The earliest surviving records of Bhutan’s history show that Tibetan influence already existed from the 6th century. King Songtsen Gampo who ruled Tibet from 627-649AD was responsible for the construction of Bhutan’s oldest surviving Buddhist temples, the Kyichhu Lhakhang in Paro and the Jambay Lhakhang in Bumthang . Settlement in Bhutan by people of Tibetan origin happened by this time.
The first reports of people of Nepalese origin in Bhutan was around 1620, when Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal commissioned a few Newari craftsmen from the Kathmandu valley in Nepal to make a silver stupa to contain the ashes of his father Tempa Nima. There are no references of any further movement of people from Nepal to Bhutan until the beginning of the 20th century.
Settlement in Bhutan of people from Nepal happened for the first time in the early 20th century encouraged by Bhutan House in Kalimpong for the purpose of collecting taxes for Bhutan House. In the 1930s, Bhutan House settled 5000 families of Nepali workers in Tsirang alone. In the 1940s, the British Political Officer Sir Basil Gould, was quoted as saying that when he warned Sir Raja Sonam Tobgye Dorji of Bhutan House of the potential danger of allowing so many ethnic Nepalese to settle in southern Bhutan, he replied that “since they were not registered subjects they could be evicted whenever the need arose”Ray, Sunanda Datta: “Smash and Grab: The Annexation of Sikkim”, page 51. Vikas publishing, 1980.
Towards the end of the reign of the second King Jigme Wangchuck, in the 1950s, the numbers of new immigrants had swelled causing tension between the King and the Dorji family in Bhutan House. In 1950, when some recent migrants had illegally cleared some forest land and the government moved to enforce government regulations, a confrontation occurred and some of the Nepali settlers fled to India. Encouraged by the nationalistic rhetoric for democracy from newly independent India, these people organized themselves as the Bhutan State Congress in 1952 under the leadership of D.B. Gurung, D.B. Chhetri and G.P. Sharma. A major confrontation occurred in 22 March 1954 when 100 ‘volunteers’ marched into Bhutan in Sarpang. The government mobilized its national militia and when their orders to disperse were not obeyed, the ‘volunteers’ were attacked resulting in most of them fleeing across the border.
Amnesty was given in 1958 through a new citizenship act for all those who could prove their presence in Bhutan for at least 10 years prior to 1958.
From 1961 onward however, with Indian support, the government began planned developmental activities consisting of significant infrastructure development works. Not comfortable with India’s desire to bring in workers in large numbers from India, the government initially tried to prove its own capacity by insisting that the planned Thimphu-Phuntsholing highway be done with its own workforce. While it did succeed in this, completing the 182 km highway in just two years, the import of workers from India was inevitable. With most Bhutanese working self-employed as farmers, Bhutan lacked a ready supply of workers willing to take up the major infrastructure projects. This led eventually to the large-scale import of skilled and unskilled construction workers from India. These people were most of Nepali origin who were able to slowly settle down under the guise of the naturalized immigrants. With the pressures of the developmental activities, this trend remained unchecked or inadequately checked for many years. Immigration check posts and immigration offices were in fact established for the first time only after the 1990 problem.
By the 1980s, the government had become acutely conscious not just of widespread illegal immigration of people of Nepali origin into Bhutan, but also of the total lack of integration even of long-term immigrants into the political and cultural mainstream of the country. Most of the immigrants knew very little of the culture of Bhutan and most could not understand any one of the local languages including Dzongkha. In the rural areas they remained so ‘Nepalese’ in their culture they were indistinguishable from the Nepalese in Nepal itself. For its part, government officials had long ignored the situation assuming that most of these people who were most often observed in non-Bhutanese clothes were in fact non-Bhutanese visitors or residents.
