Dialogue July-September 2009, Volume 11 No.1
Political Development and Stragetic Security in Bhutan
A. C. Sinha
Brug-yul or Druk-yul, the dragon country, nestled in the Eastern Himalayan marches, is a thinly populated, mountainous, Shangri-la of the only Lamaist kingdom in the world. Till other day, it had an image of being an exotic, distant, isolated, autocratic and unique example of a traditional society, which stoutly refused to change. However, once, the change was initiated from the ‘above’, there was no going back, and centuries were encapsulated in to decades, and decades into years. Institutions were innovated; modern means of transportation and communication were introduced; economy began to be reoriented; efforts were made to initiate modern education; subjects began to be treated as the ‘people’; welfare schemes were initiated and health and hygiene of the populace began to be taken care of. In short, Bhutan took steps to come out of its self imposed age old isolation and evolve its own strategy to keep off from power play of the World Powers by not having diplomatic relations with any of five permanent members of the Security Council of the U N O. However, it chose deliberately to cultivate an intimate relation with its southern neighbour, Indian Union. Learning from the Indian experience, it decided to go for the planned development of its human and physical resources. Within half a century, Bhutan began to attract international attention at times for the Himalayan exotica such as royal coronation, king marrying four sisters at the same time, absence of mass media such as television, news papers, public transport system and the like. Then came the news of ethnic conflict, exodus of Lhotshampa refugees to the camps in Nepal. By the end of the 20th century, things began to move fast. The fourth king decided to introduce democracy and a written constitution in his kingdom. Moreover, while the kingdom was reluctantly preparing for its transition to a type of sponsored democracy and centenary celebration of the monarchy, the king decides to abdicate in favour of the Crown Prince. While the newly established democratic dispensation is rightly busy in centenary celebration of the Wangchuk monarchy, the country is facing a grime security scenario, originating from two decades old ethnic conflict. It has further been complicated by the presence of the Indian insurgents in its eastern forests and the rise of Maobadi violence on its south western neighbourhood, in which Lhotshampa dissenters are in league with. The paper tries to map out the above Bhutanese developments and review how the Bhutanese Shangri-la has unwittingly joined its South Asian neighbours in on-going ethnic violence. And for that, we have to unravel the story from the time, when the British withdrew from their Indian Empire.
Bhutan State Congress, Efforts in Ethnic Plurality and Expulsion of Lhotshampas
Inspired by the British Political Officer, the kings of Bhutan and Sikkim sent their delegations to wait on the ‘Cabinet Mission’ sent by the United Kingdom to chart out the course of Indian independence. A J Hopkinson, the Political Officer in Sikkim, wrote to the Government of India on May 17, 1946 on the Constitutional Changes: Bhutan Representation:
1. “Bhutan fears that it may be confronted with some decisions classifying it as an ‘Indian State’, which it is not, and lumping it along with other states.
2. “Bhutan’s treaty is with Britain. Bhutan at present wants to remain within the British Commonwealth…even if India goes out of it.
3. “That achieved, they would enter into a tri-partite agreement with Britain and India on revised terms, including (i) increased (cash) subsidy, (ii) return of Buxa Duar and Dewangiri (in respect of the last named two small areas, Bhutan argues that population is of overwhelmingly Bhutanese, and that, if India is being given back to the Indians, (it is equally reasonable) that the Bhutanese territory should be retuned to Bhutan.
4. “Indian interests requires a friendly and contented Bhutan within the India (n) rather than the Chinese orbit: policy in this matter affects much more than merely Bhutan. Bhutan is now friendly and anxious for continued friendship but negligence or contempt may drive it—and much else besides—into the open arms of China.
5. “Possibly during the preoccupation of the internal problems, while her own statesmen are getting ready into saddle, India may not sufficiently realize these things, with resultant harm to India’s future. To eliminate such a danger perhaps Britain… might continue Bhutan’s subsidy for a limited period until the future India takes up the matter…”1.
Hopkinson did not stop there. He even left a Note2 behind for the guidance of the Indian Dominion in dealing with the Himalayan buffer states: “In practice, it may well prove difficult to secure a tidy solution to the future of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan and even of the eastern marches of Kashmir, Ladakh. This will largely depend on the future policy and fate of China and hence of Tibet. The Government of the (Indian) Union must be prepared for complication on the North East Frontier and evolve a policy to meet them. This may well have to be that of maintaining all the principalities in virtual independence of India, but as buffer and, as far as possible, client states. There may be greater advantages in according Sikkim a more independent status than in seeking to absorb Bhutan as well as Sikkim in the Indian Union, adding the communal problem of Buddhism to those of Islam and Hinduism. The Government would be well advised to avoid entering into fresh commitments with any one of those frontier states or seeking to redefine their status. Their importance is strategic in direct relation to Tibet and China, and indirectly to Russia. Such adjustments of their relations with the (Indian) Union as can usefully be affected by those political strategic considerations, account of which, it is hoped, that treaty will take, rather than by constitutional niceties, which do not help defence policy”. Unfortunately for the ‘wise’ British functionaries, the Indian and the Bhutanese representatives met in Delhi and a very smooth working arrangement was worked out between them.3 But a strong wind of democracy was blowing in India and its surrounding, specially on the eastern Himalayan principalities: Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. Inspired by the Indian National Congress (INC), Nepali Congress for Nepal, Sikkim State Congress in Sikkim, and Bhutan State Congress for Bhutan were organized mainly by the inarticulate, ambitious and a little educated Nepalese on the pattern of INC. Unfortunately, neither the political ground reality, nor a liberal educational background was available for the success of such a political movement launched by the Bhutan State Congress.
