There had been a minor celebration that afternoon at Raj’s house in central Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. A few relatives had gathered to eat cake together – the remains on small plates were still visible in the kitchen when I joined them for dinner in the evening. The reason for their shared joy was a small, off-white card, resembling that issued by any bank. Only this one had the name and picture of Raj’s uncle Vivek on it, and the essential letters CID: Citizenship Identity Card.
Vivek had been stateless for more than 20 years. As many other ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan, he says he lost his Bhutanese citizenship during the uprisings of the early 1990s. Two of his brothers and his parents were amongst the estimated 80,000 people who left the country at that time. They are in the US now, after having spent two decades in a camp in Nepal. For Vivek, missing his close relatives was just the beginning of his troubles. Soon after they fled he was registered by census officials as ‘F5’ (a non-national man married to a Bhutanese woman), and until now all attempts to revive his citizenship had been in vain.
As a result, Vivek had no access to any government job, his children had no access to higher education, the whole family needed a special road permit to travel through the country, he was denied a loan and he lost the right to his family’s land and property in south Bhutan. Time lost cannot be regained, so the kitchen celebration was a bitter-sweet one – even more so because some of those present were still waiting for their luck to turn around. Like five-year old Anuj – Raj points him out: “He is my nephew, born stateless. Both his parents have a CID now, but he does not. We don’t know why.” Such cases highlight how arbitrary the nature of the granting of citizenship in Bhutan can be, with the power to do so still vested solely with the King.
Change, or at least the promise of it, seemed to be in the air for Bhutan’s stateless ‘Lhotshampas’ – southerners, as the ethnic Nepalis are often called, after the region where most are settled. Vivek’s was not the only CID issued to them in the recent years in which Bhutan has developed as a democracy.
Fresh hope arose during the 2013 parliamentary elections – the second since the country made the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy in 2008 – that were held in two rounds in May and July. Candidates of the country’s former opposition, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) promised to resolve the ‘census issue’, as it is known in Bhutan, during their campaign in the southern districts, and these promises were widely covered in the national media. It was even said that some formerly stateless people received CIDs during the campaign, proving for some that the King had been involved behind the scenes in the run-up to the election. Others refuse to believe that the stories of newly acquired CIDs are true, and think they must have been made up by the party in order to win votes.
Indeed, whether the stories were true or not, the PDP pledged in its 2013 manifesto that ‘solving the census issue will be prioritised’ during the first 100 days in office. After more than 50 days in office, however, recently appointed Home Minister Damcho Dorji gave a rather conservative interpretation of how the issue should be solved. When asked how many people are deprived of citizenship cards in an interview with the national newspaper Kuensel on the 9th of September, Dorji sidestepped the question, replying “citizenship issues can be resolved only if we find a lasting solution to the problem of continuing illegal immigration into our country.” Dorji was not pressed to elaborate on the subject of stateless people already living in Bhutan, or if and how the census issue would indeed be prioritised by the government in Thimphu.
The issue was prominent enough to have featured in the election campaign of one party though (although no mention was found in the manifesto of the incumbent Druk Phuensum Tshogpa). While most Bhutanese claim that Lhotshampas with citizenship cards are not discriminated against and participate in all aspects of society, including politics, hardly anybody denies anymore that there is indeed a ‘census issue’. The former Prime Minister has even mentioned it as one of the main issues facing the country. During a press conference in March this year, he said that granting citizenship to people who have the right to it was one of the two top priorities of the King, along with giving land to landless people. “One of the saddest situations to be is stateless. Where there are people whose status is yet to be determined is a sad thing,” he was quoted in Kuensel.
The promises made during the campaign may well have influenced the election result in the southern constituencies, where the PDP won every seat. Ritu Raj Chhetri, who contested the elections on a PDP ticket and is now MP for the Sipsu constituency in south west Bhutan, says that the inclusion of the issue in his campaign “definitely” contributed to his victory. Chhetri, who won with more than 70 percent of the vote, also emphasises that only the King can grant citizenship, but says that it is possible for politicians to appeal to His Majesty on behalf of others. Though Chhetri says this was not done as part of the campaign, he promises to do so as an MP.
“People are looking to resolve this issue now, with an open mind,” says Chhetri. He estimates that there are about 3000 to 4000 residents without citizenship in Sipsu, an area with 12,000 voters and about 23,000 inhabitants. In the whole of Bhutan, he thinks there might be 30,000 stateless people, but when asked about the figure of 80,000 quoted by the international organisation Human Rights Watch, he says this might also be correct. “I think that 30,000 is a conservative estimation.”
