Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ethnic Nepalis And Bhutan's Citizenship Acts

Source: The Rising Nepal
By Kazi Gautam

THE ethnic Nepalis residing in Bhutan have been facing different problems off and on. There is no peace and security, and the ethnic Nepalis have to succumb to different forms of torture. The government introduces policies and acts, brings them into force and amends them after a period of time. But all these acts are measures to exclude the Sarchhops (Nepali speaking people) from participating in governmental activities.

The Druk government has always swindled the international community by appearing benevolent. Backed by the greatest democracy in the world, the Druk dictators have very easily succeeded in establishing "a clean relationship" with the outside world. This has always benefited the Bhutanese government. Although it has been preparing for the first general election to be held in 2008, and also towards establishing democracy, this move of the Bhutanese king plausibly needs to be read between the lines, as thousands of Nepalis within and outside the country have been excluded from obtaining citizenship.

Citizenship Acts
Among the different acts introduced by the government, the Citizenship Acts deserve special mention as they were intended to hit a hard blow to the ethnic Nepalis. The latter first migrated to Bhutan in the 19th century. Most of them became eligible for Bhutanese citizenship under the 1958 Nationality Law. Furthermore, from the mid-1950s, ethnic Nepalis began to establish them in different fields.

The 1977 Citizenship Act increased the residency requirements for citizenship by 10 years: from five to 15 years for government servants and from 10 to 20 years for all other foreigners. The growing concerns about the threats posed by ethnic Nepalis to Bhutan's cultural identity were reflected in an additional requirement for applicants for Bhutanese citizenship to have "some knowledge" of the Dzongkha language and Bhutan's history. As the Nepalis had little or no knowledge of Dzongkha, this requirement was difficult to meet for them. The 1977 Act also very easily excluded the Nepalis to avail the opportunities to obtain the citizenship. It did not grant citizenship to anyone who had carried out activities against Tsawa Tsum (king, country and people). Following the country's first National Census from 1979 to 1981, citizenship was granted only to those identified as citizens according to the 1977 Act.

The Citizenship Act that followed the 1977 Act further tightened the requirements for citizenship. Under this new 1985 Act, a child automatically qualifies for citizenship if both parents are Bhutanese. This Act further complicated the process of obtaining citizenship through the naturalisation process. However, if one had resided in Bhutan on or before December 31, 1958 and had one's name registered in the Ministry of Home Affairs Census Register, he would be provided citizenship.

There are certain points to be noted about the new census of 1988. This census was conducted only to add to the retroactive implementation of the 1985 Act. The census was conducted only in southern Bhutan. It excluded ethnic Nepalis from becoming naturalised citizens, as provided under the 1985 Act. Instead, the authorities restricted Bhutanese citizenship to ethnic Nepalis who had records, such as tax receipts, to prove they were residents in Bhutan in 1958 - 30 years before the census.

The Bhutanese officials refused to accept residency records from 1957 or earlier, or from the years 1957 and 1959 to establish citizenship. They disregarded the citizenship identity cards issued after the previous census: the authorities classified people who could not prove residence in 1958 as non-nationals, "returned migrants", or other illegal immigrant categories, even if they possessed a citizenship card.

Along with the different Citizenship Acts, the king implemented various policies that were intended to exclude and, thus, expel the ethnic Nepalis. Eventually there was a mass demonstration in September and October 1990. Almost all participants were termed "anti-nationals", and thousands of them were detained.

In the light of the above-mentioned points, one can figure out how fruitfully the government can carry out the developmental activities in the country. Majority of the Nepalis residing inside Bhutan do not possess citizenship. They shall never be allowed to exercise their political rights. The political parties that have been recently registered to participate in the country's election are, in fact, under the beck and call of the king. The refugee political parties have not been recognised till date.

Repatriation
It is also noteworthy that the politically-conscious people have been languishing in the refugee camps. The Druk regime always plays fast and loose if it is a question of repatriating the exiled people. Its erstwhile commitment to repatriate at least those refugees who fall under category one (genuine Bhutanese) is too far to come into effect. Instead, it has termed the peaceful and innocent refugees to be "highly politicised and terrorists".

According to the agreements reached by the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, refugees in category two (genuine Bhutanese who are deemed to have left Bhutan voluntarily) would be allowed to return to Bhutan, but would have to reapply for Bhutanese citizenship. However, the provisions of the 1985 Bhutan Citizen Act would exclude most, if not all, people in this category.

(Gautam is Chief Editor, The Bhutan Reporter)

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