Bhutanese Identity Under Reformation

A section of the Bhutanese refugees who are untouched by the good of third country resettlement program (Photo : Author)

The Bhutanese population now scattered around the world is undergoing an exasperating struggle of identity, longing, and extinction. The Bhutanese society is no more confined to Bhutan or a geographical location but has reached Nepal, India and the first world countries. Those in Bhutan live in suffocation with their identities acculturated by the Drukpa rulers’ one race hegemony imposed on all the citizens. Bhutanese struggling for survival in Nepal and India live either as refugees-if they are recognized and counted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)- if not are stateless. The third group is the latest batch of people who were purged from the refugee camps in Nepal to the core group countries. They neither have the ways and means to retain their Bhutanese identity nor the flexibility to shun the former and adopt the host identity. The new generation growing up in Bhutan is Drukpa Camouflaged, in Nepal is Nepalized non-Nepali-citizen, and in the first world countries is a chimera of old and new identities that fit neither.

In the 1990s, about one hundred thirty thousand Bhutanese Citizens were purged out of Bhutan through a systematic depopulation exercise carried out to create and retain a sustainable majority of the anti-democratic forces of the ruling regime. The Drukpa Government run by a few elite families in the name of Royal Government of Bhutan (RGoB) designed and carried out a phase-wise expulsion. The counter-effect was immediate. People resorted appealing to the power centers for citizens’ rights. The rulers used the appeal as a tool to sieve the people- those supporting the appeal from others supporting the expulsion. The appeal supporters were aligned against the expulsion supporters. The rapid increase in the number of victims of phase-wise expulsion gave a mass strength to the extent that hundreds of thousands of otherwise silent, suppressed, voiceless people took to streets loudly expressing their discontents. They demanded the end to inequality and introduction of reforms and respect. The mass demonstration that made the power centers insecure was alleged anti-government, anti-nation and anti-monarchy. People participating in or supporting the movement and their relatives were scrapped off their citizenships making them nude of any rights. Most of them were expelled en-masse, others had their citizenships revoked. The expulsion from Bhutan began the internationalization of Bhutanese nationality and their issues of identities in the world. India that separates Nepal from Bhutan acted as a valve facilitating the movement of people from Bhutan to Nepal only. Bhutanese thus landed up as refugees in Nepal.

There were sequences of dialogues and negotiations between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan; both governments denied accepting the people as the subject of their responsibilities. They were treated as the objects increasing friction coefficient between the two states. United States Government (USG) with diplomacy behind the curtains, intervened the deadlocks, scattered the Bhutanese refugees from Asia to different parts of the world in such a way that they never make a majority anywhere. Today, the Bhutanese society randomly crumbled and scattered in more than ten countries is in a transition of identities.

The Identity
Present-day Bhutan was inhabited since time immemorial. But the written history- more especially the publicly available written history – shows the peak of an iceberg from a distance. People moved in from different directions. Most of the written history that has appeared until now had passed the censorship of the rulers and have shaved off the history of the existence of nationalities other than the ruler’s families. The country carries two names Bhutan used by the Bhutanese people, and Druk by the Drukpa people. The world betters know the country as Bhutan. At the present, there are more than twenty different ethnic, indigenous and tribal groups using at least forty dialects and languages. However, ongoing conflict is between the Bhutanese and the Drukpas- both claiming majority. Drukpas by virtue of being in the center of power for the last four centuries has been positioning themselves as the maker and owner of the nation sidelining Bhutanese and other tribal, indigenous and ethnic groups.

