Bhutan’s native Hindus: A forgotten story
19 July 2012
The stories of our ancestors, the Nepali-speaking predominantly Hindu people, can be remembered from as early as 1624 AD. Since then at least, we have lived in Bhutan as Gorkhas; then in 1958 we were officially designated as Lhotshampas, Bhutanese citizens living in the southern part of the country.
Bhutan’s first organized census began in 1964, as part of a process of preparation for admission to the United Nations; it also helped to mobilize citizens between the ages 18-56 years for national infrastructure building in different regions. The local administrations were fully involved in the census, and the National Assembly resolved to maintain strict vigilance over the first countrywide census. The Royal Advisory Councilors were assigned to supervise the census and ensure coverage in all the regions. It was thus carried out with due verification and certification by the councilors to avoid bias and unauthorized census, whereby unanticipated flaws may result.
Bhutan’s Home Ministry established the Department of Registration, which decided to issue Citizenship Identity Cards to all Bhutanese nationals. So they conducted a second organized nationwide census in 1977 based on the evidences of the first census (1964-71) and distributed
Citizenship Identity Cards to all Bhutanese nationals in 1981.
Then suddenly, the Bhutan government promulgated the Citizenship Act of 1985, which came into force in the 1988 census. It required that for a person to be qualified as a Bhutanese national, both parents had to be Bhutanese. The old criterion of fatherhood was no longer valid. Worse, since this act was given retroactive implementation, all children born between 1958 and 1988 to non-Bhutanese mothers were declared as illegal immigrants.
In the meantime, the census operation required families to produce land tax receipts of 1958, and all those who could not produce the documents of 1958 were listed as illegal immigrants. Their citizenship identity documents were seized by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which came into existence in 1968.
At the same time, contrary to what the government alleges, no Bhutanese can be registered for citizenship without owning some landed property. The stronger part of the law is that without the approval of the King, any person occupying a vacant land shall be illegal and punishable by confiscation and imprisonment. To summarize the situation, the Lhotshampas issued with the Citizenship Identity Cards are genuine and bona fide Bhutanese citizens. The changes brought about by the fourth monarch have severed the farsighted vision and achievements of his noble father, who had put wholehearted trust and confidence in the Royal Advisory Councilors, District Administrators and Parliamentarians, all of who represent the people and the government simultaneously.
Amidst this entanglement, Bhutan began campaigning to world community of its “Gross National Happiness” with per capita income of US$835 (2002) on a population of little over 650,000. Following pressure from various donor agencies and the international community, Bhutan expanded the cabinet by ten ministers in 2002, gradually resulting in the proclamation of flawed ‘Constitution’ and dawn of an incomplete democracy in 2008.
Despite independent India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru’s Paro public address in 1958 that assured Bhutan a sovereign state, and Smt. Indira Gandhi’s statement on Bhutan not to compare its status with that of Sikkim, the regime continued to look at its Nepali-speaking citizens with suspicion and evicted the innocent bona fide southern Bhutanese. Though we were forced to remain in the refugee camps in Nepal under the protection of the UNHCR, our expectations were always from New Delhi.
The resettlement program began in 2008, following the failure of bilateral negotiations between the two friendly nations of Nepal and Bhutan. Although nearly 60,000 Bhutanese have been resettled in different western countries, the remaining population is still waiting to get repatriated. Personally, I strongly believe that third country resettlement is not a permanent solution as it was never a choice of our people.
I may add that the regime’s atrocities are not confined to Lhotshampas only. The Sharchokpas, inhabitants of mostly the eastern part of the country, who are predominantly followers of the Nyingmapa tradition of Mahayana Buddhism introduced by Guru Padmasambhava in the early seventh century AD, have been perpetually suppressed and deprived of their social, economic, cultural and traditional rights.
Eventually, the pro-democracy forces from eastern Bhutan organized a peaceful demonstration in support of human rights and democracy in 1997. But the government reacted brutally with armed repression and closed down 16 institutes of Buddhist learning of the Nyingmapa teachings and the students were sent back to their homes. A monk was shot at point blank by the district chief, who went unpunished, while the Chief Abbot was imprisoned for eight years. Many others faced rigorous prison terms for merely raising their voice for the right to freedom of their own religion. Those of the families who escaped the vicious grips of the regime’s armed forces had to join the refugee camps in Nepal for safety and sustenance.
India is the world’s largest democracy, and we appeal to the Indian people and the Indian Government to take strong initiatives to help repatriate the Bhutan refugees back to their original homes in Bhutan and thus solve this refugee problem and the resultant social and political instability it is causing in the region as a whole.
Dr Rai is chairperson, Bhutanese Refugees Representative Repatriation Committee; the article is based on a presentation at the Symposium on ‘Bhutanese Refugees: The Tragic Story of the Forgotten People’ by Human Rights Defense (India) in New Delhi on 14 July 2012