Bhutan has been distantly linked with India through Buddhism, which travelled to Himalayan ranges in the hoary past. The Dukpa highlanders never bothered to befriend their southern Indian neighbours: Bengalis, Kochs, Boros, or the Assamese. Ever since 1865, the British colonial visitors had invariably to travel to Bhutan across Himalayan heights through Nathula-Chumbi Valley from across Sikkim and Tibet, as no efforts were ever made to link it southwards. Since then, the southern Himalayan foothills were slowly, but steadily settled by the people of Nepalese origin. C J Morris had estimated them in 1932 to be more than 20 percent of an estimated 300, 000 Bhutanese population. The Nepalese in Bhutan were impoverished marginal farmers at the mercy of feudal over-lords, who were themselves laws in lawless Bhutan. The Nepalese peasants were invariably evicted, dispossessed, driven away and subjected to all types of indignities. On such a bleak scenario, the anti-feudal movements launched by Indian National Congress, SIkkim State Congress and Nepali Congress inspired some hope and a bunch of Bhutanese Nepalese refugees met at Patgaon in Goalpara district of Assam in November 1952 to form Bhutan State Congress. Bhutan State Congress was a poor carbon copy of the INC and Sikkim State Congress, as in a universally illiterate and politically innocent community such as Bhutan even the concept of ‘public’ was unknown.
For some time, the Congress did raise a series of demands for redressal of their grievances against the government, but no body even bothered to reject them. Then they got bold and began to raise serious demands such as abolition of feudal system, civil and political rights, and democratization of the administration and closure ties with India4. The Bhutan Congress took pain to identify itself with the majority of the Bhutanese, by which they meant Nepalese speaking southerners, the Lhotshampas; from among them the Nepalese constituted 64 percent of the 7, 00,000 total population in mid 1950’s, as claimed by them. Inspired by the Satyagraha (civil disobedience) launched by INC, the Congress launched its civil disobedience movement at Gelugphu by sending about one hundred ‘volunteers’ on March 22, 1954. Worried of the rumors and inexperienced in handling such eventualities, the Government of Bhutan had mobilized its national militia to deal with the situation. The Congress activists were ordered to disperse, which they refused. The future Commissioner of Southern Bhutan, J B Pradhan or the Noely Babu, ordered to open fire on the Satyagrahis and it is alleged that the many of them were injured in the commotion. The Congress activists were chased to Indian Territory, from where they had entered Bhutan. The Government Bhutan maintained that the Satyagraha was resorted to by the outsiders (none-Bhutanese) and they requested the Government of India not to permit Indian Territory for such a use in future. The Government of India issued orders to the Bhutan State Congress not to use Indian territory for political purposes. D B Gurung, the President of the Congress, who spent most of his time at Siliguri (West Bengal) in those days, kept it alive by issuing occasional handouts for a decade or so. Once, Government of Bhutan offered amnesty to the political dissenters in 1968, Gurung accepted the amnesty and ended his politics for all the time to come.
A number of reasons may be identified for the failure of Bhutan State Congress as a political party in the body politics of Bhutan. Firstly, Bhutan in 1950’s was not only a dynastic despotism, where the civic and political rights of the subjects were not recognized, but also there was no administrative structure to administer the public affairs. Secondly, in the absence of an effective media of communication such as roads, wheeled transport, print and audio-visual media and prevalence of a universal illiteracy, political agitation launched by the B S Congress was premature. Thirdly, neither the B S Congress extended its activities among the Dupkas, nor the latter recognized the former as their own institution. Consequently, it remained exclusively a Nepalese political party on the southern frontiers of Bhutan. As the Bhutanese were reluctant to accord national status to the Nepalese, it was not considered respectable to associate with an irritant population. Fourthly, even the Bhutanese Nepalese did not identify themselves with the cause of the Congress at large. It was mainly because of their threatened and insecure status in Bhutan. Fifthly, the Congress committed a blunder to identify itself with the Indian National Congress, which was considered by the Bhutanese rulers as a disruptive force in their affairs. This point becomes clearer, if one reads Dharamraja –Gandhi episode of 1931 and immature king’s reaction to the event. Sixthly, the government of India under the leadership of Indian National Congress was itself not sure in early 1950’s, how much control it could have on Bhutan. Thus, attitude of the INC was ambivalent to Bhutan State Congress to say the least. However, India was interested in stability of Bhutan, which meant continuation of oppressive dynastic rule. This was a major policy inheritance of free India from colonial rule in which discontinuation of the dynastic rule in Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan was considered inadvisable and against the larger Indian interests. Lastly, the rulers of Bhutan were making all possible efforts to distance themselves from things Indian and display its autonomy and distinctiveness from India as a strategy to claim sovereignty at an appropriate time. It was obvious that the efforts made by the Bhutan State Congress were to the contrary to the above mentioned policy5.
It was Jawaharlal Nehru, who impressed upon his host, the young third Druk-Gyalpo, to take steps for introducing a modest level of development through planning. The Government of India agreed to finance such activities and that is how Bhutan opened up southwards through modern roads in 1962 for the first time. It was also the year (1958) that the Bhutanese Nepalese (the Lhotshampas) were granted citizenship for the first time with a view to facilitating inexpensive labour for construction work invariably located in the South. Thus began a short period of honey-moon for inter-ethnic relation between the Dukpas and the Lhotshampas, which lasted for about 25 years. Some sincere efforts were made to integrate the Lhotshampas in the Dukpa fold. This was done by deliberate state efforts to provide education, scholarship, monetary incentive for inter-ethnic marriages, teaching of Nepali and Sanskrit in schools, giving Government jobs to the qualified Lhotshampas, sending their representatives to the Tshongdu (National Assembly) and the Royal Advisory Council and other walks of live. The Lhotshampas also reacted sensibly by not taking sides with conflicting parties, when Bhutan was plunged in crises twice in mid 1960’s and early 1970’s. The Bhutan king was so much convinced by the genuineness of the Lhotshampas that he gave them a Bhutanese identity, the Lhotshampas, the southerners in 1975. By now, Nepali was some thing like the lingua franca of Bhutan, taught in institutions, used on the floor of the National Assembly, recording all the state documents also in Nepali and the first state sponsored Bhutanese newspaper, Kuensel, simultaneously publishing in English, Dzongkha and Nepali. The Nepali language opened for the Bhutanese a new and wide door to the south and west.
