The ethnic Nepalis have been living in Bhutan from as early as 1624 AD. Since then, people have lived in Bhutan as Gorkhas followed by an official declaration of Lhotshampas to those living in the southern part of the country in 1958.
Bhutan’s first organized census of 1964 as a preparation for admissions to the United Nations also helped to mobilize citizens between the ages 18-56 years for national infrastructure building in different regions. The local administrations were fully involved in the census, and the National Assembly resolved to maintain strict vigilance over the first countrywide census. The Royal Advisory Councilors were assigned to supervise the census and ensure coverage in all the regions. It was thus carried out with due verification and certification by the councilors to avoid unanticipated flaws.
Bhutan’s Home Ministry established the Department of Registration, which decided to issue Citizenship Identity Cards to all Bhutanese nationals. So they conducted a second organized nationwide census in 1977 based on the evidences of the first census (1964-71) and distributed citizenship identity cards to all Bhutanese nationals in 1981.
However, the Bhutan government promulgated the Citizenship Act of 1985, which came into force in the 1988 census. It came as a shock to the Bhutanese citizens as the requirements of 1988 census were far to accept. It required that for a person to be qualified as a Bhutanese national, both parents had to be Bhutanese. The old criterion of fatherhood was no longer valid. Worst of all, since this act was given retroactive implementation, all children born between 1958 and 1988 to non-Bhutanese mothers were declared as illegal immigrants.
In the meantime, the census operation required families to produce land tax receipts of 1958, and all those who could not produce the documents of 1958 were listed as illegal immigrants. Their citizenship identity documents had been seized by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which came into existence in 1968.
Interestingly, contrary to what the government has alleged the Lhotsampas with, no Bhutanese can be registered for citizenship without owning some landed property. The stronger part of the law is that without the approval of the King, any person occupying a vacant land shall be illegal and punishable by confiscation and imprisonment. To be specific, the Lhotshampas issued with the Citizenship Identity Cards are genuine and bona fide Bhutanese citizens. The changes brought about by the fourth monarch have severed the farsighted vision and achievements of his noble father, who had put wholehearted trust and confidence in the Royal Advisory Councilors, District Administrators and Parliamentarians, all of who represent the people and the government simultaneously.
It is also noteworthy that the regime’s atrocities are not confined to Lhotshampas only. The Sharchokpas, inhabitants of mostly the eastern part of the country and followers of the Nyingmapa tradition of Mahayana Buddhism have been also perpetually suppressed and deprived of their social, economic, cultural and traditional rights.
At one point, the pro-democracy forces from eastern Bhutan organized a peaceful demonstration in support of human rights and democracy in 1997. But people were rewarded with the armed repression and ruthless acts of the officials. Sixteen institutes of Buddhist learning of the Nyingmapa teachings were closed and the students were sent back to their homes. A monk was shot at point blank by the district chief, who went unpunished, while the Chief Abbot was imprisoned for eight years. Many others faced rigorous prison terms for merely raising their voice for the right to freedom of their own religion. Some people were even made to flee the country to join their relatives in the refugee camps in Nepal.
Amidst this entanglement, Bhutan began campaigning to world community of its “Gross National Happiness” with per capita income of US$ 835 (2002) on a population of little over 650,000. Following pressure from various donor agencies and the international community, Bhutan expanded the cabinet by ten ministers in 2002, eventually proclamation of flawed ‘Constitution’ and dawn of an incomplete democracy in 2008.
Despite India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Nehru’s Paro public address in 1958 that assured Bhutan a sovereign state, and Smt. Indira Gandhi’s statement on Bhutan not to compare its status with that of Sikkim, the regime continued to look at its Nepali-speaking citizens with suspicion and evicted them in the early 90s.
The bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan to resolve the stalemate could yield nothing but pushed the issue towards uncertainty. Thus began the resettlement program in 2008. Although nearly 60,000 Bhutanese have been resettled in different western countries, the remaining population is still waiting to get repatriated. Personally, I strongly believe that third country resettlement is not a permanent solution as it was never a choice of Bhutanese people.
Still, the greatest responsibility lies in India, the world’s largest democracy, to help repatriate with honour, the interested Bhutanese refugees to their land of origin.
The writer is chairperson, Bhutanese Refugees Representative Repatriation Committee; 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