Census and Citizenship in Southern Bhutan


The issue of pending citizenship and census status for many southern Bhutanese has once again surfaced in the media. It was during the last parliamentary election that candidates of both DPT and PDP vowed to solve the problem being faced by people in the south for over two decades now. The strongest of all the voices raised seriously was in Dorokha when Tshering Tobgay, the present Prime Minister spoke to them in Nepali during his election campaign for PDP.

But to the surprise of many voters who anticipated the PDP government to take speedy measures, the Home Minister, Damcho Dorji, spewed out the rhetoric of alleged illegal immigration by which citizenship issue cannot be resolved so soon.  His statement for the kuensel dated September 9, 2013 came like this:

Citizenship issues can be resolved only if we find a lasting solution to the problem of continuing illegal immigration into our country. The challenge will be even greater as we become more prosperous, coupled with enduring peace and stability. Our people must therefore realise that any illegal immigration is not only a threat to the security and sovereignty of our country, but also deprives us of various social benefits, as well as economic opportunities. Hence, all of us must be concerned and act responsibly in curbing both legal and illegal immigration. After all, Bhutan is a small welfare country with a small territorial size and a small and vulnerable economy.”

The above stated fact congregates a vague image from a hidden mirror.

‘The rule through Democratic norms–and not by— the coterie of selected people for years and years can only ascend Bhutan towards prosperous and progressive path and represent aspirations of the people”, was, believed to be the main theme of message the fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck conveyed to the people while transforming active monarchical rule to constitutional democratic path. But, Damcho Dorji’s recent  open ended statement says, there is no change in fact but the present system of governance is the continuation of same tactics played under the leadership of the then deputy home minister, Dago Tshering, in August 1990.

The bridge linking these two ends—- rule by selected people and the amateur democracy players, Dago Tshering vs Damcho Dorji, clearly speaks of the acrimonious statement of Aug. 17th, 1990 circular signed by Dago Tshering.

The image of 1990 circular and its version is reproduced here.

A directive issue by the then deputy home minister Dago Tshering
A directive issue by the then deputy home minister Dago Tshering to various five Dzongkhags

“It has come to the government’s notice that a large number of Southern Bhutanese people have left the country to join forces with the ngolops. You are hereby instructed to immediately inform all gups, DYT members and the general public in your dzongkhag that any Bhutanese national leaving the country to assist and help the anti-nationals shall no longer be considered as a Bhutanese citizen. It must also be made very clear that such people’s family members living under the same household will also be held fully responsible and forfeit their citizenship.

I would like to assure you that the government is fully aware of the recent developments and the situation in Southern Bhutan. The Home Ministry will extend all possible assistance to the concerned dzongkhags to look after the security and well-being of both the government servants and the general public.

Dago Tshering
Deputy Home Minister

Copy to:
Dzongkhag, Samchi
Dzongkhag, Chukha (for Phuntsholing Dungkhag)
Dzongkhag, Sarbhang
Dzongkhag, Dagana
Dzongkhag, Samdrupjongkhar” 

Isn’t this circular appearing a secret? The copies sent don’t indicate this circular is made known to any ministries or even to His Majesty’s Secretariat.

For any layman, this perplexing scenario speaks aloud two things;

  1. The concerned citizens whose citizenship status is pending are really worried about the way the Home Minister is becoming irresponsible and apathetic to the long-standing issue of nationality for the Bhutan-born generations in the south.
  2. The present democratic government of PDP is no less authoritative than undemocratic and unscrupulous Dago Tshering’s home ministry.

The latest of the media reports about people’s concern raised to National Council member came on October 31. During his visit to villages of Samtse, Sangay Khandu listened to villagers’ story about how they have been marred while traveling to Thimphu without the citizenship cards.

Yangchen C Rinzin of the Kuensel reported that “villagers said many police checkposts do not allow them to move from one dzongkhag to another”.

One said, in trying to go to Thimphu to process the documents, they were not allowed to cross Rinchending checkpost, 5 km from Phuentsholing.

“My documents are in Thimphu, but I’m here,” an elderly man said. “How am I going to solve my problem? We’d like to request the government to at least let us move freely in our own country.”

Kuensel further mentioned an instance of inhumane attitude of those security persons in the check posts: “In a recent incident, a father was taken to Thimphu hospital in an ambulance,” he said. “But when daughter wanted to follow him to Thimphu, she was sent back, while the father was left all alone in the hospital.”

Ironical and quite disgusting is the remark of NC member Sangay Khandu. He said, “We were never aware about such problems.”

A respondent in Gelephu narrated his story of how the family had once been placed arbitrarily on F5 status for getting a certificate of origin (CO) by the name of grandmother instead of grandfather. He said, “My father was asked to bring CO during the 1992/93 census in order to prove my mother’s side of ancestral domicile status in Bhutan. My mother’s parents in Chirang(Tsirang) were the proof, but that  CO was unwittingly  obtained by the name of grandmother who was not the registered head of household under the Thram (the land registration document). The census officials refused to accept this, although grandfather and grandmother invariably lived in the same household. Our family was put under F5, meaning that we were considered to be of Bhutan, but no valid proof could be produced. I accosted and fought with the local administrative officers in Gelephu later when I could speak Dzongkha and Sarchhop fluently. The name in the CO was corrected again in Chirang, and we were upgraded to F-1 citizen of Bhutan.”