Perhaps the Bhutanese reasoned with the reality prevalent on its immediate southern and western borders in between 1975 to 1985 and drew their own lessons. They decided that their only chance to keep the southern Bhutan in effective control was through an aggressive policy of cultural assimilation of the Lhotshampas Bhutanese within the Dukpa fold. This led to a silent reversal of some two decades old practice of active integration and in its place imposition of a strict ‘code of conduct’ (Dig lam Namza) on the Lhotshampas. The occasion came with decennial census enumeration in 1988. The instructions were silently issued to the enumerators that the Nepalese diacritical marks were to be minimized and an effective Dukpa image was to be highlighted. The state began to encourage Dukpas to marry Nepalese girls often against their wishes; the government increased cash payment for inter-ethnic marriage from Nu. 5,000 to Nu. 10,000, which has been discontinued since then. The teaching of Nepali in schools was withdrawn and thus a number of Nepali teachers lost their jobs, but they were declared illegal migrants. Every Bhutanese subject was commanded to put on Dukpa Kho (male) and Kira (female Dress) on all occasions including government offices and schools. Home spun heavy woolen Dukpa dress was found inconveniently unsuitable for hot, humid and wet southern Bhutanese foothills. Dzongkha, the official language of state, was made compulsory for every body. Any body in Nepali dress, who could not speak Dzongkha, was declared an alien; he/she had to loose his/her patrimony and was invariably deported as a foreigner in spite of possessing other official documents proving persons’ citizenship. Appeals to the authorities went unheard and complaints led to untold humiliation. In desperation, over a hundred thousand Bhutanese of Nepalese extraction were forced to leave Bhutan and most of them went to refugee camps in Nepal, where about one hundred twenty-five thousand inmates are maintained by United Nations Commission for Refugee Rehabilitation (UNHCR). The Royal Government of Bhutan withdrew its recognition to lingua franca, literary and cultural language of Lhotshampas, Nepali, on the plea that the Lhotshampas, in fact, speak their dialects such as Limbu, Magar, Gurung etc., and Nepali is not their language; it is a foreign language in Bhutan.
Perhaps what the Bhutanese saw through the window of Nepali language, what they read in it which came from Nepali litterateurs were rather disturbing for otherwise politically placid Bhutan. And they also rightly linked the Nepali literature with the mindset of the speakers and they decided to turn back the wheel of the events. The Royal Government decided to act and act fast in late 1980’s and they took pretext of the population enumeration through a general census. The citizenship laws were revised retrospectively and even the members of the National Assembly and Royal Advisory Council were thrown away from their patrimony and they found shelter in refugee camps. The Bhutanese turned so panicky that they drove away almost one-third of their subjects away from home and hearth. They did perpetrate a type of human genocide by inflicting all types of human right violations.
Two Steps Forward and Three Steps Backward on the Lhotshampa Refugees
The Royal Government of Bhutan (RGB) refuges to recognize the Lhotshampa refugees as a party to discuss their possible return to Bhutan, as a strategy to assert its mono-ethnic identity. In view of that, the Royal Government of Nepal (RGN), the host of about a hundred thousand refugees languishing in the eastern Nepalese districts, was constrained to take up the issue with the RGB. The two governments held fifteen rounds of talks alternately in two capitals to resolve the refugee problems. The tenth Ministerial Joint Committee (MJC) established in 2000 the joint verification team (JVT) consisting of five representatives each from both the governments for classifying the refugees into four agreed categories. The positions of two governments were harmonized in 2003 with reference to 3,158 families of the first camp of Khudanbari, Jhapa district in eastern Nepal. Among them, 74 families were (i) the bonafide Bhutanese, (ii) 2,182 were termed as the Bhutanese, who claimed that they were forcefully emigrated, (iii) 817 families were found to be non-Bhutanese and (iv) only 85 families were identified as the Bhutanese, who had committed criminal acts in Bhutan6. However, 575 persons from 36 families registered in this camp could not be interviewed, as they were away from the camp in the hospital or some other chores.
The Joint Ministerial Level Committee (JMLC) met for its 13th session in Thimphu on March 24-26, 2003. Similarly, the 14th JMLC met in Kathmandu on June 18th, 2003. The results of the verification teams were authoritatively accepted and it was decided to make them public. The Bhutanese Foreign Minister, Jigme Thinley, explained the implications of the four-point categorization of the refugees in the camps. “The bonafide 74 families consisting of 293 persons would be repatriated to Bhutan from September onwards this year. On their arrival in Bhutan, they would be given full citizen’s status and all rights and privileges enjoyed by a Bhutanese citizen”. The Minister informed the house that some of the persons placed in the category were those, who had proved that they were served with eviction notices. Further, he explained that in early 1990, some officials and gups (headmen) had gone beyond the call of duty and had issued eviction notices to the Lhotshampas.
“Secondly, the Bhutanese, who immigrated to Nepal willingly, will be permitted to apply for Nepalese citizenship in accordance with the law of the land. Those of the emigrants, who were forcefully evicted from Bhutan and are willing to return, will be permitted to re-apply for citizenship. It is the most numerous category, in which 2,182 families and 8,595 persons are affected. Re-application for the Bhutanese citizenship is permitted under the provision of the Citizenship ACT of Bhutan. Article NGAI of the Citizenship Act, 1977 stipulates that a Bhutanese citizen, having left the country, returns and applies for citizenship, his application will be kept pending on probation for a period of at least two years. The citizenship will be granted to him provided he had not been responsible for any activities against the government during the probation. It is possible that some of these persons may apply for Bhutanese citizenship. They shall be dealt with under the provisions of law.
“Thirdly, 817 families of non-Bhutanese extraction must return to their respective countries. Fourthly, 85 families falling in the fourth category had criminal records behind them such as : (i) terrorist activities, (ii) destruction of schools, bridges and other service facilities, (iii) violent demonstration, ( iv) kidnapping, extortion and blackmail, (v) loan default, embezzlement of public funds, and (vi) attempts to undermine Bhutan’s good relations with the neighbouring and donor countries. On their arrival in Bhutan, they will be handed over to the police for custody; they shall be charged for their crimes in the High Court and will be given opportunity to prove their innocence. If they were innocent, they shall be treated as if they fall in category two above. And those of them, who would be found guilty by the court, will serve their full sentences”.
