The uprooted of Bhutan

Published : Aug 01, 2003 00:00 IST

Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood and the Plight of Refugees from Bhutan by Michael Hutt; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003; pages xx + 308, Rs.595.

HUMAN rights, democratic accountability, good governance. These buzzwords and phrases, these normatively desired requirements of a fair and equitable social order, have for long masked a multitude of sins. More brazenly than ever before, they are now a convenient and cynical rationale for a variety of agendas of recolonisation (`regime change') at work all over the so-called post-colonial world. The scepticism implied in the prefix to that modish usage, `post-colonial', which like so many other theories of knowledge is itself a construct of colonial ideologues, is intended.

Colonialism has never become past history, thus necessitating and justifying a `post-colonial' perspective. Recolonisation of areas of vital material concern to colonialism and imperialism was inherent in the very process of decolonisation, in the deals and the compromises that were part of that process. In some cases, mostly in Africa and most blatantly and tragically in the former Belgian Congo, recolonisation virtually accompanied the process of decolonisation. Those events of 1960-61 in Central Africa now appear in retrospect to mark the beginnings of this simultaneous process of decolonisation and recolonisation. The consequences are there for all to see. In cases where physical re-occupation of an erstwhile colony was neither desirable nor necessary, the process has been marked by some subtlety and circumspection.

Iraq is only the latest adventure of this kind, but certainly is not going to be the last irrespective of how this misadventure will shape. Iran is being prepared, along with a whole slew of listed `rogue states', with Zimbabwe added to the Lord High Executioner's List. Other countries are being cajoled, with barely concealed threats of being included in that list of `rogue states', to join as auxiliaries and mercenaries to `stabilise' the process of recolonisation - and promises of rewards for those who obey. Ask not which country is being readied for such democratic rescue from tyranny, for every country in the so-called Third World is a potential recipient of such attentions.

Along with `rogue states', so designated, which invite the fearsomely democratic attention of those determined to bring democracy to these benighted countries, there are countries much too small, much too `remote', having resources far too insignificant, with little or no `geo-strategic' significance. However, in the new world that is being constructed, perhaps very few countries would qualify for any kind of benign neglect when that construction process is completed.

In the meanwhile, what would happen if in such a relatively `remote' country, say, like Bhutan, there were real or carefully constructed (from outside) instances of human rights violations, absence of democratic accountability and other similar departures from or violations of democratic norm? Would a `regime change', even if not imported, be justified? `It all depends', as one used to say.

These reflections have been provoked by a reading of the excellent and most tellingly titled book - Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood and the Plight of Refugees from Bhutan by Michael Hutt - on the complex issues surrounding sustained discrimination, ill-treatment and abuse, culminating in expulsion from the land of their birth, of a very large number of Bhutanese citizens of Nepali origin in 1991. Nearly a hundred thousand of them have been staying in refugee camps in Nepal for over a decade.

The book presents the historic context of these events and, in a series of powerful narratives based on extended visits to five refugee camps spread over several years and conversations with the residents, and structured into closely argued chapters. It examines the complex religious, social, political and, inescapably, `ethnic' issues surrounding the process of consolidation of a relatively small and weak nationality into a nation state; and the problems that those who are not the indigenes present to this process of nationality formation - as victims as well as potential threats.

The most memorable parts of the book are the narratives, the stories the refugees try to tell, the memories they try to evoke. The scrupulousness of the recording of these stories, like the fragment of a biography of a refugee woman given the name `Dil Maya', is indeed admirable. The book is broadly sympathetic to the plight of the Nepali refugees - none who is familiar with the events as they took place in 1991-92 can but be so - but is also sensitive to the apprehensions of Bhutan.

THE `problem', whether seen as having its origins in the migration of Nepalis into Bhutan or as being related to the discrimination against and oppression of such Bhutanese citizens of Nepali origin, however, goes back several decades. Chapter 10.1 discusses several such legislative and administrative measures such as the Marriage Act of 1980, the various Acts relating to nationality and citizenship, the rules that governed the 1988 Census, all of which specifically targeted the Lhotshampa. Pre-dating all these, and in a sense leading up to these legislative and administrative measures, was the `Bhutanisation' programme.

Seen against this background, the only surprising aspect of the events of late 1991 was not that they took place, but they happened so fast. In the space of a few months beginning December 1991, nearly a hundred thousand Bhutanese citizens of Nepali origin from a wide belt of territory broadly identified as `southern Bhutan', covering areas in the seven southern districts of Samchi, Chhukha, Chinang, Geaylegphug, Shemgang, Pema-Gatsel and Samdrup Jongkhar, fled or were forced to flee the country and seek refuge in camps set up in Morang and Jhapa, two districts in south eastern Nepal.

