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Bhutanese Refugees Battle World's Apathy

Bhutanese citizens of Nepalese origin have been living in refugee camps in Nepal for the past 17 years. Indian political parties have failed to pressure the Indian government (with its vast influence in the region) to resolve a potentially violent issue.

Bhutanese Refugees Battle World’s Apathy

Bhutanese citizens of Nepalese origin have been living in refugee camps in Nepal for the past 17 years. Indian political parties have failed to pressure the Indian government (with its vast influence in the region) to resolve a potentially violent issue.


hutan has always supported the Indian government’s stand during critical situations at the United Nations and a major part of Bhutan’s development expenditure is funded by India. This country of nine lakhs is the only country in the world to measure happiness with its Gross National Happiness index. Recently, Jigme Singye Wangchuk abdicated the throne in his son’s favour (the coronation is scheduled for 2008) after ruling for 34 years.

Perhaps sensing the winds of change in the rest of the world, the monarch began initiating a political and economic reform process from 1998 but it still leaves a lot to be desired. More than seven parties are active in the country and all of them have their support among Bhutanese refugees. These are Bhutanese of Nepalese origin who have been forced into camps in the Jhapa and Morang districts of Nepal by the Bhutanese administration, supported by India. Numbering around 1.50 lakh these refugees have been living in seven camps in these districts for the past 17 years. Jigme Singye Wangchuk’s “democratic drama” and his abdicating the throne in favour of his son, Jigme Kesar Wangchuk has puzzled Bhutan watchers. In the electoral rehearsal that took place recently, 28 per cent votes were cast and the king is campaigning to prove that the poor turnout is because the country is in favour of autocracy rather than open elections. Prodemocracy activists in Bhutan point out that when the formation of political parties based on different ideologies is banned, the elections (parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in 2008 for the first time in the country’s history) cannot be much different from the elections in Nepal which were organised by the king of Nepal under the panchayati raj system. The 27-year old Oxford-educated Jigme Kesar Wangchuk is the supreme commander of the Bhutanese army and has the powers to make appointments to crucial positions. Surplus energy – which it sells to India – is the backbone of Bhutan’s economy. Bhutan currently has 30,000 MW power of which it utilises 1,020 MW.

Hounded Out of Home

According to official data, 20 per cent of Bhutan’s population consisted of Nepali-speaking Hindus who were evicted in 1990 due to the ethnic-racial policies of Bhutanisation. They were ordered to lead their life according to Buddhist customs and to speak the Dzonghka language. When they resisted, 60,000 of them were evicted. They were deprived of their citizenship and their assets were seized. The Bhutanese government views them as terrorists and their entry into Bhutan is prohibited. The most striking fact is that the Indian government which once had opened its territory for the safe passage of Bhutanese refugees into Bhutan is now reluctant to do so.

In the last 17 years, the governments of Nepal and Bhutan have gone through 16 rounds of talks but these have not led to any conclusion as yet. Bhutanese refugees feel that due to the influence of India on Nepal and Bhutan, the refugee problem cannot be resolved unless the Indian government takes the initiative to do so. All the political parties of Nepal, including the Maoists, hold that India should resolve this problem through tripartite talks and Bhutanese refugees feel that they too must be included in these talks.

On May 28, 2007, four political parties working with the Bhutanese refugees jointly formed the National Front for Democracy and started a peaceful movement for their repatriation under this banner. Nearly 15,000 Bhutanese refugees reached Mechi bridge. Along with Samajwadi Party MP Brijbhushan Tewari, I reached the Indo-Nepal Border at Pani Tanki (Darjeeling) with our supporters to express solidarity with the movement, but the local police and central government officials stopped us from going to the Mechi bridge. The border security force (BSF) personnel unnecessarily lathicharged the peaceful procession, burst teargas shells and fired for many hours due to which a young refugee died and 150 people were injured. After this firing, a memorandum was submitted on June 1. Bhutan Solidarity, INSAF and Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha demanded an inquiry into this incident by a high court judge, compensation for the injured and for the kin of the dead and immediate initiation of tripartite talks. These demands were addressed to the chief minister of West Bengal and the prime minister and handed over to the authorities simultaneously at more than a hundred places. On May 30, talks between the representatives of political parties of Nepal, police officials of India and Bhutanese refugees resulted in the suspension of the agitation for the next 15 days. This was the first time that the representatives of India, Nepal and Bhutan directly negotiated in the camps of the BSF situated on the Indo-Nepal Border and in which Nepali Congress, NCP (Maoist), NCP (UML), Nepali Congress (Democratic), Sadbhawana (A), Janmorcha, Sharnarthi Sarokar Samiti, chairman of the National Front for Democracy Thinley Penjore, vice-president Balram Podyal, Rana Sampang, Gup Khila, member Jasoda Woodathoki, Jagir Man Lama, Pema Wangchuk and leader of People’s Forum for Human Rights, Bhutan (PFHRB) D P Kafle participated. From India, a number of officials from the civil, police and paramilitary establishments participated in the talks. The negotiations resulted in the unconditional release of the arrested protesters by the Indian government. Martyr Sherbahadur Shiva’s family has not yet been compensated and while the Indian government has given its consent for the treatment of the injured, the agreement has not been honoured.

