutan unique and attractive for development planners. In addition, the Bhutan´s well-paid bureaucracy is practically incorruptible in comparison to those of the rest of South Asia.

In the absence of resident embassies in Thimphu and the extremely controlled access to malleable media, the aid agencies are the world´s ears and eyes to Bhutan. Unfortunately, they are as good as deaf and blind. Too busy praising the activities of the Government, their influence on events in the south has been near-zero.

An aid worker, who requested anonymity for fear of losing future contracts with an aid agency, accuses the Thimphu-based international staff of UNDP, the World Food Programme, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation, of complacency. "If someone in the staff drafts a report on the southern problem, it is invariably diluted before it is transmitted to headquarters. I cannot fathom why development agencies, whose mandates is humanitarian, continue to act like ostriches." she says.

Although NGOs and volunteer service workers tend to be more concerned than the international civil servants of the UN. they do not speak up for fear that an irate Government would terminate their programmes. Which agency will take up the role of the mouse that bells the dragon?

The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia, Switzerland, Germany and Canada, all have development volunteers active in Bhutan. The international NGOs are Helvetas of Switzerland and Save the Children US and UK, while there are also several bilateral development agencies such as DANIDA of Denmark, GTZ of Germany and FINNIDA of Finland.

The inaction out of Thimphu contrasts sharply with the development agencies in Kathmandu, which are directly and indirectly supporting the refugee efforts in Jhapa.

With its commanding presence in Bhutan as the lead agency, the inaction of the UNDP office in Thimphu is curious. According to Lhotshampa counterparts as well as officials of some aid agencies in Thimphu, UNDP´s Resident Coordinator Terry Jones, a Briton, has failed to be assertive with the Government. Even though he arrived in 1990 after the problems had begun, Jones has had ample opportunity to understand the nature of the events in the south, especially when his own Bhutanese staff members leave house and hearth to end up in the bamboo thatches of Jhapa, If there is any back-door lobbying being done in Thimphu and at UNDP´s New York headquarters, the result is not obvious.

Like Jones, practically every expatriate in Thimphu has his or her own experience with Lhotshampa colleagues and counterparts who have been relieved of the jobs, sidelined, or harassed into exile. Conversation at Thimphu expatriate gatherings tends to center on the southern problem, with about equal numbers supporting or questioning the Government policies in the south. Many of those who are disillusioned vent their frustrations when they come to Kathmandu.

Although UNDP´s efforts, if any, are still sotto voce, it did publish in 1985 a booklet entitled The Case of Bhutan which identified potential problems. The booklet, prepared by the Danish United Nations Association, speaks of "the danger of growing regional inequality"   and calls for "development planning in favour of the more densely populated and poorer Southern and Eastern parts of Bhutan… Regional difference that are connected with linguistic, ethnic and religious differences in Bhutan might otherwise develop into a challenge to national unity and social harmony."

One outcome of driving out the Lhotshampas is already evident there is as hostage of mid-level professionals to man government services and development programmes. The projection is for an acute shortage of labour, especially as the implementation of the major infrastructural works under the Seventh Five Year Plan get underway. Already, the hospitals in Thimphu are understaffed A plan to induct Indian workers under contract might work in the short term, but even Drukpa administrators have been known to concede that high lander Nepal is make better labourers in Bhutan.

One aid agency reports that the departure of a number of government staff ("counterparts, colleagues") has affected development work in the country. The Bhutan People´s Party (BPP) claims in. a pamphlet that "already 3,000 civil servants including professionals, skilled and technical manpower such as doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses, agriculture and forestry personnel have been forced to leave the civil service." The party demands that international volunteers be withdrawn as they are being used to substitute for evicted Lhotshampas.

Before the Aid Bhutan Roundtable was to meet in Geneva on 8 March to make pledges for the Seventh Plan development projects, Foreign Minister Tshering suggested that the southern problem not be brought up in Geneva as there would be little time and the ´technical delegation´ would not be able to answer questions. Tshering asked instead that the Delhi-based representatives of the donor countries and agencies meet prior to the Roundtable to hear a report on the southern situation.