For over a decade the issue has festered, with little prospect of the refugees being able to return to their homes. The arguments over whether they really fled state terror and violence or were induced to leave, to be used eventually as a weapon against Bhutan, are endless, and, in the final analysis, also futile. The reference to Nepali migration into Bhutan from Sikkim is interesting. The widely held perception that such migration inescapably transformed Sikkim into a Nepali-majority state - and all the consequences that followed - lies at the core of the apprehensions and anxieties of the `ethnic Bhutanese' in respect of their present and future status, as the true inheritors and creators of their past and future. Such apprehensions exist in other areas of northeastern India as well. Indeed, one can visualise a future, not too distant either, when persons of Nepali origin, irrespective of their nationality and citizenship, will be the dominant group in a whole stretch of territory of southern Himalayas, stretching from the Terrai region to the northeastern corner of India.

Leaving aside the weaknesses inherent in the institution of the Chogyal and of the person who then occupied that office, the annexation/incorporation of Sikkim, once a `semi-autonomous protectorate' of India, into a constituent State of the Indian Union in 1975 (during the Emergency) could not have been facilitated had the demography of Sikkim not been so radically transformed over decades of Nepali migration resulting in a Nepali majority, and the reduction of the Lepcha and the Bhutia into a minority.

The author recognises that such perceptions exist and have contributed heavily to the sense of besiegement in Bhutan of those who for want of a better expression can be described as `ethnic Bhutanese', even though, as the author notes, the `ethnic' categorisation of the population of Bhutan remains `problematic'.

There are three broad `ethnic' categories under which the people of Bhutan have been historically classified. These are the Ngalong (Western Bhutanese), who, despite being in overall minority, constitute the ruling elite and, with the central Bhutanese, dominate Bhutanese politics; the Sharchop (Eastern Bhutanese); and the Lhotshampa (Southern Bhutanese).

Estimates of the population of these three categories vary widely: Ngalong (10 to 28 per cent), Sharchop (30 to 44 Per cent) and Lhotshampa (25 to 53 per cent). Official Bhutan says that the Southern Bhutanese constitute 25 per cent of the population, which taken with the higher estimated percentage of the other two ethnic categories would account for 97 per cent of the population. The lower estimate stretches one's credulity since it means that the share of the Bhutanese of Nepali origin has remained static since 1947 - incredibly stabilised and equalised growth of all the ethnic categories over five decades.

The author notes that there is a fourth category, the people of central Bhutan who, while not having any specific ethnonym of their own, "are distinguished by their use of various local dialects of an ancient language which has its centre in the Bumthang region, whose broad valley contains many sites which date from the first diffusion of Buddhism to Tibet during the seventh to the ninth centuries".

The defining elements of ethnicity and nationalism, as well as the barriers dividing those definitions, are already set. The people in the west (the Ngalongs) and the east (the Sharchop) and the Central Bhutanese practise a Tibetan style of Mahayana Buddhism and speak the Tibetan-derived Dzongkha; the southerners (the Lhotshampa) are mostly Hindus, the vast majority of them speaking the Nepali language.

These divides are indeed set at the very beginning of the book, as it were in terms of another `clash of civilisations' covering the cultural history of the Himalayan people (the events in Bhutan thus become a mere sideshow) with not merely religion and language but even agricultural practices marking the divide between the two civilisations, the Sinic and the Indic, confronting each other at this borderland where the two overlap.

The following passage, in the very first paragraph of the book, is crucial for an understanding of the broad forces of history that the author sees as underlying the conflicts and confrontations:

"Much of the cultural history of the Himalayan peoples can be construed as the outcome of interactions between these two spheres along the line where they overlap. It quickly becomes evident when the region's history is viewed through this lens that since at least as early as the end of the first millennium A.D. the general trend of change has been one of Indicisation, in a process that has proceeded geographically from west to east along the flanks of the mountain chain. It is axiomatic that Tibeto-Burman languages have given way to Indo-Aryan languages, that religious beliefs and practices specific to particular localities or ethno-linguistic groups have been absorbed into the broader churches of Hinduism or, to a lesser extent, Buddhism; that shifting cultivation has given way to the ploughing and planting of permanent fields; that petty fiefdoms have been incorporated into new politics; and that feudal subjects have become the citizens of modernising states: China, India, Nepal, Bhutan." (Emphasis added.)

Herein lies the rub. Reading the book, one is not sure if Bhutan qualifies to be a `petty fiefdom' whose feudal subjects are on the way to becoming the citizens of a modernising state. Would Bhutan attain that blessed state of `good governance and democratic accountability', the slogans that accompany the new Crusaders, without outside intervention? Will persons of Nepali origin facilitate such a transformation in Bhutan as they did in Sikkim in 1975? Questions, questions.

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