When the Pandavas were denied their share of their kingdom, and several attempts of negotiations and peace talks coordinated by Krishna, Vidura and Sanjaya failed, violence came to offing as a last resort, which turned out to be the battle of Mahabharata. In a closer and a comparative look to the biblical era; Bible says wars are of different kinds, sometime they are even more just. More philosophically, yet convincingly and with assertion, Ecclesiastes 3:8 summons ‘to love has its time, and to hate has its time; war has its time, and peace has its time’. Though war is a result of surmounting sins (Romans 3:10-18), Philippians 4:6-7 calls the believers to wish for good outcome of war and pray for the safety of fighters. Annals of Buddhist mythology, the claimed most pious of all human observance too cannot narrow down on discussion over war. Examples are extra to cite; for instance the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar, March 2008 demonstrations in Tibet and Jathika Hela Urumaya are some classical evidences to depict that violence follows suppression. The disputes surrounding the demise of Shabdrung Jigme Ngwang Namgyel Rimpoche on April 5, 2003 have formed another chapter demanding a powerful lens.
However, history depicts that human race has used violence only as a last resort. During such struggles many people risk their lives. They don’t fear death, rather they face it. They either go through a persecution or suffer death for the people, a cause, a country, or an organization. The Bhutanese struggle for human rights and democracy is no different. Numerous people sacrificed their lives so that their countrymen could live a better life. At this juncture of time we want to remember those people who hold very high esteem in our society because they represent the pinnacle of faithfulness, bravery, dignity and honour to our society. The word ‘Martyr’ comes from the Greek word ’Martus‘ meaning witness. As one can imagine, in a period of political suppression, witnessing would have been extremely dangerous, and as a result, some one might be martyred because he or she refused to renounce an undesirable political system or legal procedure or even both.
Identification and hence recognition of martyrs in the context of our struggle has always remained debatable and therefore at this point, we neither want to verdict a justification for the name list nor do we want to start the fresh debate. Lack of concrete documents, which must have been otherwise evidenced in history, can very well be regarded as one of our misfortunes among many. Our country – a land of immigrants – is occupied by many ethnic groups but ruled by one – has had many counterattacks to the feudal autocratic regime from different parts of the country at different times. Since the subjects were universally illiterate, even if there were dissenting movements, they were rarely recorded and reported. It is not hard to imagine that many have lost their lives unnoticed in history – just because they were more farsighted than the ruling authority and they tried to point out the flaws in the system. However, Pashupati Adhikari, mandal of Lamidara, Samtse district raised the earliest such dissenting voice among the subjects in 1927. He protested against the tax rates for which his land was confiscated, and was physically assaulted and expelled from Bhutan [Dhakal; ibid 135]. Another occasion- as told by our forefathers – that hardly gained any importance in our history is the ’Tong Uprising‘ organised by the Khengpas of Shemgang. Exact date is unknown but comparing the time line with their narration, this should have happened in 1940’s.
Perhaps the first organized political move- documented in history- among the Bhutanese subjects was that of the ‘Jai Gorkha‘ in 1947 [A.C. Sinha in Himalayan Kingdom Bhutan]; when J.C. Gurung and S.B. Gurung, the two mandals from Dagana approached the All India Gorkha League (AIGL), Darjeeling to seek help from them to get politically organized against the oppressive feudal laws. The Bhutan House immediately expelled the Jai Gorkha activists from Emiray block of Dagana district. This was the year when Garjaman Gurung, the Samtse Kazi had to accept his mysterious death. Soon after, Mahasur Chhetri, a resident of Suntolay village, Labsibhotay block of Chirang district approached M.P.Koirala, the then prime minister of Nepal to get help to politically organise following the brutal fate of the Jai Gorkha uprising. Alive in a leather bag, he was thrown down in the Sunkosh River at Majhigaon Village [A.C. Sinha; 2004 pp 171]. In March 22, 1954 the Bhutan State Congress, drawing the experience of the Civil Disobedience Movement of the Indian National Congress, decided to fill the jails of Bhutan by sending several successive batches of volunteers at Sarpang from across the Indian boarder. Several hundred protestors and many onlookers were present at the gate but only a few could enter into Bhutan. A letter with list of demands was handed over to the King. To begin with, there was a little resistance, but in the confused and chaotic situation, Jhulendra Bahadur Pradhan, the Commissioner of Southern Bhutan, ordered the Bhutan State militia to fire on the protesters, leading the demonstrators flying back across the boarder. When the shooting was over, 25 demonstrators lay dead and 17 wounded [Dhakal: Ibid 133-143].
Politically, Bhutan could never remain a placid entity. Devi Bhakta Lamitaray continued to issue inflammatory pamphlets on behalf of head of the Bhutan State Congress until 1980’s. But events in late 1980’s accelerated a process in which a dozens of political and human rights forums were established. One of such kinds and the first in the chronological hierarchies is the Students Union of Bhutan (SUB), a grown up child of the Nepali Literary Society started by Fr. Leclair, the then Sherubtse College principal. The SUB, an informal and underground organization of about 25 activists was founded on March 23, 1988; which took active part in the peaceful demonstration of 1990 providing logistics and human resource. This trend was then followed by the sprouting of several others political and apolitical organisations.
