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Nationality Issues in Bhutan



The roots of the current political crisis in Bhutan and the refugees lie in Bhutan’s geopolitics and population politics. A study of various policies of the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) in the last two decades reflects the Ngalung/Drukpa dominated government’s motive to uproot Nepali speaking Lhotshampa population from Bhutan and reduce their number by all means. Be it Drukpanization or Bhutanization programmes,  Citizenship and Marriage Acts or NOCs/PCCs,  all are directed against Lhotshampas of the south. It was a long standing and intrinsic ruling elites’ security perception that the domestic demand for political change (democracy) would come from  the Lhotshampas in the  south. The south  is bordered by the democratic India. Moreover, the Lhotshampas are economically well-off and  more educated than their brethren in the north and east. The northern borders with China is closed. In order to pre-empt the demand for democracy, the government devised a clever strategy to depopulate the Lhotshampas from southern Bhutan. Hence, the Lhotshampas  suddenly became the geopolitical scapegoats and security threat to the absolute monarchy.


Thus, the government  devised various strategies to bring about a favourable demographic balance favouring a Drukpa/Ngalung nation by reducing the number of Lhotshampas to around 25% and to prevent the demand for democracy from southern Bhutan. The failed implementation of the forced assimilation policies reinforced this insecurity. This resulted in denationalization, deprivation and virtual confiscation. of Lhotshampa citizenship rights through manipulation of the Citizenship Act and through changing the definition of citizenship. The current political crisis and the refugee problems owe their origin to the enactment of two racist and discriminatory laws, viz., Citizenship Act of 1985 and Marriage Act of 1977 and implementation of a number of racist and discriminatory policies. These laws and policies were designed to reduce the number of Lhotshampa population and their mass eviction.




Question of nationality and methods employed to determine citizenship form a backdrop of all other issues and events in southern Bhutan. Bhutan’s first attempt to define its citizenship came with National Law of Bhutan, 1958. The regime enacted a new Citizenship Act, 1985. This Act was given  a retrospective implementation of thirty years, that is,  from 1958. It declared 31 December, 1958 as the cut-off year for granting citizenship. The Act was forcefully implemented in 1988. The wives of Bhutanese citizens married from outside the country and children born of such parents were not granted citizenship and were deprived of their legitimate citizenship status. This Act defined three criteria for granting of citizenship:  by birth, by registration, and through naturalisation.


This Act is the origin of the refugee problems and the looming danger of statelessness for Lhotshampas. The  National Law, 1958 prescribed 'fatherhood' as the criteria for granting citizenship-which is normal. But the new Act repealed the previous citizenship law and prescribed 'parenthood' as the sole criteria for grant of citizenship by birth, thus denying citizenship to anyone whose mother was married from outside the country, even if the mother was granted citizenship according to previous law. Since the Act was given a retrospective implementation of 1958, all children born of  a marriage between a Bhutanese father and a non-Bhutanese mother, between 1958 to 1988 were declared non-citizens and so-called 'illegal’  and 'economic migrants'. The National Assembly in1988 confirmed 14,442 marriages between a Bhutanese citizen and a non-citizen during last twenty years. The number was too insignificant for the government to grant citizenship rights.


Article 3 of the Act codified a new basis for granting citizenship - a proof of residence in Bhutan since before December 31, 1958 was required. It says that “ A person permanently domiciled in Bhutan on or before 31st December, 1958, and, whose name is registered in the census register maintained by the Ministry of Home Affairs shall be deemed to be a citizen of Bhutan by registration”. The government subsequently brought all Lhotshampas under the purview of citizenship by registration only. They were considered citizens by registration and not by birth, even though they were born and reared in Bhutan since the 17th century much before the establishment of the current ruling Wangchuchk dynasty in 1907 and granted citizenship by previous laws.




The Act arbitrarily imposes an impossible burden upon the Lhotshampas of providing the documentary evidence of their presence in Bhutan on 31 December, 1958, while the other ethnic groups did not have to prove anything  to retain their citizenship. The government insisted on production of  documents such as land tax receipts only of 1958. Documents  of earlier years including the citizenship certificates issued on the basis of previous laws were arbitrarily rejected. The proper census record maintained by Chief District Officer were arbitrarily rejected. The government was fully aware  that the requirements of the new Act just did not exist then in Bhutan and that most of the Lhotshampas would not be able to  fulfil them. The Act demands that the person concerned must prove that his name was registered in the census register, though the register was maintained by the government. The government demand is not only ridiculous but totally unjustified since, the Council of Ministers including the Ministry of Home responsible for maintaining the census register was itself created in 1968. The enumeration in the census record was started only in 1972.


