Thursday, April 29, 2010

Nepali diaspora and illegal immigration.
By RP Subba
This article was published in the Kathmandu Post in March 28, 1998. It is being reproduced here for further introspection.
Approximately six million Nepalese job hunters living in India, those working in South Asian countries and the Middle East and Nepalese living in Europe and United States called the Non-resident Nepalese (NRNs) constitute the ‘Nepali’ diaspora. These ‘Nepalese’ emigrants live outside under different arrangements. India, which is the largest destination, offers shelter as per treaty with Nepal, which provides reciprocal rights to citizens of either country to live and work in the other, except political rights. In other countries, they live under Nepalese visa and work permits issued by respective countries. HMG’s Labour Ministry permits Nepalese to go abroad through companies registered under the Foreign Employment Act to thirteen countries viz, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Iraq, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Brunei, South Korea and Taiwan.
The notion of ‘Nepali diaspora’ is an instrument, often used by some scheming outsiders to discredit Nepal and the so called people of ‘Nepalese Community’ living outside Nepal. The Nepali speaking people permanently settled in India, Bhutan and Burma have nothing to do with Nepal, though some people have misleadingly tried to associate them with Nepal. It is essential to understand that the term ‘Nepalese’ by itself, has a political connotation denoting the people of Nepal. Thus, viewing the Indian Gorkhas, the Bhutanese Gorkhas or the Burmese Gorkhas through the ‘Nepalese’ spectrum does political harm to them. What is largely ignored in Nepal but genuinely taken advantage by the Thimphu regime is this lexical ambiguity, which serves Thimphu to downplay the refugee issue. The usual appendage ‘Nepali’ made in reference to the Bhutanese refugees has thus lent credence to this fact, and encouraged the regime to conspire against bilateral talks and the international community.
King Jigme believes that this terminology diverts one’s loyalty towards Nepal. The king is reported to have minced no words in a reply to a visiting Indian politician in early 1990, that if the dissidents identify themselves with this foreign identity, it would open up an easy route for eviction. The shrewd mandarins at Tashichhodzong, through media terrorism and diplomatic offensive has manoeuvringly made the best and successful capitalization of this theory, and has left no stone unturned in converting this abstract notion of ‘Nepali diaspora’ into an ever menacing strategy to disarm both the Bhutanese dissidents and Nepalese government, by spreading the bogey of ‘illegal Nepalese immigration’. In doing so, the regime is justifying its advocacy for the blockade, on the return of its nationals from exile into Bhutan.
The refugees have become a bone of contention between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan. Bhutan alleges them of being ‘illegal Nepalese immigrants’ who have gathered there from parts of India and the adjacent local villages to avail of the free food and facilities provided in the camps. Jigme Thinley, Bhutan’s ambassador to the UN, Geneva, at the 47th Session of the Executive Committee of the UNHCR in October, 1996 drew the attention of the international community to “the problem of a large number of Nepalese people who are in the refugee camps in Nepal, all claiming to be refugees from Bhutan”.
Further, he went on echoing the King’s version thus, “the increasingly desperate wave of illegal immigrants from Nepal is threatening the very survival of Bhutanese people in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem”. The regime’s propaganda machinery is strong enough to make even the outsiders believe their stories. Dr. Lohani, then Foreign Minister of Nepal, had taken a strong exception to this view, maintaining that if the refugees are not ‘Bhutanese’, they are not ‘Nepalese’ either.
Paradoxically, some people are very cynical to this view and even stress on the ‘Nepalese’ tag. How can ‘Nepalese’ be external refugees in Nepal? Is it constitutionally right to identify them ‘Nepalese’? If so, can Nepal afford to absorb all those living beyond its borders, whom it unilaterally considers as ‘Nepalese’? What would be its obligations and responsibilities towards ‘Nepalese’ living outside its territory? Doesn’t Nepal’s complacency endorse Thimphu’s views? These are the burning questions Nepal must look into, before it identifies anybody as ‘Nepalese’.
The issue of illegal immigration openly surfaced in the Bhutanese political agenda in the 1980s, though the concept was mooted as early as in the 1950s, after the Bhutanese regime witnessed sporadic political activism in Southern Bhutan under the banner of Bhutan State Congress. The regime, instead of working for a political solution, decided to write-off their identity, converting them overnight as ‘Nepalese’ through a resolution of the National Assembly in 1958. The years immediately after the upheaval saw Bhutan passing its first law, “The National Law of Bhutan” in 1958. The law made the Southern Bhutanese, second class citizens and were mandated to submit fresh applications for citizenship as if they were new migrants. Other communities didn’t need apply. However, they were regarded as indigenous sons of the soil.
