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A Nation Of Paradoxes: When Bhutan Refugees Re-Integrated Into Philosophy Of Gross National Happiness? – OpEd

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Bhutan’s social system is comprised of different social structure and has different ethnic identities, engaged in different occupations; profess different faith, beliefs, customs, and values.

Notwithstanding these differences, Bhutan is believed to be one of the happiest countries in Asia and the world. As far as the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) is concerned, it is introduced in the country in 1972. Bhutan is the first and unique country in the world, where the happiness of the individual is given more importance than the GDP. To seek this for the citizens, the GNH was constitutionalized and stipulates that “The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.” However, it is enjoying and experiencing by one native section of society such and Ngalung, Sharchop, and, on the other hand, immigrants like Lhotashampa section of a society undergoing the discriminatory policies and programmes resulted into mass exodus making them refugees. T

he major argument is, why the county has been following two sets of policies for own citizens, making one community happy and the other unhappy denying the citizenship, cultural identity, education, health and imposing the ethnonationalism principle of ‘One Nation And One People’ for the latter. How Bhutan could earn the title of the happiest country when a large section of its society is leading a life of more than hell in refugee camps and despite several rounds of talks with Nepal, it is not ready to take them back?

Bhutanese Society

In order to build the argument of Bhutan as a nation of paradoxes, one has to understand the social fabric of the Bhutanese society, the rationale of ethnic conflict given the different socio-economic and political policies, and the place of the refugees in GNH. It is called as an ethnic mosaic nation as its society mainly comprised of three major ethnic groups viz., Ngalong, Sharchop, and Lhotshampa including many more small groups. The Ngalong (16 %), belongs to the Tibetan stock, inhabiting in the western region, who dominate the political and economic spheres of the country.

The second category is Sharchop (45 %), belongs to the Indo-Burman, resides in the Eastern region. The third category is the ethnic Nepalese (25 %) of the Indo- Aryan stock is the newest settlers in Southern Bhutan. It is perceived that the influx of the Nepalese was started in the 19th century more precisely to be after the Treaty of Sinchula (1864). As far as the strength of the same is concerned, the British diplomat Charles Bels said that about 14,000 Nepalis settled along the Torsa River bordering India. In this regard, Captain C.J Morris observed about 60,000 Nepalese in Bhutan. In the backdrop of a belief of illegal immigration of Nepalese in Bhutan, these people have been discriminated. The differences, disputes, mistrust, distrust between the native vs immigrants had created the ethnic conflict.

Ethnic Conflict and Constitutionalization

The ethnic conflict was started the late 1980s when the Bhutan Government reoriented its state policies sought to ‘integrate’ the different ethno-cultural groups through the assimilation strategy. In the late 1980s, the Bhutanese government primarily dominated by the Ngalung elites perceived the growing ethnic Lhotshampa population as a demographic and cultural threat. In this background, the Bhutanese government enacted many discriminatory laws, programmes etc directing against the ethnic Nepalese.

The King Jigme Singye Wangchuck established the National Council for Social and Cultural Promotion to create a homogenized Bhutanese identity based on the Ngalung cultural norms and values. For this reason, cash incentives provided against the Lhotsumpa and other smaller groups to transform the demographic structure in favour of the Ngalung. Under the Bhutan Marriage Act (1980), if a Bhutanese citizen who marries a foreigner is denied the state support in the terms of benefits like health, free school education, loans, land, seeds, livestock etc. particularly with the Lhotshampas. Under the Citizenship Act 1985, about one-sixth of the population was deprived of their citizenship making them homeless and refugees. Moreover, it directed that the Bhutanese citizens would lose their nationality if they leave their farmlands.

In 1987, Bhutan launched its sixth Five Year Plan, under which the principle of ‘One Nation, One People,’ was introduced to expand the Buddhist customs and rituals, ignoring the social, religious and environmental interests of the Lhotshampa. It created a state of fear, apprehension, and resentment, which further exacerbated by a series of “Bhutanization” measures enforcing a distinct set of national identity, coinciding with the line of Bhutan’s “One Nation, One People.”

The king issued a decree (January 16, 1989), requiring all the citizens to go by the traditional Drukpa code of identities, language, values, and dresses ignoring the same of the different communities. The Lhotshampa people even deprived of their mother tongue, as one decree was issued in February 1989 to remove Nepali from the curriculum, particularly from the schools located in Southern Bhutan.

Another setback came into 1988, when the Census has mainly focused the Southern Bhutan, which directed that a person who had arrived in Bhutan, latest by 10 June 1955, only qualified for the citizenship under the 1985 Citizenship Act. However, it was argued by Bookman (1997) that in reality, this clause targeted against the Lhotshampa community, in order to drastically reduce their representation in the mainstream.

