The Bhutan State Congress was, fora few years, to make big waves on the placid surface of Bhutanese politics. The Party’s rise and fall is instructive for the study of Lhotshampa exile-politics of today. Inspired by Indian independence in 1947, opposition to the rulers of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan began to organise politically, using the Indian National Congress as a model. The Nepali Congress Party, the Sikkim State Congress, and the Bhutan State Congress were formed.
The Bhutan State Congress was established in Goalpara, Assam, by a group of Nepali Bhutanese ‘refugees’ led by D.B. Gurung, D.B. Chhetri and G.P. Sharma. Initially, the Congress was more like an association organised for redressal of Nepali-speakers’ grievances against the government. Later, however, more serious demands were included in the Charter, including the abolition of Bhutan’s feudal system of Government, democratisation of the administration, granting of civil and political rights, and closer ties with India.
The Congress might have extended its activities clandestinely into the Bhutanese foothills. It claimed to represent Nepali-speakers who, it said, made up 64 per cent of the population. However, it made no serious effort to extend its activities into the higher valleys and to enroll Drukpas as its members. In 1958, the party submitted a petition to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, on his way overland to Bhutan.
The Nepalis, divided among themselves on caste and tribal lines, had settled down in the Bhutanese foothills after strenuous efforts. Many of them, unaware of the democratic, civil and political rights, were not willing to take the risk of losing their land and shelter by supporting the cause of a vague forum of doubtful credibility.
The Congress, after submitting a number of memoranda to the king and passing numerous resolutions from the Indian territory, decided to extend its operation within Bhutan. Drawing upon the experience of the civil disobedience (satyagraha) pioneered by the Indian National Congress, the party sent a body of about 100 “volunteers” to offer satyagraha on 22 March 1954.
The Government of Bhutan, worried of the wild rumours about the intent of the Congress, mobilised the national militia, and chased the activists back to India. It was a fiasco for the Congress. Acting on a request from Thimphu, the Government of India ordered the Congress not to use Indian territory as a base for its satyagrahas.
The Congress shifted its headquarters to Siliguri and kept itself alive up to 1969 by issuing statements to the Indian newspapers. With the Congress’ strength completely dissipated, the Druk Gyalpo offered amnesty to its leaders such as D.B. Chhetri and permitted them to return to Bhutan on condition that they not take part in political activity.
Why was the Congress such a failure as apolitical party? To begin with, Bhutan was under the rule of despotic autocrats, who did not recognise civil and political rights of subjects. Bhutan had almost universal illiteracy and no roads, radios or newspapers. Under such circumstances, it was probably premature to even try to educate the Bhutanese politically. Further, the Congress remained exclusively a Nepali political party and never succeeded in building Drukpa membership. Many Nepali-speakers also failed to support the Congress because it threatened their already-insecure presence in Bhutan.
The Congress’ attempt to identify itself with the Indian National Congress was also bad strategy for the hostile reaction this produced from the Bhutanese rulers. They remembered well that during the time of the second Druk Gyalpo, in 1931, the then Shabdrung had tried to solicit Mahatma Gandhi’s help to regain his lost power. Further, at a time when Bhutan was trying to wrest more autonomy from India, the Congress’ announced policy of closer ties with India made the Durbar oppose it tooth and nail.
The Government of India itself was ambivalent about the Congress, for it felt that stability in Bhutan lay in the continuation of dynastic rule. New Delhi had inherited from colonial rule the policy of supporting dynastic rule in Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim, as that was in the larger Indian interest.