Aggregating Identity in Bhutan


Recent political changes in Bhutan have given rise to public debates on several issues pertaining to Bhutanese national identity, including the status of its official language, Dzongkha, which otherwise would have been impossible. Questioning the relevance of any Bhutanese symbols under the absolute monarchy was certain to land you in jail. Discussing their usage today is a symbol of the healthy democratic culture that Bhutan is trying to adopt.

Propagation of Dzongkha took place in a closed society under absolute monarchy. Adoption of Dzongkha as the national and official language of the country had not been a consensus decision arrived at by multilingual Bhutanese society. A section of Bhutanese intellectuals had raised questions as to its relevance as the national language since its adoption but this voice became weaker over time. The only answer given to such resistance to the adoption of Dzongkha was that Bhutan must use a single language owing to its geographical and population size. Additionally, kings and their coterie on many occasions have said that Bhutan could not survive its diversity – either in ethnicity or in languages.

It is not the size of a country that matters while selecting national language but its diversity. The Bhutanese population is composed of various linguistic groups dominated by three major ethnic groups – Ngalops, Sarchops and Nepalis, distinguished basically by their linguistic differences. No linguistic survey has yet been conducted but there are estimates that over two dozen languages are being spoken in Bhutan.

Using a single unifying language is not necessarily a problem in itself. The real issue is what methods are used to select it. What were the criteria for selecting Dzongkha as the national as well as official language some four decades ago? Until that day, most official correspondences were in Nepali. Generally, selection of the national language or official language is based on the proportion of population speaking it. It is universal practice that a language spoken by a clear majority of the citizens is granted the honour of national language and/or official language. Dzongkha had not been a language of the majority at the time it was given its current status. It was and is Tshangla lo, the language of the east, that dominates the Bhutanese society. Absence of a written script means that Tshangla lo cannot work as the official language. Of late, some Sarchops are promoting its Romanisation.

Debates on the status of Dzongkha as the official and national language of Bhutan have sparked furious responses that these objections are only aimed at the promotion of Nepali. Besides Dzongkha, the only language spoken in Bhutan having written form is Nepali, though the growing Indian population and penetration of Bollywood of late has made Hindi increasingly popular.

A country can have more than one national language. As such, Nepali, Dzongkha and Tshangla lo could be the national languages of Bhutan. However, it is necessary for a linguistically diverse country to have a single common language for communication that works for all linguistic groups.

According to an assessment of a former general secretary of Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (BCCI), it is Nepali that most Bhutanese understand, if not speak. Mark Turin’s Digital Himalaya project estimates native Dzongkha speakers to be around 130,000 (including those in Sikkim). If this is so, they are outnumbered by both native Tshangla lo and Nepali speakers. But due to the absence of a linguistic and ethnic census in Bhutan, one cannot exactly claim the native population of certain linguistic or ethnic groups.

Today Dzongkha is presented as the key symbol of national identity in Bhutan. But national identity is not merely a reflection of a particular ethnic group in a country where several communities exist, rather it is an aggregated form of  diverse languages and cultures. Bhutanese projects to achieve harmony through maximising gross national happiness remain impossible while national identity is exclusively presented in the culture and language of western districts.

Dzongkha is taught in schools. Beyond that, learning Dzongkha almost comes to an end. Parents accept that most of their children are not interested in it, considering its lack of usage in higher studies or professions. The social conviction that a person studying Dzongkha will have low social status compelled young people to opt for English as their primary subject. To replace English by Dzongkha as medium of instruction in schools and university will be  a tedious, time consuming and financially unviable job. More precisely it is beyond Bhutan’s capacity. On the other hand, Bhutanese religious institutions do not impart knowledge in original Dzongkha, but in Tibetan Choeki. In both, Dzongkha is a subject of learning thanks only to compulsion.

The difficulty of teaching subjects in Dzongkha is substantiated by the government’s decision last year that the teaching of history was reversed to English again. Educationists and teachers realized that history cannot be taught in Dzongkha. With the unattractiveness of the teaching profession in Bhutan creating a teacher shortage, finding Dzongkha teachers is rare.

Dzongkha is gradually evaporating from urban life and educated households. Urban residents prefer speaking English even in unofficial gatherings where there is a desire to appear more advanced, educated and smart. The elites, high level government officials and politicians prioritise sending their children abroad for schooling or choose private schools where English is given preference. Tactically, this has made Dzongkha a language of the rural folk or urban poor. Elites impose Dzongkha but they don’t use it.

One of the factors creating rural-urban division in Bhutan is the language. Rural folk, who come mostly from Dzongkha background with lesser knowledge in English, are prejudiced against as unskillful, incapable or backward. Students studying Dzongkha have only few reserved quota in government services since they cannot compete in  the general quota.

Dzongkha: Tough to learn?

The hardliners of the Dzongkha movement have not provided alternatives for non-Dzongkha speakers. It’s forceful indoctrination resulted in more hatred for Dzongkha than love for it. Constitutionally, a person is not entitled to receive Bhutanese citizenship without knowing Dzongkha.

Since coining it as the lingua franca, Dzongkha faced resistance from religious institutions. The delayed penetration of Dzongkha into Bhutanese society was due to the tussle between the monarchy and the religious institutions over this language. Lamas continued advocating for Tibetan Choeki, in which most Buddhist inscriptions have been translated.

It seems unlikely that Dzongka will emerge as a lingua franca. The language is not only difficult to learn but also has many shortcomings for its use in daily life in the changed system. As the country’s political scenario changes, Dzongkha cannot meet the demands of political, technological, legal and constitutional vocabulary. Dzongkha cannot survive in its original form if vocabulary importation from Tibetan continues to meet these demands as had been in the case of translating the constitution. Technological advancement has made it more cumbersome for Dzongkha to use its original script, jogyig. The Unicode compatible with Microsoft used today for typing is Ucan, which is not exactly the script for Dzongkha.

