Bhutanese refugees and the politics of Third Country Resettlement

Came as a blessing in disguise for India, Bhutan, Nepal; majority of refugees in the US.

By Mathew Joseph C.

NEW DELHI: The long pending issue of the repatriation of Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin, who were housed in the UNHCR-sponsored refugee camps in the eastern Nepal districts of Morang and Jhapa since early 1990s, was “resolved” to many by the Third Country Resettlement proposal put forth and being carried out by countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and the Netherlands. As of now, a sizable section of the refugees have been resettled in these countries, with a majority of them now living in the United States.

These Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin were expelled from Bhutan in the early 1990s as a result of the state sponsored Bhutanization drive epitomized in the promulgation of Driglam Nam Za (code of social etiquette) in 1989, which stipulated strict controls over the people of Nepali origin who inhabited the southern districts of Bhutan.

The Driglam Nam Za was the culmination of a series of draconian laws that included the Citizenship Acts of 1977 and 1985, the Marriage Act of 1980, which were enacted keeping the people of Nepali origin in mind. These anti-Nepali measures were met with opposition from the people of southern Bhutan . The organized resistance offered by the people of Nepali origin led to their expulsion from Bhutan . Subsequently, more than 125,000 were expelled from Bhutan in the wake of the Bhutanization drive.

The people of Nepali origin in Bhutan are one of the three major ethnic groups in the country. They form around 30 percent of the total population of Bhutan, which is 750,000 as per the latest statistics. The other two ethnic groups are the Sharchop(24 percent) and the Ngalong(16.5 percent).

The Ngalong are of Tibetan decent and form the ruling elite. They are the inhabitants of western Bhutan. The Sharchopbelong to eastern Bhutan and are extremely backward. The Ngalong follow the DrukpaKagyuppa sect of Mahayana Budhism and speak Dzongkha. Due to their pre-eminent position in the country’s socio-political domain, their religion and language are accorded the position of state religion and national language, respectively.

A growth in the number of the people of Nepali origin and their cultural distinctiveness from the ruling elite became a cause of worry for them. The heightened political consciousness among the people of Nepali origin compounded the fears of the Ngalong ruling elite. The integration of Sikkim with India in 1975 and the role played by the Nepali population in Sikkim further increased the imaginary fears of the Ngalong. The developments in the Darjeeling region, in which the Nepalis there played a central role, also added to the already existing fears of the Ngalong ruling elite towards the people of Nepali origin.

The movement against “foreigners” in the Indian state of Assam in the 1980s provided the ruling elite of Bhutan a model to address their imaginary fears. The anti-Nepali laws and Driglam Nam Za were possibly the result of the impact of the anti-foreigner movement in Assam. The slogan of the Bhutanese state — “One Nation, One People” — during the Bhutanization drive proclaimed the intention of the Ngalong dominated state to initiate an exclusive nationalist project in which the people of Nepali origin have no place.

In the last 20 years, Bhutan has undergone many changes including transforming herself from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy and became a “democracy” from above. However, while undergoing these changes Bhutan has not changed a bit her policy towards the repatriation of the refugee population located in the UNHCR camps in eastern Nepal. On the contrary, it has created many hurdles in the process of resolving the refugee problem amicably despite the efforts of Nepal.

India maintained an indifferent position towards the issue of Bhutanese refugees throughout this period. Though the refugees repeatedly requested India to take initiative in resolving the problem as the Nepal-Bhutan talks regarding the repatriation of them reached a dead end. However, nothing concrete came out from the Indian side. This was mainly due to India’s reluctance to annoy Bhutan, her only all-weather friend in the neighborhood. Also India feared that her involvement will pave way for China to intervene in the issue and further complicate the already fragile security and strategic atmosphere in the eastern Himalayas.

The diplomatic deadlock between Nepal and Bhutan and India’s non-involvement in resolving the problem created the opportunity for the international community to step in. The context of the proposal of the Third Country Resettlement is that. The proposal for Third Country Resettlement came as a blessing in disguise for Bhutan, Nepal and India as it will definitely ‘resolve’ the refugee problem without affecting their interests and concerns. For many refugees, mainly young people, it offered new opportunity in rebuilding their lives, though the older lot among them was not in agreement with this thinking. The socio-psychological impact of the Third Country Resettlement on the Bhutanese refugees is something to be visible in the course of time.

The proposal for Third Country Resettlement in effect, in this particular case, turned out to be a rejection of the right of repatriation of the refugees. This is going to have serious implications for the resolution of various refugee issues pertaining to different regions of the world. International community, instead of making arrangements for Third Country Resettlement, must put pressure on the concerned parties to facilitate the process of repatriation for the resolution of refugee problems. As far as refugee problems are concerned, repatriation not Third Country Resettlement is the only meaningful solution.

(Mathew Joseph C. is a Reader at the MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi).

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