Question of illegal immigration and citizenship in Bhutan


Buddhamani DhakalLying south of Tibet, nestled in the Himalayas with interspersed valleys created by the torrential rivers and covered almost 90 percent by the subtropical and temperate forest, Bhutan was originally Lho-Mon. It is often taken conjecture that Bhutan derived from Sanskrit Bhot-anta, meaning end of Tibet. The location is respective to Tibet, hence this name, and the heritage is all rooted in Tibet for many who came to Bhutan in early centuries along with or after the refuge of Shabdrung Nawang Namgyal. It was not a Kingdom then, neither a state constructed by any dominant cohort of population. Everywhere in the history it is admitted by the writers that this land was ruled by some petty feudal lords and kings who often fought each other.

Bhutan is not definitely the country of homogenous population contrary to what  was once declared “One nation One People”. There are various ethno-linguistic minorities living outside the main domain of statehood and national identity of Dzongkha-speaking Ngalong. Doyas in the south west, Brokpas in the north east, Khengpa  in the central districts and the Kurteop of north east are never officially recorded as ethnic minorities, despite their typical life-style, dress and the dialect. The larger population of Sarchhops dominating the eastern districts of Samdrupjongkhar, Pemagatshel, Trashigang, Trashiyangtse are by no means the same Dzongkha-speaking Ngalongs, because they speak Tsangla, (also Sarchhopkha) a different dialect with no written script of its own.  It is needless to mention the distinct ethnic and linguistic population on the south, the Nepali- speaking southern Bhutanese.

Are the Nepali (Lhotshampa) population just economic migrants?
The official version of the Bhutanese government on the status and legality of Lhotshampa settlement in Bhutan has always been derogatory.  The prime minister of Bhutan, Mr. Jigme Y Thinley has been trained to make the vocal remark everywhere in the formal platforms: the Nepali speaking population of south are illegal economic migrants who came to Bhutan only in 20th century largely as construction laborers and other menial works.

In his interview at UN headquarters on the eve of happiness conference in April 2011, Jigme Y Thinley stammered to provide an unsatisfactory answer to the question posed by a western journalist in the context of status of over 100,000 people evicted from Bhutan in 1990s. There he blushed and felt uncomfortable in his chair.

Historically, the migration of Nepali speaking population towards the east of Teesta River took place since mid 16th century. By nature of hard working as herdsmen, craftsmen, pastoralists and agriculturists, they occupied almost every fertile land available and used forest for cattle rearing with practice of shifting cultivation in some isolated forest land. Many reached to the far east of Assam, now the district of Darbanga, Udalguri, Tejpur, Sadhya and even Manipur. In the fertile valleys and plains of Brahmaputra basin, these migrant Nepali/ Gorkhali thrived on agriculture and animal husbandry.

Bhutan is not an exception when there was no clear boundary demarcation and most plain land south of the Himalayan foothills remained virgin.

Although, the first official settlement of Nepali families in Bhutan is said to have taken place during the time of first Dharmaraja, Shabdrung Nawang Namgyal, after a formal accord was signed between him and the king of Gorkha, the evidences are still the subject of aggressive research and publishing. One, Dr. Suman Dhakal, mentions in a journal about the recurring visits of Bhutanese lamas to Gorkha and Kathmandu valley . The date is 1640 AD when Shabdrung himself visited Gorkha and took along with him some Gorkahali families to settle in the west Terai.  The renovation and establisment of Drukpa monastery in Swayambhunath by Shabdrung, the gift of land and some gompa to Shabdrung by the Shah kings of Gorkha and Malla kings of Kathmandu are evidences carefully omitted in the present relationship between Bhutan and Nepal. The 19th ssue of the Druk Losel, a Nepali bulletin published in Bhutan carried that historical fact of ancient Bhutan-Nepal relationship( the date 1624), and that immediately became issue for the closure of Druk Losel.

On the basis of this, it is quite certain that the larger group of Nepali immigration in Bhutan took place in 17th century when the British Empire in India was vying to expand its influence in Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet. With the signing of Treaty of Sinchula in 1865, the Duars no longer belonged to Bhutan, but the settlement of Nepali migrants in this area continued to move back and forth between what was called Bhutan and the British India. It also appears that some of the Bhutanese subjects maintained loyalty to both Bhutan durbar and Delhi durbar.  This is proven by a historical account of extradition impasse of one Akal Singh Limbu, a revenue officer of Bhutan (see  Sinha, AC or Hutt, Michael).

