Bhutan is a nation of immigrants. There is no indigenous groups in Bhutan. In late eighties, the Royal Government of Bhutan alleged that around 125,000 (or one fifth of the total population of Bhutan) Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa citizens in the southern Bhutan were illegal immigrants. After declaring this group of population as illegal immigrants, it forcefully evicted them, who are now living as refugees in Nepal and India. It says that all Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal and India are illegal immigrants. The roots of the current political crisis in Bhutan and the refugees lie in Bhutan's geopolitics and population politics. The regime devised various strategies to bring about a favourable demographic balance favouring a Drukpa nation by reducing the number of Lhotshampas to around 25% and to prevent the demand for democracy from Southern Bhutan. This was criminal in intent and was designed to deprive the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa and their children of their fundamental right to nationality.
The government in order to create a favourable international opinion for its sinister design, went on a vigorous propaganda war in all major regional and international media against its own citizens by branding the refugees as illegal immigrants.. The bogey of illegal immigrants is nothing more than a ploy of diverting the international attention from the real issue of demand for the replacement of the current despotic and autocratic political system with Constitutional Monarchy, human rights, democracy and rule of law.
The government bogey of so-called illegal immigrants needs to be judged in the right context so that truth is unveiled to the world. It is well necessary to ascertain whether such a phenomenon exists in reality in modern-day Bhutan. The Bhutan story of 'illegal immigrants' is in no way comparable to the menacing problems faced by some of the European and North American countries. During the Seventh Round Table Meeting (RTM) of development partners for Bhutan was held in Thimphu on 7-9 November 2000, Austrian diplomat said that "commercial refugees" in the context of Europe should not be confused with the 'status of minorities' (Lhotshampas), residing in the country for many years and respecting its leadership and the government.
It is indeed important to look into the economic resources, availability of economic opportunities, agricultural land and process of granting citizenship certificates in Bhutan that normally encourage the illegal immigrants to prove that whether Bhutan really provided an "economic attraction' for new immigrants. These issues are discussed below.
Process of Granting Citizenship Certificate
It is simply impossible for an outsider to obtain Bhutanese citizenship both legally or illegally because of the rigorous standards for obtaining citizenship. The king had delegated the authority of issuing the nationality/citizenship certificates to Dzongda (Chief District Officer or District Magistrate) as per the provisions of the National Law of Bhutan. 1958 and the then existing policies. In most South Asian countries, the District Magistrate is responsible for issuance of such certificates.
A Bhutanese applicant is required to submit his/her application for citizenship to the office of Dzongda. The Dzongda checks whether or not the name of applicant's father or the head of the root household is registered in the land record register (Thram) maintained in the District Office. The Dzongda forwards the application to the village headmen or (Gups) to further verify whether the name of the father of the applicant under his village, is registered in the land records and census register of village or not. The village headman would check the entire records maintained by him.
The land record register contains the names of the head of the joint family of the root household, his wife, children, brothers and sisters, the land holding number and the number of the house. For obtaining citizenship certificates, all households are required to posses ( Sathram) land holding number, the house number issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs and these should be enumerated in the land records register maintained by the district administration and the Home Ministry. Possession of land in the name of the head of the root household is the only criteria for obtaining the citizenship identity cards. The citizenship certificate is given only if the name of applicant's head of the family is found in the land register. If the village head man is satisfied with his records, he will write his remarks that name of the father of applicants is found in his register. He will then forward it to the Dzongda with his remarks. The whole process would be minutely undertaken.
As per the government regulations, all Bhutanese citizens are required to posses the following for all purposes and for obtaining citizenship certificates :
The Sathram ( land records) number, i.e., a record of registered land holdings issued by the Department of Land Records of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
* The Shatram contains the census records of each household in every village. Shatram is registered in the name of the head of the family (father) and contains the name of his wife and all children by name and age.
* The House number issued by the District Administration and Department of Registration of the Ministry of Home Affairs in each village.
* The enumeration in the census records maintained by the village headmen and the district administration and updated annually.
* Bhutanese citizens are required to fulfil certain national obligations, such as compulsory labour contribution or payment of cash in lieu of labour contribution for the development projects for local as well as central schemes. They are called as Saptolemi, Chunidom and Goongdawoola etc
* Payment of taxes in cash for land, house, cattle, cash crops and fruit orchards etc.
