An appeal to the poets, writers, theatre artists and other intellectuals
Anand Swaroop Verma
It is matter of shame for all of us that while the neighboring country Bhutan is continuing with the autocratic monarchy and its repressive activities with the help of world’s largest democracy India, the intelligentsia in our country has maintained silence over the issue whereas the Indian media, time and again, keeps on praising the monarchy in Bhutan. We are repeatedly told by the media that the tiny populace in Bhutan is prospering, the country is unaffected by the environmental degradation and cultural pollution and so on. During the last couple of years, Indian media is full of news praising the King for his liberal attitude by arguing that he himself wants to end the monarchy to usher in the democratic system of governance. The media keeps on telling us that the King of Bhutan wants to join the modern world because he feels that continuing with monarchy in the present scenario is suggestive of a regressive thought.
The same media never told us sternly that this ‘peaceful and environment friendly’ King, in 1990 with the help of his army, had expelled 1.5 lakh citizens of his country, run bulldozer over their hamlets, destroyed their orange and cardamom plantations and unleashed a reign of terror and oppression on elders, women and children just because they were asking for the establishment of minimum democracy and respect for their human rights. Media never bothered to tell us that in the drama that is being enacted in the name of the countrywide elections scheduled for February 2008, neither political parties banned for last 20 years and termed illegal (Bhutan People’s Party, Bhutan National Democratic Party, Druk National Congress) nor the people living in seven refugee camps run by UNHCR inside Nepal’s border for last 17 years have been permitted to participate. The total population of Bhutan is around seven lakhs and expelling 1.5 lakh people out of this tiny population has been an incident never witnessed in the history of any country. The most surprising thing is that India is the only country in the subcontinent extending support to the King of Bhutan. He was even invited by the Indian government as chief guest in Republic Day parade two years back.
India has contributed significantly towards the plight of Bhutanese refugees. These refugees had brought out some pamphlets and organized peaceful demonstration demanding a minimum democracy in 1990. The centre of this movement was southern part of Bhutan which is close to the Indian border, particularly the West Bengal border. Although the King of Bhutan had imposed ban on the entry of television in his country, but how could this neighboring region of West Bengal could remain uninfluenced by the movement related activities which are the very soul of life in West Bengal. People from South Bhutan came to India for educational purposes and they had to pass through West Bengal. Apart from that, due to lack of connecting roads in mountainous Bhutan, people had to take the road which passes through West Bengal in order to reach the other parts of Bhutan. Since southern part of Bhutan was primarily inhabited by Lhotsompas, a Nepali speaking Bhutanese community which constituted 90 percent of the Southern Bhutanese population, the King charged them with creating disturbance. When the people of Sarchop community from east and north Bhutan were also expelled, it became clear in the long run that this movement was not confined to the Nepali speaking community alone.
Teknath Rizal, advisor to the Royal Council set up by the King wrote a letter to the King requesting that he must humbly pay heed to the people’s complaints. But instead, the King put Teknath Rizal behind the bars. He was forced to suffer unbearable pains for 10 long years. He was released in 1999 when the King’s officials realized that he could die in prison due to illness. He is now living an exiled life in Nepal and leading the anti-monarchy struggle. Rizal hails from Lhotsompa community.
On the same lines, the popular leader of Sarchop community Rongthong Kunley Dorji was arrested by the monarchy and charged with supporting the demand of minimum democracy. The King seized his property, put him in the jail where he was subjected to severe atrocities and was finally kicked out of the country along with his family. He was arrested by the Indian police on his arrival to India in 1996 and was put in Tihar prison for two years. He is currently on bail and the Indian government has imposed various restrictions on him. He is also leading the anti-monarchy struggles. He is the president of Druk National Congress. India has always given refuge to the pro-democracy activists of various countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Burma, Tibet and Nepal. Keeping this in mind, India’s discriminatory attitude towards pro-democracy forces in Bhutan is surprising.
India’s role in this regard is both shameful and significant because when the helpless Bhutanese citizens arrived inside the Indian border after being expelled from their own country, Indian security forces forcefully loaded them in trucks as if they were livestocks and dumped inside Nepal border. Those who resisted were beaten up severely. With no choice left they stayed in Nepal. Later on India laid its hands off from the issue. Whenever Government of India was requested to hold talks over the Bhutanese refugees issue, it raised its hands by saying that this was a bilateral issue between Nepal and Bhutan. Bhutan shares border with India, not Nepal. Any one who leaves Bhutan will obviously enter India first. It is a known fact that India has itself created this problem for Nepal. Nepal being a small and weaker state cannot force India, which has repeatedly ignored its request to resolve the refugee crisis.
In the last 17 years, whenever the Bhutanese refugees tried to return home risking their lives, they were stopped at Indo-Nepal border at Mechi bridge by the Indian security forces. When they tried to proceed further, they were beaten up. The most recent incident in this series is that of May 28, 2007 when one refugee was killed in police firing and hundreds of them were injured.
