ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Political Transition in Bhutan

The ethnic conflict and the consequent movement for democracy and human rights have led to a high degree of politicisation in Bhutan, cutting across ethnic lines. Further, ethnic assertions by people of Nepali origin in Bhutan have meant democratisation of the Bhutanese polity and society. The slow but definite transformation of Bhutan into a constitutional monarchy is the outcome of political struggles waged by the people since the late 1920s.

Political Transition in Bhutan

The ethnic conflict and the consequent movement for democracy and human rights have led to a high degree of politicisation in Bhutan, cutting across ethnic lines. Further, ethnic assertions by people of Nepali origin in Bhutan have meant democratisation of the Bhutanese polity and society. The slow but definite transformation of Bhutan into a constitutional monarchy is the outcome of political struggles waged by the people since the late 1920s.

MATHEW JOSEPH C

T
he government of Bhutan brought out a draft constitution in March 2005. On December 17, 2005, National Day of Bhutan, king Jigme Singye Wangchuck declared that he will step down in favour of his son and heir apparent Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and the first national election to elect a government under a system of parliamentary democracy would take place in 2008.

The general perception is that the draft constitution and the proposed democratic political set-up are a gift of the monarch to the citizens of Bhutan. People who propagate this view clearly obliterate the fact that these are the logical culmination of the struggles carried out by various sections of people at various junctures of the history of Bhutan. The main argument of this article is that the slow but definite transformation of Bhutan into a constitutional monarchy is the outcome of political struggles waged by the people of the country since late 1920s onwards.

Bhutan is one of the very rare absolute monarchies left in the world. A land-locked state of 7,52,693 people,1 strategically located between India and China, Bhutan is a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multireligious country. The main ethnic groups in the country are ‘Sharchop’ (23.92 per cent), ‘Ngalong’ (16.5 per cent), ‘Bumthangpa’ (4.37 per cent), ‘Kheng’ (3. 64 per cent) and ‘Lhotshampa’ (the people of Nepali origin) (30.82 per cent).

The Ngalongs migrated to Bhutan from Tibet in the ninth and 10th centuries. They are the ruling elite and concentrated in western Bhutan. They belong to the ‘Drukpa Kagyuppa’ sect of Mahayana Buddhism and speak ‘Dzongkha’ – the national language of Bhutan. The Sharchops are concentrated in eastern Bhutan and considered to be the earliest settlers in Bhutan. The southern Bhutan is dominated by the people of Nepali origin. Majority of them migrated to Bhutan during 1850-1950.

Historical Background

As a political unit, Bhutan came into existence under Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in the 17th century. The theocratic political system evolved by Shabdrung was in place until 1907. Under

Economic and Political Weekly April 8, 2006 British pressure, the theocratic political system gave way to the institution of hereditary monarchy. The governor of Tongsa, Ugyen Wangchuck became the first hereditary monarch in 1907.

Under the first two kings, Ugyen Wangchuck (1907-26) and Jigme Wangchuck (1926-52), political power was centralised. The third king Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1952-72) initiated reforms like land ceiling, abolition of serfdom and slavery. His other reforms included the establishment of the ‘Tshogdu’ (national assembly) in 1953 and the ‘Lodoi Tshogde’ (royal advisory council) in 1965.

These reforms were not liked by the traditional elements of the society and led to the assassination of prime minister Jigmie Palden Dorji – symbol of modernisation and reforms – on April 5, 1964. This was followed by a coup attempt against the king in December 1964. These developments and the hostility towards the reforms put pressure on the king to come to terms with the traditionalists. Consequently, the modernisation process was diluted and the ethnic groups other than Ngalongs were marginalised.

Bhutan’s identity is centred on the institutions of monarchy and the Drukpa Kagyuppa sect of Mahayana Buddhism. It is considered that the central and western regions of the country are the home of the authentic Bhutanese culture. Hence the cultural practices of these areas are projected as the national ones.2 The other ethnic groups are accorded a status in the periphery of the Bhutanese “national” culture.

Under the present king Jigme Singye Wangchuck (1972) ethnic groups other than the Ngalongs are further marginalised. The unilateral imposition of the Drukpa cultural practices through measures like ‘Driglam Nam Za’ (code of social etiquette)3 in 1989, over other ethnic communities resulted in the ethnic conflict between the Ngalong-dominated state and the people of Nepali origin. It later developed into a struggle for democracy and human rights in Bhutan.