It is essential to distinguish illegal immigrants from bonafide citizens, living as refugees in the camps. The small presence of contractual laborers, working in the Indian Dantak and Imtrat Projects were deported from Bhutan in the ealry1980s, precipitating into a brief spate of violence and protest demonstrations in Phuntsholing. The projects, widely responsible for border road constructions in Bhutan looked after their needs and were not allowed to mix up with the nationals. The uninvestigated perceptions of the regime and the international community in treating these immigrants and the Bhutanese nationals as synonymous entities, does injustice to the Southern Bhutanese, who are genuine citizens of the country.
Bhutan is doing nothing that is not a reality in the region. In India, people have experienced sweeping cases of cleansing of immigrants especially from its northeastern states, where the anti-foreigners movement has generated survival issues for the non-indigenous peoples. The Supreme Court of India in its verdict of 11th February 1993, in regard to the petition filed by Mr. R C Poudyal, on reservation of seats for the Sikkimese Nepalese in the Sikkim Legislative Assembly, dismissed the petition on grounds that, they were “later immigrants from Nepal”. What rights and political status are entitled to a person, who is identified as an immigrant? The same apex court upholds seat reservation for the Bhutia and Lepcha communities in the Sikkim Assembly.
In another incident, a Commission advised the Chief Electoral Officer, Sikkim that “the Nepalese not born as Sikkim subjects cannot acquire Indian citizenship under the Sikkim Citizenship Order 1975, but continue to be aliens and could not be registered in the electoral rolls of the state”. To add more, The Immigrants, (Expulsion From Assam) Act, 1950 empowers the government to “direct such persons or class of persons to remove himself or themselves from India or Assam within such time and by such route as may be specified in the order and give such further directions in regard to his or their removal from India or Assam as it may consider necessary or expedient”.
It is important to note that, the Nepalese, Tibetans and Bangladeshis have been the targets of anti-foreigners movement in the northeast, and many of them face involuntary removal. The Chief Minister of Assam, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, in his book, The Tussle Between the Citizens and Foreigners in Assam writes, “I am directed to state that the views of the Central government are that the Nepalese, who cannot claim Indian citizenship under Article 5 of the Constitution cannot automatically become Indian citizens merely by long and continuous residence in India”.
In the same book Mahanta writes, “It is still found that a large number of Nepali nationals or other foreigners have managed to get their names registered in the electoral rolls. Recourse should be had under provisions of the Representative of People Act, 1950, for deleting the names of such persons on the ground that they are not citizens of India”.
‘Nepalese’ in India are placed under Article 7 of the Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1950, which recognizes them as reciprocal citizens and not as Indian citizens. The contents of the treaty has often clashed with the actual sentiments of the people, permanently settled there, leading to involuntary removal or violent political agitations, as in the case of Darjeeling. ‘Nepalese’ in Burma underwent through similar experiences in the 1960s.
The identity problem overhanging the Indian Gorkhas was solved on 23rd August 1988, by granting constitutional recognition and citizenship thus, “whereas it has come to the notice of the Central Government that there have been some misconceptions about citizenship at the commencement of the constitution of India of certain classes of persons commonly known as Gorkhas…… it is hereby clarified that as from the commencement of the Constitution, every Gorkha who had his domicile in the territory of India …… shall be a citizen of India”.
The question of identity of the refugees has become an important issue because it has been unfairly, wrongly interpreted by Thimphu. It is high time for HMG, to begin rethinking the issue from this angle too. To finish off the controversy, Nepal must formally issue a gazetted government notification stating that the refugees are not ‘Nepalese’. HMG is the only competent authority to decide whether they are ‘Nepalese’ or not. This will support Nepal’s initiative at internationalization of the refugee issue, if not blunt Bhutan’s diplomatic offensive. The Thimphu regime too, must understand the deeper implications of pinpointing its own citizens as aliens, and start working for decent solutions to the problem. Bhutanese rulers must learn to move from rhetoric to reality.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


