Bhutan, wrote the American scholar Leo E. Rose back in 1977, is about as “data-free” as it is possible for a polity of over 300 years old to be. This paucity of reliable data extends most significantly to population, and is said to hamper study of Bhutanese society, as well as the political claims made by the Drukpa and Lhostampa leaders.
S.K. Pradhan, General Secretary of the BPP, however, is of the view that accurate population data exists but is kept secret by the Government. “For example, because the 1981 census showed a Nepali majority, they suppressed the data and decided to hold a re-census in 1988 using new criteria.”
When Bhutan joined the United Nations in 1971, it provided a made-up population figure of 1.2 million, apparently in order to be able to gain more per capita foreign aid. Projections on that base figure now would have the population over the 1.4 million mark. A year ago, King Jigme sheepishly conceded to interviewers that the population was no more than 600,000. Refugee leaders, while agreeing that the 1.4 million figure is too high, maintain that the real figure is somewhere in the range of seven to eight hundred thousand. At the same time, they use the 600,000 figure to accuse the Government of attempting to depopulate a sixth of the country’s population.
The breakdown of the population is equally problematic. According to the Government’s estimation, Ngalungs make up 20 per cent of the population, Sarchops 37 per cent, and Nepali-speakers 30 per cent. In an interview with Reuters in February 1992, the King said 28 per cent Bhutanese were of Nepali origin. The data favoured by Bhutan People’s Party is: Ngalung 16 per cent, Sarchop 31 per cent and Nepali-speakers 53 per cent. An international agency’s estimate of 45 per cent Nepali-speakers gives perhaps the more accurate figure, in between the Lhostampa and Drukpa claims.