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The Problem of Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal- Role for India?


Note No. 4                                      08.10.1998

Dr. S.Chandrasekharan

Prime minister G.P. Koirala of Nepal, in a private conversation said that the problem of 80,000 and odd Bhutanese of Nepali origin, now in Nepal, cannot be solved unless India takes the initiative. He would not say this publicly, perhaps in deference to India's known stand that the problem is to be solved bilaterally between Nepal and Bhutan. 

Both Nepal and Bhutan have special relations with India. Thus India has a responsibility to maintain peace in the area.. Besides, there is the fact of geography as the two countries are separated hardly by 80 Km of Indian territory and peopled by Indians of Nepali origin. Despite the cosmetic changes made recently by the King in Bhutan, the government in Bhutan is unrepresentative. The refugee crisis has not been solved even after seven rounds of meetings between Nepal and Bhutan. Meantime the refugees who are living in abject squalor in eastern Nepal are getting restless. India has also to contend with the presence of over 5 million Indians of Nepali origin in India. The ingredients for the issue to develop into a serious insurgency situation are present and India cannot remain a passive observer when it has enough problems in the northeast already. 

The refugee crisis in Bhutan started in October 1990, with state sponsored mass exodus of Bhutanese of Nepali origin (Lhotshampas). Over a period of time about 80,000 people moved to eastern Nepal and are now organised into separate camps. The UNHCR is looking after the camps. Another 10,000 refugees are reported to be outside the camps both in Nepal and India. 

The Bhutan government claims that those who left were not citizens and that they have voluntarily left their homes when they could not provide proof of their citizenship. It is strange and unbelievable that people who have been living for many generations and who have developed the plain areas of Bhutan would give up their possessions voluntarily and seek the charity of international organizations outside Bhutan for their living. Taking advantage of the impasse in the talks, Bhutan has systematically removed all traces of the settlements in southern Bhutan and in case the refugees were to return to their former homes, they will hardly be able to recognize them. The refugee organizations allege that the land owned by the refugees has since been redistributed, but this is yet to be substantiated. 

Talks in right earnest between Nepal and Bhutan commenced after the King of Bhutan proposed the establishment of Bhutan-Nepal Joint Ministerial level committee (JMLC) during the SAARC summit at Dhaka in May 1993 for solving the refugee problem. This was promptly accepted by the then Prime minister of Nepal Mr.G.P. Koirala. 

Since then seven rounds of talks have taken place. In the first round of meeting at Kathmandu in October 1993, it was resolved to classify the Bhutanese refugees into four categories. The four categories were 

  1. Bonafide Bhutanese who have been forcibly evicted. 
  2. Bhutanese who emigrated 
  3. Non Bhutanese. 
  4. Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts. 

This decision taken without consulting the leaders of refugees was itself a prescription for not settling the issue once and for all. This would involve verification of documents of the refugees (which many may not have but could prove their citizenship by local enquiries), verification of claims of Bhutan govt. particularly on the last category of those involved in criminal acts as Bhutan government is quite capable of foisting false charges. Even after several years of discussions between the two governments they are yet to agree on the procedure and the criteria to be adopted to distinguish the four categories.. 

Meantime the government in Nepal has had many changes with each successive government being too busy in trying to remain in power with several combinations. Who cares and who has the time for the Nepalese refugees of Bhutan when they are far away from the capital Kathmandu and when UNHCR is looking after them? 

For the King of Bhutan, who incidentally is a well meaning individual fully attuned to the people's needs, but badly advised by the coterie with vested interests around him, is happily ensconced in his throne with no threat from any quarter and why worry, when he is fully supported by the government of India? 

But things may change. The refugees have remained outside for more than eight years and a sense of frustration has set in.. There are two basic divisions among the leaders- one for resorting to violent means with the support and space available in the Indian territory and southern Bhutan. In this they expect the support of other insurgent organizations like ULFA, BODO etc ( The ULFA and BODO have safe havens in southern Bhutan) and the other still believing that persuasion and India's mediation would help. Amongst the two divisions, opinion is still divided whether the issue should restricted to the gut issue of the refugee problem or go for a holistic change with the democratization of governance. 

As yet, the counsel of moderates to try the non violent means seem to hold out against those with extremist views. But it cannot remain so indefinitely if no peaceful solution is found. There is the danger of the issue getting internationalized which will not be acceptable to India.. 

It is time that the Indian policy on the Bhutan refugee question is reviewed.