The anti-Lhotshampa rhetoric has always remained an important feature of the socio-economic and political narratives in Bhutan. The Ngalung apprehended that the ethnic Nepali has a grand plan to make the former as a minority in their ‘own country’. This argument can be substantiated by observations of Jeffery & Jeffery (2002) that the claim of the Ngalung community with respect to the significantly higher fertility rate of Lhotshampa over of the Ngalung, boosting the national average growth rate of the population to 3.1 percent per year.

In the backdrop of series of overt and covert discriminatory policies have taken as a direct attack on the political, social and cultural interests of ethnic Nepalese, which led to a culmination of mass demonstrations in late 1990. The government reciprocations were very reactive. The people engaged and participated in the demonstrations were labeled as Ngolops (anti-nationals), and were arrested and detained. The ill-treatment and torture were meted to the detainees and it was so poignant and punitive that a number of people have died. Even the security forces raided the ethnic Nepalese houses and during these raids, women and girls were raped.

Bhutan A Nation of Paradoxes: Refugees and GNH

In the early 1990s, the ethnic conflict was reached to its peak, in which a mass exodus took place. As per the record of the UNHCR, more than 107,000 Bhutanese refugees have been settled in seven camps in eastern Nepal. In order to resolve the issue, to date, about 16 rounds of talks between Bhutanese and Nepalese authorities have taken place. However, there is no progress was made in the direction of resolving the refugee settlement.

On the other hand, the UNHCR provided the three fundamental options- repatriation to the motherland; assimilation in the host country and the third country resettlement (TCR) for the rehabilitation and repatriation of these refugees. Under the TCR about 101,222 Bhutanese refugees have been repatriated and resettled by 31 December 2015 in countries like the US, the UK, Canada, Norway, Australia, as refugees. Despite the implementation of the TCR, thousands of refugees still living in Nepal. Who have expressed their will to go back to Bhutan, however, the latter is not willing to take them back. Thus, the major question which is still haunting, what about the remaining refugees in Nepal, as the deadlock still been persisting between Bhutan and Nepal.

According to Business Week 2006, Bhutan was ranked as the top and 8th happiest country in Asia and the world respectively. For this, the programme of Gross National Happiness is given the credit. This programme is a multi-dimensional developmental approach, launched by the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972, which sought to achieve a harmonious balance between material and the spiritual well-being of the citizens.

In 2008, the absolute monarchy was turned into constitutional monarchy and GNH was constitutionalized by incorporating in the Bhutanese Constitution (2008). Article 9 guided the state, “to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.” There are nine domains of GNH, importantly covering good governance, living standards, education, cultural diversity and resilience, community vitality based on four pillars. The important of them, for at least in the individual context, included in the list are -sustainable and equitable socio-economic development and preservation and promotion of culture. This programme has shown the wonderful result as substantiated by the 2015 GNH Index. About 91.2 % of people have reported that they have been experiencing happiness and about 43.4% are deeply happy.

The paradox in the context of Bhutan is two sets of policies, one for the native and one for immigrants Ngalung, Sarchop vs Lhotshampa. For one section of the society is GNH programme and for the other discriminatory policies and programmes.

In this backdrop, the moot question is, how the concepts such as good governance, cultural diversity and resilience, the sustainable and equitable socio-economic development and preservation and promotion of culture equitable under the GNH, would/could accommodate the Nepalese origin people, leading a refugee life in Nepal? One more question emerges, how the ethnonationalism of Bhutan exemplified by its ‘One Nation, One People,’ allows the cultural diversity and resilience and community vitality, important pillars of the GNH to deal with the Lhotshampa?

At last, how the GNH would reconsider the challenges being faced by the Bhutan’s own citizens i.e., like deprivation of nationality and identity; denial of the right to return to one’s own country; denial of the right of ethnic or linguistic minorities to enjoy their own culture and use their own language; gender-based violence against Bhutanese refugee women and girls; discrimination in the right to education; discrimination in the right to health; discrimination in land ownership and inheritance laws; sexual violence and other human rights abuses against girls and women?

Therefore, it is suggested that Bhutan reconsider its denial mood to take back its refugees by giving them all the citizens’ rights denied to them. Reintegration of the refugees and restoring all the rights to them only would make the GNH a real achievement; otherwise, it is one more devious design adding in the list of paradox model of the nation.

  • Dr. Bawa Singh is teaching at the Department of South and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India
  • Dr. Jaspal Kaur (AP), teaches in the Department of Law, Regional Campus Jalandhar, Guru Nanak Dev University (Amritsar).


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