National Identity
People passed through civil wars and survived wars with the neighbors. The wars with the then British in India confined the land within a limited boundary giving birth to a state. One state with two names, Bhutan and Druk, came into recognition with present set up of the population with reduced but ongoing migration to and from all  direction. Drukpas ruled over the Bhutanese. Drukpas in power center began a gradual to the forceful acculturation of the nationals of all backgrounds into Drukpahood. The term Bhutan and Bhutanese outstood more flamboyant than the terms Druk and Drukpas. As a natural consensual evolution Drukpas held the power centers and term Bhutan and Bhutanese were used to designate the state and it’s descriptive. While it started as a check and balance that Drukpas got to rule and the country’s name was Bhutan. By being in the power for a long time, Drukpas and people with their phenotypes began to be known as both Drukpas and Bhutanese and separate Bhutanese identity was at stake- fast dissolving. They had to either stay identity-less or rise to prominence. The rulers designed several new identities to name the Bhutanese people. They were called Southern Bhutanese (Lhotsampa in Dzongkha). It meant either the Bhutanese identity was reduced from the national to a regional identity or they were treated as the newcomers yet to be upgraded to Bhutanese by default. Rulers positioning themselves as the only native of the land began to see other citizens as latecomers, lesser citizens, unequal citizens, competitors, and enemies. They began to demand an absolute obedience of a master-slave relationship. Drukpas began to act as celestial, God-appointed rulers and considered the Bhutanese as their de facto servers. The plurality of Bhutan was lost to the one-nation-one-people policy of the Drukpa rulers.

Linguistic Identity
Bhutan has millennium old dialects but no native languages. The Drukpas migrated from Tibet with several Tibetan dialects.  Bhutanese have several dialects and use the Nepali language as their lingua franca. Based on the language too, Drukpas began to feel acculturated. New language by name Dzongkha was developed between 1950 and 1970 monde greening several Tibetan dialects and regional languages.  Dzongkha is thus the youngest language of the country. The new language was nurtured forcibly silencing other national languages. Discriminated based on the use of Nepali language, the Bhutanese people were further marginalized from the central power linguistically. In 1953, when the national assembly was formed, four languages Nepali, Tsangla, English, and Dzongkha were used in the parliament. Nepali was removed from the official usage; from school curriculum since 1990 and from the parliament since 2008. Even today, people speaking Nepali language are marginalized. The power-holders consider Nepali an invasive language and have designed to control its usage. Dzongkha is promoted as one of the two official languages- the other is English- and the only national language. Several high-level positions in powerful policy-making bodies are reserved for the native Dzongkha speakers thus sidelining other languages as unimportant and non-national. The sentiments of other language speakers are never considered. The rulers profess and enforce that all people accept Dzongkha happily after renouncing their own traits. The concept of equality is that all people must act like Drukpas to feel and be equal. Dzongkha means the language of the palace dwellers. The law demands the people who live outside the palace follow the language of the palace- the Dzongkha.

Acculturation if Not Expulsion
A wave of democracy in the world and rise of political consciousness in people made the rulers wary of democracy and the rule of the majority. The rulers had been enjoying the privileges based on the birth. The rulers’ families, though it is said to have a celestial beginning, actually rose to the power centers through bloodiest and the most merciless civil wars, hooliganism, deception, murder and brutal control over the vanquished. The present rulers who inherit the roles and responsibilities of their forefathers to rule also inherit the legacy of bloodbaths and the rule of tyranny. As they reap the benefits from their ancestral harvest, it’s also their duty to correct their forefathers’ mistakes. Should people get a fair opportunity to select their leaders, they would select people of their phenotype, language, culture and background than the people born to certain families. This concept is a threat to the people enjoying higher position in the power pyramid based on the birth in the families accepted as close by the rulers. The need and fear of majority come to play. The power holders and power-privilege holders would be a minority among the minority. They didn’t want to surrender their privileges. They categorized Bhutanese people into seven categories as per their ‘divide and expel’ policy and asked them to leave the country phase-wise according to their whimsical classification. Only the Bhutanese people were categorized for expulsion. The Drukpas began to promote the ethnic nationalism. They were crowned as the only Chauvinist nationalists to save the country and Bhutanese people were targeted as intruders, colonizers, and parasites to their benefits. Drukpa youths were instigated, brain-washed, and supplied with arms to expel their fellow citizens. Families were divided and members of a family had to leave the country in different phases.