What’s in an Identity? RP Subba

On the outset, let me begin with a simple premise that the ‘identity’ of the ‘Nepali speaking’ Bhutanese people is shrouded in confusion. To make matters worse, the confusion continues to grow. ‘Identity’ here and for the purpose of this article refers to ‘ethnic or cultural distinctiveness or characteristics’ of people covered under study. This study covers the Nepali speaking people of southern Bhutan popularly called the ‘Southern Bhutanese’.

As we shall see, the number of terminologies has grown over the years, at the cost of inflicting a great disservice to our community.

For instance, I know and I believe many other Bhutanese also acknowledge that at least a dozen different terminologies are used interchangeably in reference to the Nepali speaking southern Bhutanese people namely - ‘Nepali speaking Bhutanese’, ‘Bhutanese Nepali’, ‘Lhotshampa’, ‘Illegal Nepalese immigrants’, ‘Nepali Bhutanese’, ‘Southern Bhutanese’, ‘Nepali’, ‘Nepalese’, ‘Gorkhas’. The jargon continues – ‘Bhutani’, ‘Drup Nepali’, ‘Prabasi Nepali’, ‘Bhupali’ etc. One blogger named Govinda, even went to the extent of proposing rather funny sounding terms such as ‘English writing Bhutanese’, ‘Nepali speaking American Bhutanese’, ‘Dzongkha speaking Australian Bhutanese’, ‘Nepali-Hindi speaking Bhutanese’, ‘Nepali speaking English writing Bhutanese’ etc.

If anything, these terminologies transport ambiguity to our collective identity. One thing is clear - a continued permeation of these confusions could jeopardize our identity as a distinct ethnic/cultural group of Bhutan. And we cannot let this to happen. Much of these terms are imports from outside. But we are guilty too of not investigating the possible negative impacts to us of such dubious inputs. Therefore, it is in common interest to set the records straight by standing firm on an identity, appropriate and worthy of our proud community and past history.

To begin with, it may be appropriate to understand what an ‘identity’ means or symbolizes. Identities are determined by what people identify with. Culture, to a very large part plays that role in shaping identity. Cultural identity is different from ‘political identity’, which basically refers to a population sharing a national ideology or destiny and a sense of ‘commonness’ generated by common citizenship.

For the benefit of doubt, an attempt to provide a perspective of the origin, history, meaning, usage, strengths and weaknesses of some of these terms has been made here.

‘Bhutanese Nepali’/ Nepali Bhutanese’: Each of these terms combine the nationality of two sovereign countries, Bhutan and Nepal. The political connotation is stronger than the identity of the people it can possibly convey. The term could have been coined for convenience but it is politically not neutral. ‘Bhutanese’ stands for citizens of Bhutan and ‘Nepali’ stands for citizens of Nepal. In the case of ‘Nepali Bhutanese’ the term ‘Nepali’ appears even before ‘Bhutanese’ indicating that more emphasis is placed on ‘Nepali’ than ‘Bhutanese’.

‘Lhotshampas’/‘Southern Bhutanese’: The term ‘Lhotshampa’ has probably aroused more controversy among Bhutanese people than anything else when dealing with questions of ‘identity’. It has become a bone of contention between the government of Bhutan and the Nepali speaking southern Bhutanese people. Needless to say that the southern Bhutanese people themselves have become confused to the extent that they have now started picking up fights over what should be their actual identity.

In Dzongkha, ‘Lhotshampa’ means a ‘southerner’ or a ‘southern dweller’. ‘Southern Bhutanese’ is a Dzongkha version for ‘Lhotshampa’. Call it ‘Lhotshampa’ or ‘Southern Bhutanese’ these terms are no longer appropriate, since these people now live beyond the confines of southern Bhutan. North and eastern Bhutan too carry a sizeable pocket of Nepali speaking Bhutanese. Interestingly, both of these terms are extensively (mis)used by the political parties and the Bhutanese refugees in exile. But neither of them however, define the ethnic/cultural identity of the people. At best, these terms point to geographic territory and not the people, their cultures, languages, history or traditions.

Nevertheless, the government is determined to impose this identity on the southern Bhutanese, while the southerners’ responses at best constitute a mixed bag. There are those who copy the term without a second thought and there are people who are still paranoid.