Following the first census of 1981, all citizens were issued with citizenship identity cards. The Foreigners were issued with alien cards and the non-national labours were issued with contract permits. By 1982 all people in Bhutan were registered.  Bhutanese 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 later the government contended that payment of property tax in itself is hardly a proof of Bhutanese citizenship. This is especially unfair since some of the documentary proof required by the census team just did not exist in the year 1958, i.e., enumeration in the census records.


Those who could not produce the documentary evidence of their presence on 31 December, 1958 were declared illegal immigrants. How is it possible for illiterate villagers to keep documents that will be demanded by the government after 30 years. Moreover, government had already issued citizenship certificates to all Lhotshampas making the safe keeping of  the documents unimportant. The Act was also discriminatorily enforced against the Lhotshampas  and not at all against other ethnic groups. Many  Ngalungs have Italian, English, Chinese and Singaporean wives, but they do not have to prove anything. However, the law prescribes a number of discriminatory criteria against the wives of Lhotshampas  from Nepal or India and their children. They are treated at par with aliens seeking for naturalisation.. Under the naturalisation process, these wives must prove their prior residence of 15-20 years in Bhutan. A  child born of  such mothers needs to reach the age of fifteen when he/she may apply for naturalisation. Naturalization again, is not a matter of law but subject to government approval


The Act was applied in an arbitrary manner to create mass statelessness. The dissidents  accused of speaking or criticising the king’s government was stripped of citizenship. Many Lhotshampas were deprived of their nationality for having fled Bhutan to escape suppression, because their fleeing amounts to disloyalty to the state according to the regime. The Act enabled the government to claim that the refugees are not Bhutanese citizens. The authorities confiscated the documentary evidences, particularly the citizenship identification card  and land documents issued to them by the government. It was a well planned strategy and conspiracy of the  government to depopulate and reduce the number of Lhotshampas. No appeal on the subject was allowed. The Act also forbids the return of citizens leaving the country. Since the government alleges that refugees have voluntarily emigrated to Nepal, their return will not be possible until this Act is repealed. Even, the European Parliament’s resolution has urged Bhutan to amend this Act for the return of refugees.




After enacting a draconian Citizenship Act in 1985 to reduce the Lhotshampa population, the government  simultaneously introduced the new Marriage Act which had an even larger content of discrimination  against Lhotshampa women and their children. The Act declared all  foreign wives of the Bhutanese citizens as non-citizens, even though most of them were granted citizenship under previous citizenship laws. In contravention of all international norms and civilised behaviour, the Royal Government  denied several thousand  children (born out of marriages  between Lhotshampa husbands and Nepali speaking wives from Nepal or India) of their right to nationality. They were evicted along with their parents. This Act was only enforced against the Lhotshampas.


The Marriage Act  was enacted in 1980 and was  forcefully implemented in 1988 to especially target the wives of Lhotshampas.  This discriminatory  law imposes a number of denial of benefits to those who married  non-Bhutanese wives. The Lhotshampas who married non-Bhutanese wife did not have the right to vote in (became ineligible for election to) the National Assembly (Parliament) elections, they were to be denied promotion in civil services, denied training and fellowships and medical treatment abroad, they were also denied business and agricultural grants and loans given by the government and could not avail of government supplied fertilisers, seeds and farm machineries  on subsidies. They could not get jobs in the Foreign Service and Armed Forces. This posed enormous problems for the Lhotshampas.


There are many reasons as to why the Lhotshampa chose foreign wives of their own ethnic groups  from Nepal and India. Some reasons are enumerated as follows: Bhutan stepped out of its isolation in the mid-sixties. The government did not encourage cultural socialization of various ethnic groups. Some ethnic groups were not allowed to own properties in the Ngalung dominated areas. Even in-country migration and in-country travel were restricted for some ethnic groups. The transport and communications were also not developed.  This led to the cultural isolation of various ethnic groups. Thus, each ethnic group developed their own intra-ethnic group matrimonial alliances.


