The election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) incorporates a definite specification in its foreign policy that can be of particular interest to Bhutanese refugees. The pertinent provision states: India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here. In its neighborly policy perspective, the manifesto further commits to pursue ‘friendly relations’ but warns of ‘strong stand and steps where required.’
With the just concluded election results giving a decisive verdict to the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) form the next government in India, it is not out of sync to expect a change of perspective in its Bhutanese refugee policy should of course the election pledge transform into action and stakeholders pursue with the Indian government in right earnest.
Such a change appears conceivable notwithstanding the fact that Bhutanese refugees’ experience with the Indian state has not ever been encouraging.
India prides itself as a hospitable refugee destination. Quite true to its claim, it has historically hosted refugees from within and outside the region. The tradition of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is habitually invoked to sustain the idea that hospitality is an inherent Indian virtue. Indians often resort to this alibi to justify absence of a refugee-specific law and application of discretionary or even discriminatory treatment to different refugee groups.
As far as the sad story of Bhutanese refugee goes, India has miserably failed its test. The treatment it has accorded to Bhutanese refugees is a rude testimony of a stark aberration, a furthermost departure from moral principles, supposed to constitute the core of its Bharatiyata.
When a despot in Bhutan unleashed a reign of terror on its citizens and evicted them in thousands, India quietly acquiesced. The Indian state then bundled up, ferried and dumped the traumatized refugees in Nepal border. There was no display of humanism, no compassion; it was a tough ruler-to-ruler deal to trash the ‘irritant’. The Indian action seemed to fructify the agenda initiated by a tyrant; a partnership sans any principles of morality or human rights. India’s act renders itself a partner complicit in consummation of a crime of persecution and generating refugees. Refugees’ cry for protection in the Indian soil was summarily rejected on grounds of “security concerns”.
As Nepal sought its cooperation for resolution of the refugee issue, the Indian government hid behind the façade of neutrality and bilateralism but actively sponsored Bhutan in all its disingenuous tactics. It oversaw Nepal bullied through Bhutanese maneuvering. Its actions spoke volumes on its prejudice against the refugees.
Marooned in refugee camps with no imminent solution, refugees sought to return voluntarily through the very route they were forced to tread to Nepal earlier. Indian government responded brutally with prohibitory laws, imprisonment and torture, among others. It even resorted to heartless killing of some Bhutanese refugees. The aborted extradition attempt of the late R K Dorji, a high ranking refugee leader is a strange reminder of the possibilities of political expediency: of unholy entente cordiale between despotism and democracy.
While consistently reiterating its official stance that the refugee issue is wholly bilateral between Nepal and Bhutan, India contributed to thwart repatriation. It’s bizarre but true that the world’s largest democracy found a common cause with a despot to persecute the persecuted. A former foreign minister of India, Pranab Mukherjee had unequivocally replicated Bhutan’s sentiments, when he stated that repatriation of Bhutanese refugees would “create a demographic imbalance” in Bhutan.
Quite concomitantly, the Bhutanese government through its official mouthpiece, the Kuensel (October 18, 2003) underscored the same language the Indian foreign minister was pursuing. It had emphasized that durable solution “must not destabilize any of the countries involved” and “must ensure the stability of the region.”
It is not as clear however, whether India was following Bhutan’s calling or Bhutan India’s.
These incidents do not reflect the hospitable culture hyped as intrinsic to India’s being. By treating the Bhutanese refugees the way it did, India has not only negated the moral and the spiritual heritage claimed to be characteristic to the idea of India, it also has outlandishly flouted some fundamental principles of modern international law and derided the sanctity of its own legal tradition.
The above policy perspective was mostly that of a congress-led government, although the BJP has its share of culpability. Its erstwhile foreign minister, Mr. Jaswant Singh, who now is relegated to political oblivion being out of party-fold, had endorsed congress’ heritage of biased escapism by iterating unknown virtues in Nepal-Bhutan bilateralism.