Page 159
Page 159 of Pradhan’s book

“The citizenship or the census status is very often determined arbitrarily by those officers who come for enumerating census, but it depends on how best you can fight with them to claim your genuine status. The language you use also makes difference. If you can speak in Dzongkha, you might be able to win the decision in your favor quickly. But if you speak in Nepali (Lhotshamkha), processing of your paper may be delayed,” he adds.

Three pages, 157, 158 and 159, of Lyonpo Om Pradhan’s – Roar of the Thunder Dragon(a book believed to be written on the king’s advice) speak of how unscrupulous and unprofessional were those people employed by home ministry for carrying out census in the south. The book dedicated to His Majesty the King and launched by Her Majesty Queen mother, in itself boomerangs to the Article 6:2, of the Constitution of Bhutan. Article 6 is stated as “a person, domiciled in Bhutan on or before the Thirty-First of December Nineteen Hundred and Fifty Eight and whose name is registered in the official record of the Government of Bhutan shall be a citizen of Bhutan by registration”.

In another story from Gelephu, two brothers who are left behind by their parents in Bhutan, both employee of government, do not have any issue with the census or citizenship. But absurd and interesting is the fact that their ancestral land (by the name of father) is given to someone else, while their census and voter registration continue to remain in the same ‘thram’ where a resettled family is living. The part of family, now living in The Netherlands, tells that the two siblings continue to fight for getting back the parental land.

In Dagana, an old woman of about 68 years is left stateless for all these years. She was married to a man in Dagapela from Lamidara (now Mendrelgang) and now lives with her only daughter and son in-law. She could not produce her proof of origin, CO, during the census in Suntoley, Dagana, because her parents died years ago when she was a child. She was brought up and taken care by her maternal uncles. Now that her daughter married to F1 citizen, also do not have the proof of domicile from the mother’s side. She is categorized as F5. And, a granddaughter who is now undergoing a vocational training in Trashigang, could not obtain police clearance for furthering her study after grade 12.

The family has now put up an application in the Gewog center pleading their genuine Bhutanese status. The officials who came to the Gewog for taking up applications from such cases have assured them to forward the application to Zimpon (the king’s secretary) who will oversee the matter.

A success story told by an aspiring engineering student from a remote part of Dagana is heart-warming, despite the hurdles his family had to bear throughout these 23 years. His father, originally from Tala in Chhuka, served in the country’s armed forces for longtime. At the time of recurrent census in Tala as well as Dagana he could not present himself, thus he was considered left out. Nor could he obtain the certificate of origin from the administration in Tala. The father lived with his broken nerves throughout. Now the son, 21, who frugally lived in Thimpu to follow up his application (to get the clear census and citizenship status), received Kasho of citizenship signed by HM King recently on behalf of his family. The long-standing statelessness of his family has now come to an end. But he definitely has to fight back many local administrators to process the application for Kasho. 

In 100 days pledges fulfilled, the PDP government has claimed to provide citizenship to 4000 people in the south.

Kuensel issue dated Novemeber 13 reports on granting of citizenship: In the last seven years, His Majesty the King granted citizenship kidu to a total of 8,577 people in the country, Lyonchhoen Tshering Tobgay said yesterday at a press conference, which was held on completion of the government’s first 100 days in office.

Out the 8,577, a total of 4,000 people received citizenship kidu within the last three months, Lyonchhoen said.

“Prioritise solving the census issue” was one of the 34 pledges the government had made to fulfill in its 100 days in office. By this the government had meant that it would give census issue high priority for the census issue is a matter of kidu, lyonchhoen said.

Among commentators to this news stand a grade 11 student in Bajothang HSS. His comment.

I am also one of the student of Bajothang higher secondary school studying in grade 11 taking science stream, who have the same problem and that is i have not yet received my citizenship ID card though i am 16 years old and my parents both of them have, but my mom’s is in form five, i am also hoping that my problem will be also be solved very soon… Chidananda

When asked, how long will this census issue keep lingering in Bhutan, an analyst and former senior journalist in Bhutan said, “Nobody wants to solve it completely so soon. Citizenship and census issue is a vote bank in Southern Bhutan. It might go for another thirty years. It is similar to the Latino immigration issue of Arizona in the US.”

Fundamental rights of an individual can never be caged in custody, intending, to meet the vested interest of handful of the elites, nor citizen’s right be made a political card. True democracy and respect towards democratic norms will only be meaningful if ‘equity’ in practice is shown irrespective of class, creed, color, race and religious beliefs. Otherwise, more than two-decade time is more than enough to punish someone socially, economically, mentally and psychologically in the last Shangri-La.