I have a copy of the declaration of a Bhutanese organisation called the United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan (URFB). Its aims are general in nature, but they concentrate on two major aspects. They are, one, to empower the people as the sovereign power and, two, to restructure Bhutan as a multi-ethnic republic based on the democratic principle of proportional representation. These are lofty political objectives, and the movement will in all probability be crushed by the autocratic monarch.
Bhutan is a multi-ethnic kingdom with seven major groups or tribes of population. They are Ngalong, Sarchhop, Khempa, Doya, Brokpa, Kurtepa and Lotshampa. The last one is a collective name given to different Nepali-speaking people. There are four major languages — Dzongkha (the present official language), Khempa, Tshangla and Nepali. The Bhutanese population is about 770,000, out of which 170,000 are living as refugees in eastern Nepal. The Lotshampas, including the refugees, comprise about one-third of the total population.
Bhutan was once ruled by a benevolent monarch Dorje Singye Wangchuck. But Dorje was succeeded by his autocratic son Jigme who has altered what his father had started and made Bhutan a more traditional system. Dorje had initiated some measures of modernisation including granting some democratic rights to the people and an electoral system. He had introduced a citizenship system in 1958 which recognised the multi-ethnic feature of the people and accepted the children of foreign married Bhutanese spouses as citizens of Bhutan. He had ordained an education system which recognised various languages including Nepali as a medium of instruction. Dorje had prepared a foundation for a gradual but permanent transfer of power from the throne to the people’s institutions. There was inter-communal respect and mutual trust. The government was in favour of political pluralism.
However, Jigme Singye Wangchuck altered the total process of modernisation. His policies became racially discriminatory. He was biased exclusively in favour of the Ngalong community. He not only made the Dzongkha the national language for official purposes, but also the compulsory medium of education for all communities. Other languages including Nepali were denied national status. All the students and people on official work were required to wear the national dress which was very heavy and warm, too torturous for the southern plains which are hot for most of the year. Jigme changed the citizenship law to be very restrictive and did not recognise the spousal of external marriage as the basis of legitimate Bhutanese children.
The government became not only repressive but used brute force to expel Nepali-speaking legitimate Bhutanese citizens from Bhutan. Documents establishing the legal ownership of property were forcibly seized and destroyed so as to declare them illegitimate. People were physically forced to sign papers declaring “voluntary” renunciation of Bhutanese domicile. It was a total attempt at ethnic cleansing, only seen in savage societies in some dark chapters of human history. It has become transparent that the ethnic cleansing was done at the behest of King Jigme. Recently, Jigme has used two gimmicks to show that he is not a power hungry king. He has “abdicated” in favour of his son, and he has conducted an election. But close observers have said that that election was a sham. Jigme’s son is a dummy while real power still rests in the hands of Jigme.
This is the background for the emergence of political opposition like the said URBF. It has given rise to new hopes and new leaders. Such an open air for political action is not feasible inside Bhutan. In this sense, the refugee camps are better than the land of Bhutan for resurgence for change. As a member of the United Nations, Bhutan is supposedly a sovereign country, but its foreign relations are handled by India and Indian advice and guidance is provided for several institutional aspects of the Bhutanese government and administration. Bhutan gets aid for development from India. As such, India not only knows what is going on inside Bhutan, but Bhutan also gets India’s nod for several of its repressive actions. India has not constrained Bhutan from being brutal to its people. For example, all the Bhutanese refugees travelled to Nepal through India “without being noticed”, but when they try to go back to Bhutan to seek rehabilitation, they are halted at the Indo-Nepal border.
Nepal has tried its best to settle the refugee issue and has engaged in mutual discussions with Bhutan, but India has refused to get involved. India could do a lot, but it is pretending non-interference. This non-interference has proved to be more damaging than positive interference for change. India played host to the Nepali Maoist leaders and brokered the 12-point peace deal among the agitating parties for chasing out the Nepali monarch who was far less repressive than Jigme. So it is difficult to understand why India is letting the rabid king bite his innocent people. It is high time India reversed its role vis-à-vis Bhutan. The UN could also play a more active role. But it has limited its role to providing some logistic support to the refugees. The U.S. and other powerful countries could play a very big role in pressurising Bhutan to rehabilitate the refugees. But instead, the U.S. volunteered to resettle 60,000 of the refugees.
In this scenario, the URFB will prove to be too feeble to pressurise the monarch to yield. All the progressive Bhutanese elements will have to unite under one mission — to establish democracy with human rights. Rehabilitation of the refugees will be one major step in this direction. These forces can learn from the recent political history of Nepal. Our king could have saved his throne by recognising the legitimate rights of the Nepali people for self-governance. Jigme can also learn from Gyanendra that adamancy may prove to be too costly. As a writer, I wish the URFB all success in attaining its lofty goals.