The ever-increasing external pressures were bound to crack Bhutan’ s self-image, forcing it to change slowly, though not silently.
Twenty years ago, everybody in Nepal was chanting “Hariyo Ban, Nepallco Dhan”. Today, the ban has mostly disappeared and so has the slogan. In Bhutan, the cycle is just beginning. Thimphu’s citizens recite the Bhutanese version of the same refrain, and a Nepali cannot help but think, “we’ve been through this before.”
It is true that in certain superficial ways Bhutan is today close to where Nepal was in the late 1950s. But there are significant distinctions between the Nepali and Bhutanese development scenarios. Nepal’s ethnic super-diversity, its negligible resources, and its overpopulation do not apply to Bhutan. Merely avoiding mistakes made by the Kathmandu rulers of the past three decades will not guarantee progress for Bhutan’s 13 million people (government figure).
The constant drumbeat among rhapsodising expatriate consultants and gullible Bhutanese bureaucrats is that Bhutan should not and will not make the mistakes of Nepal. Having said that, everyone is smug and satisfied that they have charted a ready course towards the next millennium.
But if the very comparison with Nepal is mistaken, what happens to the misplaced confidence? If the Bhutanese state navigators continue to tread comfortably just because they refuse to make Nepal’s mistakes, then mistakes that are Quintessentially Bhutanese are bound to crop up unexpectedly. And indeed, Bhutan’s challenge has come from another direction: not from the environment, nor from the economy, but from a disgruntled populace.
Even as late as April 1990, the rest of South Asia and the West was contemplating the Dragon Kingdom, Druk Yul, as the last Shangri-La. A modern, youthful and benevolent monarch was guiding his agrarian populace forward, preserving the culture while incorporating the best of modernity.
The ruptures in Bhutanese society that emerged in the spring of 1990 have brought that idyllic preoccupation crashing on the eastern Himalayan slopes. Bhutanese society suddenly lay bare for all South Asia and the rest of the world to see. Sheltered by geography and geopolitics, Bhutan had been able to bask in the warm glow of its own self-image. That self-image was bound to dissipate; only, it is happening earlier than expected.
Two processes were at work which brought the Nepali-Thimphu conflict to a head: the fallout out of “Drik Lam Namzha”, and the success of the people’s movement in neighbouring Nepal, which provided many Bhutanese Nepalis, rightly or wrongly, with the fillip they needed to organise.
Had Drik Lam Namzha, the policy which sought to enforce a code to maintain “Bhutanese cultural identity”, been implemented in moderation, with more sensitivity and less haste, it might have led to a successful and positive “Bhutanisation” of all citizens. But the widespread use of coercion made the Nepalis increasingly sullen. The restoration of democracy in Nepal provided the spark the Nepalis needed to begin their agitation.
Those who write on Bhutan for the outside world have little to go on because there are tight restrictions on information and on travel. Educated Bhutanese are well-known for their reluctance to talk to foreigners, especially writers and journalists. The only exceptions are the of-late radicalised Bhutanese Nepalis in exile. There is little reliable data on the country, from population figures to development indicators. International agencies also have remained over-cautious in speaking their minds about Bhutan.
The lack of information on Bhutan has led to many mistaken perceptions, particularly in underplaying the ethnic undercurrents. As the Nepali-Dzonkha divide has widened, the outsider’s perceptions have covered two extremes: a cruel, repressive Dzonkha elite that is out to wipe out the Nepalis on the one hand, and separatist-minded quisling Nepalis who bite the hand that feeds them at the first opportunity, using the success of democracy in Nepal as a springboard, on the other. Each side paints caricatures of the other. No one will doubt that the Nepalis have grievances, nor should one contemplate Druk Yul as a police state. The truth is always in the middle grey zone, and less sensational.
THE GOOD, GREEN LIFE
No doubt, Bhutan is much better off than the surrounding states, in terms of population density and its natural resources. Thimphu has made great strides in exploiting its hydropower potential for profit. 64 percent of the country’s area is under forest cover, only nine per cent is under cultivation. Flying east from Kathmandu to the airstrip at Paro, one passes over the denuded, landslide-scarred hills of Nepal and descends through the dense woodlands of western Bhutan.