Indian Indifference

As far as the Bhutanese refugees are concerned, the political parties of India have failed to take a clear stand. Although the Forward Bloc and CPI have expressed their intentions to resolve the issue, the initiatives taken by the Samajwadi Party are not openly supported by the left parties. Perhaps, the main reason behind this is the CPI(M) government in West Bengal and the communication gap between the political parties working among the Bhutanese refugees. Bhutanese refugees often complain of the police inquiries and

Economic and Political Weekly July 28, 2007 repression whenever they visit Delhi. Senior leader of the SP and former union minister Janeshwar Mishra has written a letter to the PM and the general secretary of the CPI(M) to hold tripartite talks at the earliest. Many senior journalists, academics and politicians have been making efforts individually and through their organisations to focus public attention on the plight of these refugees.

This problem has been raised in Parliament by Ganesh Singh. Foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee responded that the refugee problem is a bilateral issue between Nepal and Bhutan and that the government of India has been repeatedly making appeals to these two governments to resolve this humanitarian crisis as soon as possible.

The fact is that neither the government of India nor the Indian political parties have sincerely tried to resolve this crisis concretely. Anyone who tries to do so is subtly told by the authorities that the autocracy in Bhutan is in India’s national interest. No one is ready to explain how the establishment of democracy in Bhutan negatively affects India’s national interests. The key lies in the geo-political position of Bhutan. Like the Nepalese government, Bhutan also tries to gain the confidence of the Indian government by pointing to threats from the Chinese establishment.

Political parties other than the BJP have contributed a lot to the establishment of democracy in Nepal. The BJP seems to favour monarchy in Nepal and Bhutan. In the last six decades, the socialists in Nepal have shown great commitment towards the establishment of democracy. Similar commitment is shown by the left parties after the Maoists gained power at the grassroots. But in the case of Bhutan, the left does not have a strong footing. George Fernandes, Rabi Ray, Digvijay Singh, Mohan Singh and Arun Kumar sat on a night-long dharna outside Tihar jail demanding the release of the Bhutanese leader Rongthong Pillai Dorji. Similarly, for the release of Teknath Rijal, many programmes were organised under the leadership of Anand Swaroop Verma and Swami Agnivesh. But after the NDA came to power, George Fernandes and Digvijay Singh took no step towards resolution of this problem. This is the reason why many Bhutanese and Nepalese repeatedly ask whether the socialists will show the same interest in resolving the problem if they again come to power in India.

Conditions have been deteriorating in the Bhutanese refugee camps. Two refugees have been martyred in May in police firing. Recently, Hari Bengali gave a statement in the Beldangi camp that the youths living in the camps possess weapons and these camps have been turned into terrorist centres. This statement resembles the autocratic statements of the Bhutanese king. When the refugees approached Hari Bengali and asked about the weapons a new controversy began and firing took place.

The US wants to increase its intervention in Nepal and Bhutan by taking the excuse of Bhutanese refugees. It is primarily concerned with the increasing strength of Maoists in Nepal. It wants to pressurise India and China by intervening in the matters of Nepal and Bhutan. It is noteworthy that the US stood against the Maoists with the Nepalese king till the last moment. Recently though, the US ambassador invited political parties of Bhutan to discuss the problem.

I have visited the refugee camps twice. Ten years ago I visited these camps with a delegation as the vice-president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. This time, it was a completely changed scenario when I visited with a delegation of the Bhutan Solidarity. The young people in the camps feel that the non-violence of the last 16 years has not resulted in anything, while on the other hand, only 10 years of violent struggle in Nepal resulted in the elimination of autocracy and the Maoists coming to power. The refugees told me that they are ready to follow the non-violent path for only another year. We have tried hard to resolve the issue by organising programmes in India. But the apathy of India and Nepal will only strengthen the violent forces at the ground level.

It is imperative for the leaders of the Bhutanese refugees to understand that the Indian government cannot compel the king of Bhutan to act. Democratic struggle in Bhutan is only possible through the Bhutanese people. Apart from the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, we can see that none of the leaders in Pakistan are ready to continue their struggle by living in their country and coping with threats to their lives. Nepal succeeded in its struggle for democracy because its leaders were continuing their struggle living inside the country itself and gaining support from the democratic forces outside. Bhutanese leaders must also prepare themselves for facing the challenges and continuing their struggle by their physical presence inside their country.

Recently, the struggle of the Bhutanese refugees has led to a situation where India’s foreign minister has stated that the Bhutanese refugee problem is an international issue and India will take the initiative to resolve the problem. This is definitely a step forward.

Now political parties in India need to pressurise the Indian government to start tripartite talks immediately and to include the Bhutanese refugees’ representatives.



Economic and Political Weekly July 28, 2007

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