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Bhutan Backgrounder

This tiny landlocked Himalayan Kingdom is presently in the throes of a modernisation dilemma. Headed by a modernist King, Jigme-Singye Wangchuk, the regime has been incrementally democratising political institutions even as it attempts preserve the Drukpa character of polity and society. The conflict in Bhutan is one of identity and power sharing. The minority Ngalongs, who occupy almost every position of any consequence in the country have increasingly come under pressure from ethnic Nepalis, whose principal demands include proportional representation in and democratisation of political institutions. Its remoteness and small internal security net-work has also attracted several insurgent groups fighting the Indian security forces, who have made the kingdom the location for their hide-outs and training camps.

The Ethnic Dilemma

Bhutans’ officially recognised population of about 1.9 million has two broad categories; the original inhabitants termed as the Drukpas (of the north), and the Lhotshampas (of the south) who are immigrants of Nepali origin. Of the three original ethnic groups - Ngalongs, Sarchops and Khengs - the Ngalongs dominate the state structure in Bhutan. According to the 1981 census, Bhutanese of Nepali origin constituted 53%, the Sharchop comprised 30% and the Ngalong, the ruling class 17%. However, according to the King, a recent census (date not specified) had shown that only 28% of Bhutanese citizens were of Nepali origin. This was largely due to a new Citizenship Law that de-barred a vast majority of the Nepalese immigrants from Bhutanese citizenship.

The Nepalese came to Bhutan initially in the early 1900s to collect timber from the forests. Thereupon, they had gradually settled down and took to farming. Over the years, many more Nepalese migrated to Bhutan as the country provided them with an economic opportunity that was extremely lucrative than that back home.

Following the example of Nepal's Congress Party, ethnic Nepalese set up the Bhutan State Congress (BSC) in 1952. The BSC, which was Bhutan's first political party, adopted demands for democratisation, the provision of citizenship rights and political representation for Nepali settlers as its main agenda. The Drukpa majority that perceived this development as a threat to its control over Bhutan refers to this period as the "first anti-national revolt". In a policy of accommodation Bhutan’s National Assembly enacted the Nationality Law in 1958 that, as a one-time measure, granted citizenship to the Nepalese immigrants. The BSC had allegedly received the support of both India’s Congress Party and the Nepali Congress of Nepal.

The process of regulating the entry of Nepalese into Bhutan commenced in December 1977. However, this has no linkage with the present crisis but was a response to a move by Nepal, whereby the Bhutanese were required to possess valid travel documents like passport to enter Nepal. Between 1961 and 1981, Nepali immigration into Bhutan increased rapidly as a result of the initiation of several development projects which offered employment. This was preceded by a phase where a modernising (King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, the reigning King’s father) had to forge a compromise with the traditionalist components of the royal state and, thus, prevail over narrowing the social base of the state dominated by the Ngalongs. This compromise ensured that all other ethnic communities in Bhutan, indigenous and exogenous, were largely excluded from state institutions.

The government’s census figures came under critical scrutiny more than once. The first estimate made in 1969 was later found to be inaccurate. As later admitted by the government, the figures then were fudged to gain entry into the UN. In 1980, the total population was found to be 1.2 million. Subsequently, the government revised the figures and declared that its population was no more than 6,00,000, a drastic reduction of fifty per cent. Here in lay the dispute. The government contends that those in excess of the 6,00,000 figure are not Bhutanese citizens, but illegal migrants who moved into Southern Bhutan attracted by the economic prosperity of the region and several freebies (like health care and education) provided by the state. The government had then asked those claiming to be Lotshampas to prove that their forebearers were actually resident in Bhutan in 1958, when the Nationality Law was exacted.

Bhutan apprehends is that if the ‘influx’ of the Nepalese is not checked immediately, they in the not too distant future would swamp it, reducing the natives to a minority. This fear arises from two developments. One, some sections among ethnic Nepalese envision a Greater Nepal stretching along the Eastern ranges of the Himalayas. The Gorkhaland movement in the northern parts of the Indian State of West Bengal is also interpreted as part of this objective. Two, Sikkim, whose former ruler is related to the King of Bhutan, is now dominated by ethnic Nepalese who had some years ago agitated against the ruler there, till it finally became a part of the Indian Union in 1975. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk had himself expressed this fear while discussing the unrest in South Bhutan.