For all its potential to prosper and for all the expatriate-induced confidence among Thimphu’s bureaucrats, however, Bhutan is capable of making the same mistakes as other developing countries have made over and over. And the good life can unravel very quickly. Take Bhutan’s abundant forests: how easily and how quickly they could disappear.
The Bhutanese seem bent on making full use of their forest bounty and the internal demand for wood and wood products is high. Bhutanese are among the world’s highest wood consumers, per capita. The timber-supported indigenous architecture is being revived by the government. All over the country, there are huge fireplaces and the stacks of firewood outside private and public buildings are enough to make a wood-starved Nepali (from Nepal) feel out of place.
Outsiders have started eyeing Bhutan’s forests. Indian merchants are said to be offering three times the local price for Bhutanese timber, and European buyers are urging Thimphu to release timber for export to the Continent. How long will tiny Bhutan’s forests last if it decides to start selling toothpicks and chopsticks to Japan and timber to Europe?
Local wood demand is going to rise in coming decades as population expands. Also, because many Bhutanese do not slaughter cows, goats and yaks due to religious taboos, livestock numbers are increasing. Bhutan’s National Forest Policy (1985) places preservation of forests ahead of economic considerations. The need of the people to use forest produce, if not incorporated into national programmes, could only help speed the destruction of the woodlands.
Many forests have been made accessible through the recent construction of a network of good roads and the destruction has begun from the roadside. The whine of sawmills as they eat into Bhutanese timber is increasingly common. In 1978, the Government nationalised all logging operations and gave monopoly to the Bhutan Logging Corporation, which has imported heavy logging machinery from abroad that can clear forests at an accelerated pace. Bhutan also has a plywood plant that is allowed to clear-cut. The World Bank is said to be working on a plan to “economically and commercially exploit Bhutan’s forest revenue.”
THE PARO RESOLUTION
A recent issue of the Washington DC-based magazine World Watch reported reverently that in May, “an unprecedented gathering of Bhutan’s highest officials sat down to discuss the relationship between environmental health and economic development, and to reconsider their own economic plans. The resulting Pam Resolution was a resounding call for a national sustainable development strategy that will be incorporated into the next five-year plan.” Such glowing development phraseology, the faith in five-year-plans and in top-down resolutions passed by “highest officials”, and the belief in the determinations of parachute consultants are still not passe’ in Thimphu. A slow foreign-aid takeover is in progress. Four out of every five of the very popular Toyota Land Cruisers on Bhutanese roads are driven by expatriate aid personnel. By and large, those who make the decisions look to the West rather than to the more relevant experience of their South Asian neighbours.
Bhutanese, obviously, have to make their own mistakes on the road to development. Today, all resounding calls for action, all eloquent speeches, and studies cite the effects of mismanagement — soil degradation, poverty, malnutrition and deforestation. None dare speak of the causes.
Population-wise, Bhutan is made up primarily of the Ngalungs, the Sarchokpas and the Nepalis. The Ngalungs, farmers of the west, provide the ruling class, and their culture defines Bhutan’s Dzongkha identity to the outside world. They make up 20 per cent of the population. The Sarchokpas, 28 per cent, are people of the east who have more in common with the slash-and-burn tribes of adjoining Arunachal. Across the lower hills of south Bhutan live the Nepalis (45 per cent, all figures are official), migrants or descendants of migrants. Besides, Bhutan also has significant but often overlooked numbers of Doyas, Santhals, Rajbanshis and Biharis. These groups make up seven per cent of the population.
The seeds of the “Nepali problem” of 1990 were sown late in the last century when the British encouraged the Nepali hill folks to move eastward to work on tea gardens and in logging operations. Many drifted into the Doars as well as the low hills of Bhutan and set up homesteads. The Nepalis infiltrated the lower hills that were uninhabited by the Ngalungs, who lived in the high valleys. Inside what was officially a Bhutanese state, they continued to maintain their “Nepali identity”, albeit fragmented under so many caste and ethnic rubrics.
