Nepali Times
Southasia Beat
Lhotshampa chargesheet


There was once a fairy tale kingdom in the Himalaya. It had a king who played basketball and promoted Gross National Happiness. But then the king decided to redress what he considered a demographic imbalance. A bhumiputra policy was evolved and implemented harshly. Some 100,000 of the kingdom's population of 700,000 were forced to leave.

The fairy tale kingdom has done well over the years. But it also won for itself a place in the hall of infamy for being the country in the modern era to have evicted the largest proportion of its population. No other state has quite managed to create this level of Gross National Sadness. There is a skeleton in the Bhutani closet that will drag down its history.

It was the monsoon of 1992 that I went down to Jhapa to meet and interview Lhotshampa evictees as they streamed in from Siliguri on trucks conveniently made available by Indian authorities. These were Nepali-speakers from a different era, whose ancestors had entered Bhutan a century earlier as part of the great migration eastward. The rulers of Bhutan were happy to welcome the hardworking migrants of different castes and ethnicities to their unproductive southern hills, for there was revenue to be generated.

Cut off from the developments of the rest of the Subcontinent, including the great changes that overtook Nepal after the fall of the Ranas in 1950, the Nepali-speakers of Bhutan retained much of their old habits, customs and diets which had disappeared from their country of origin. I found this, for example, in the extreme humility displayed by the refugee villagers in front of figures of authority. These were hardly the politicised militants that the Thimphu aristocracy claimed was out to destroy the Bhutanese idyll.

What I saw at Kakarbhitta 13 years ago were hapless villagers who had been uprooted from their homes and property only days earlier by dzongdag administrators from district like Chirang, Sarbhang and Samdrup Jongkhar. They came as peasants who have been violently uprooted would, with wooden trunks, stools, cloth bundles, beddings, kitchen utensils and wickerwork dokos.

This was depopulation. The fears of cultural inundation felt by the upcountry Ngalong community was of course real, for the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa represented the dominant and expanding culture of the central Himalaya. But nothing could justify the policy of intimidation and violence against a people that till then were considered Bhutani citizens. Proud subsistence hill farmers were turned stateless, to live on the dole and suffering all the indignities of a refugee population in the hot and humid plains of eastern Nepal.

They are still there. Over 120,000 refugees, 15,000 families packed into seven refugee camps and supported reluctantly by the UNHCR. It has been nearly 15 years since the terrible exodus, and the Lhotshampa hope against hope for their king in Thimphu to have a change of heart. They wait in the refugee camps, mistreated by their own feeble leaders and ignored by everyone else. Enmeshed in its own escalating political crises, Nepal has been unable to take up the matter effectively with Thimphu, nor with New Delhi and the international community. There was a time when the Bhutani refugee issue was Kathmandu's primary foreign policy concern, not any more.

Western governments who assist in Bhutan's development have been bowled over by the latter's shangri la status, and are willing to turn a blind eye to the inhumanity against a lakh plus Nepali-speakers if that will help Thimphu maintain its image of Himalayan purity. More shocking in the tragic saga has been New Delhi's disregard for the humanitarian aspects of the Lhotshampa casefile. South Block has not lifted a finger to help one of the largest groups of refugees in Southasia, and what tragic irony that they come from the smallest country in the mainland.

Prevarication has been Thimphu's tool over the years in a policy meant to prolong the uncertainty so the refugees will give up and disperse into the Subcontinent's sea of humanity. Stalling tactics have been used every step of the way, and the distraction of Kathmandu's leaders exploited to the fullest. When international pressure forced a verification exercise in one of the refugee camps, and it became clear that nearly everyone counted would be regarded as a Bhutani citizen under international law, Thimphu exaggerated an incident of stone-throwing two years ago to withdraw its team. The exercise has yet to resume.

Bhutan is known to be run efficiently by its Ngalong elite. Everything it does, it does 'well': even the eviction of its own citizens. But the fact is that when you hit 'Bhutanese refugees' in Google, you come away with 340,000 entries. History remembers an injustice done, even if it can't do anything to right the wrong immediately.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)