The same year, British made recommendation for fixing the boundary line. A boundary survey began in 1867 which included all tribal population of Duars in India, excluding the Bhutanese cultivators. So it can be argued that the inhabitants of the plain duars and  hills interchanged over time with no barriers for their movement either way.

The Bhutan durbar was in dire need of continuous source of revenue, particularly the cash revenue. The annual subsidy of Rs. 50,000 in lieu of the annexed Duars by the British was a meager source. Thus the cultivation of fertile lower valleys and plains was most necessary, the cultivators mostly immigrating from the Duars, Sikkim and Nepal. The highlanders (Buddhist Drukpa) not coming down to settle gave sufficient space for the newcomers to occupy land for cultivation. It was in fact promoted or the immigration simply not checked by the Bhutanese  authority.

The construction of fortresses (Dzong) in strategic locations by Shabdrung Nawang Namgyal and later by other Deb Raja and incarnate lamas could have been possible only through a continuum of labor recruitment. The new settlers were undoubtedly the human force for building such majestic fortresses in mountain tops or besides the rivers as can be seen today. So whether the immigrants were simply the Nepali/Gorkha from Nepal and Sikkim, or other ethnic minorities of the plain Duars, they must have paid revenue and contributed to the construction of physical structures as demanded by the dual system of government. This is obviously omitted from most history of Bhutan.

It is not just the immigration into Bhutan. Emigration out of Bhutan to neighboring Indian states and to Nepal has indeed taken place.  A significant number of Nepali population settled in Samchi, Chirang, Sarbhang and Dagana had migrated out to Assam,  West Bengal and Nepal when they foresaw no better prospects of their economic or social prosperity in Bhutan. For example, a Village Development Committee in Jhapa, Budhabarey, includes many houses whose present residents or their ancestors had migrated out from Bhutan in 1960s and 1970s.   Emigration from Bhutan was also due to the forms of conscripted labor imposed by the government on every household domiciled in Bhutan, whether legal or illegal. But such out-migration was again controlled or monitored and many such migrants tell their story of having sneaked out of Bhutan with no notice to the authority.

So the rhetoric of Bhutan government that illegal immigration of Nepali workers in Bhutan  is a stereotype  to project the economic conditions in Bhutan being better than anywhere else, which is an absolute farce.

On Census and Population
The oldest population estimate of Bhutan based on crude empirical guesswork is that of Capt. C J Morris’ who found a total of 3,00,000 Bhutanese in 1932 of which 20% of them (60,000) belonging to Nepalese origin. ( Sinha, AC : 177)

Since then various figures have been estimated and presented to world forums. The population figures are upgraded or downgraded according to the purpose for which it is taken. One such manipulated population figure was claimed on the eve of application to UNO membership in 1971, which was fixed at 1.3 million.  The same Royal Government claimed only 600,000 to be its population in 1990 with 3% annual growth. Even after seven years, it quotes the same figure as its national population (Amnesty International 1998:3).

AC Sinha, an Indian researcher writes in his book, Himalayan Kingdom Bhutan: Tradition, Transition and Transformation:

In the information booklet, “Bhutan: Himalayan Kingdom” published in 1979, the population of the country is given as 1,200,000.  Not surprisingly, the population of Bhutan in 1988 was estimated to have grown to 1,375,000. However, in the end of 1991, Bhutan completely revised its numbers, claiming the population of only 600,000.  

In fact, the same 1979 population figure was given out in Dhaka SAARC summit in 1992, with the old population figure of 120,000 white out and 600,000 hand-written.

 There was no system developed to enumerate the census of the country scientifically and on periodic basis. Census was normally annual and involved simply the head count on the basis of gender and age. The census officials deputed to the villages were mostly temporary staffs with little or no training required for the census procedures.  So errors were very likely in the result of census; in many cases the officials failed to make a complete and comprehensive list of the household members, dropped out some names, misspelled family names that later became issue for denationalization. The above ambiguous figures suggest of such slipshod work in census enumeration. The registered  census data was never made public and kept secret to conspire. There are enough rooms to suspect that it was premeditated and deliberate.

The first official census was carried out in 1969, which recorded a total human population of 10,34,774. Similarly land under cultivation was 812382 acres and total livestock population of 291291 (Hutt, Michael: Unbecoming Citizens).

During 1988 and 1989, the census teams reached to southern villages almost every month which candidly categorized the citizens into seven groups and declared many as non-nationals or illegal settlers.