Lhotshampas had a wide ethnic area in Darjeeling, Sikkim and Nepal to choose their spouse from. As a result many Lhotshampas got their spouses from their own ethnic groups from  these places. The most important factor that prevented the encouragement of inter-ethnic group matrimonial alliances is culture. The Lhotshampas are by and large Hindus. Culturally and traditionally, they are entirely different from ruling Ngalungs. Their language is a dialect of or is derived from  Sanskrit, the oldest language. They prefer to live in the hot climate of the southern foot hills.  The Ngalungs are nurtured in Drukpa Kargyupa Buddhist culture. They speak Tibetan stock Dzonkha language which is entirely different from Nepali. They wear robe like dresses and prefer to live in cool climate of the north.


While strict cultural values of the Lhotshampas triggered the search for wives from outside Bhutan, limited domestic society and geography also facilitated such marriages. The lack of communication and infrastructure within Bhutan were also factors which made Lhotshampas get their wives from neighbouring Indian states and Nepal as it was easier to travel to neighbouring countries than to visit other districts of Bhutan. Because of the lack of roads, Bhutanese are still required to  travel through  India  to reach from east to west in the south and south to north. Darjeeling district  had excelled as a centre of education during the British rule in India. It is still regarded as the best place for education in the entire  region of Bhutan, Nepal and Northeast India.


Jesuit fathers and Christian missionaries established the best schools in Darjeeling. Due to the absence of good schools and colleges   throughout  the sixties, seventies and  the eighties in Bhutan,  the  government used to send young Bhutanese for studies to Darjeeling  on Indian government scholarships. Most Lhotshampa students married with their schoolmates of their own ethnic community from Darjeeling, Sikkim  and Nepal.. Bhutan does not have enough colleges to cater to the need of students. Its only college is affiliated with Delhi University.  Bhutanese students had to go to Darjeeling as it is less expensive to study in neighbouring Darjeeling than  in Delhi or Calcutta.


As a consequence of  increasing  developmental activities after 1960  more opportunities were being created for educated people in the government services and in the private sector. Bhutan had a very low female literacy rate. The available manpower was not sufficient to meet the demand. As a  result, educated Lhotshampa took educated and conscious wives of their own ethnicity from neighbouring countries, who could  work in the offices or do businesses  and earn money.


In 1988, the government reported of 11,442 marriages between Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese during the preceding 20 years. There was neither a Marriage Act or Citizenship Laws forbidding a Bhutanese marrying a foreign wife then. The laws were enacted later with retroactive effect. Had there been such laws, probably no Bhutanese would have married a foreign spouse. The Royal Government’s  senseless action of implementing these laws shows its irresponsibility and indifference  towards its citizens’ difficulties. It is  a well-planned conspiracy to depopulate southern Bhutan. In any case, marriage is too personal a matter for the state  to  intervene.


Both the Citizenship Act and the Marriage Act are racist,  biased and discriminatory  against Lhotshampa of southern Bhutan.  Moreover, the law is also implemented in a discriminatory manner; very rigidly against the Lhotshampas and not at all against Drukpas, who for example have a Chinese, English, Italian or American wives. For example, Mr. Ugen Tshering, a Drukpa married to an Italian wife in the early eighties has today been promoted as Foreign Secretary. Similarly, the then Chief Justice of the High Court was promoted even though he had an English wife.   Today, of course, aside from bringing about a denial of benefits, marriage to non-Bhutanese wife has resulted in the very denial of citizenship rights to the Lhotshampa husbands.


Both the Citizenship Law, 1985 and the Marriage Acts have stripped several thousand Lhotshampas of their nationality. As a consequences of not granting citizenship to the foreign wives of Lhotshampa husbands, more than 60,000 children were deprived of their rightful claim to Bhutanese citizenship. This is more than 20 percent of the total children population of Bhutan. Refugee children constitute about 10 percent of the country’s total population of  around 700,000 of Bhutan.


More than 10,000 Lhotshampa wives are deprived of their right to  nationality. The government must repeal the discriminatory Citizenship Act, 1985 and the Marriage Act. It must enact new citizenship and marriage laws  conforming to the international standards, and protect the right to nationality of all its citizens. “The 1985 Citizenship Act of Bhutan contains a number of vague provisions, and appears to have been applied in an arbitrary manner. It also contains provisions which could be used to exclude from citizenship many people who are not members of the dominant ethnic group, as well as those who oppose Government policy by peaceful means” according to Amnesty International’s report, “Bhutan : Forcible Exile”, August, 1994.

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