Bhutanese refugees and the politics of Third Country Resettlement


The long pending issue of the repatriation of Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin, who were housed in the UNHCR-sponsored refugee camps in the eastern Nepal districts of Morang and Jhapa since early 1990s, was “resolved” to many by the Third Country Resettlement proposal put forth and being carried out by countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and the Netherlands. As of now, a sizable section of the refugees have been resettled in these countries, with a majority of them now living in the United States.

These Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin were expelled from Bhutan in the early 1990s as a result of the state sponsored Bhutanization drive epitomized in the promulgation of Driglam Nam Za (code of social etiquette) in 1989, which stipulated strict controls over the people of Nepali origin who inhabited the southern districts of Bhutan.

The Driglam Nam Za was the culmination of a series of draconian laws that included the Citizenship Acts of 1977 and 1985, the Marriage Act of 1980, which were enacted keeping the people of Nepali origin in mind. These anti-Nepali measures were met with opposition from the people of southern Bhutan . The organized resistance offered by the people of Nepali origin led to their expulsion from Bhutan . Subsequently, more than 125,000 were expelled from Bhutan in the wake of the Bhutanization drive.

The people of Nepali origin in Bhutan are one of the three major ethnic groups in the country. They form around 30 percent of the total population of Bhutan, which is 750,000 as per the latest statistics. The other two ethnic groups are the Sharchop(24 percent) and the Ngalong(16.5 percent).

The Ngalong are of Tibetan decent and form the ruling elite. They are the inhabitants of western Bhutan. The Sharchopbelong to eastern Bhutan and are extremely backward. The Ngalong follow the DrukpaKagyuppa sect of Mahayana Budhism and speak Dzongkha. Due to their pre-eminent position in the country’s socio-political domain, their religion and language are accorded the position of state religion and national language, respectively.

A growth in the number of the people of Nepali origin and their cultural distinctiveness from the ruling elite became a cause of worry for them. The heightened political consciousness among the people of Nepali origin compounded the fears of the Ngalong ruling elite. The integration of Sikkim with India in 1975 and the role played by the Nepali population in Sikkim further increased the imaginary fears of the Ngalong. The developments in the Darjeeling region, in which the Nepalis there played a central role, also added to the already existing fears of the Ngalong ruling elite towards the people of Nepali origin.

The movement against “foreigners” in the Indian state of Assam in the 1980s provided the ruling elite of Bhutan a model to address their imaginary fears. The anti-Nepali laws and Driglam Nam Za were possibly the result of the impact of the anti-foreigner movement in Assam. The slogan of the Bhutanese state — “One Nation, One People” — during the Bhutanization drive proclaimed the intention of the Ngalong dominated state to initiate an exclusive nationalist project in which the people of Nepali origin have no place.

In the last 20 years, Bhutan has undergone many changes including transforming herself from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy and became a “democracy” from above. However, while undergoing these changes Bhutan has not changed a bit her policy towards the repatriation of the refugee population located in the UNHCR camps in eastern Nepal. On the contrary, it has created many hurdles in the process of resolving the refugee problem amicably despite the efforts of Nepal.

India maintained an indifferent position towards the issue of Bhutanese refugees throughout this period. Though the refugees repeatedly requested India to take initiative in resolving the problem as the Nepal-Bhutan talks regarding the repatriation of them reached a dead end. However, nothing concrete came out from the Indian side. This was mainly due to India’s reluctance to annoy Bhutan, her only all-weather friend in the neighborhood. Also India feared that her involvement will pave way for China to intervene in the issue and further complicate the already fragile security and strategic atmosphere in the eastern Himalayas.

The diplomatic deadlock between Nepal and Bhutan and India’s non-involvement in resolving the problem created the opportunity for the international community to step in. The context of the proposal of the Third Country Resettlement is that. The proposal for Third Country Resettlement came as a blessing in disguise for Bhutan, Nepal and India as it will definitely ‘resolve’ the refugee problem without affecting their interests and concerns. For many refugees, mainly young people, it offered new opportunity in rebuilding their lives, though the older lot among them was not in agreement with this thinking. The socio-psychological impact of the Third Country Resettlement on the Bhutanese refugees is something to be visible in the course of time.