Tek Nath Rizal, Dr. Bhampa Rai, Late RB Basnet and other senior government servants from southern Bhutan argued that there could not be so large illegal residents after having thoroughly scrutinized census in 1985 and given the citizenship cards to landowners and break-away family extensions with no ownership of land and property. Rizal himself appointed as labor recruitment officer while serving the National Assembly, explains how the recruitment and sending off of laborers was channelized during the peak of road and other construction works.

According to his description, a liaison office was set up in Phuentsholing to register the details of  laborers being taken in to the work site that it would be easy to send back any laborer after his/her period of contract finished. The laborers were not allowed to move freely on their own and were guided to and from the liaison office in Phuentsholing.

 At one point of the history,  government circular was read aloud in the block meeting  in all villages of border area to report any visitor from outside, if the visitor is staying overnight. Any relative of the southern Bhutanese coming from India or Nepal who wished to stay for a longer period had to get permit from the local sub-divisional officer and the host had to be responsible for any offense committed by the guest. Even the taxpayer Bhutanese domiciled in the country for generations had to obtain a travel document (called Rahadani) while going from one part to another part of the country. It was effective all through the 1980s.

 A case of one woman committing suicide in Tsirang in 1988 after she was declared non-national by the census team was the hot cake that turned Tek Nath Rizal’s high profile to a dissident and stunning blow of opposition to King Jigme Singye Wangchuk. 

So the chances of illegal immigration to that volume of 100,000 in the face of such strict measures in the southern border can be expected to be negligible, despite the Royal government’s claim of immigration lately through the porous Indo-Bhutan border.

The Ethnic boundary
The Dorjis and Wangchuks colluded for the settlement of Nepali speaking people in the south with the aim of increasing tax revenue and also feed laborers to the ongoing development works, particularly building the road network.

It was not the time for all those settlers to guess any foul play or suspect the grand design of eviction to come a hundred or two years later, for they were all busy clearing the virgin forests transforming to agriculture land and pay revenue to Paro Penlop or Trongsa Penlop. Whether the settlement was encouraged under Dalchan Gurung’s contract or under Jhulendra Bahadur Pradhan, it all concentrated in the south gradually spreading from Samchi to Chirang, Dagana, Sarbhang and finally to Samdrupjongkhar.

Jhulendra Bahadur Pradhan was popularly known as Neoly Babu, as he undertook the settlement of Nepali raiyats in the vast fertile low land of what is now called the Bhangtar (very  recently changed to Samdrupchholing). Neoly villages were very prosperous in agriculture.

What later appeared a wrong policy, hindering the integration of northern Drukpa and southern non-Drukpa population under the Bhutanization program, was this segregation of ethnicity, discouraging intermix of culture, language and more importantly the farming practices. Both parties remained skeptical and over-conscious about the dilution of their ethnic heritage, while the “Bhutaneseness” was determined only by the more conservative nature of northern Drukpa culture. Subsequently, every aspects of the southern life became ostracized as alien to Bhutan and even alleged to be more closer to India than Bhutan.

Some tell-tale stories are abound in the society about such demarcation of ethnic boundary between the Bhotia and  Nepali raiyat arbitrarily outlined for the purpose of non-interference to each others’  domain of settlement, grazing and pastureland.

The Kalimpong agents of Bhutan Durbar, Kazi Ugyen Dorji, his son Sonam Tobgay Dorji and his son Jigme Palden Dorji (assassinated 1964 in Phuentsholing) had all played instrumental role in settling as many Nepali speaking population as possible in order to make the land productive, increase the revenue, pay voluntary labor and protect the southern border of Bhutan. They all enjoyed the fiefdoms in southern Bhutan from which they collected taxes on land, cattle, houses and orchards or other special plantation. But they apparently did not bother to pave the way for healthy interaction and interchange between the typical northern Buddhist culture and southern alien Hindu culture.

Writings of both Michael Aris and Michael Hutt do not reveal any symptomatic progress towards interaction between north and south. Leo Rose too identified this policy of  isolating southerners from northerners which ultimately produced negative impact in the Bhutanese polity, later 1985 onwards.

Despite such restriction of intermixing and isolation, the various ethnic groups living spatially in different geographical settings, had not been belligerent to each other and no such inter-ethnic conflict among the population noticed throughout the history.

To be continued…


  1. Mr Dhakal Jee most of your beginning paragraph started with the borrowed words from Michael Hutt Unbecoming the Citizens published book.You have directly copied some of his sentences without including work cited page.It is an unlawful act and the American Board of Education condemns this as a misdemeanor.Plz immediately try to reference the others works cited page and make your article credible.I like to see more your own writing and critical analysis on the Bhutanese southerners issues. Every time you borrow other words try to do a formal MLA work cited page.chee shame! shame!