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.
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
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.
of Granting Citizenship Certificate
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.
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.
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.
per the government regulations, all Bhutanese citizens are
required to posses the following for all purposes and for
obtaining citizenship certificates :
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.
House number issued by the District Administration and
Department of Registration of the Ministry of Home Affairs
in each village.
enumeration in the census records maintained by the village
headmen and the district administration and updated annually.
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
of taxes in cash for land, house, cattle, cash crops and
fruit orchards etc.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.