If one believes the Foreign Minister, there is bound to be many returnees from the refugee camps, who would be legally Bhutanese and in spite of all the reservations on the part of Bhutan, who would have to be welcome back to Bhutan. But the RGB is silently and stealthily settling the ‘shifting cultivators’ from ‘North’ on the southern Duar land left behind by the Lhotshampas refugees. Social Scientist, Minar Rimple and ‘Human Rights Expert, Seema Mishra, prepared a special report on behalf of ‘Habitat Coalition’ on Lhotshampa refugees based on the interviews conducted in September-October, 2001. They found that the RGB had amended its citizenship laws retrospectively with a view to deny citizenship rights to the Lhotshampa refugees. The authors also found that the RGB was resettling the southern Nepalese fields with the landless Dukpas from ‘North’7. Ram Sharan Mahat, the then Minister of Finance, RGN and the leader of the Nepalese team to the JVT, reacted on behalf of the refugees: “This is unfortunate. This will not be helpful in resolving the refugee issue. Forced resettlement of the ‘Northerners’ in to southern Bhutan has always been the aim of the Druk regime. But we have been protesting the plan for a long time. Our position was and is that the Bhutanese refugees should be allowed to return to their original homes in a dignified manner. They had indicated that they would provide adequate land somewhere in the country. We are against this and want the refugees to be provided with their original homes”. However, Bhutan has informally informed Nepal that they too face the problem of landless settlers, particularly in the ‘North,’ and desired to settle them in the ‘South’ ignoring the fact that southern Duars are the most thickly inhabited part of the country. Not only that, now there is a proposal to build the second international airport of Bhutan on such a land near Gelegphu
The announcement of the results of the verification team on 18th June 2003 led to a serious stir among the refugees residing in the various camps. Refugee demonstrators, numbering in thousands, marched along the camp roads carrying placards and chanting slogans denouncing the results. Students abandoned their classes and joined the protest marches. Protest rallies were organized in Birtamod and in front of the office of the JVT at Damak. However, the refugees were encouraged to make their appeals against these decisions and submit their appeals within 15 days of dateline. At long last, 94 percent of the refugees falling in categories two, three and four from the Khudanabari camp filed their applications against the decision. The 15th JMLC met in Thimphu on October 20-23, 2003 and agreed to repatriate all the refugees from Khudanbari camp from categories 1, 2, and 4 by February 15, 2004. The RGB also committed full coverage of the expenses that it would incur in the repatriation process.
In the words of one of the refugee activists: “On 22 December (2003), three weeks after their arrival in Damak, the Bhutanese and (the) Nepalese representatives of the JVT scheduled a week long information campaign for the refugees in the Khudanabari camp to inform them about the conditions under which they are expected to return to Bhutan. The conditions revealed were extremely harsh, falling short of basic international standards of return. The assembled crowd became agitated with a heightened sense of anxiety and anger and there was no possibility for questions in a coherent manner, as many individuals were speaking together and (some) others began shouting. The situation resulted in a scuffle between the refugees and the Bhutanese JVT members and as a consequence the Bhutanese JVT members left for Bhutan the very next day, cancelling the rest of their planned stay in Nepal. This incident derailed the whole bilateral process, and efforts are still being made by the RGN to put the process back on track. No repatriation movement started as planned in February 2004”8.
Will the above stipulations be applicable to the individuals or the families? All these stipulations are being debated and argued by others and most concerned units, the Lhotshampa refugees, are deliberately kept out from the entire process by the Bhutanese establishment. This is patently absurd that those, whose future is being debated, are not heard of. And the result is frustration. This got exhibited in December last as mentioned above, when the JVT visited the refugee camps in Nepal. For the last couple of years Nepal is in turmoil. First, there was the massacre of the royal family by the crown prince, leading to crowning of a new king. Then, the king dismissed the duly elected Prime Minister and disbanded the parliament. The political parties are in the street agitating for restoration of their democratic rights, The king went on experimenting with the office of the prime minister by appointing long discredited politicians of ‘panchayati era’. Meanwhile, the country is faced with one of the most violent phase of its history in the form of Maoist movement, in which armed forces and royal establishment are the main targets. In fact, in the current chaotic situation of Nepal, every body is against some body. In this chaos, the Lhotshampa issue has been relegated to the margin of the Nepalese concern. In fact, the Bhutanese policy makers are enjoying the discomfort on the part of the Lhotshampa spokesmen. They happily announce that they were ready to take steps to resolve the issue, but the delegates of the RGN did not turn up in the confused national political scenario in the country. In the process, agony of Lhotshampa refugees is further prolonged.
But how long this uncertain situation will be permitted to continue? In the words of a perceptive scholar, though “the Bhutanese strategy had not been conceived in a geopolitical vacuum: forces beyond the kingdom’s control swirled and buffeted it…Yet to accept that the Lhotshampas, who remained in Bhutan would have to live, as one informant put it, ‘with heads hung low’, would be implicitly to assent to the preposition that the extent to which a nation affords human and cultural rights to its members is in some way related to its size and location; that the mono-ethnic states are viable, while multi-cultural states are not. It would also be to surrender to the hegemony of the idea, which constructs Bhutan, as ‘essentially’ and ‘exotically particular kind of place – a typological stereotype”9.
In such a desperate situation, we had hinted elsewhere that the Nepalese Maoists, Lhotshampa refugees and Indian rebels such as ULFA, NDFB and KLO may co-ordinate their efforts against the three established regimes: Nepal, Bhutan and India10. Frustration, dejection and desperation are so much agonizing to the Lhotshampas that they formed the Bhutan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist); BCP (MLM), on 22 April, 2003 and suggested that the minority Drukpa government must concede the democratic aspirations of people; otherwise they would meet a violent end. How strong the co-ordination among these dissenters is is any body’s guess, but its potential cannot be questioned. After all did the Maoist rebels in Nepal catch the eye of the power to be in Nepal for the last many years? There are continuous reports from Bhutan that ‘the Lhotshampa terrorists’ from the refugee camps have been raiding Bhutanese establishments in the southern districts. Another dimension has been added to the all ready complicated issue of the refugees in the UNHCR camps. The camp authorities have been consistently referring to ‘donor fatigue’ so far running expenses are concerned. At last United States of American dignitaries emerged on the scene and offered to take as much as 60,000 of the refugees and exhorted its western allies to follow its lead. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and some European countries came forward to volunteer to take thousands of the Lhtshampa refugees to their respective countries in 2007. Bhutan promptly welcome the move, Nepal reluctantly agreed to, India pretended that she had nothing to do it, but the affected lot of humanity, Lhotshampa refugees reacted violently. Consequently, listing of potential migrants to USA was stopped and since then, Bhutan is busy in its election, coronation to the fifth Druk Gyalpo and Nepal is passing through epoch making events in its history for the last couple of years, refugees are left to their fate to languish in the squalour of the camps. The vacuum thus created is filled by ever increasing activities of the elements such as the Bhutan Communist Party and Bhutan Tiger Force, who have forged new alignments with the extremist political outfits across the political boundaries of the nation states.