The proposal for Third Country Resettlement in effect, in this particular case, turned out to be a rejection of the right of repatriation of the refugees. This is going to have serious implications for the resolution of various refugee issues pertaining to different regions of the world. International community, instead of making arrangements for Third Country Resettlement, must put pressure on the concerned parties to facilitate the process of repatriation for the resolution of refugee problems. As far as refugee problems are concerned, repatriation not Third Country Resettlement is the only meaningful solution.

(Mathew Joseph C. is a Reader at the MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)


  1. The author looks to be running his pen just out of blue and for nothing. With no any substantial opinion, ideas or solution, the lines simply appear to have copy-pasted from one of our essays…….Moreover, it is too late to advise on the fate of Bhutanese refugees as most of them have already started new lives in different parts of the world..

    Nashville, Tennessee

  2. The proposal for Third Country Resettlement in effect, in this particular case, turned out to be a rejection of the right of repatriation of the refugees. This is going to have serious implications for the resolution of various refugee issues pertaining to different regions of the world. International community, instead of making arrangements for Third Country Resettlement, must put pressure on the concerned parties to facilitate the process of repatriation for the resolution of refugee problems. As far as refugee problems are concerned, repatriation not Third Country Resettlement is the only meaningful solution. What does he want to convey? Is he questioning his Indian Government? Is he giving suggestions to Nepal and Bhutan? Did he talk anything about Bhutanese refugees before the resettlement program start? Just copy past does not make sense.

  3. Dear editor,
    May I know the reason as to why my comment was not published here?


    Editor : We were unable to approve some of your comments looking at use of some offensive words. We highly encourage dignified comments for public digestion. Thank you for your concern.

  4. The article outlines strong ground realities of the issue and provides noteworthy critical facts and introduces some new ideas such as Thimphu’s inspiration originating from Bodoland issue in Assam, heightened political awareness of the Southern Bhutanese and India’s reluctance to take substantive stand for the people. My observation is India’s strategic interest in the Himalayas vis-a-vis China predominates any other issues.

    India also has eminent interest in exploiting hydro-power resources in the mountains before it can turn its eye on its own capacity and would not worry of insignificant issues such as the non-Bhutanization of Nepali population. The author also rightly identifies Bhutan’s fear of going Sikkim way with the demographic disproportion it was tending to move in the early 1990s.

    I am particularly impressed that he is probably one of the first Indian intellectual who seems to have recognized the issue of marginalization of Southern Bhutanese after Prof. Sinha of North-Eastern Hill University who recognizes and writes about the Southern Bhutanese issue. Another Indian intellectual who knows well about the refugee problem is Dr. Mahendra Lama who is the Vice-Chancellor of Sikkim State university now but have not read any of his articles recently on this issue.

    I am impressed that the author is probably the first Indian scholar to acknowledge openly India’s reluctance and indifference in helping to resolve this issue. I do not think that India needs to play any role now when it is too late.

  5. Dear Editor,
    “comments looking at use of some offensive words.”

    Can you prove this? Common,Sir, it is high time you found out what are offensive words! There was nothing in my comment that could lead to a sour stomach. In fact, the comments above are harsher than mine.
    In other words, do you mean BNS is a platform where any Tom Dick and Harry could publish any redundant plagiarized articles. If so, I have no qualms. But for the benefit of BNS and our people, let us update ourselves a bit.
    Thank you
    Nilik, London