This was a master stroke, for it meant that already-sensitised Delhi-based diplomats would be present rather than the more senior delegation in Geneva. (Even ambassadors of the same country but based in Kathmandu and New Delhi tend to have differing perceptions on Bhutan. The Delhi view generally prevails.)

At the pre-Geneva meeting in Delhi, when Tshering was asked about the south, recalls a diplomat who was asked about the south, recalls a diplomat who was present, "he replied that the problem was not very acute. He was very open in his answer, and we all went away satisfied." In Geneva, according to a refugee who has read the Bhutanese delegation´s report to the Government, Switzerland and Germany did raise the matter of human rights violations, but this apparently made no impact on the actual pledging.

Thus, at the very time that the Lhotshampa exodus was at its peak and the death rate from a meningitis epidemic was the highest in the refugee camps, Bhutan was presented the largest aid package it has ever received. Even Lynpo Dawa Tshering expressed surprise at the windfall: "…We did not expect so much pledging." And the lesson he drew from it, as reported by the Telegraph, was that "Bhutan´s image remained untarnished in the international community despite the attempts of Nepali-speaking agitators to project the Royal Government in a poor light."

Otherwise, too, development programmes have been stepped up by the donors. New countries are offering development assistance, while other increase their commitments. GTZ is going ahead with new plans, much to the unhappiness of some Nepal-based German volunteers. According to one expatriate development worker in Bhutan, the Dutch and the Danes have significantly raised their ODA over the past year. The ADB has too upped its disbursements slightly, while the World Bank has started new programmes.

To give the donor governments some credit – particularly Austria, Denmark and Japan – they did shoot down the Government's funding proposal for a 'Green Belt' a couple of years ago. The plan was to evacuate a one-kilometre swath of forest right along the southern border with India. The plan was sold as an environmental project, but the donors got wise to the fact that the maximum concentration of Lhotshampa population is in the proposed stretch.

Nepal's problem

The refugees who come down to the roadheads in the Assam Duars and Jalpaiguri are told to turn right and to head for Nepal. For a cut, agents arrange for further passage and the families make their payment of IRs 4,500 to IRs 4,800 per truck, inclusive of bribes to police and officials all the way to Jhapa. It is a day-long journey across fields, forest and tea plantations to the Mechi river, across the border, and to the junction town of Birtamod in Jhapa. The trucks unload their human cargo and promptly head back to Daadghari in Assam for another load.

The problem is now Nepal's, a country most Lhotshampas regard as the original home country, but a place most have never visited and where few retain familial links. The Lhotshampas make up the largest refugee population ever to come into Nepal. For Nepal's insular elites, who have never had to confront problems of identity that most Nepali-speakers outside Nepal have, the Bhutanese influx has been unsettling. Here are thousands upon thousands of individuals that clearly look and speak like Nepali peasants (except for some distinctive Drukpa mannerisms and speech), but who do not regard themselves as Nepali citizens. While Nepali migrants have for long been leaving for muglan, this is the first time that such large numbers have returned as refugees – to a mother country that is over-populated and full up.

The eastern Tarai district of Jhapa is actually made up settlers: Nepali highlanders from Taplejung and Panchthar districts, as well as Burmese refugees who arrived in the 1960s, when General Ne Win implemented his own Bhumiputra programme.

There are already about 65,000 Lhosthapma refugees living in the Jhapa camps, and a few thousands more living outside in Nepal and in India. With assistance now available from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more refugees who have been staying in India are expected to arrive at the camps. If the present rate of evictions in Bhutan continue, says UNHCR, there could be between 100,000 and 130,000 refugees out of Bhutan by year-end.

Acting host to a refugee population in the most politically volatile corner of the country, Kathmandu sees it in its interest to send back the refugees as quickly as possible. Thimphu, on the other hand, seems to be banking on the hope that the longer the refugees stay away, the greater the chances that they will assimilate into Nepal's (and India's) larger population and stay away.

Other than going to war across 100 kilometres of Indian territory, withdrawing landing rights to Druk Air at the Tribhuvan International Airport, or refusing entry to Drukpa (mostly Sarchop) pilgrims to the holy places of Kathmandu Valley, there is little that Nepal can do to directly influence Bhutanese policy. If India is not to help, the only option available for Kathmandu is to try and blemish Bhutan's Shangri La image with an international campaign. Even this, it has been unwilling to do for fear of ruffling feathers of the Indian eagle.