Bhutanese people asked their representatives and influential leaders closer to the power centers to intervene on the categorization and expulsion. The power centers took the appeal as a hindrance to the expulsion. The leaders were given ultimatum either to support the rulers or leave the country. The people’s representatives and local leaders had to choose between the loyalty to tyranny to remain in the country and enjoy the privileges that came from the mercy of the rulers or support the voiceless, suppressed, marginalized people and share their fate. Bhutanese society was split into two- loyal to the power centers and loyal to the people. Those loyal to the people were expelled from the country. The result was what the powerful ruler had wanted. Both the splits of Bhutanese society were the losers. The rulers didn’t allow the Bhutanese people loyal to the power centers their freedom. They had to adopt the rulers’ language, culture, costumes, and customs. The Bhutanese culture, their language, tradition were banned. Drukpa traditions, language, and culture were enforced through one-way legislation. Those who were expelled landed in neighboring India and were later dumped into Nepal citing the proximity of the language they speak. It wasn’t a mass migration for a better life but a rampant run for lives. The people in power assume the role of a sole owner of the country and impose their hegemony to replace the identity and even the existence of other weaker communities, minorities, and groups. The minorities in Bhutan are living a disguise life. They present themselves before the powerful rulers; express artificial satisfaction at assuming rulers’ identity as their own. They hide the pain of losing their identity with the happiness of imposed false identity. About half of the Bhutanese people remained in the country at the cost of their identity. They have sacrificed their cultural identity at the altar of the power hegemony. The other half of the population that landed up in the exile as refugees had their identity and freedom but no state and rights of a citizen. They became more vulnerable, voiceless and support less. They had to be dependent on donors for survival. The Government of Nepal, under compulsion, was supportive to the refugees.

Nepal Bhutan Diplomacy of Rejection
Both the Nepalese and the Drukpa government refused to accept the refugees. Drukpas had several accusations that the people had left Bhutan on free will, left after harming the country, and were not fit to be the Drukpa nationalists. Besides they emphasized that since the majority of refugees spoke the Nepali language they fell on Nepal’s responsibilities than the Drukpas who has banned Nepali language and imposed Drukpa nationalism across Bhutan.   

Nepalese government that kept changing frequently was adamant on the repatriation for the refugees were Bhutanese citizens and were expelled from their Country. Besides, there are more than fifteen million people outside Nepal who speak Nepali as their first language. If Nepal has to accept other nationalities on the basis of their first language, Nepal would be too small to hold them. Imagine the situation if all Americans with English as the first language are dumped in Britain.

Refugees lived in the camps for a long time. They were pushed to the lowest stratum of the global population. They lost the sovereignty of independent survival. They depended on donors and international support for food, protection and voices. Their dependence made the donors and supporters decide their fate. The supporters and hosts had either to find a way to end the support or nurture them forever. There were fifteen rounds of official dialogues between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan.  The refugees were again categorized as objects. While in Bhutan they were divided into seven categories as the phases of expulsion. With new criteria of verification in the camps the verified refugees were divided into four categories. Thus, by permutation, there are twenty-eight ways to characterize the refugee population. It was done to create complexity in the issue and evade it. All options and strategies failed. The refugees continuously tried returning to Bhutan. Each of their movement for repatriation was prevented by the Indian government in favor of the Drukpa government. Each time refugees attempted to cross India for their homeland they faced interception, incarceration, harassment, torture, and death.

It became evident that the meek, weak, and powerless refugees were influence-less to the extent that if they are kept in the same situation for centuries they would neither make RGoB repatriate them all nor can make the GoN accept them all. It was a cancerous collection of Bhutanese citizens in Nepalese soil. The USG made several short and long-term understanding with the Bhutanese and Nepalese governments to change the status quo of the refugees. They must be taken to different places for exposure, education, awareness, and empowerment to the extent that they can gain strength, power and influence to pave their own destiny, the USG issued messages to the refugees. Once again, the refugees were not consulted. This time they were treated as pets- better than objects. All the doors were closed and one aperture- of third-country resettlement- was opened and refugees were compelled either to use it as an exit or to continue to suffer in the refugee camps. The supplies and support to the refugees were withdrawn further compelling them to resort to the TCR as a Hobson’s choice. In less than ten years more than one hundred thousand refugees were resettled in USA, Canada, UK, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. Initial proposition of the refugee accepting countries grouped with a name of Core Working Group on Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal, in short, ‘Core-Group’ was that the resettlement was a humanitarian assistance and the basis of prioritization would be the vulnerability of the refugees. At the end of the resettlement exercise, the remaining people in the camp are those who are the most vulnerable, less literate or illiterate. The old, sick, disable, torture-victims, crime-accused and those with communication disability are left behind. Those either adhered to the bamboo poles of the refugee huts in Nepal or scattered in Nepal and India have the status of neither citizens nor refugees in a situation worse than that of the two.