The government has made so much effort only to produce a small outcome. In over 40 years of uninterrupted efforts at the cost of state coffers, Dzongkha today receives more hatred and avoidance from citizens than English. Further efforts for promotion might not produce any more substantial result than ensuring its survive as a dialect.

Dzongkha devotees must have realized by this time that Dzongkha is not a convenient language the Bhutanese can hold on to for long, owing not only to the linguistic diversity of the country but also due to non-uniformity in meaning and pronunciation of this language.

The participants during the recent national Dzongkha conference in Thimphu accepted that the national language cannot compete with English. They said that not only the general populus, most acutely the youth, are more inclined to English but even the ministries use English for communication and official purposes. During the preceding conference Tandin Dorji, DDC chief program officer, made a proposal to let Bhutanese citizens be offered a bilingual choice when communicating with or within the government.

Dzongkha changes village to village and efforts to standardise the language have produced poor results. It is worrisome for citizens to know that the desired results are unattainable even when the government allocates a significant budget for its development and promotion. The Dzongkha Development Commission (DDC) is the only institution receiving government assistance for linguistic development while other languages receive not a penny. This is a show of state discrimination towards other languages, which was more genuinely observed during the first ever literary festival held in the country where only Hindi, English and a few Dzongkha texts were recited earlier this year.

The government some years back made it mandatory that all government documents are prepared in Dzongkha and all official letters exchanged in Dzongkha. Today, this formality is met in official documentation where such documents have rare usage in daily administration. Still the cabinet transcribes its decisions in English. Bureaucrats say that letters and notes exchanged in English get attention faster while those in Dzongkha are mostly discarded. The greatest weakness of Dzongkha is, and will be, the lack of written and spoken fluency among senior government officials and politicians.

The effort to inculcate Dzongkha by force is likely to change, at least for toddlers. Changes to the Dzongkha curriculum for classes between pre-primary through to grade III to end rote learning have been proposed. Yet the process has been tedious and time consuming where a teacher is unlikely to handle the classroom teaching. Tedious teaching methods will further discourage the younger generation to learn Dzongkha.

The government efforts for setting Dzongkha in motion took a steady course after finally convincing a section of the religious community that a national language is essential to represent the country, after which the religious community withdrew from the resistance movement. This resulted in publication of the first Dzongkha grammar rules in the late 1980s. Around these years, the government had produced a large quantity of Dzongkha-English books for distribution in non-Dzongkha speaking communities. This was received positively. Many learnt the national language during this particular period.

Publication of Dzongkha grammar and its popularization mission had no direct connection with the expulsion of Nepali-speaking people from the southern districts in the early 1990s though both the events occurred concurrently. However, some people gave a radical interpretation to the promotion of Dzongkha language and culture. Nepali language books were burnt and teaching of the language was banned in southern schools. The furious groups of Nepali speakers in response sparked off tension further by burning gho and kira.

One of the many causes for rejection of Dzongkha by Nepali-speaking population was the unpopular acts of the government. Though northern Bhutanese raise questions as to the acceptance of Bhutanese identity at heart by Bhutanese-Nepalis, they failed to accept their mistakes to dishearten Nepalis by burning their language.

It was not only in the case of Dzongkha that the government failed to treat all languages spoken in the country equally. It enforced as a show that Bhutanese identity meant accepting all that comes from western Bhutan. Dzongkha might have received greater popularity in Bhutan, more precisely in the south, had the government not acted so ruthlessly against the existence of other languages in the country.

Culture will follow language to the grave. Linguistic diversity makes a country culturally richer and one of the objectives of GNH is to keep country rich in its cultural aspects. When Bhutan, as a nation, lobbies at the international forums for preservation of Drukpa culture and Dzongkha, it should also respect the sentiments of other non-Dzongkha speakers who wish that their languages remain alive too. Brokpas, Doyas and Lhapas, the original inhabitants of the country, have already lost their language, replaced by either Dzongkha, Khengkha or Tshangla lo.

The debate is not, and must not be, to ward off Dzongkha as the national language of the country. But the government should accept that Bhutanese symbolism does not solely rest on Dzongkha to the detriment of other languages. The people must be given a choice in their use of language, and the state must not act tough in enforcing Dzongkha for the non-Dzongkha speakers. Bhutan has nothing to lose in supporting the development of other major languages. It will further enhance harmony and unity.

For the purpose of utility however, there must be a debate on the official language. Considering the country’s ethnic and linguistic diversity, the interest of the young people and the open market that we are entering into, the wiser decision for the Bhutanese government would be to accept English as the official language and keep Dzongkha as a national language.



  1. It is a penetratng – thought provoking article by IP Bhai. Bhutan is the only country where the a government is too possessive of only one language – Dzongkha. And by becoming too posessive – it is pushing away even those who would not have objected Dzongkha. IP bhai’s article makes a great sense.

    I have just one suggestion for IP Bhai – and that is to be cautious when using ‘Nepalis’ as an ethinc group of Bhutan. That sends a wrong meaning. We can use, ‘nepali speaking southern Bhutanese’ which will be more appropriate and keeps it free from controversy.

  2. Excellent debate!But it is not correct to use the term ethnicity to define Nepali speaking southerners, Sarchops n Ngalongs.All these r nationalities in multiplicity.I suggest that 3 languages viz:Dzongkha,Nepali n Tshangla lo r to be determined n declared as national languases.Besides,the languages of aborigines n marginalised groups of people should be given privillages for their progress.