Flushing out the Indian Insurgents Sheltered in Southeastern Bhutan
It is not surprising that the Indian rebels began to descend on the Bhutanese hills and forests during the period of exodus of the Lhotshampa refugees to Nepal. It is alleged that Bhutan ‘wanted to utilize the militant infiltrators as a bargaining chip to discourage India from supporting any pro-democracy movement in Bhutan; to maintain a neutral stand on Bhutanese refugees and to pressure India to extradite United Front for Democracy ( UFD) leader, Rongthong Kinley Dorji’11. Even RGB representatives accepted that the rebels were helped in a number of ways in Bhutan including overt and covert support from the state functionaries. But the unwelcome guests continued to stay ignoring even mild protests from the RGB. They increased their presence in number and association and in course of time there were as many as 32 known camps operating in the country. The government of Bhutan was forced to open negotiation with the rebels to withdraw from their country voluntarily within a time frame. But it was not to be. The ULFA leadership even threatened to bow up the royal palace in the event of crack down on them. There were long debates on rebels’ presence in Bhutan on the floor of the Bhutanese National Assembly.
So much so indulgence was involved that a number of well-placed functionaries were reportedly provided a variety of supports to the unwelcome guests12. Kuensel, Bhutan’s National Newspaper, reports that 111 collaborators were sentenced after the operation flush out (Kuensel : Vol. XIX, No. 35 : 1&20 ). It is entirely a different matter that as much as 60 percent of the convicts were Lhotshampas, which may be interpreted in more than one way. We had hinted earlier a possible coalition between the Lhotshampa dissenters and the Indian insurgents13. There is another possibility as well. The Royal Government might have used the ploy to further harass the be-laboured Lhotshampas, in the given situation, the RGB will use any cudgel to nab them and show them in bad light. In this context, the Green Belt Policy, adopted by the Tshongdu on March 19-20, 1990 and subsequently abandoned, may be mentioned. It was obvious that this policy was meant for harassing and evicting the Lhotshampas from their patrimony.
At long last, a number of developments occurred, which forced the RGB to order its armed forces to flush the rebels out of Bhutan. Firstly, the Government of India was consistently demanding that the Indian rebels be dispelled from Bhutan. The Bhutanese response that the Assamese, Boros and Kochs, had been its traditional neighbours and Bhutan had to think seriously, of its future relations with them, in case it takes action against the rebels. This reasoning never sounded logical to the Indians as if India as such does not consist of those three ethnic groups. State leaders from Assam and West Bengal, military functionaries on state visits to Bhutan, diplomatic representatives and even the Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary on Security Affairs, suggested that the time was running out for Bhutan to take action against the rebels. Considering the sensitivity of the Bhutanese on its territorial sanctity, the Indian armed forces scrupulously maintained a distance from Bhutanese territorial limit. At long last, the Druk rGyalpo was “very firmly” told by the Indian leadership about the action expected, while His Majesty was in India on a state visit in October, 2003. The very next month, the newly appointed Home and former and the future first elected Prime Minister and the “Bhutanese Man of the Crisis”, Lyonpo Jigme Thinley, went to the rebels in view of the Tshongdu’s resolution to negotiate finally a withdrawal from Bhutan.
There have been demands on the floor of the Tshongdu to take action against the rebels. The rebels had been harassing the Bhutanese subjects. Bus road traffic from the eastern part of Bhutan across the Indian Highways was disrupted; passengers were killed when buses were ambushed; even members of the armed forces were not spared and a senior army officer was killed. The Chimis (the members of the National Assembly) were particularly upset with the rebels because they did not honour the words given by them to the RGB to close certain camps by December 31, 2001. So much so that the rebels were operating from 304 villages affecting 66,464 individuals from 10 out of 20 districts in the country, almost half of the country. A member of the National Assembly sounded the warning and demanded to know from the RGB: “We cannot wait until they reach the capital”.
We had indicted the possible link and association between the rebels and the Lhotshampa refugee14. We had also described the Banthar episode in which rebels frustrated the RGB’s efforts to dispossess the Lhotshampas of their fertile land on plea of the rebels’ posing risk to their security. Many of the disgruntled and frustrated young boys and girls were vulnerable to the Robin Hood style of the rebels. We had also referred the emergence of Bhutan Communist Party, which does not believe in the existence of the national boundaries and in their desperation they were ready to adopt any strategy to succeed by fair or foul means. By then the Nepalese Maobadis were literally killing the members of the armed forces and policemen in Nepal almost every day. In case of a possible link between BCP-Lhotshampas, Maobadis and ULFA-NDFB-KLO (Bhutan Communist Party-Lhotshampa (refugees)-Maobadis (Nepalese)-United Liberation Front of Asom-National Liberation Front of Boroland-Kamtapuri Liberation Organization), it would have been a nightmare for the Himalayan Shangri-La of Bhutan.
The RGB and the Indian rebels held four rounds of talks between 1998 and 2001 to find a way so that the rebel camps could be dismantled. The talks led to no concrete steps in these regards. They turned out to be defiant and arrogant: “If they met petrol of the Royal Army, they would refuse to give way… they were arrogant. It was unbearable. They were tremendously confident vis-a-vis their military prowess as far as Bhutan and India was concerned”, informed the Home Minister of Bhutan with anguish to a journalist15. As a last-ditch effort, the rebels were summoned to a meeting in October 2003, to get them to see the reason and honour the commitment to leave the country peacefully. Then the RGB gave them a 48 hours ultimatum to leave Bhutan peacefully; other wise the Bhutanese armed forces would evict them forcefully. The rebels advanced a spacious logic that as they were fighting for freedom from India and it was their right of survival to be in Bhutan as long as their fight would continue.