Nepalizing the Refugees
Whether the refugees are consulted for formality or not the decisions on the fate of refugees are taken by the government of Nepal (GoN) and the UNHCR. There were attempts from different sections of the refugees- who were divided into different ideological, political, class, caste, race, groups and sectors by different stakeholders and refugees themselves- to preserve and promote Bhutanese identities, culture, and traditions including the national and cultural traits imposed by Drukpa regimes in Bhutan. There were attempts to learn Dzongkha, wear Drukpa costumes, and celebrate the establishment of monarchy and birthdays of monarchs. There was no support from the stakeholders. Rather such moves were opposed or ignored. The children carried from Bhutan or born in refugee camps have to learn the Nepalese curriculum in refugee schools inducting Nepali nationalism in Bhutanese refugees. The GoN that imposed Nepalese nationalism through school curriculums never mulled over availing Nepalese citizenships to the refugees. The Bhutanese refugees Nepalized through education, unaccepted as citizens will have difficulties fitting in Bhutan and they’ll fit nowhere.

A section of the Bhutanese refugees who are untouched by the good of third country resettlement program / Photo : Author)

The people survived under the protection of the Government of Nepal, UNHCR and several other international organizations, as refugees in Nepal. The Nepalized non-Nepalese people are barred from working officially in Nepal. The presence of more than thirty thousand Bhutanese people scattered in Nepal and India- stateless and voiceless- is not acknowledged by the UNHCR. They are the Bhutanese refugees who are either not on the UNHCR’s list or are excluded from the list. There are Drukpa refugees either registered or not registered in Nepal. There may be a solution to the registered refugees. All doors are shut before the non-registered folks. The only option left for the non-registered refugees is to surrender before the nearest government; either the RGoB or GoN, as soon as possible.

Identity in Transition
During expulsion and stay in the camp, refugees were more than often compelled by different forces to shun the Bhutanese identity and take up auxiliary identities.  Several of them were promoted through the division of refugees into groups.  Auxiliary terms such as ethnic Nepalese, when there are no ethnic Nepalese people even in Nepal, Bhutanese Nepalese, Nepalese Bhutanese, Nepali speaking Bhutanese, Southern Bhutanese, and Bhutanese of Nepali origin were used to differentiate and marginalize them from the de facto Bhutanese society. In the new land, their identity is constantly negated to compel them to shun the Bhutanese identity in toto. The Bhutanese identities in core group countries are under threat of extinction for lack of support to nurture them; people who shun the identity and take up new identity are modeled as examples. Still, the people are struggling to establish and adapt to the new environment.