Movements for Political Transformation

In Bhutan, the movements for political transformation mainly emanated from the people of Nepali origin. There are three distinct phases in the evolution of these movements: (a) initial struggles and the formation of the Bhutan State Congress (BSC) in 1952, (b) the resistance movement that started as a reaction to the promulgation of Driglam Nam Za, and (c) the eviction of the people of Nepali origin from Bhutan and the consequent struggle for democracy and human rights under the banner of political parties and human rights organisations.

In 1927, Pashupathi Adhikari, who was the ‘mandal’ (village headman) of Lamidara village in Chirang district, registered his protest against the exorbitant land tax rates. As a result of this, his property was confiscated and he was ousted from the country. In 1947, two mandals from Dagana district, J C Gurung and S B Gurung sought the help of Gurkha League in India to bring out changes in the political structure of Bhutan. With the help of the Gurkha League they formed the Jai Gurkha Solidarity Front (JGSF) and started mobilising people under its banner. The Bhutanese authorities expelled both the leaders from the country.

In 1952, the BSC was formed at Patgaon in Assam. The demands of the BSC included the abolition of the feudal system, democratisation of the administration, granting civil and political rights for all Bhutanese citizens and maintaining closer ties with India. The BSC planned a ‘satyagraha’ in March 1954. The Bhutan government did not allow the satyagraha to take place and fired at the protestors. The BSC’s efforts to organise more satyagrahas were also not very successful. Due to the hostile political environment in Bhutan, the BSC shifted its headquarters to Siliguri in India. The BSC leadership operated from Siliguri until 1969.

The integration of Sikkim with India in 1975 and the Gorkhaland agitation led by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) in Darjeeling Hills for a Nepalispeaking state in the mid-1980s influenced the thinking of the Bhutanese elite. Of these, the experience of Sikkim had a lasting impact on the Bhutanese psyche. The Bhutanese elite feared that similar fate is in waiting for them. This fear resulted in the formulation of Citizenship Acts of 1977 and 1985, the Marriage Act of 1980 and a nationwide census conducted in 1988 based on the Citizenship Act of 1985 to identify “illegal immigrants” and Driglam Nam Za in 1989.

Through the Bhutan Citizenship Act of 1977, the government linked citizenship to marriage and ownership of property in Bhutan. When this was modified in 1985, knowledge of Bhutanese history, culture

Economic and Political Weekly April 8, 2006

and national language became mandatory for citizenship and made people who were not residents of Bhutan on or before December 31, 1958, illegal immigrants.

According to the official version, the Marriage Act of 1980 was devised to control the marriage of Bhutanese citizens to foreigners. The worst affected were the people of Nepali origin, as many of them marry from the Nepali communities in India and Nepal.

A new term – ‘Lhotshampa’ (southern people) – was coined by the Bhutanese government for the people of Nepali origin in the mid-1980s. Through this, the government thought that it can create a distinction between Bhutanese of Nepali origin and the people of Nepali ethnicity both in Nepal and India. The government could not succeed in this regard.

Ethnic Conflicts

The eruption of ethnic conflict between the people of Nepali origin and the ‘Ngalong’-dominated government occurred in 1989. The ethnic conflict was the natural outcome of the discontent created by the census conducted in 1988 to identify “illegal immigrants” and the promulgation of Driglam Nam Za in 1989.

The first organisation which came into being against the discriminatory policies was the People’s Forum for Human Rights, Bhutan (PFHRB). It was formed on July 7, 1989 at Kakarivitta in Nepal under the leadership of Tek Nath Rizal, a former royal advisory council member of Nepali origin. The activities of PFHRB created panic among the Bhutanese ruling elite. Tek Nath Rizal was extradited to Bhutan with the connivance of the government of Nepal on November 17, 1989. In Thimphu after a prolonged trial, Rizal was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Bhutan People’s Party (BPP) was formed on June 2, 1990 at Garganda tea estate in Siliguri, West Bengal. According to the manifesto of the BPP, it stands for democracy, parliamentary system of government, constitutional monarchy and multiparty system in Bhutan. The BPP organised series of demonstrations throughout southern Bhutan during September-October 1990. The government tried to suppress the wave of discontent through different measures. A new term, ‘Ngolops’ (anti-nationals or terrorists) was coined to describe the agitators and it became synonymous with anybody who demanded human rights and democracy in Bhutan.