The RGB gave 48 hours ultimatum on December 13th to the rebels to leave or face the consequences, and the Royal Bhutan Army was ordered to flush them out. The small Bhutanese army has largely been a ceremonial one, which had not seen real action in the battlefield. It is an army, which is trained by the Indian Military (Indian Military Training Unit: IMTRAIT) and its top brass had been at the Indian Military academy at Pune and Dehradun. The operation was swift and effective. Within two days of its start on December 15th, all 32 rebel camps were dismantled; about 100 rebels were killed; about 500 of them were either captured or they surrendered; 27 children and 37 women were handed over to the Indian Military. The operation continued even after two weeks from its start, as its topography was mountainous and forested. The ULFA termed the operation flush out as the Bhutan’s betrayal of its cause and charged that it was largely an Indian army operation. The Indian army claimed that they did evacuate the wounded to the hospitals for urgent treatment and they did seal the Indo-Bhutanese borders so that no fugitive could take shelter in the south. Bhutan continues to be vigilant on its security threats to its future. Buses to its eastern parts are still not plying; necessary travel to the East is made in convoys and trade and administration continue to be paralyzed
Constitution sans the Lhotshampas
It appears that Ugyen Wangchuk deliberately chose the British colonial model of administration for his domain. He saw to it that no aristocracy emerged in the land as a potential challenge to the Wangchuk authority. In course of time, the British found Wangchuk’s relatives and associates, Ugyen and Sonam Dorjis, more pliable and convenient to deal with. For next six decades, Wangchuks and Dorjis, the two families, had almost jointly ruled Bhutan. The writer of these lines remembers the apt remark made by a shrewd and educated Lhotshampa functionary in late 1960’s that the common people of Bhutan did not maintain a distinction between the two families and considered them as the ‘joint rulers’ of the country. Things began to change fast after the assassination of the Prime Minister, Jigmie Dorji in 1964. By then the first generation educated Bhutanese from commoners’ background began to appear on the scene and they began to challenge the old order in a subtle way by mid-1970’s. Within a decade or so this new category of the Bhutanese elite found the Dukpa polity crowded enough and with a view to find enough space for themselves, they initiated with a nod from the ‘above’ an ethnic conflict between the Dukpas and Lhotshampas. And within a few years, Bhutan exploded with an unprecedented ethnic conflict, which is yet to be shorted out.
The Lhotshampa dissenters had been demanding that Bhutan must have a responsible government, a written constitution and a universal adult franchise. The Druk-Gyalpo is of the view that the Bhutanese system cannot afford all the tenets of democracy right now. In view of the prevailing circumstances, the democratic norms are being introduced slowly. The king had surrendered his role as the Head of the administration in 1998 to annually and indirectly elected Council of Ministers. He did not designate a Prime Minister, but done an on annual rotation nominally headed cabinet by a Chairman, who would be answerable to him. The candidates for the cabinet must have at least experience of being the Deputy Secretary or the above in the government. Thus, it will always be a body of select loyal government servants. It is pertinent to note that ever since the new experiment in cabinet making has started not a single Lhotshampa has adorned the Drukpa cabinet unlike in the past nominated dispensation.
On September 4, 2001, the Fourth Druk Gyalpo took a significant step to draft the Constitution for the country. Lyonpo Sonam Tobgyel, the Chief Justice of the Bhutan Court heads the Constituent Assembly and it has other 38 members. Apart from the chairman, other members of the body are: the Speaker of the Tshongdu, one each representative from 20 District Development Councils (DYTs), Chairman and the Members of the Royal Advisory Council (10), representatives of the Royal Government (5) and 2 lawyers from the High Court of Bhutan. The mandate to the Committee was “to ensure the sovereignty and security of the nation and the well being of the Bhutanese people for all the time to come. Bhutan must move with the time, ensure that the nation not only over comes all the internal and external threats, but also continues to prosper in an atmosphere of peace and stability”. Once more, it is the king, who desired the new constitutional dispensation to people. The serious observers do not miss the point that in this new dispensation, there is no specific representation of the Lhotshampas, who were the first to voice such a demand in the kingdom.
By the end of 2002 a draft Constitution was ready for discussion and it was placed before the Tshongdu for its views. The Druk Gyalpo commanded that let the draft Constitution be debated all over the country and public opinion be sought on it. For that it was decided that every District Development Council would discuss the draft. It is intended that every proposed stipulation would be explained to the subjects in simple language. Once they understand them and accord their consent to them, only then those provisions will be placed before the Tshongdu for its consideration and possible approval. It is also intended that the Constitution should incorporate the time tasted traditional laws of the land propounded by the Shabdrung along with the modern tenet of the democracy. Rules should be simple enough that the common Bhutanese understand them, remember them and put them in practice. However, it remains the mute point whether rights to form associations and dissent and basic human rights are being incorporated in this most important modern document of Bhutan.
From November, 2001 to October, 2003, 6 special meetings were held, 62 cassettes and 463 pages of verbatim records were made. In all, 100 Constitutions were studied, but the emphasis was placed on only select 22 such documents. The Draft Constitution was made public on March 26, 2003 and the king desired let the country debate on its provisions. The king started consultations on the proposed draft from on 29th October, 2005 in Thimphu and ended the process on May 4 2006 in Tongsa. Once he got the feedback from the subjects, he commanded that the language of the draft should be made as simple as possible. The Constitution has the following 34 Articles on: kingdom of Bhutan, monarchy, spiritual heritage, culture, environment, citizenship, fundamental rights, fundamental duties, principles of state policy, parliament, national council, national assembly, passing of bill, finance, trade and commerce, political parties, public campaign financing, formation of the government, opposition party, interim government, executive, judiciary, local self government, elections, royal audit authority, royal civil service commission, anti-corruption commission, defence, attorney general pay commission, holders of the constitutional offices, impeachment, national referendum, emergency, and amendment and authoritative text. It also contained four schedules on the national flag and national emblem, the national anthem, oath or affirmation of office, and oath or affirmation of secrecy respectively. A much relived chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, Daso Sonam Tobyel summed the exercise taken up by his colleagues: “The people of Bhutan did not want the Constitution, but the H M in his wisdom felt that it was necessary to have one for the benefit of our posterity”. However, it does take efforts to uncover the ingenious constitutional device to guard the mono-cultural Dukpa supremacy, though democracy by definition emphasizes plurality.