Although the resettled people who pass the strict criteria for citizenship are granted naturalized citizenship, in reality, it is not naturalization but its acculturation to extinction. In naturalization, members of the society in the new settlement have enough individuals to intermarry to continue the identity of the society. In none of the core group countries, Bhutanese have the environment to continue intermarriage and carry on the Bhutanese identity. There is a limited choice of partners for the youth at marrying age. Bhutanese youths who can manage expenses travel to India and Nepal- due mainly to the proximity of identity- to find partners to wed. The situation in the resettled lands is leading to a forced acculturation. The global force has been to make the Bhutanese identity extinct- the sole mission of the Drukpa government. If the core group countries and India had spent on repatriation a fraction of the resources and influence they spend on resettlement, people would have been in their country enjoying their natural habitation. It may take a long time for the people scattered across the globe to come to a united mission of conserving their identity and securing their rights- if at all. The world history is yet to conclude if the identity of Bhutanese people- a minuscule population on the globe- vortexed in an international political churner cuddles or transforms into cream. One of the distinctive characteristics of the weakest and the most vulnerable section of the human society is their lack of collective decision. It is always easy to influence and fragment weak, poor and marginalized population. This weakness is capitalized by the rulers and stakeholders with vested interest to divide such a population and impose their agendas and missions.  Bhutanese refugees were not spared. They were divided into multiple fragments, segments and units. Refugees got divided on the basis of ideologies, consciousness, family names, families, religions, phenotypes, languages and beliefs to the extent that even caste-biased discrimination, untouchability, and religious fanaticism rose to dominance. Refugees got regrouped into as many, small groups as possible and often played against each other. The fragmentation continues in the resettled countries. It will continue until the point the majority of the people gain awareness, socio-eco-political strength and greater identity consciousness. The Bhutanese people scattered across the world are at the lowest strata of population in resettled countries. They have multiple challenges to overcome to adapt in the new environments. It is not sure how long it takes- if at all- for the people to be aware that they are being divided at others interest.

Political Identity
Bhutanese people had a long quest for and awareness of democracy, democratic values, and the peoples’ leadership. Their political consciousness was a threat to the Drukpa families in the power. Political parties are banned and political leaders, activists, and cadres are either silenced or they escape into exile. Political parties were formed in the 1950s and in 1990s by the Bhutanese people. The parties have the names Bhutan- such as Bhutan State Congress (formed in 1952), Bhutan Peoples’ Party (1990) Bhutan National Democratic Party (1993), Bhutan Gorkha Liberation Front (1993), Bhutan National Congress (1994), and Communist Party of Bhutan (2003).

Since 2005, the rulers began to choose people of their bastion and gave them consents to form political parties. They had to be Druk-named, Drukpa based, and Drukpa led. The Drukpa parties such as Druk Phensum Tshokpa, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, and Druk Chirwang Party were permitted limited political exercises inside the country. There were two exceptions in the names. Bhutan Kuennyam Party and People’s Democratic Party are both Drukpa led and Drukpa based parties, one has Bhutan and other has neither Bhutan nor Druk in their names. Not all Drukpas have the privilege if they are not related or loyal to the power centers. Drukpas not related to the power centers and those who speak for the mass, marginalized and suppressed people lose their privileges. Two parties formed with Drukpa leadership and Druk names namely Druk National Congress (1994) and Druk National Congress- Democratic (1998) are not recognized in the country on the pretext that they were established without prior consent from the rulers. The political parties must submit absolute devotion to the ruling regime, never question the higher authority and on that condition, they are permitted to seek the mandate from the people. The rulers have decreed the ruling parties to work against the expelled people and the opposition to maintain silence on the issue. The limited opportunity to form political parties and collect mandates from the people came from the power centers. The opportunity is conditional- only regime supporters can have it. The rulers have been instrumental in mobilizing voters in favor of the party they want to get elected. Two governments were formed after the introduction of ‘one adult one vote’ parliamentary system introduced in the name of democracy in 2008 in place of ‘one family one vote’ system that existed before. Both the governments continued the ‘one race one culture’ policy of the earlier racist regime. The Drukpa identity has shadowed the Bhutanese identity.

Bhutan has become a laboratory to study how one minority race in power for a long time develops mechanisms to keep the majority under its dominance and commands obedience. Racist groups across the world are funding the research for a holistic strategy to apply in their countries. The Bhutanese people, Drukpas sidelined and ruled by the power centers, enslaved citizens and victims need awareness of the reality and options to overcome them. The people have to struggle against the multiple suppressive and divisive factors – nationally and internationally for their nationality, rights, and identity- from the lowest strata of the global population by rapidly up-scaling their awareness.

Govinda Rizal, the contributing editor of the Bhutan News Service, is the author of the book ‘A Pardesi in Paradise’.

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