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.