  6. Wow! What is this intellectual […] History has shown that intellectuals, many a times, prey on the common people /general mass. Calling themselves intellectuals, they minimize other people’s self esteem in public gathering, writing and so on. Those who are learned and yet they are not consumed by their intellectual ego and who continue to contribute to the society and the knowledge itself are the true intellectuals, I believe. MJC’s article is a summary of many articles written by Bhutanese in exile, Indians, Nepalese and Westerners. Just because a University Reader writes it I don’t think it becomes an intellectual paper, does it? This is putting down other writers as if they were not written intellectually. Personally for me, if MJC had visited Bhutan, studied the issues, taken some photographic and video evidence, conducted some interviews, then I would have accepted his story as unique piece.
    India has millions of intellectuals, I suppose all democrats, and yet they couldn’t speak to their government to have a friendly political talk with the Bhutanese government and people in distress to find a good solution to the emergent political situation of Bhutan in 1990 and later, if not then, the refugee problem. Intelligence! Did it help? There is an Indian conscience problem. This is a big assertion but still it is a humble one. Neither the Government, nor the intellectuals of India rose up to talk about the Bhutanese problem. What hurts me most is even the general democratic mass of India slept in indifferently when so much happened in their neighbouring and friendly country. It has been sad for me that I always called India as the biggest democracy in the world until one day I asked myself REALLY? This was when I heard India saying that the Bhutanese Refugee problem was an internal Bhutanese Matter. I would have accepted that, somewhat, if the problem was inside Bhutan only but it was international when people were scattered outside the Bhutan’s international boundary. I could write more but this is just a comment!

  7. My dear editor,
    What do you say about the comment passed by Achamva? Don’t you find it offensive by your definition?
    Very good, Achamva; absolutely true!
    I have lot of respect for BNS and, as its vivid reader and a well wisher myself, I also have much expectation that it steadily matures and at least comes to a minimum standard where it recognizes things like criticism, insult, offense, abuse, misuse…. etc. clearly, so that any positively motivated feelings find way in it.

    Thank you

  8. @ robert, Roonal, naran,achamva,
    Hi guys what do u think about this article? You think rubbish right? You all r bullshitting about it …dudes. The writer has aptly pointed the issues that needed to bring about. U know this is in tune with the time. I see all the reason that this article elevated and busted the Bhutanese spirits. Our refugee issue is one so the ideas and reasoning is same and always revolves around the issue. What u guys expect form such intellectual and scholars to feed you with? Something about the green mountains and the life style of the drukpas in the hills or what else. Dear dudes, he being an Indian had a great feeling towards us this in itself a good ideas, India despite, thwarting and repealing our movement not just one but numerous times in the past n they will do it in the future as well. To avert this I think this kind of sentiments from the Indians national is of paramount importance and it might help to shift its long term thinking.

  9. This is a very plain article that reiterates much of the things that have been already said about the southern Bhutanese. I think he has a book on Bhutan too. I agree with achamva that, Indian intellectuals(?) apart from a few were not even sympathetic to our cause.

  10. This is a good POST MORTEM article that gives place for RIGHT JUDGEMENT of the matter in question. Some resented it being too late in place from INDIAN side but I do not find it different from other earlier narrations of the intellectuals and the original versions of the VICTIMS. This as third party observation so to say confirms to the same truth.
    The game seems to be NOT OVER and might enter into new phase later at convenient time; drawing the attention and probable involvement of various parties that now opted to keep the issue in pending expressing incapability or hoping to see natural settlement to the silly issue of a nation…

  11. @Shyamber Sharma
    Lack of clarity and mix up of oranges and apples in your comment, I have difficulty understanding what you are trying to say to me. Nonetheless, I like to let you know that the article is a simple summary or a plain reiterates as RP Subba puts it. I am trying to say that we don’t have to call it an intellectual paper as other commentators. It can be called, may be, a little a gutsy one. I have praise for the writer for writing it. Intellectual no! And that does not mean he is not intelligent, he is, that’s why he is holding an important portfolio. I really think if the intellectuals of India feel deeply as the words of MJC demonstrate then they should write to their government and general mass to do something about this twenty year old tragedy of Southern Bhutanese.

  12. Most of the comment in this story seems like all commentators are well known with Bhutan and the greatest writer is a foot walker.Some describe as plain article,some repeated,some ,some other stuff,Do you all know that the writer is a well known columnist for South Asia?? Can any of the re-settled can compare with him???What a shame???My former fellow citizens??? Shyamber Sharma,R.P.Subba,Achamve and many more,your dream towards Bhutan is something like you all are trying to plug your drean out of your standard.