To forestall a similar outcome, the Royal government issued several decrees, which included the Driglam Namzha--a prescription of etiquette, discontinuing Nepali language from school curricula, etc. The 1985 Citizenship Act also required proficiency in the native language, Dzonkha, wearing the national dress in public places and at state ceremonies, measures intended to enforce the culture of Ngalongs as national culture. The Lotshampas resented such moves, which were a deliberate attempt at the Bhutanization of the Lotshampas.

Growing discontent among the Nepalese led to the formation of the Bhutan People's Party (BPP) in 1990. The BPP dismisses the validity of the National Assembly not only because the Lotshampas are under-represented but also because a member of the Assembly is not democratically elected. Under the BPP banner, ethnic Nepalese have called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, much as their kin had agitated for and achieved in Nepal. Among the other demands of the BPP are multi-party democracy; amendments to the Citizenship Act, including an end to the 1958 cut-off; protection of human rights; abolition of the traditional judicial system; and the right to preserve Nepali dress, language and culture, including the right to carry the traditional knife, the khukri.

Armed Nepalese dissidents have been harassing the government from their bases in Nepal and India as well. Their last known number was 1,000. They are termed as ngolops by the Bhutanese government. [Ngolops is a usage of recent origin that refers to criminals or terrorists fighting for broadening the political base in the country and is nearly synonymous with the criminals or terrorists among Bhutanese of Nepali origin]. They have launched attacks on security forces, raided armed checkposts, forest offices and armouries and decamped with arms and ammunition. They have also been accused of kidnappings, rape, extortion and armed robbery. Moreover, the ngolops have been accused of desecrating holy places and decamping with nangtens (priceless artefacts) with a view allegedly to finance their criminal and seditious activities, as well as personal gain.

Since the problem erupted in 1990, the ngolops have committed 73 murders, 63 rapes and abducted 241 persons. Besides, they had indulged in 1,029 acts of dacoity and armed robbery and 64 instances of vehicle thefts, and had attacked and injured 696 people in Southern Bhutan. Further, they had laid 67 ambushes on Bhutanese security forces and had also damaged the basic infrastructure in the country.

An offshoot of the ngolop problem is the sensitive issue of dealing with their kin. Interpreted variously as a national security measure or an act of vindictiveness, in the past 14 years, 9,691 people have been retired compulsorily from government service on the accusation that they were passing sensitive information to ngolops. Since some time, there have been demands to deny employment to the relatives of ngolops even in the private sector.

The dissidents have gained sympathy and support among ethnic Nepalese in India and Nepal. Several Nepali Congress and other political leaders in Nepal have pledged ‘moral support’ to the dissidence movement. Girija Prasad Koirala, the former Prime minister of Nepal, who had himself campaigned for the transformation of Nepal into a constitutional monarchy, lent moral support to the dissidents. Organisations such as the Chatra Sabha and Gorkhaland Liberation Organisation are believed to have imparted training in guerrilla warfare to the subversives, besides supplying rations, medicine and, importantly, arms. The ethnic Nepalese in the Dura, Kalimpong and Darjeeling areas of India, as well as in Eastern Nepal have lent moral support to the rebels and have lobbied for them, too.

One such effort has been to draw India into the conflict. India whose territory separates Bhutan and Nepal facilitated the out-migration of refugees from Bhutan. India's role becomes important since repatriation would require India's consent for the movement of these refugees back to Bhutan. However, India has steered clear of all such pleas terming the matter as Bhutan’s internal affair much to Nepal's official discomfort.

An estimated 95,000 Lotshampas are now residing in refugee camps in Eastern Nepal. After eight rounds of negotiations and one-to-one meetings between the King of Bhutan and the Prime Minister of Nepal, Nepal and Bhutan have agreed upon the categorization of persons living in the refugee camps. They have been categorized as bona fide Bhutanese (if they have been forcibly evicted from Bhutan), Bhutanese who have emigrated, non-Bhutanese and Bhutanese who are wanted for criminal offences in Bhutan.

Having spent almost a decade in exile, the weary and frustrated refugees have almost stopped talking about fighting for democracy back home. This is partly due to the splits among Bhutanese refugees' groups in exile. While some groups favor priority for the struggle for democracy in Bhutan, others believe that repatriation of the refugees should be their priority.

The Lhotshampas are not represented in the Cabinet for the present, places on which are filled through a secret ballot in the National Assembly. The sense of deprivation among the Nepali middle class and the discrimination experienced by the people of Nepali origin in the socio-political and economic spheres ultimately led to the politicisation of Nepali ethnicity and precipitated the second round of ethnic crisis in Bhutan. Their grievances and alienation only gain strength, for they have been already demanding democratisation of the polity and delimitation of the National Assembly seats on the basis of population.

