Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure happiness with its Gross National Happiness Index. But, its ethnic minority are deprived of their inalienable human rights by the Bhutanese government and are living as refugees in many countries. Their plight has been unaddressed by the International community till now. As per official data, twenty percent of Bhutan’s population belonging to Nepali-speaking Hindus who were forcibly evicted in 1990 due to the ethnic-racial policies of Bhutanisation.
For having asserted their human rights to practice their faith, mores and customs, they were termed as terrorist and being threat to security of the country by the Bhutanese government. Under various pretexts, the ethnic minority was evicted and was forced to flee the country. At present, they live as refugees in Nepal and in India. In Nepal, given its political instability and third-world country status, they could not determine to resolve the issue. As a result, they continued to live in camps in the Jhapa and Morang districts of Nepal for the past twenty one years.
When the refugees were having many health hazards due to lack of basic amenities in the camps, on the face of humanitarian crisis, the international communities came forward with the third country resettlement programme. Under the scheme, some of them were able to emigrate to the following countries such as the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, Canada and so on. In the case of India, when the refugees were fleeing Bhutan, it allowed its territory for the safe passage of the Bhutanese into Nepal. Some of them were allowed to settle in Siliguri and nearby districts of West Bengal and Assam. Though India is a member in the executive committee of the UNHCR, it has not ratified any of refugee conventions or protocols.
The Bhutanese Hindu refugees are living without any refugee status in India unlike the Tibetan refugees. They are not having any welfare benefits in pertaining to refugees. They work as casual labourers in the unorganized sector so that they could meet their basic needs. It is very disturbing to say that India has been indifferent to the plight of the Bhutanese Hindu refugees though it has very cordial relationship with Bhutan for so many years. India has been saying that it is a problem between Nepal and Bhutan.
They should engage in sustained dialogue among them to solve the impasse. In the last 21 years, the governments of Nepal and Bhutan have gone through sixteen rounds of talks but these have not led to any conclusion as yet. Nepal and Bhutanese refugees themselves strongly feel that India should step in to resolve the issue. But, India sticks to its ‘hands off’ policy so far. As said earlier, Bhutan and India relations have always been warmth. Bhutan sells its surplus hydro energy to power deficient India.
In return, India has been giving its helping hand for the economic development of Bhutan. In order to update the 1949 Bhutan-India friendship treaty, a new treaty was signed which is known as Bhutan-India friendship treaty 2007 which reaffirms or fosters the relations of friendship and neighbourliness between India and Bhutan. The Indian political parties which are having considerable influence in this part of region have failed to act as pressure group to sort out the crisis of Bhutanese Hindu refugees.
Having left out in the lurch, Bhutanese refugees along with some political parties formed the’ National Front for Democracy’ for their repatriation on 28th May,2007. For about 15,000 Bhutanese refugees in order to leave for Bhutan reached Mechi bridge which is the Nepal-Indo border, but, they were refused to pass through Indian territory by the Indian government security officials. Apart from refusal, they were manhandled by the Indian security establishments. In the scuffle, one young refugee named Sherbahadur Shiva died and some of them were injured. India agreed to provide compensation for those who were injured and faced death after negotiations. But, India has not honored its agreement so far.
Under this circumstance, India had a chance to press its ever friendly neighbour Bhutan for resolving this crisis. Instead, it suppressed the uprising of the refugees for asserting their human rights. Recently, India recognized that Bhutanese Hindu refugee problem is an international issue which is a welcome sign from its earlier stand. New Delhi should step in to end the issue given its stature as emerging world economic power. If need be, India could use its ‘smart power’ to convince Bhutan.
After achieving independence from the British, India formed non-alignment alliance with many Asian and African countries. India helped many Asian and African countries to achieve freedom from the colonial regime through non-alignment alliance. In the same way, the primary task of India at present is that it should help some Asian and African countries to achieve democratization in the respective Asian and African countries. In the absence of democratization, the ethnic minorities whose varied interests are being muzzled under the majoritarian ethnic or religious nationalism. As a result of this, there have been ethnic conflicts or strife-torn since independence in many of the Asian and African countries.
Bhutan is one such country where the democratization has not yet happened. Recently, it proclaimed that Bhutan is a democratic country from the monarchial form of government in 2008. Despite dawn of democracy, the monarch is still holding its grip over power and it deceives the people their inalienable rights. The true sense of democratic values are yet to crystallize in the governance of the country. For the sake of economic interests, India should not ally with the ruling elites of Bhutan, it should persuade Bhutan to find a solution to the plight of the Bhutanese Hindu refugees. India had already missed the many opportunities which came it its way to end the dead lock. It is an imperative task ahead of India to resolve the long due issue. But,the solution should be acceptable to all the aggrieved parties India could alone solve the problem being a close neighbour and more influential country in the region. Let India help the Bhutanese Hindu refugees to lead a dignified life in their homeland. Let us all show our solidarity for the hapless Bhutanese Hindus in defense of their human rights.
The author is Research Fellow, Centre for Policy Analysis ; the article is based on a presentation at the Symposium on ‘Bhutanese Refugees: The Tragic Story of the Forgotten People’ by Human Rights Defense (India) in New Delhi on 14 July 2012