There is no public government record of how many stateless people there are in Bhutan, let alone how many of them are Lhotshampas or how many would qualify for registration in the F1 or ‘genuine citizenship’ category. According to the CIA World Factbook, 35 percent, or just over 250,000 out of about 725,000 residents of Bhutan are ethnic Nepalis. Based on the last census in 2005, international organisations such as Human Rights Watch say there are about 80,000 stateless people amongst them.
At the time of the last census, which was conducted in 2005, there were 672,425 people counted, out of which 37,443 were considered ‘floating population’, consisting mainly of migrant workers. Of the 634,982 residents of Bhutan, 552,996 were citizens, according to information given during the 85th session of the National Assembly held in 2006 (a translation of which is available on the National Assembly’s website). That means that almost 82,000 residents of Bhutan were non-nationals in 2005, and according to Human Rights Watch most of them are likely to have been people of Nepali ethnicity. There is no updated estimation, however, and the Bhutanese government has never commented on this number.
Chhetri calls it ‘amazing’ that the issue has not been solved after all these years, especially after a growth in inter-marriage between Lhotshampas and other ethnic groups due to a policy of resettlement which has brought people from all over Bhutan to the south of the country. “The issue has been cancerous,” he says. “Initially it just affected the south, but now it is becoming a national issue.”
The year 2013 has seen a big change, says journalist Rabi Dahal. Because politicians such as Chhetri discussed the census issue so clearly during their campaign, the media was able to write about it. That was not the case during Bhutan’s first elections in 2008, says Dahal, who is himself from the Lhotshampa community.
“Everybody knows at least somebody without citizenship in Bhutan, but earlier we felt, me and other Nepali journalists, that it was still better not to write about it,” Dahal explains, sitting in his office at the Bhutan Observer newspaper. “It was more of a taboo. But people are now aware of their democratic rights, that people who can vote can raise issues.”
“It is with this in mind that people in the south casted their vote,” says Pankaj, a Lhotshampa who voted in the central-southern district of Sarpang. He wants to meet only at a private place in the outskirts of Thimphu. And like Raj and Vivek, he is not willing to be quoted with his real name.
The 34-year-old has had citizenship and the right to vote for several years now, but he knows what it’s like to be stateless in Bhutan, and what it’s like to suffer for being related to people who left during the 90s. He was still at school when six of his seven siblings left the country. Together with one of his elder brothers, who already had a government job at the time, he stayed because they were based in north Bhutan and therefore did not experience the unrest in the south that led to the mass emigration. But along with his relatives, Pankaj’s documents also disappeared. In the following years he studied in India; ironically higher education in Bhutan is largely closed for those without a CID, while travel as far as India is still permitted.
After his return in 1999 Pankaj faced many problems – not only because his relatives were labeled anti-national for having allegedly taken part in demonstrations and having joined a refugee camp in Nepal, but more so because one of his brothers across the border chose not to remain silent about the events that led him there. Even after resettling in a third country he continues to write articles in local newspapers and letters to politicians, arguing that he was forced to leave Bhutan and wants the right to return. “I was registered as F1 [Bhutanese citizen], but still I was not issued a CID-card”, Pankaj remembers about his return to Bhutan. “The reason was my brother. The officials at the census office told me so themselves.” For the same reason, Pankaj was not able to get a No Objection Certificate (NOC) either, which in Bhutan is necessary for higher studies or government employment.
He found a job in the private sector and in 2005 finally received his CID and NOC. When we meet he is wearing a gho, the traditional northern Bhutanese knee-length robe. The Royal Edict that made this the national dress and compulsory wear in and around government buildings and public gatherings in 1989 contributed to the escalation of the unrest in the early 90s when Lhotshampas were reportedly arrested for not wearing it, even in areas away from government buildings. Pankaj claims the gho is no longer a symbol of discrimination or a reminder of the conflict that caused his family to leave. “This is an opportunity to us. If I wear a gho I can show others that I am Bhutanese.”
The past does still haunt him though. “Things have become more relaxed, and most people are not punished anymore for the fact that their family members left the country,” Pankaj believes. But he is still worried, and refuses to specify the country where his brother lives, out of fear of being recognised. He understands what his brother is doing, but explains it would be better for everyone, including his parents who still live in the south of Bhutan, if his brother would keep a low profile. “It is hard, because he would love to come back. But I always request him to remain quiet, to just live his life and quit his attempts to bring his cause on the political agenda there, because we have to live here. In the eyes of others, he is involved in activities against the government here. They might come to me for inquiries, it might affect my status.”
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)
T P Mishra on resettlement and naturalization for Bhutan’s Lhotshampas. (January 2015)
Dawa Gyelmo on how collection of a fungus known as cordyceps, or ‘fungus gold’, generates both cash and controversy. (February 2016)
A short story from Bhutan by Gopilal Acharya. (September 2016)