The Dzongda then re-checks it with the main land records register maintained by his office, which include the above information. After tallying the records, the Dzongda approves the application for citizenship and issues the citizenship certificates. The records in two offices must be tallied and matched.
It is noteworthy that the foreigners acquiring citizenship through naturalisation are not required to fulfil the above obligations as they are mostly settled in urban areas. Therefore, all those people, who possess the above documents, irrespective of the date of their entry to Bhutan are Bhutanese citizens.
The then established procedures for acquiring citizenship made it virtually impossible for any non-citizen or outsider to acquire Bhutanese citizenship. The Land Act of Bhutan stipulates that no foreigner is allowed to purchase land in Bhutan. Citizenship certificates are issued by the authorities on the basis of land registration and house ownership records. In other words, to qualify for Bhutanese citizenship, one must own land in one's own or in the name of head of his family. Therefore, the question of the illegal immigrants acquiring citizenship, which the government often claims to mislead the foreigners by branding Lhotshampas does not arise.
ENUMERATION/REGISTRATION OF PEOPLE
A proper population census together with the land survey was carried out for the first time in 1972. The census of 1972 then served the basis for issuance of nationality certificates to the people by the local district authorities, who would check the Sathram number, house number and the census records to enable them to issue the nationality certificate. Another major census to identify and record the Bhutanese citizens was completed in 1980. Teams of census officials led by the Department of Registration were deputed to all over the country to carry out the exercise. Thus, the government had completed a huge task of distributing the citizenship identity cards to all Bhutanese nationals.
In early eighties, the government made it mandatory for all people in Bhutan, both Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese to register with the Department of Registration and later the Department of Census and Immigration, and obtain identity cards issued by the Department of Registration.
Foreigners in Bhutan can be categorised into (a) International staffs of the UN agencies, diplomats, foreign experts, consultants, international and bi-lateral volunteers and tourists from other countries. Visas were issued to them during their stay in Bhutan (b) Civil service workers and their dependants recruited from India including those on deputation from the government of India. They were issued with non-national identity cards during their stay in Bhutan (c) Construction labourers recruited from India and Nepal through contractors. They were issued six-monthly renewable non-national identity cards and (d) Tourists from India including visitors. They were issued with permits for fixed duration. By early eighties, virtually every one in Bhutan, whether foreigners or Bhutanese was registered and issued identity cards.
Following the first census of 1981, all citizens were issued with citizenship identity cards. But now the government claims that these cards were forged. The government initially claimed that any documentary evidence whatsoever, land ownership deeds or documents showing sale, gift, and inheritance of land, tax receipts of any kind etc., showing that the person concerned was resident in Bhutan in 1958 is taken as conclusive proof of citizenship. But now the government contends that payment of property tax in itself is hardly a proof of Bhutanese citizenship as there were many illegal immigrants in the country, who had acquired property.
To the utter dismay of the Drukpa rulers, the 1980-81 census results showed a strong majority of Nepali-speaking population of over 50 percent. ( Though the report was never published), a figure the political implication of which could not be underestimated. Therefore, discreet plans were designed to reduce this majority through the introduction of various manipulative policies and legal measures. The strategy adopted was to enact new legislation and the political conspiracy was to create fake ' illegal immigrants' and get rid of them. The enactment of Citizenship Act, 1985 and its implementation from the retrospective date of December 31, 1958 ( of thirty years) was such sinister game plan.
If the level of illegal immigrants into southern Bhutan after 1958 had been as high as 20% of the total population of around 600,000, as claimed by the government, it was understandable that some actions were required to be taken, but this was not the case. Normally, illegal immigrants are those who live in a country without the notice and knowledge of authorities.
The so-called Bhutanese illegal immigrants have lived in Bhutan for years, owned houses and properties, paid taxes to the government and contributed to the nation-building of Bhutan. Some of them had served in high government offices, armed forces and police and studied abroad under government scholarship. They were genuine citizens until 1987, but were made illegal immigrants in 1988 because southern Bhutan had to be depopulated to pre-empt any dissidence and demand for democratic reforms. How could illegal immigrants acquire landed properties in a small country like Bhutan and remain undetected for thirty or forty years?