On Friday 18th July, 2008 at 10 o’clock, the His Majesty the king of Bhutan solemnly appended his signature to the draft constitution, followed by the Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley and his cabinet colleagues. The king stood for more than an hour, when the members the Tshongdu started signing the momentous document. By then, the Election Commission was instituted, political parties began to be formed, electoral identity cards were issued, and even mock elections were conducted through secret ballot boxes. At last Druk Phuensum Tshongpa (DPT) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) were registered as the main contenders of the electorates’ favour. The elections to the National Council, the upper chamber of the Bhutanese parliament, were held on December 31, 2007 and January 29, 2008 for all the 20 districts electing one member each. So far the election of the members for the National Assembly, the lower house of the parliament, was as concerned, the Election Commission established 865 polling booths for 318, 465 eligible voters to elect 47 members from 20 districts. There were 16 districts, which sent two representatives each, two districts elected 3 members each, Samtse chose 4 members and Tashigang had the privilege to elect the maximum number from a district by electing five members to the National Assembly. The elections were held on March 24, 2008 and out of the total, 235, 893 voters chose as many as 45 members from the DPT and the electorate decided to ignore the claims on the part of the PDP to run the administration by choosing only two of its candidates from Haa and Gasa. The leader of the DPT, Jigme Thinley, was naturally invited to form the government, who chose a highly educated and experienced team of 10 members. The cabinet has among others two Lhotshampas as the ministers of education and information and communication. In this way, the youngest democracy in the world has begun on a positive note of all inclusive representation.
Security Scenario of Bhutan and Its Neighbourhood
The above positive picture of the Bhutanese state remains incomplete in eve of the on-going ethnic conflict on its southern foothills. Whatever may its official demographic figure be, it goes without saying that Bhutan has not been able to assimilate its Lhotashampa population, ranging from official 14 percent to claimed 64 percent, in the Dukpa fold. Lhotshampa dominated five southern districts continue to remain unsettled and alleged extremists from the refugee camps take shelter prior to resorting to acts of violence in the country. While the kingdom was busy in thick of its first democratic elections, Kuensel reported arrest of one alleged terrorist, Dilbahadur Tamang, from the forests of the Tsirang district. Further it was reported that a 26 member team of Bhutan Tiger Force, again an alleged front organization of the Communist Party of Bhutan, had camped in dense forests and ran away when raided by the police. Again the Kuensel reported that members of the Bhutan Communist Party under the banner of the United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan exploded four bombs in Samtse, Dagana, Geylegphu and Thimphu on January 20, 2008, when the administration was busy with the arrangement for a smooth election to the national assembly.
There are three disturbing developments on the southern border of Bhutan. Firstly, about three decade old Gorkhaland movement in the district of Darjeeling has been revived by a new forum, Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha (G J M M or GJM) under the leadership of another uncouth political maverick, Mohan Gurung. The GJM has plans to demand Jalpaiguri and Koch Behar, apart from Darjeeling, as parts of proposed Gorkhaland. Once more the region is threatened by strikes, bundhs, violence, agitations, boycotts, and road blockades leading to hardship for Sikkim and Bhutan, whose flow of goods through Siliguri corridor is naturally blocked. A disturbed Darjeeling in particular and north Bengal in general adversely affects the normal flow of life to and from Bhutan to outside world. Incidentally, this was also the area, where Islamist fundamentalist, tribal extremists from north east India and other sundry agitators have of late been apprehended. This was the scenario in 1980’s, when Subhas Ghishing led Gorkhaland movement was on its zenith, which partly inspired Lhotshampa agitation in Bhutan and the wild apprehension on the part of the Bhutanese establishment against the Lhotshampas’ alleged conspiracy to turn the Drukpa kingdom into part of a Greater Gorkhaland or Greater Nepal. This possibility is once more in the offing and the Bhutanese and the region at large may have to face economic hardship in the event of the Gorkhaland movement turning more and more aggressive.
Secondly, in spite of Bhutan’s very successful diplomatic lobbying in its favour and all covert or overt backing from India, the two decades old issue of the Lhotshampa flight from the Bhutanese paradise has not died out. The idle refugees seating in the camps have been increasing their number by the natural process. In the absence of meaningful engagements, they naturally turn out to extreme form of organized politics or even crimes. The memory of the good old days in the Bhutanese Shangri-la, relatively plentiful resources around, the government bounty in the forms of various welfare programmes and occasional favours from the power to be, all are rapidly dying out. Moreover, it is becoming day by day difficult for the old guards from among the refugees to prevail upon the impatient younger folk, who see all around themselves deprivation, misery, denial, apathy, pessimism, violence, and struggle for survival. They do not have much hope in life and whatever recourse they have taken during the last decade by organizing peaceful march, protests, and non-violent agitations in support of their cherished goal to return to ‘home’ in Bhutan, have been frustrated by the powers to be. Even their historical and cultural cousins, the Nepalese, have been not to any help in their ultimate objective to return home honourably. Rather they are themselves caught in endless violence, disorder, pointless struggles and conflict all around. In such an apathetic situation, the refugees have decidedly turned to the extremist form of politics by organizing various known or secret forums such as Communist Party of Bhutan, Bhutan Tiger Force, and United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan and like. As they find all three states around them, Bhutan, India and Nepal, have uniformly turned ‘formal in response to their basic human rights’, they do not pretend to care much for abiding by the ‘laws of the lands’. So naturally they allegedly conduct occasional ‘hit and run raids’ on vulnerable targets in Bhutan and aspire to raise an insurrectionary army to take over the Dukpa establishment. In this process, they find the Maobadis, Naxalites, ULFA, NDFB, NSCN, and the like as their models and they do not hesitate to take help from any corner. Another significant point; they are dead against ‘going to the west as second time refugees’ and they violently oppose any move to rehabilitate the refugees in any third country. As they are the most desperate lot and there is no genuine move from any body to solve the refugee problem, they may prove most dangerous in course of time to the three sovereign nation states of Bhutan, India and Nepal in near future.
