Bhutan is a small Himalayan country in South Asia. It is a Buddhist majority state and is known for measuring progress through its “Gross Happiness Index”, valuing it over other economic indexes. Bhutan, in its history, has never been colonised by any power and has managed to remain independent. There has been a favourable perception towards the landlocked nation, with its limited resources and its neighbouring nations being two Asian giants China and India. Nevertheless, Bhutan as Maximillian Mørch states often tops the list of one of the happiest places to live and its model of harmony in a world of competition is a novel policy in the works. However, since the 1980s, there has been an ethnic issue brewing after the State of Bhutan decided to enforce the 1985 citizenship act. The Hindus of Bhutan, primarily of Nepalese descent have been forced to leave Bhutan and settle into refugee camps in eastern Nepal.
Bhutan stands as the country that created the largest number of refugees, expelling 1/6th of its population. Ethnic Bhutanese claim that the Lhotshampas are newcomers to Bhutan. The Lhostampa community often referred to as Southerners or South Bhutanese have been here since the 16th century. They were Newar craftsmen, commissioned to build the Stupa in Bhutan by the kingdom. They settled in the southern region of Bhutan and flourished there. Mørch further states that they were neither uninvited nor unwelcome in Bhutan. There was a need for foreign labour during this period. Bhutan lacked the manpower for such projects; hence the Lhotshampas came to Bhutan.
How did this lead to an ethnic clash and to the subsequent refugee crisis?
In the 1950s, citizenship acts were passed where the Lhotshampas were given an ultimatum to register or show proof of their citizenship before 1958. If they failed to show any, they were deemed illegal immigrants and would be asked to leave the country. In such a tense and confusing atmosphere, a census was done in 1988, which resulted in the Bhutanese government discovering that the majority of people in the South were Nepali speaking Lhotshampas around 40%.
In 1989, the Bhutanese government enacted reforms under the “One Nation, One People” policy that directly impacted the Lhotshampa. First, it elevated the status of the national dress code of the “Driglam Namzha” from recommended to mandatory. All citizens including the Lhotshampa were required to observe the dress code in public. Second, the government removed Nepali as a language of instruction in schools, in favour of Dzongkha, the national language. The Lhotshampa, many of whom knew no Dzongkha at all, protested against these measures as they were forced by the state to adopt them against their free will. The Bhutanese People’s party, dominated by the Lhotshampa violently clashed with the Bhutanese government, which created more tension and further led to the exodus of the Lhotshampas from the country. The Bhutanese government’s draconian clampdown over many Lhotshampas protesting for democracy and recognition of rights, terming it as ‘acts of treason’, and an anti-national movement against the Bhutanese state started the first wave of an exodus. The Bhutanese state forcefully started evicting Nepalese speaking Lhotshampas, making them sign the form of voluntary migrations, seizing their documents of citizenship and in some cases, imprisoned, arbitrarily subjected to discrimination by local authorities. In December 1990, the authorities announced that Lhotshampas, who could not prove that they were residents of the country before 1958, must leave the country.
Amnesty International, in its report, BHUTAN: Forcible Exile, 1994 highlighted that vague provisions were used to determine the citizenship in Bhutan and motivated enough to be discriminatory. The European Parliament stated in their resolution that most exiled Hindu Bhutanese citizens would be Bhutanese citizens under international law. Since the 1990s, only Nepali speaking people in the southern part were asked to present their documents. According to many independent human rights groups, even those who could supply the required proof were often evicted by the Bhutanese authorities.
Hindus in Bhutan haven’t been able to enjoy the same rights as Buddhists have, despite the king being designated as the protector of all religions. Moreover, Sanskrit is not allowed to practice or to be taught. Many schools have been shut by the Bhutanese government and Sanskrit as well as Nepali has been discontinued, effectively removed in favour of Dzongkha. The state follows Mahayana Buddhism and often restricts in opening temples in rural areas. While the Buddhists have multiple recognised groups, Hindus have only one organisation, Hindu Dharma Samudaya, despite comprising 22% of the country’s population. The Hindu Lhotshampa population living in the country lacks any political parties to represent its interests, while political parties established by the exiled refugees, including the Bhutan National Democratic Party and the Druk National Party, have been banned and are prohibited from participating in elections. And in previous elections, there were reports of Nepali-speaking Hindus being prevented from voting. No independent NGOs can go and conduct any surveys unless it’s owned by someone from the royal family and is for the interest of the government. Since these restrictions, As a result of these discriminatory policies, some Nepali-speaking Bhutanese citizens could not obtain security clearances for government jobs, pursue higher education, or obtain licenses to run private businesses.” They have also confronted inequality in employment opportunities.
Organisations like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), Sewa International (Sewa) and Amnesty International have called the Bhutanese government and the head of the state to start taking in the refugees in Nepal, awaiting return to their country. Many have been settled in third – party countries like the USA and face the threat of evangelical missionaries. Hindus in Bhutan live in fear of getting evicted. Over 200 political prisoners still languish in various Bhutanese prisons since the political turmoil began. Tekh Nath Rizal, a prominent Lhotshampa politician and activist was jailed by the Bhutanese authorities for demanding recognition for the Hindus in Bhutan. The United Nations, as well as other third-party nations, considered him a “Prisoner of Conscience” or someone jailed because of his or her race and religion. The Bhutanese government had accused him of abusing his position as an elected Royal Advisory Councillor by providing false feedback from the people he represented to the King and then blaming the government and King for the policies formulated based on his advice. Rizal was released from prison during an amnesty granted by the king in December 1999. He has accused the former monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuck and former Prime Minister, Jigme Yoser Thinley for spearheading the expulsion against the Hindus in Bhutan. In his works, “Torture – Killing Me softly”, Rizal has alleged that he was subjected to intense torture during his imprisonment under the Bhutanese state. Rizal and other activists have alleged that the Drukpa Kajugpa sect, the king’s tribe continues to get preferential treatment from the government in all matters. Therefore, the situation is grim for Hindus as well as for other sects.
In yet another event, Hindus have suffered for simply asking the right to practice their religion, speak their language and preserve their culture. Bhutan has missed international attention due to the Middle East or Rohingyas in Myanmar; however, its relations with Nepal have soured because of this crisis. The Hindus from Bhutan have not even received considerable attention from India itself. It is my observation that India should use its diplomatic channels for the rehabilitation of these Hindus to Bhutan and alongside Nepal, monitors the process. India cannot ignore the actions of the Bhutanese state as well as the plight of the Hindus in the refugee camps any longer. Lastly, India must have a strong word with countries like the USA to curb evangelical activities which forcefully convert these refugees into Christianity. It should be India’s responsibility as well as the current government’s duty to cross diplomatic hurdles and start rehabilitative efforts for them as soon as possible.