The term ‘Lhotshampa’ entered into Bhutanese lexicography sometimes in or after 1980. Its coinage and introduction by the Bhutanese government understandably was to stay clear of Nepalese identity. Stories have it, that Rajiv Gandhi’s four days visit to Bhutan in October of 1985 brought about a watershed in the mindset of the Bhutanese rulers verses the Nepali speaking southern Bhutanese people. Rajiv addressed the National Assembly of Bhutan during this visit. During his Bhutan entourage, Rajiv is said to have slyly commented that Bhutanese distinctiveness was not evident in the streets of Thimphu, and that from what it is, Bhutan looked much like Nepal. From what we saw in the aftermath of Rajiv visit, this little comment opened the Pandora’s Box for Bhutan and for the southern Bhutanese. The Marriage Act of 1980, the Citizenship Act of 1985, the National Census of 1989, the National Security Act of 1992 were all politically motivated by the notion to undo the ‘Nepaliness’ of the Nepali speaking population of southern Bhutan.

The term ‘Lhotshampa’ does not qualify people culturally. Any one who resides temporarily or permanently in the south is a ‘Lhotshampa’ regardless of his ethnic/cultural identity. By this logic even Ngalongs, Sarchhops or Khengpas living in southern Bhutan, could together fall under this broad rubric called ‘Lhotshampas’. Likewise, if the Nepali speaking southern Bhutanese permanently reside in the north, they cease to remain ‘Lhotshampa’ anymore. By territorial logic then, they would become Sarchhops or Knupchhops depending on where they live. The same person is a ‘Lhotshampa’ here, a Sarchhop there, and Knupchhop elsewhere, and yet he is completely different from what these identities stand for him. This logic applies equally to members of other ethnic groups relocating to the south. This, points to the flawed concept of using territory as a basis for identifying people.

Cultural identity surely is evolving and flexible. However, it remains fairly stable for a very long period of time. Any cultural group likes to perpetuate the same identity through time and territory, regardless of generational space or geographic location. Changes if any, occur very gradually and generally they can be expected to come from within. Any attempt at breaking this order either by the State or private parties will result in unnecessary social dislocations and political upheaval. This is exactly what took place in Bhutan after 1980.

The actions of the Bhutanese government particularly after 1980 were wholly uncalled for. The RGOB constantly flirted and meddled in the affairs of the people, seeking to prescribe or fix an identity for them. If anything, such State behavior arrested the very principles upon which peoples’ identities are rooted. The series of actions all too often, brought forth by the government set the balance off and ruptured the delicate fault lines between the diverse ethnic groups of Bhutan.

To sum it all, ‘Lhotshampa’ is not a judicious substitute nor does it provide an appropriate cultural identity for the Nepali speaking people of Bhutan.

‘Nepali’/‘Nepalese’/ ‘Prabasi Nepali’: Unaware of the terms beyond their literary and emotional reach, many southern Bhutanese commoners identify themselves as ‘Nepali’. ‘Hami Nepali’, ‘Hamro Nepali’ are common themes of daily conversation. Another fairly common term is “Prabasi Nepali”. It is a general term for the Nepali Diaspora outside Nepal, especially referring to those settled in the Indian subcontinent and Myanmar. Not many journalists and even academics seem to discriminate the hidden meanings and legal interpretation of these terms. While on a delegation to one of the NGOs in the Washington DC area, I was stunned when one of the delegates effortlessly explained that we are not ‘Bhutanese’, we are ‘Nepalese’. She was extremely confused.

To a politically sensitive mind however, the message received could make a different sense. It builds up an impression questioning your national background. Why let others point fingers at you? Going by the Constitution of Nepal, ‘Nepali’ stands for people of Nepal or the citizens of Nepal. Article 3 of the Constitution of Nepal 1990 says the sovereignty of Nepal is vested in the Nepalese people…...” With its meaning defined in the Constitution, ‘Nepali’ can no more be a theme for ethnic or cultural expression. Instead, it connotes a political expression, of an individual’s nationality or citizenship. So the use of the term ‘Nepali’ or ‘Nepalese’ by the Nepali speaking southern Bhutanese looks inappropriate.

Within Nepal itself, the term ‘Nepali’ is seen to bear a huge double standard. In it fuses both the political and cultural identities of the Nepalese people. But the term ‘Nepali’ is not culturally neutral. As such it has become the primary source of social and cultural antagonism among the various cultural groups of Nepal especially between the ‘Pahadiyas’ and the ‘Madhesis’.