Perceiving this growing dichotomy as a threat to national unity, the Government promulgated directives in the 1980s that sought to preserve Bhutan’s cultural identity as well as to formally embrace the citizens of other ethnic groups in a “One Nation One People” policy. While the intent of the policy was benign and inclusive, the government not totally unreasonably, implied that the ‘culture’ to be preserved would be that of the various northern Bhutanese groups. This policy therefore required citizens to wear the attire of the northern Bhutanese in public places and reinforced the status of Dzongkha as the national language. Nepali was discontinued as a subject in the schools thus bringing it at par with the status of the other languages of Bhutan, none of which are taught. Such policies were criticized at first by human rights groups as well as Bhutan’s Nepalese economic migrant community, who perceived the policy to be directed against them.
In 1985, the government passed a new citizenship act which clarified and attempted to enforce the 1958 Citizenship Act to control the flood of illegal immigration. From 1988 the government conducted its first real census exercise. The basis for the census findings was the 1958 ‘cut off’ year, the year that the Nepali population had first received Bhutanese citizenship. Those individuals who could not provide proof of residency prior to 1958 were adjudged to be illegal immigrants. There was a perception of a Greater Nepal movement emerging from the nepali-dominated areas in Nepal, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and West Bengal which the Bhutanese feared as Nepali chauvinism.
The government however failed to properly train the census officials and this led to some tension among the public. The government also attempted to enforce the dress code and language code all at the same time. These measures combined to alienate even bonafide citizens of Nepali descent.
Matters reached a climax in September 1990 after organized groups comprised of 10,000 or more ethnic Nepalis from the Indian side of the border, organized protest marches in different districts, burned down schools, stripped local government officials of their national attire which they burned publicly, carried out kidnappings and murders of other ethnic Nepalis who did not join their protests. Some of the organizers of the marches were arrested and detained. They were led by the Bhutan People’s Party, a militant group. However the Bhutanese government later released most of them. Those with ties to the groups responsible for the murders and kidnappings were forced to leave, but many other innocent ethnic-Nepali citizens were coerced to leave by the angry ethnic-Nepali dissidents.
The Kyodo News Agency reported the ‘massacre’ of the demonstrators at the hands of the Bhutanese army. This report was reportedly submitted by a Nepali reporter based in Siliguri and passed on to the headquarters in Kathmandu. The report was later dismissed as inaccurate but it damaged Bhutan’s international image. The Kyodo News Agency reportedly apologized to the government of Bhutan for the incorrect report but the government of Bhutan did not demand the apology in writing thus leaving Bhutan’s tarnished image uncleared.
The erroneous Kyodo report
The census exercise thus came to an end and the southern border of Bhutan became a hotbed of militancy for several years.
The refugee leaders believed that for them to receive UN assistance and recognition of their sought-after ‘refugee’ status, their numbers should not be less than 100,000. To achieve this end, the insurgents primarily targeted the homes of Nepalese in southern Bhutan. Through persuasion as well as through coercion, more of them were persuaded to leave Bhutan and join the others at the camps that had slowly been established in eastern Nepal.
Thus a group of several thousand left and settled in refugee camps set up by UNHCR. The Bhutanese refugee issue was thus born and remains unresolved.
Ray, Sunanda Datta: “Smash and Grab: The Annexation of Sikkim”, page 51. Vikas publishing, 1980
Thinley, Jigmi Y., Bhutan: A Kingdom Besieged, 1993
Dorji, Kinley, BHUTAN’S CURRENT CRISIS – A VIEW FROM THIMPHU, 1993
Michael Aris, Bhutan: The Early History of a Himalayan Kingdom, Vikas, 1980, ISBN 0-7069-1029-X
Leo E. Rose, The Politics of Bhutan, Cornell University Press, 1977, ISBN 0-8014-0909-8
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, Smash and Grab: The Annexation of Sikkim.Vikas, 1980. ISBN 0-7069-2509-2.
“327 Killed in Bhutan Last Week”, 12–27. Japan Times, 1990-09-28
Anti-nationals in open revolt, Kuensel (p.1), 29 September 1990
Leo E., Rose, “The Nepali Ethnic Community in the Northeast of the Subcontinent”, Conference on “Democratization, Ethnicity and Development in South & Southeast Asia, p.11-12, 1993