The overall effect of citizenship laws, ‘one nation one people policy’ and a series of other repressive measures and discrimination against its own citizens made the Bhutanese feel like second class citizens in their own country. This ultimately became the basis that led the citizens to campaign for their rights and freedoms. Notwithstanding the state threat and order, in September 1990, under the initiation of the Bhutan People’s Party, the southern Bhutanese in all the southern districts, organized a disorganized demonstrations protesting against the discriminatory citizenship laws. The government reacted swiftly, arresting their leaders, and closing schools and hospitals throughout southern Bhutan. The protest grew into a movement for full human rights, and eventually into a call for democracy. The result of the demonstration was awfully disheartening and tragic. It all ended in ruthless government atrocities and forced evictions. The after math of the demonstrations was followed by thousands of arbitrary arrests, torture and detentions without trial. Selective isolation of the country, gives neither a vivid picture nor any record concerning the exact number so as how many innocent villagers got tortured and were murdered in dark cells of the Bhutanese jails. Mass expulsion started in 1990 when the government resorted to forced evictions intimidating the innocent villagers through signing Voluntary Migration Forms (VMFs) under threat of torture and life imprisonment.
When Gross National Happiness is a discussion of day, the happiness in Bhutan is inequitable. Certain groups are more privileged than others. For instance, intimidation and apprehension in “democratic” Bhutan is based on foregone conclusion – ethnicity, belief system and faith being central. Followers of Christianity get arrested and tortured just for their inclination to a certain faith, recent example being the case of Prem Singh Gurung. Another horrendous example of a monk, Gomchen Karma from Tashigang who was shot dead in 1997 by a senior government official for his claim of equal religious rights, a tip of ice-berg demonstrates gross human rights violations and more importantly the prevailing impunity.
Evicted from homes, with enormous patience defying the historical and mythological records, people lived in peace and harmony in the refugee camps established in Nepal and many in India for more than two decades. Various stakeholders came in action in an attempt to draw a line of durable solution to our tragedy. None of the strategies appear to have worked to pave a route back home. Dismay, uncertainty and helplessness ensued; the scheme of the Third Country Resettlement (TCR) prevailed.
Indeed, the TCR is not a choice but an alternative. It is not a justice to Bhutanese movement for democracy and human rights. It is not a justice to our leaders who invested energy at their capacity to see democratic Bhutan. Neither is TCR a justice to our human rights activists and our leaders of welfare and social organizations. Above all, it is non-recognition to decades of harsh refugee lives and sufferings endured by more than hundred thousands of our people.
Resettlement shall definitely add productivity and progress in economical and social fronts. However, the reality is that neither our identity nor the inner peace of mind can be availed through this. The losing of struggle to establish democracy and human rights has come heavy to all of us. Yet, the continuity to take the struggle to a different height, is always unavoidable. Struggle has to keep moving. In between, with time and disengagement, tendency to acceptance of the loss ensues, a well known natural coping phenomenon. We are in a transition phase. Consciously or sub-consciously, the acceptance of loss, disbelief and incompleteness shall get to our nerves.
Nonetheless, despite changes in our lives, our situations and line of thinking; it is our responsibility not to let our struggle die down. Back to our villages with our neighbours together, a home of own, farm around to roam and proud feeling to see cattle grazing is probably robbed from us for entirety. Humiliations we faced in our villages, discriminations we faced in the fronts of progress and opportunities, horrific stories from detention centres, torture and murders however shall hound us. We got deceived. We got expelled from places where our forefathers invested sweat and blood to make homes. We got physically and psychologically tortured because our society was grossly illiterate. Right decision at right moment did not prevail. Our victimized state has minimal or no connection with our beliefs neither on human rights nor with our culture and ethnicity. The primary determinants are the state of low education and more importantly lack of empowerment. So we are setting an example of injustice by losing a battle that should have never been lost.
From the time of revolt of Pashupati Adhikari to till date, the struggle for human rights and democracy stands long and several hundreds of people sacrificed their life for this cause. Time has come for us to recognize their bravery and sacrifice. In an attempt to let out tragedy live alive, to remember our martyrs and their sacrifices and to educate the world to prevent similar tragedy occurring again, Punya Foundation is finally formally established with a slogan – justice through education and empowerment and it is chaired by Tek Bir Chhetri, a personality who was able to establish himself as a founder and propagator of the Bhutanese refugee education at Maidhar, Jhapa in the initial stage of camp settlements.
It is an undeniable fact that shouldering the task of Marty’s salvation through personal initiative would be impossible, and even less significant to some extent. Every Martyr is an institution held above everything, not just limited to the family and relatives. So, responsible citizens need to shoulder all activities related to such prestigious institutions considering the degree of sacrifice for the common betterment of people and systems requiring reformation from them.
The Foundation, established to contribute to make differences in lives of rendered vulnerable, deprived, and victimized people across the globe, would be one of the most prestigious, but equally challenging, institutions for the scattered Bhutanese Diaspora in materialising its plans and operations. However, rising above the atrocities and suppressions, a strong commitment is a must from every Bhutanese to make the dreams of our respected Martyrs come true and create new Bhutan, where every citizen would one day live as a dignified individual.
Dr. Dhakal is a torture survivor. He worked as a schoolteacher in the refugee camps in Nepal, worked with the refugee health care system and later with victims of torture. Engaged in elderly medical practice in the Netherlands, he is the founding director of Punya Foundation. Dhruva Mishra from Virginia, USA has contributed to this article.
(Views expressed in this write-up are the writers’ opinions and don’t necessarily carry the official stance of Bhutan News Service in use of facts, correctness of events presented and relevant statistics. – Ed)