And so, for a year, Nepal tried Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's "Quiet Diplomacy", Through this period, several attempts were made to discuss the matter with the King Jigme and his Foreign Minister. Thimphu's tactic has been to sound conciliatory and ready-to-act, but then to let the matter languish. Even a month's inaction means another few thousand Lhotshampas more are out. Every window of opportunity must be utilised as Nepal dithers on going public.

There is, of course, no question of where the Nepali Government's sympathies lie. Prime Minister Koirala has revealed that he was personally involved in the establishment of the Bhutan State Congress, which led a short-lived agitation for Nepali-speakers' rights in the early 1950s.

Nepal's quiet diplomacy has involved Prime Minister Koirala and Foreign Ministry emissaries talking to their counterparts in Thimphu and Delhi. At the SAARC summit in Colombo, Koirala broached the subject with King Jigme, who was most reassuring and said the problem should be solved "through contact". As soon as Koirala arrived in Kathmandu, he sent off a letter stating that as of 31 December 1991 the refugees numbered 6,000, and let us do something about it. There was no response till March, by which time the number in the refugee camps had swelled to 25,000.

On 29 March 1992, the Nepali Foreign Secretary Narendra Bikram Shah was dispatched a letter to the King. He came back with a reply that King Jigme would himself send an envoy. That envoy, T. Topgyel, arrived the following week, by which time another 5,000 had arrived, bringing the refugee figure up to 30,000.

Thimphu's argument through all of this has been that the refugees come from elsewhere, not Bhutan. In response, Nepal has suggested that a joint commission be set up to investigate the authenticity of refugee nationality, with UMHCR's and India's help if Thimphu thought it necessary. Says a Nepali Foreign Ministry official, "The basic proposal is bilateral. It can be expanded to include any other party, including India, if Bhutan so desires."

Since Thimphu again chose to prevaricate on the proposal sent back through T. Topgyel, the Nepali officials who went to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in early June had the intention of confronting the Bhutanese delegation. But the latter stalled, with the King's sister Ashi Sonam Chheden refusing even an informal cup of tea in between environment and development sessions. One Bhutanese diplomat did accuse a Nepali official of being parochial, however. In Rio itself, Koirala brought the matter of Bhutan up with Indian Prime Minister P.V .Narasimha Rao, who contacted the Bhutanese King and relayed back to Koirala the response, which was that the King and Koirala were in close communication, and they would solve the problem between themselves.

(When Nepali officials at one meeting referred to the presence of thousands of Bhutanese in the camps with citizenship identity cards, the Thimphu counterparts said their printers in Calcutta had proved to be crooks and were flooding the camps with fake ID cards. When the Nepalis invited the Bhutanese to discreetly bring in forgery experts to check the authenticity of samples, there was no response from Thimphu.)

In order to salvage its credibility, and with the monsoon session of Parliament coming up, Koirala's Government decided finally to end the phase of quiet diplomacy. In his opening address to Parliament, King Birendra announced the Government's desire to work towards a return of the Bhutanese refugees to their country "with dignity". An all-party meeting was held on 7 July, which agreed on a three-pronged strategy: Koirala was to continue to try to make direct contact with Thimphu, if that failed to seek the good offices of India, and if that too fails, to internationalise the issue.

Following the all-party meeting, the Prime Minister sent another letter to the Bhutanese monarch. A response is still awaited. Says one Nepali official, "If even this fails, we must remind India that Nepal is now a multi-party democracy, and this refugee problem has the potential of bringing great instability here, which is hardly in India's interest."

If India proves reluctant to use its clout in the months ahead, the official says that Nepal will reluctantly "go international". He says, "Since under the Bhutan-India treaty, India is Bhutan's guide on foreign affairs, we in Nepal must respect that position and try and work through India. But if Nepal's own internal-security gets jeopardised by a hundred thousand refugees, we have to do something."

Internationalising the issue could mean anything from quietly approaching influential Western countries, broaching the subject at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, or bringing it up at the next SAARC summit. One option, which Kathmandu probably will not choose, is to try and garner international support in order to get an item inscribed on the agenda of the UN General Assembly, when it meets in mid-September.