The present commitment reflected in BJP’s election manifesto tries to prioritize principles over politics which indeed is a welcome change of heart vis-à-vis the persecuted. An overwhelming majority of the Bhutanese refugees are Hindus. One fundamental reason of their being persecuted is their religion. This fact must enable the Bhutanese refugees, affirmative protection from the government of India.
That specification, however, must not create an exclusionary protection-regime for people of other faiths.
Another conceivable construction of the manifesto-provision is a propensity of the new Indian government departing from the myth of Nepal-Bhutan bilateralism that was perversely pursued in the last two decades. India’s veiled support to the Bhutanese government in the garb of bilateralism actively facilitated the latter sustain its agenda with little or no glitch at all. Its stance is a prominent reason for failure of repatriation, a dream dearly close to refugees’ heart. With their repatriation dreams effectively scotched by the might of two states partnering for a singular purpose, an overwhelming chunk of refugees eventually opted for resettlement.
Nepal must capitalize on this possible change of policy and initiate measures to engage the government of India towards seeking a comprehensive solution by way of repatriation of willing refugees. The current changed context is more promising for an effective solution than any time in the past.
Firstly, a enormously reduced refugee population that has adhered to the demand of repatriation is an encouraging ‘deal’ for the Bhutanese government to ‘resolve’ the problem and emerge clean internationally for having undertaken the residual share of its state responsibility. For consumption of its domestic constituency, it can effortlessly cite the alibi that a small repatriated population would pose no ethno-demographic imbalance, which concern the government has zealously manufactured and institutionalized over the years as being the core of Bhutan’s ‘modern’ nationalism.
The changed context also points towards a more multi-dimensional relational framework between Nepal and Bhutan rather than a hostile refugee-centric uni-dimensional relational mess existing until recently. The revision of air-services agreement on May 16, 2014 between the two countries is an indication towards increasing stakes in their bilateral relations, which is singularly crucial for injecting a much-needed synergy in their bilateralism. Such economic initiatives can be strong confidence building measures between them to usher an appropriate environment for political negotiations. The last two decades were a no-relation situation characterized by hostility and indeed unhelpful for any meaningful engagement.
Thirdly and importantly, the new government of India is a powerful one both in the merit of its numbers and the disposition of its prime minister. It therefore is capable of hard decisions. Its election manifesto of a promise of hospitality to the persecuted could not be a mere election magniloquence given the fact that it had no compelling obligation to address this concern in the current election manifesto. One can therefore, without much fear of contradiction, construe that this is a genuine concern the new Indian dispensation would wish to address affirmatively.
The following, therefore, are issues of real and imminent concern for the Bhutanese refugees that the new government of India may take suo motu cognizance of and address them affirmatively:
- Many Bhutanese who escaped Bhutan’s persecution are dispersed in different parts of India undocumented. The current resettlement exercise undertaken by western countries does not incorporate such individuals and families. Documenting and granting refugee status to these individuals is a basic minimum due from India. Its locus to seek active solution in favor of these people follows after their proper documentation and grant of refugee status.
- Many Bhutanese refugees camped in Nepal have not opted for resettlement and have continued to call for repatriation. India must shake off the falsehood of bilateralism and participate to help repatriate all willing refugees.
- The government of India must take measures to help Hindus inside Bhutan protect and preserve their Hindu identity which is closely correlated with their lingual and cultural identity. The centrality of Bhutan’s official policy is to annihilate the identity of the Southern Bhutanese under its overarching agenda of “One Nation One People”.
The international community erred tactically in effecting resettlement solution sans Bhutan’s participation. This minus-Bhutan approach has condoned Bhutan of its malfeasance that in turn has emboldened it to pursue its ethno-religious agenda with renewed vigor. India’s affirmative participation can be of material value to prevent the subtle act of cultural obliteration inside Bhutan and avert continuing misery of the Bhutanese refugees.
Author, who has been practicing international law after completing Masters in Law (LL.M) from Georgetown University Law Center, Washington DC, is one of the Contributing Editors of the Bhutan News Service. He can be reached for comments at [email protected]