‘Illegal Nepalese immigrants’: This is the regimes’ invention and a pet name for the southerners. This is nothing but a fat baloney, which not only contradicts facts but also leads to the undoing of Bhutan’s southern population. Bhutan’s formula is simple and straight. First label the southern Bhutanese as ‘illegal Nepalese immigrants’ and then expel them.

‘Bhupali’: Wikipedia says “Bhupalis are Bhutanese of Nepali origin living as refugees in Jhapa, Nepal….” It adds, “Bhupalis have camps also in Bagrakot, Kalchini, Looksan and Birpara tea gardens in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, India”. The source of the term is not known but a few leaders in exile suspect if RAW has a hand in its origination. First spotted in some local Indian papers, today “the term is used by the Indian officials in and around Indo-Bhutan and Indo-Nepal regions”.

Some Bhutanese who are awakening to the cultural identity issue seem to find some attraction to this term. Dick Chhetri, a Bhutanese, who lives in California, USA recently wrote an article forwarding an idea if the term ‘Bhupalis’ should be considered for public debate. The sugestion is bold and commendable. My guess is that, barring some exceptions, many people may be interested in this debate. After all what is wrong in a debate? A good extensive debate could play the vehicle for knowing why we can or cannot adopt such a term. Remember, arguments which are logically true may not be publicly supported and widely supported ideas may not be logically true. The wisdom of the crowd and the wit of the intellectual must weave together should this debate ever take place.

‘Gorkhas’: It appears that the choice of the term has been influenced by a political belief that identities can sometimes be negotiated through political movements emphasizing on group identity. Close in the neighborhood, the Gorkhas in Darjeeling have partly done this with some success. They understood the political and cultural capital accruing from adopting the term. Obviously, its import to Bhutan could have been natural. The formation of a Bhutan Gorkha National Liberation Front (BGNLF) in 1993 brought the context closure home but led to a hotly contested debated among its adherents and opponents.

It is necessary that we try putting the term in historical context and assess its relevance to us today. Important also is to look into the nefarious misconceptions and uproar it has generated in the society. In Gorkha Baangmoya, Yogi Narhari Nath, talks about ‘Gorkhajati’. Yogi was considered an authority in ancient Nepalese history and remained a firm proponent of ‘Gorkhajati’ concept till his death. In contrast, there are others in whose view; the Gorkhas took their name from the Gorkha region of Nepal or from the erstwhile Gorkha regiment. Indeed, the reverse is true.

If there was no ‘Gorkhajati’, how did the Gorkha regiment come about? The existence of ‘Gorkajati’ must precede the formation of the Gorkha regiment. In fact, the Gorkha region derived its name only after the Gorkhas established their control over this area and named it ‘Gorkha’ in honour of their patron saint Guru Gorakhnath.

Legend has it that the Gorkhas took their name from the eighth century Hindu warrior-saint, Guru Gorakhnath. Guru Gorkhanath had a Rajput Prince/disciple - the legendary Bappa Rawal. Pleased with Bappa Rawal for his services, Guru Gorakhnath gave him a khukuri, the famous traditional weapon of the Gorkhas. The Guru, then professed that he and his people would henceforth be known as ‘Gorkhas’, meaning the disciples of the Guru Gorkhanath. Consequently, Bappa became the first ‘Gorkha’. The ancestors of Nepal’s contemporary Shah dynasty were his later descendants.

In Bhutan, the southern dwellers, who the Bhutanese government now calls as ‘Lhotshampas’ were known as ‘Gorkhas’ until 1958. A National Assembly resolution in 1958 converted them into ‘Nepalese’. The southerners were then mandated to identify themselves as ‘Nepalese’ and not ‘Gorkhas’. From what we know now, it appears that this could have been the regime’s initial ploy to change history and label them ‘illegal Nepalese immigrants’. That plan met fruition when in the 1990s; the regime unleashed its strategy and finally pointed the exit door towards Nepal.

Conclusion: Identity issues are pertinent to all. Not having an identity is like not having a name. But we seem to be sitting at the crossroads of an identity crisis. Identity issues are very sensitive, delicate and tend to become very susceptible at times, especially when our Diaspora is expanding. The gravity of the situation pertaining from this quandary suggests the need for finding a timely, stable and non-controversial terminology that fits well into our situation in Bhutan.

January, 13, 2009.

Note – This article was Posted on 27 January 2009 in feature story by editor.