As long as they were politically powerless, their numbers few and concerns limited to making do, Bhutanese Nepalis could be expected to remain quiet. But, as happens with migrants and minorities, they began to stir when their numbers, education and socioeconomic well-being reached a certain threshold. Neither the Sikkim upset of 1974 nor the more recent Gorkhaland agitation had significantly affected Bhutanese politics. However, the success of the people’s movement in Nepal seems to have catalycised Nepali-Bhutanese leaders, both radical and moderate. It is also likely that a few opportunists have visions of a “Sikkimised” Bhutan where sovereignty is sold away in the interest of Nepali “supremacy”.
COCOON NO MORE
The challenge before the Bhutanese state, probably the biggest it has faced thus far, is to address the “Nepali problem” in a way that an acceptable and humanistic solution may be found without jeopardising Bhutanese independence and sovereignty.
One thing is clear. Bhutan cannot remain in its cocoon because of the overwhelming modern pressures — travel, tourism, education, the media, commerce, international diplomacy and SAARC-induced talk of regional co-operation. Only as long as the population remained docile and international and regional events were remote, could Bhutan coast along in its Shangri-La dream-state.
No government can screen out good and bad influences any more. It is best to let the population decide. You cannot have Druk Air flying out of Paro to Kathmandu, Delhi, Dhaka, Calcutta and Bangkok, or send students to study in London, New York and New Delhi, and think nothing will change. It is not possible to welcome tourists (even select, high-paying visitors) and not expect to be affected by the love of the US Dollar. It is impossible to have a large segment of the population that is different from the ruling elites and not to expect political demands. As surely as water flows downhill on the Thimphu Chhu, the challenge of change will have to be addressed.
While the clarion call for cultural preservation is appealing, how does one hold back the floodgates of “modern desire”? Because the government banned television dish antennas to screen out Indian influence, Thimphu’s citizens turned to videos. In reality, Bhutan’s Dzonkha elites and their children seem completely, if superficially, westernised. In private, they prefer stone-washed jeans to the traditional Gho or Kira garments stipulated by the Drik Lam Namzha policy.
KING AND SUBJECTS
There is no doubt that the King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has charted a singular course in trying to preserve Bhutan’s independent identity, tugging at India’s dominant presence, while opening up cautiously to the world. But the forces he is tackling are much too vast: they are the forces of commercialisation, western-style education, technology, videos, short-wave radio, transportation.
Drik Lam Namzha requires the Bhutanese Nepalis to acquire Dzonkha culture. The self-confident, inclusive official attitude towards the Nepalis has disappeared, replaced by an intolerance which is seen in the disappearance of Nepali from all street signs and signboards in Bhutan. Only English and Dzonkha remain.
Unless there is overwhelming economic advantage in doing so, will any group willingly take up another’s culture? Or is “Bhutanese identity” an exclusive preserve of Thimphu’s aristocrats, one that ignores not only the Nepalis of the south but also the Sarchokpa community of the east, and others?
The king told an international news-magazine in late October, “The survival of Bhutan (is) at stake. We cannot have a large population that feels it is not Bhutanese.” Historical forces, good or bad, have landed Bhutan with a large Nepali populace. How are these Nepalis to be made to “feel” that they are “Bhutanese”? Can this be done by forcing them to don the outer appearances of Dzonkha culture? Perhaps “Bhutanisation” would be more successful if the Nepalis of Bhutan were to feel the economic advantages of “being Bhutanese Nepalis” rather than being Nepalis of Nepal or Indian-Nepalis.
The king also stated, “Bhutan’s security and sovereignty can only be secured if we have a closely knit and strong social structure.” The ideal social structure would be one that is as homogeneous as Japan’s. But such a homogenous, integrated culture requires centuries to evolve. If by “social structure”, what the king means is a society closely knit on economic grounds with sharing of resources and political power, such a solution might well succeed in melding Nepalis, Sarchokpas and Ngalungs into one Bhutanese nation — a kind of a Swiss answer (also of three major communities) to a divided population.
Bhutan has to find its own unique solution to the obstacles on the path to equitable development. And it has a distance to travel yet. Today, Thimphu has no bookshop, and the Toyota Land Cruisers have nowhere to go. The sooner the outside world understands Bhutan, and the Bhutanese understand their own country, the better.
Chitrakar is an engineer and writer. He traveled through Bhutan overland from west to east in late October.