To counter the pro-democracy demonstrations in September-October 1990, the government deployed the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) throughout southern Bhutan. This led to the exodus of the people of Nepali origin from the country in large numbers. The people who left Bhutan at first came to India and then moved to eastern Nepal. As per one estimate 1,35,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin left Bhutan of which 1,05,000 people are living in seven refugee camps in Morang and Jhapa districts of eastern Nepal managed by the UNHCR.4 The rest of the refugees are scattered throughout India and Nepal.

Pro-Democracy Movements

As the pro-democracy movement has grown in strength, the different trends dormant in the movement have come out in the open. Organisations like the PFHRB, the SUB and the BPP who led the prodemocracy movement initially, started distancing themselves from each other. New organisations like the Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP), the Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan (HUROB), the Association of Human Rights Activists, Bhutan (AHURA Bhutan), the Bhutan Congress Party (BCP) and the Druk National Congress (DNC) have been formed.

The BNDP was formed on February 7, 1992 in New Delhi. The BNDP believes that the southern Bhutan problem is a struggle for democracy and demands for the establishment of constitutional monarchy in a multiparty democratic set-up, institution of secular constitution, and respect for the 1948 UN Declaration for Human Rights in all parts of Bhutan.

The HUROB and AHURA Bhutan were formed on September 7, 1992 and November 16, 1992, respectively. The BCP was formed in May 1993 after a split in the BPP. The DNC came into being on June 16, 1994. While other political parties and human rights organisations are led by the people of Nepali origin, the DNC is a non-Nepali political party. Rongthong Kunley Dorji, a Sharchop from eastern Bhutan, is the chairman of the DNC.5 According to its manifesto, the party stands for parliamentary democracy and wants to declare Bhutan as a multi-ethnic, multilingual, Buddhist constitutional monarchy.

The release of Tek Nath Rizal on December 18, 1999 after 10 years of rigorous imprisonment became a turning point in the recent history of the pro-democracy movement. Pro-democracy organisations once again regrouped under his leadership to form the Human Rights Council of Bhutan (HRCB) on July 13, 2003.

The radicalisation of politics in Nepal by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has had its impact on the Bhutanese refugees. The indifference of the Bhutanese government towards the non-violent struggles of the moderates among the refugees for repatriation resulted in great resentment. The futility of the struggles hitherto conducted by the moderates led to the formation of the Bhutanese Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) in the early months of 2003.

The radicalisation of the Bhutanese refugees will have serious impact on the political developments of Bhutan, Nepal and the Nepali-dominated areas of India. The pro-democracy movement succeeded in compelling the king to surrender some of his powers to a cabinet in 1998 and initiate a process to draft a constitution for the country.

The ethnic conflict and the consequent movement for democracy and human rights brought about a high degree of politicisation among the people of Bhutan, cutting across ethnic lines. In contrast to the various contemporary experiences, the ethnic assertion of the people of Nepali origin in Bhutan has developed into a movement for the democratisation of the Bhutanese polity and society. The proposed political reforms announced by the king himself are an outcome of the struggles carried out by the people of Nepali origin and like-minded people inside and outside Bhutan.

EPW

Email: mathewjosephc@yahoo.com

Notes

1 This figure does not include the Bhutanese refugees scattered in both Nepal and India.

2 A C Sinha, Bhutan:Ethnic Identity and National Dilemma, Reliance Publishing House, New Delhi, 1991, p 188.

3 Driglam Nam Za is a cultural package which comprises virtues such as respect for the sovereign, teachers, parents, elders, the institution of marriage and family, civic duties and behaviour that keep together the Bhutanese social fabric. It also stipulates how people should conduct themselves at different occasions and includes a dress code requiring ‘Gho’ to be worn by men and ‘Kira’ by women.

4 Human Rights Council of Bhutan (HRCB), ‘Position Paper on Bhutanese Refugees and Human Rights Situation in Bhutan’. Available at http://www.bhutannewsonline.com/ hrcb_positionpaper.rtf

5 Mathew Joseph C, Ethnic Conflict in Bhutan, Nirala Publications, New Delhi, 1999, p 152.

Economic and Political Weekly April 8, 2006

Dear reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attracive subscription offers.

Click here

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top