'Untouched' kingdom's sordid secret

Unbecoming Citizens
May 28, 2004

In the introduction to Unbecoming Citizens , Michael Hutt cites a 1992 article from the Independent on Sunday as an example of the "extravagant exoticisation" of Bhutan. Even as the article was being written, refugees from Bhutan were congregating in makeshift camps in southeast Nepal. More than a decade later, nearly 100,000 remain as the governments of Nepal and Bhutan dispute their status and right to return.

How did such a situation arise and why has it remained out of sight for so long?

Unbecoming Citizens is an attempt to answer these questions. The result is an enlightening but troubling demythologisation of the history and politics of the last "untouched" Himalayan kingdom. Nestled in the eastern Himalayas between India and Tibet, Bhutan is a largely Buddhist country that maintained relative independence throughout the colonial period and is now constrained only by New Delhi's guidance of its foreign policy. Since the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the accession of Sikkim to India, Bhutan is often seen as the last stronghold of forms of traditional Tibetan Buddhism and culture.

Bhutan seeks to present itself as an unmaterialistic spiritual realm, where the king's preferred statistical yardstick is "gross national happiness".

Yet the ethnicisation of Bhutanese identity has led to the marginalisation of a large population of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese who have been present in the south of the country since the late 19th century. Hutt's analysis of how this community settled in Bhutan draws on sources ranging from previously unstudied British colonial reports to oral histories to reconstruct a history of migration that has never before been told in such detail.

Early Nepali settlers were rapidly and unproblematically assimilated into the simple administrative structures of Bhutan. Moving into previously uninhabited areas, they paid taxes and were granted rights to land while maintaining some local autonomy. By the latter half of the 20th century, Nepali-speaking Lhotshampas (southern borderlanders) were active in the highest ranks of government and professional life.

Unbecoming Citizens asks why this apparently stable arrangement broke down with the imposition of a stringent citizenship law in 1985, the forcible imposition of Bhutanese national dress and the Dzongkha language, and the subsequent flight of many Lhotshampas. Hutt draws on extensive interviews and documentary evidence to explain this exodus. Engaging with recent work in historiography and the anthropology of culture and ethnicity, his account draws parallels with other refugee situations.

Although denial of permission to carry out research within Bhutan has restricted Hutt, he fulfils his aim to "raise the level of the debate". For those interested in wider issues of identity, ethnicity and conflict, this book will provide insights from a neglected area. For those already involved in the Bhutanese debate, Unbecoming Citizens offers a wealth of new historical detail and does not shrink from posing some uncomfortable questions.

Rhoderick Chalmers is visiting fellow, Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies, Kathmandu.

Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood, and the Flight of Refugees from Bhutan

Author - Michael Hutt
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 308
Price - £21.99
ISBN - 019 566205 9

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