NO ECONOMIC PARADISE
In its propaganda materials, Bhutan says that it has been a favoured destination for many Nepalese economic migrants who flee their impoverished homes in the thousands every year in search of a livelihood. Bhutan ludicrously describes itself as an economic paradise for migrants, an El Dorado
Since Bhutan is not an oil-rich or mineral-rich country like some of the middle-east nations, nor is it an industrialised like the western countries, where employment opportunities are abundant and it is neither an agriculturally fertile and prosperous, then why should illegal immigrants enter into Bhutan with the prospect of better opportunities? Bhutan falls under the category of the Least Developed Countries ( LDCs), where roads were built as late as 1965. It is more heavily dependent on foreign aids than Nepal, for its survival. If it was a paradise why did next door Indians not migrate to grab the golden opportunities? The Lhotshampas migrated was long ago, not recently. And their migration was not influenced by economic factors as alleged by the Bhutanese regime. It is also noteworthy that till late eighties ( even today), Bhutan's main economic activities were centred around the services sector manned by around 13,000 civil servants.
On the other hand, there has been out-migration from Bhutan. More than 20,000 Sharchops from eastern Bhutan migrated to neighbouring Darjeeling District and Arunachal Pradesh of India and some, even to Nepal in the sixties. These out-migrations shatter the myth of Bhutan's self-proclaimed economic paradise status. Bhutan was never an economic paradise for immigrants.
In any case, all the Lhotshampa of southern Bhutane were in Bhutan much before 1958. The history of the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa dates back to around 1625 A.D., much older than the present ruling Wangchuck Dynasty (1907), which is just 84 years old. In the name of eviction of illegal immigrants the government started deporting even the genuine southern Bhutanese.
In 1898, southern Bhutan, the habitat of Nepali-speaking citizens, was accorded a special administrative status under the authority of the Dorji family. "In 1898, for instance, the Kazi (Ugen Dorji) was given full administrative authority over the whole of southern Bhutan, including the right to settle Nepali immigrants in what was then a virtually uninhibited section of the country" (Rose, Leo, The Politics of Bhutan, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1977 - the most authoritative book on Bhutan). By then 'some districts in eastern and southern Bhutan faced more severe population pressures on the land and by 1950s in both southern and eastern Bhutan, population pressure upon land resources was becoming a problem in these areas (Rose Leo ). This is a telling pointer to the fact that significantly large number of Lhotshampas already existed in Bhutan at that time.
This confirms that: a) Lhotshampas had settled in southern Bhutan prior to the installation of the hereditary monarchy in 1907, b) Lhotshampas settled in virgin territory without displacing the original inhabitants, and c) Southern Bhutan suffered from population pressures even before the 'cut-off' year of citizenship i.e. 1958.
Bhutan has the least percentage of agriculturally suitable land in the whole of South Asia. Only 7.7 percent of the total land is potentially able to be used for agriculture and cultivation ( Planning Commission's Statistics 2000). This also proves that there was no land in Bhutan to accommodate new immigrants after the turn of 1900. Again, until late seventies, the government did not allow the Lhotshampas to buy landed properties and build houses in the capital, and in the north-western districts. They were also required to obtain a prior permission from the government even for in-country travel.
The British Empire in India too encouraged the settlement of Lhotshampas in southern Bhutan. Their motive was to establish a fully loyal population to the Bhutanese throne, which they were backing. Irrespective of other reasons advanced, such as safeguarding the borders of Bhutan, the British Raj wanted a long-term stability in the body politics of Bhutan, which depended on the strength of the institution of monarchy. It was also hoped that with the new Hindu settlers, culturally respecting and recognising the institution of monarchy, even the Buddhists in the long run would be accustomed to respect and live under monarchy. Unlike the Hindu religion, Buddhism does not recognize the sanctity of monarchs. It was expected that a blend of support coming from both the Hindus and the Buddhists would provide the much-needed legitimacy to the monarchy - which until 1907 was an unknown phenomenon in the political history of Bhutan.
The whole motive of the government bogey of 'illegal immigrants' was to prevent the demand for democratic rights from the southern districts, which have open borders with democratic India and to bring about a favourable demographic pattern by reducing the population of Lhotshampas.