The West's un-response

If Nepal cannot utter a squeak for fear of India, what about the powerful Western countries that selectively are so keen in standing up for human rights? When human rights were trampled in Nepal in early 1990, the international concern was enormous, and decisive. Pressure was brought to bear on King Birendra: threats to cut the aid pipeline, letters from United States senators, even a warning from the World Bank. In Bhutan's case, the scale of suffering is immeasurably larger than Nepal's in 1990, and in addition there is a forced mass exodus in progress.

A senior Western diplomat in Kathmandu says that Western countries have only begun to respond to the humanitarian aspects of the Bhutanese refugees, but a policy level change has yet to occur in any of the individual capitals. "On the merits, Bhutan would have a difficult time trying to justify its policies, but it is getting away with it. You have one country solving its population problem dumping refugees on another country which is not even on its borders."

The diplomat ascribes Western inaction to several factors: "Bhutan's isolation, the fact that it does not have diplomatic relations with many countries, the exotic aura that surrounds the country, the 'Buddhist lobby' in the West, and the lack of media attention. Official visits by diplomats are strictly controlled and the Western journalists try not to be too critical because, so they say, they want to be able to get a visa when things 'really get bad'."

At one time, Bhutan was keen to move out from under India's foreign policy umbrella by inviting more resident embassies in Thimphu. That today only Bangladesh and India maintain resident embassies has become a blessing in disguise. Lack of diplomatic relations and lack of in-country representation are two main excuses by Western inaction on the southern problem.

And so Nepal remains the only country to have broken the silence on Bhutan. Germany and the US, for all their pre-eminence in world affairs today, have less influence on Thimphu than even Norway or Switzerland. Partly this is an instance of not trying hard enough. Even without diplomatic relations, influence can be exerted through the control of UN agencies and the World Bank. The outcome could be decisive.

India's soft spot

It would be disingenuous of India to imply that the problem of overpopulated camps in Jhapa is a bilateral one between Nepal and Bhutan. The refugee population enters India before ending up in Nepal. It is also Bhutan's public claim that most of the refugees have their origins in the Indian northeast. New Delhi has yet to acceptor counter the claim. Also, interpretation of die 1949 treaty which formalised relations between the India and Bhutan would indicate that India is treaty-bound to try and help sort out the problem. Article II states that "The Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations."

Neither does New Delhi seem too perturbed over the presence of refugees in India, particularly in Jalpaiguri. Nirmal Bose,a prominent politician the district and close associate of Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, has no doubts. "Who says there are no refugees in India? I can tell you that there are 25,000 to 30,000 Bhutanese refugees in the Duars, And more will come, there is a serious human rights problem. Nepal and Bhutan must sit together, and India should be associated with these discussions," says Bose.

India's support for Bhutan takes different forms. At the Geneva meeting of the Aid Bhutan Roundtable, it was after New Delhi took the lead in pledging U$ 300 million that the other donor countries and agencies followed through with the additional U$ 570 million. Every time King Jigme visits New Delhi, he comes back with a gift project or two. India also spends, for obvious strategic reasons, crores of rupees annually to maintain Bhutanese highways.

The economic subsidies that India provides Bhutan ensure that commodities are cheaper in Bhutan, and shortages are rare. The residents of Jaigaon in Jalpaiguri regularly cross over to Phuntsholing to buy cooking gas, kerosene, sugar and other essentials. There is no rationing in across the border.

Most intriguing is the question of extra-territoriality. A Bhutanese Army contingent is allowed to camp in Kalimpong to guard the Queen Mother. According to reports, in early 1992, the Queen Mother refused to renew the lease of a mansion that the liquor company Shaw Wallace was using as guest house. When Shaw Wallace brought up the question of tenancy rights, the Bhutanese contingent went over and had the premises vacated at gunpoint. The has submitted a writ application in the Calcutta High Court against the Government of India for failing to provide protection.

On June 1992, a phone call from Thimphu to New Delhi was enough to activate the Indian military. An Indian army officer and three jawans, all armed, enter Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim and disrupted a meeting of monks. The meeting was discussing the reincarnation of the new Karmapa to head the Kagyu order, of which the monastery has been the center in exile since the Chinese takeover of Tibet. One of the monastic factions is known to be close to the royal family of Bhutan.