Thirdly, the Indian insurgents from the neighbouring North Bengal, where Kamtapri agitation, Gorkhaland movement, Adivasi Plantation labour are on restive path of different dimension, they have developed a feeling that their cultural aspirations, social development, economic prosperity and most important of all, their political aspirations are not met in the provinces such as West Bengal and Assam, though as such they do not appear to be anti- Indian to begin with. As the provinces take their activities as violation of the law and order and resort to ‘repressive actions’, these desperate agitating ill-educated and small time Robin hood type of leaders take to violence by acquiring easily available illegal fire arms, resorting to collecting ransom money from vulnerable targets and even looting at times arms from careless law enforcing agencies. As their activities increase, in the absence of a clear strategy to tackle their legitimate demands on time, the states turn out to be repressive. In the consequence, the initial small time leaders’ genuine local demands turned out to be unreasonably impractical to accept by any government. In this way, the gulf between the communities and the state keep on increasing in the absence of an effective dialogue. That is how the thin Indian corridor between Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan has turned out vulnerable from the strategic points of view, as the elements in the local communities have no hesitation in courting alien hostile forces as potential allies in their cause. Thus, K L O, NDFB and ULFA easily find sanctuary in the region and when pressed by the security forces, they take shelter in the unguarded/ poorly guarded Bhutanese sanctuary in the Duars and forests of the eastern parts. Needless to add that the timid, unhappy, unsettled, and apprehensive Lhotshampas find it difficult to refuse the demands of the uninvited alien guests. And the entire world is worried over alleged failed state of Pakistan, but its eastern cousin, Bangladesh needs to be kept on probing radar, as it provides the fourth link in the regional context.
We have tried to review the most significant events in Bhutan during the last seven decades in general and last decade in particular. We began by uncovering the possible Bhutanese apprehensions on the eve of the British withdrawal from its Indian Empire and how the Indian leadership took care of the Bhutanese sensibilities. Secondly, we informed our readers how India played a significant role in Bhutan’s efforts to open up by transforming its economy, society and infrastructure for introduction of a level of welfare programmes. Thirdly, we have briefly mentioned the background in which the Lhotshamp refugees left Bhutan and the efforts to solve the problem. Fourthly, we have recorded the fourth Druk Gyapo’s decision to resign as the head of the administration and ask a Constituent Committee to draft a written Constitution for the Himalayan kingdom. Next we took our readers in confidence on the first written Constitution of the kingdom, the first ever democratic election conducted in the country and the appointment of the first democratically elected government in the office. Sixthly, we have recorded how Bhutan flushed the Indian insurgents camped in its territory out and how are the insurgents lurking behind in the eastern Bhutan. Lastly, we have explained the prevalent security and strategic scenario around Bhutan in particular and the Eastern Himalayan states in general. We have noted that how the region has turned out to be hot bed of ethnic unrest, communal tension, adventurist political ideology, meeting ground of the transnational insurgents and avidly anti-state operative agencies. We feel this strategically located meeting ground of Bhutanese, Bangladeshi, Indian and Nepalese states has been of late ignored by the policy planners and strategic operatives of the four states at their own peril. This disturbing development in the region demands urgent attention for a co-ordinate effort to halt the rot and turn the region into a shared domain of prosperity.
1. India Office Library and Records (IOLR) MSS/ERIF/2/85/1-2223, Annual Reports, Secret, from P O in Sikkim to Political and
Foreign, No. 819/p.
2. Ibid, Secret: 4357, File No.1.
3. Rani Chuni, Bhutan Agent Raja S T Dorji’s wife and sister of king of Sikkim, expressed the feeling of let down by the British to
Col. F M Bailey, the third Political Officer in Sikkim ( 1918-1928) in a letter in reply to Bailey’s request to take the issue of Bhutan to
UNO: “The British Government can do nothing for Bhutan now, but can you tell me why before they left India, they did not give
us back what they have ( had) taken from us, our territories? Or arrange reasonable compensation of it? It is wrong that they
should leave us as they did at the mercy of the Indian Government. Any way, we have started our negotiations with India (n)
Government. We were at Delhi last May and they treated us very well indeed. Nehru is a great statesman and a gentleman. He and
all the people (functionaries) in the foreign department are far more understanding and sympathetic (to the cause of Bhutan) than
Weightman or Caroe or any one of their predecessors had ever been to us. It is sincere that India has no intention to encroach on
her neighbouring countries; she has not got energy for it, but within India, they want a strong united India without any
independent states to make mischief”. Ibid, July 21, 1948.
4. Gurung, D B: 1960: Bhutan’s Woes, Mankind, Vol. 4, No. 7, pp.33-45.
5. A C Sinha, 1998: Bhutan: Ethnic Identity and National Dilemma, Reliance Publishing House, New Delhi.
6. Kuensel: Bhutan’s National Newspaper, Thimphu, Vol.(10), p.4
7. Sinha, A C: 2003: The Indians of Nepali Origin and Security of Northeast India in Sinha, A C and T B Subba EDT ‘The Nepalis
in Northeast India: A Community in Search of Indian Identity’, Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi.
8. Adhikary, Khem K, 2004, Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal , mss, UNHCR Round Table: Solution for Refugees: A Place to Call Home,
New Delhi, and June 18.
9. Hutt, M: 2003: Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood, and the Flight of Refugees from Bhutan, Oxford University Press,
New Delhi, pp.281-82.
10. Sinha, A C: 2003 A: Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict in Bhutan in Mishra, O P and S. Ghosh (EDT.) Terrorism and Low
Intensity Conflict in South Asian Region, Manak Publications Pvt., Ltd. New Delhi.
11. Lama, M P: 2004: Experiments with Democracy, Frontline, Vol.21.No 1, p.18.
12. Saikia, Jaideep: 2003: Terrorism sans Frontiers: ULFA Digs Deeper in Bhutan in Mishra, O P (EDT) Terrorism and Low Intensity
Conflict in South Asian Region, Manak Publications Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, pp.447-449.
13. Sinha, A C, 2003, ibid,
14. Sinha, A C, 2003, ibid
15. Hazarika, S: 2004: Bhutan: Strength Sans Showmanship the Statesman, June 9, 2004.
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