The Sarchops are another ethnic group in Bhutan who have not quietly accepted the domination of the Ngalongs. A movement of sticking posters against the assertion Ngalongs culture was initiated in 1999, an uprising that was quickly repressed by the Bhutanese government and several Sarchops (estimated at 150) were taken into custody. This ethnic group of Bhutan, like the Nepalese immigrants, have also demanded a greater says in the politics of the country. They are presently organised under the banner of Druk National Congress and led by Ronthong Kunley Dorji. The Lotshampas and the Sarchops are gaining greater exposure, which has the potential of erupting into a conflagration, much as the September 1990 violent Lotshampa demonstration was the outpouring of suppressed demands. In the year 1999, the Royal Government was still pursuing the issue of extraditing Dorji, a prominent dissident, from India. Dorji is wanted in Bhutan for sedition, slander against the Royal Government, inciting religious and social disharmony and intimidation.

The External Threat

As if the ngolop problem was not big enough for a small security force, trained and armed on a limited scale, Bhutan’s security forces are confronted with the presence of Indian insurgent groups on their soil. Two of them, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) have established camps in Bhutan. It is also suspected, though not confirmed as yet, that a third Indian militant outfit, the Bodo Liberation Tigers may have also established camps in Bhutan.

The ULFA and the NDBF have well-established camps in the forests inside Bhutan that run contiguous to Indian territory. The ULFA is known to be operating in Bhutan since 1992. Its activities inside Bhutan have been on the rise since 1995 after having lost havens in Bangladesh, when the government there turned the heat on them. Some reports held that, at one point in time, there were 21 ULFA camps in Bhutan, while other reports contended that their number is nine. These camps are located in the forests of southern Bhutan and the Samdruk Dzonkha area. Reportedly, it was at one such camp that the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan had trained the ULFA. Their ingress and exgress from Bhutan was rendered difficult as Indian security forces stepped up their vigil along the India-Bhutan border.

Subsequent reports claimed that the ULFA has vacated four camps by end-December 2001, consequent to an assurance it gave to the Bhutanese Government, on June 18, 2001. Earlier, Bhutan has held two rounds of talks--on November 20, 1998 and May 7, 1999, with ULFA militants and had asked them to leave their territory. Those talks were inconclusive as the ULFA had, at that time, pleaded for time at least till the year 2001 to move lock, stock and barrel from Bhutan. The ULFA is yet to completely dismantle all its camps.

Bhutan’s voicing of concern--the presence of Indian insurgent groups as the ‘greatest threat to its security’--has not been as yet matched with action, notwithstanding the issuing of a warning that anybody helping the ULFA would be tried under the 1992 National Security Act. Probably, the government apprehends reprisal against its nationals if it were to launch offensives against the ULFA and Bodo insurgents.

Bhutanese security forces, though had been trained by India in anti-insurgency operations, do not yet possess adequate mettle to launch an offensive against the Indian insurgents. In fact, on December 1, 1998, suspected Bodo militants laid ambush on the convoy of a Brigadier of the Bhutanese army, which was proceeding from one part of Bhutan to another through Indian territory, as is the usual practice, and killed six soldiers. A year before, in October 1997, Bodo militants had raided the Nanglang police station and made good their escape with self-loading rifles, guns, revolvers and ammunition. On the other hand there is reported pressure from the Indian government on the Bhutanese government for a joint operation against these groups.

The presence of various militant outfits along the India-Bhutan border has endangered the safety of vehicles plying along the Gelephu-Bongaigaon road, connecting Bhutan and India. The militants have, time and again, committed armed robberies along this road. The prime suspects are Indian militant groups operating along the India-Bhutan border and ngolops. Between January 1998 and June 1999, at least 33 cases of armed robbery were reported along this route. Those robbed included traders as well as government officials, both Indian and Bhutanese.

The Shangri-La like cocooned existence of Bhutan is now under grave threat. The spreading influence of the electronic media and the convergence of democratic ideals among the middle class that transcends ethnic divisions threaten to come into conflict with entrenched vested interests within the royal establishment. This conflict presents very little manoeuvring space for the king (who is in favour of moderated modernisation without threatening the Bhutanese character of the country) who has to ensure the resolution of this conflict, a delicate task for the future.





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