With acts and omission, therefore, the Indian government seems bent on keeping Thimphu happy. Why? First, it apparently has no intention of nursing another Sikkim to maturity, perhaps even for the heavy economic burden it would entail in keeping an annexed population happy. Secondly, India would like to retain Bhutan as an effective buffer state on its sensitive northern border. A sedate, pliable monarchy is always preferable to a rowdy, and Nepali-dominated, democracy. Thirdly, New Delhi is counting on Bhutan's cooperation in not providing safe haven for Bodo insurgents, who are reported to camp in the jungles of southern Bhutan.

But the most important reason to want to maintain the status quo as long as feasible seems to be the fear of the "pan-Nepali" clout. While the "Greater Nepal bogey" as presently propagated both by Subhas Ghising of Darjeeling and Foreign Minister Dawa Tshering is just that. New Delhi is, nevertheless, cautious.

Says a perspicacious academic from Siliguri, "With democracy in Bhutan, there will be one more pocket of Nepali sentiment. You already have the Nepali nation-state, the district of Darjeeling, the state of Sikkim, the Duars with its concentration of Nepali-speakers – and with Bhutan you would have another Nepali-dominated nation-state. Without anyone having planned it, this mix might be too volatile for New Delhi to stomach.

B.S.Das, a former Indian envoy to Bhutan, warned in a 24 June article in The Pioneer that the dangers of' 'Maha Nepal' were real. "Bhutan's stability and the balancing structure, which its ethnicity provides, is important for India from several angles which can easily be defined but cannot be stated."

Whenever it is beneficial to stoke New Delhi's fears, Lynpo Dawa Tshering calls in the media and spins a story of illegal immigrants entering Bhutan as part of a well-planned strategy (the strategist is never identified) to create a 'Greater Nepal'.

Thimphu leaves no pebble unturned to keep Indian diplomats happy. When Indian Foreign Secretary J. N. Dixit and his spouse Vijaya flew into Thimphu in early June, writes Tarun Basu of India Abroad, "the Bhutanese accorded him a welcome befitting a head of government (with) a ceremonial welcome complete with red carpet, siren-blaring pilot cars and a squad of crack Royal Bhutanese guards who formed a ring around him wherever he went. The State Guest House, where the Dixits stayed, was festooned with multi-coloured flags and bun tings, and King Jigme Singhe Wangchuk, along with his four wives, was host to the visitors at lunch."

The Economic Times reported that Dixit assured his hosts India would use its influence to stabilise the situation in its southern districts by not only increasing policing on its border with Bhutan "to check illegal Nepali immigration", but also to advise Kathmandu against "doing anything to destabilise the situation in the region."

David and Goliath

Bhutan's success in handling the media belies the fears expressed by Sunanda K Datta-Ray in a much-quoted 1990 article in the Statesman headlined "The Phoney Crisis: Propaganda War Against Bhutan". Wrote Datta-Ray: "But for all its inconsistencies, untruths and half-truths, its criminal conduct and treasonable aim, the agitation has decided advantage. With their implicit faith in the national ideal, the King and his advisers cannot match rebel stridency. Monarchies are out of political fashion today, and ethnic minorities very much in. The Bhutanese monarchy may be additionally handicapped by a conscious decision to keep the world at bay. Because of geography, compounded by the deliberate cutback on tourism, international opinion has no independent assessment to fall back on as the cry – however false – goes up of human rights in danger in yet another of the world's tucked away countries. The reality of Bhutan, serene, warm-hearted and gentle, is far less familiar even to most Indians than the raucous demonstrators… Simple trust is always a disadvantage when faced with shrill propaganda."

Datta-Ray mourned too soon. He underestimated the ability of the King and his advisers, who in retrospect hardly seem handicapped.

On the one hand there is a government that has the resources, the energy, and the ability to influence world capitals. On the other is a refugee population whose voice is as feeble as their numbers are large. The refugees do not have lobbying power of Thimphu's authorities, and the only government that would come to its aid, Nepal's, does not dare offend India. The only media that is sympathetic, again Nepal's, has little credibility and clout worldwide, particularly on matters Bhutanese.