I had organized a conference on the Bhutanese refugee issue in 1991 along with friends from Nepal and India. At that time, a booklet entitled ‘Human Rights in Bhutan’ was also published. Many distinguished people including Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, Justice Ajit Singh Bains and Swami Agnivesh participated. In order to create a mass consensus on the issue, an organization named ‘Bhutan Solidarity’ was formed towards the end of the conference and Justice Krishna Iyer was made its patron. I was asked to take the responsibility of convener. A study team from this organization in 1995 prepared a detailed report after a tour to the refugee camps. I tried my level best to contribute in resolving the issue till May 2006 in this capacity. From June 2006 onwards, MLA from MP and young farmer leader Dr. Sunilam is holding the position of convener.
As per UNHCR, the total number of refugees in the camps of Nepal is One lakh six thousand. The survey carried out by Bhutan Solidarity in 1996 revealed that more than 40,000 refugees are living in India (West Bengal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh) and they have not been given the status of refugee by UNHCR. As per 1950 Friendship Treaty between India and Bhutan, government of India refused to give these people refugee status. They too are living in worst conditions.
A team from ‘Bhutan Solidarity’ visited the refugee camps again in August 2006 and found that 40 percent of the refugees were in the age group of 17-40. They are losing patience after the failure of many peaceful attempts to go back home and feeling that this problem can not be resolved through peaceful means. They have also been inspired by the Maoist people’s war in Nepal and this thought is getting concretized in their minds that justice will only prevail through the barrel of the gun. In spite of being aware of everything, Bhutan government and government of India have maintained an indifferent attitude. It seems as if both the governments are waiting for the refugees to take the violent path which will give them an excuse to unleash repression.
I feel that the Bhutanese refugee crisis can be resolved in a peaceful way provided the intellectuals of India raise their voice and stand behind them in solidarity with their struggle. The area which relates with these refugees is politically very sensitive. Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Jhapa, close to West Bengal, have been experiencing violent movements since long but the arms here are not in the hands of revolutionary forces, but in the hands of separatists, anarchists and state sponsored armed groups. In this scenario, if the Bhutanese refugees take to armed struggle, their voice will be lost and it will pave the way for their repression. In nutshell armed struggle waged by the Bhutanese refugees to solve their problem will prove to be suicidal at this stage.
Monarchy in Bhutan is at the weakest stage. As I said earlier, it is supported only by India. It has somehow sustained itself by giving offerings to the high officials of Ministry of External Affairs and a crop of selected journalists. This is the reason why every Foreign Minister- be it I.K. Gujral, Yashwant Sinha, Jaswant Singh or Pranab Mukherjee- has ‘off the record’ given same argument that the Indian support to Bhutan is only due to India’s ‘geo-political compulsions’.
In the last couple of years, US policy has been a fiasco in Nepal. Despite US disliking, the political parties of Nepal and Maoists reached a 12 point understanding in Nov 2005, signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Maoists entered the parliament and they even joined the interim government. Inspite of all this, Maoists are still listed as ‘terrorist’ in the US records. Having seen utter failure of its policy in Nepal, US has now shifted its focus on Bhutan since it wants to consolidate its position in South Asia by hook or crook. US had announced last year that it will undertake to settle 60,000 Bhutanese refugees on its own and assist to settle 10,000 each in Australia and Canada. This announcement revealed many things. Firstly, it tried to create a divide among the refugees. Secondly, it tried to prevent the ideology of violence taking an organized form among them and lastly, assured the King of Bhutan that it will help him get rid of the mounting problem of refugees. This is what US aims at. While this proposal seems to be providing some relief to the King at the same time the debate on this proposal has for the first time in 17 years generated violent conflicts among the refugees. It is interesting to know that hardly 10 percent refugees are in favor of US proposal. One more incident is noteworthy. King of Bhutan Jigme Singhe Wangchuk had announced to abdicate the throne voluntarily in 2008 in favor of his son Prince Khesar Singhe Wangchuk. But suddenly US came in picture and through its efforts got the process completed much earlier, that is in May 2007 itself. Prince Khesar is now the King of Bhutan and US has full faith in him.
The objective of writing this letter is to inform you about the plight of Bhutanese refugees and government of India’s position in this regard as well as to appeal you to give a serious thought on the possible ways to resolve the problem. This problem can surely be resolved peacefully and a terrible bloodshed can be avoided in this region if the intellectuals, human rights activists and active pro-democracy people of Indian political parties think seriously over this issue. If our endeavour fails to bring change the government of India’s attitude of indifference, then the movement of Bhutanese refugees taking a violent turn can not be termed as illegitimate. But I have strong feeling that even a small effort on our part can bring a peaceful solution to the problem.
Your suggestions on this issue are invited so that we can sit together in the near future and find out a way in the coming days.
Date : September 14, 2007