It is a measure of what the refugee leaders are up against that even at this late stage the question of credibility remains. Foreign diplomats in Kathmandu were still asking, in August 1992, if it is true that most of the refugees in the camps are from Meghalaya. That Thimphu has the capability to act cruelly is considered remote.

Who is a Bhumiputra and who is not? What makes a man a son of the soil? If you have not invaded a territory but instead have settled unpopulated lands upon express invitation, is that enough to gain nationality? Or can you be at the mercy of later generations of rulers who decide that they have changed their minds, and they want back the territory that you developed?

Is there a chance that the Nepali-speaking refugees will assimilate and melt into the Nepali diaspora? The longer the return takes (and as hope fades), the more likely that the Nepali-speakers will be absorbed into the larger populations outside Bhutan. In the short term, however, assimilation is unlikely. Opportunities in Nepal are limited for the majority peasant refugee. Most have lost their roots in Nepal and would not know where to go, and the Nepali economy does not hold out better prospects than would the Bhutanese economy if they were to return. There are no more forests left to clear and settle down, as was the case when the Burmese refugees came over three decades ago.

So, while a few well-to-do refugees have already bought property and a small number of professionals have gravitated towards the Indian cities and Kathmandu, where they would make do somehow in the event of no return, the bulk of the exile population will tarry in the camps, living on UNHCR rations, waiting to go home.

As of this writing, it appears that a turning point on the "Question of the Bhutanese Refugees" – as problem might be titled if it ever manages to get on the General Assembly's agenda-might be reached soon. In fact, the next few months look crucial for a breakthrough. The electronic media, which is so important in these days of satellite television, has finally started showing up at the camps. With the UNHCR having certified the Lhotshampas' refugee status, it will be harder for Thimphu to point the finger at "Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachat…" Lynpo Tshering, when he calls in journalists for exclusive interviews, will find that the questions are harder, less fawning.

Some human rights organisations have begun lobbying with the Human Rights Commission, and a group of eminent Southasian jurists recently issued a report that is sharply critical of Thimphu and calls for action by "the governments and peoples of SAARC." Even if belatedly, the refugee leaders have begun to turn their sights on New Delhi. A BPP delegation just visited the Indian capital, and the BNDP has been distributing a memorandum to Indian parliamentarians. But the going will be tough. For the refugee leaders, mostly senior to mid-level former bureaucrats and school teachers, are up against the amenable presence of King Jigme, ably supported by Dawa Tshering, the master in the art of making friends and influencing important people.

Interestingly enough, Thimphu itself might decide to come sitat the negotiation table. For one thing, as the number of refugees creeps towards the 100,000 mark, it is certain that even the sleeping giants of the West will begin to sit up and take notice. One hundred thousand might also be Thimphu's secret threshold beyond which it will ease up, because that is the number of "illegal immigrants" it claims to have discovered through its re-census programme.

Also, the diplomats of Thimphu are much too astute not to know that for the international media, it takes just a twist of the pen for the headline to change from "The Peaceful Dragon" to "The Dragon Breathes Fire". Once the Shangri La aspects of Bhutan are used up, and once television viewers tire of clouded cliffs and archery contests, the attention will surely shift to the refugee camps and close-ups of citizenship ID cards bearing King Jigme's seal.

Exoticism is something that dissipates quickly with And ostracism must be what Thimphu's ruling elite fears most.

In February 1992, King Jigme told Reuters that "he believed the problem would continue for at least another year but could be solved through "honest, sincere and genuine dialogue." If the King really thinks so, perhaps he could be persuaded not to wait till February 1993. In the refugee camps of Jhapa, there are reasonable men waiting to talk to him. Many are former-officials that he knows well.

The chasm between the Drukpa and the Lhotshampa has been dug deep these past two years, butitis not unbridgeable. If the core group of Drig Lam Namzha hardliners were to be sidelined or scapegoated, the King and the refugees could probably work out an arrangement – firstly, for a quick return, and secondly for a long-term formula of power-sharing in which Drukpa identity is safeguarded even as Lhotshampas gain a satisfactory level of political freedom.\


~ This article was first published in our July-August 1992 print issue. Also read Part I and Part II of the reportage.


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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Himal Southasian