Ethnic cleansing of Nepali Hindus: a silent persecution in 1990s the world still doesn't know

This is about the dark secrets of a sweet little Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan; it's systemic racism, persecution and ethnic cleansing of Bhutanese Nepalis primarily of the Hindu background in 1990s.

"The mountain kingdom of Bhutan conjures up images of a utopian Shangri-La where the well-being of people is measured by Gross National Happiness; a place where people live in perfect harmony. However, there is a dark story of persecution of the Nepali-origin, largely Hindu community of Lhotsampa in the country that has received scant attention from the media. It appears as if the “happiness” of the country only refers to those left behind after a massive ethnic cleansing."

"In the early 1900s, a large number of Nepali settlers began to cultivate land in the uninhabited southern areas of Bhutan. According to some, the settlers go back as far as 1600s. As infrastructure projects began to develop in the land, it brought construction workers of Nepali origin who settled down as well. Soon they diversified into small businesses and the number of Lhotsampas swelled. Seeing a threat to its cultural identity, the Bhutanese monarchy imposed its draconian ‘One Nation – One People’ policy in the 1980s, which promoted not only the Dzongkha language and the Buddhist religion, but also the national dress code and etiquette called the Driglam Namzha. 1958 was declared the cut-off year for Nepali immigrants and anyone who could not furnish proof of residency before that was considered an illegal immigrant and asked to leave."

In the years that followed, the Lhotsampas were subjected to severe repression and forcible attempts to assimilate them into Bhutanese Drukpa traditions. As protests grew within the community, the menfolk were rounded up and tortured while the womenfolk were raped and intimidated. Refugees who began to leave the country in thousands for Nepal recount horror stories of abuse. Initially, they resorted to begging for survival. Many died as a result of dysentery and other diseases. Eventually, in 1991 the Lhotsampas were housed in camps set up by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) close to the border of India and Nepal. By 1996, the population in the refugee camps grew over 100,000.

"Bhutan’s transition from being an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with its first elections in 2007 is questionable. The government authorised the establishment of only two political parties, both of whom were closely allied with the king. Even more problematically, many of the ethnic Nepalis remaining in the country, who constitute 40% of the population, are not granted the status of citizens and therefore cannot vote.

For the Nepali population of Bhutan, the kingdom is nowhere close to heaven on earth. Since the 1990s, they've been terribly persecuted and their plight is barely known. In 1991 and 1992, over 80,000 Nepalis – part of the Lhotshampa ethnic group that has lived in Bhutan since the 1800s – were dispossessed and moved into refugee camps in Nepal. They have not been allowed entry into Bhutan ever since. Bhutan refuses any responsibility, instead choosing to focus on promoting the country on its Gross National Happiness index."

Vidhyapati Mishra is the managing editor of the Bhutan News Service. Mishra is a Bhutanese journalist who lives in Nepal, awaiting resettlement. In the latest account of the atrocities against the Lhotshampa in the early nineties, Mishra has written about his and his family’s expulsion from Bhutan in the New York Times. “My father was held for 91 days in a small, dank cell,” remembers Mishra. “They pressed him down with heavy logs, pierced his fingers with needles, served him urine instead of water…they burned dried chilies in his cell to make breathing unbearable. He agreed eventually to sign what were called voluntary migration forms and was given a week to leave the country our family had inhabited for four generations.”

"Bhutan is the world’s biggest creator of refugees by per capita. In one fell swoop in the 1990s, the country expelled the Lhotshampa, an ethnic group with its origins in Nepal which made up one-sixth of Bhutan’s population, to preserve its unique national identity. More than 20 years on, thousands still remain in camps in Nepal, lost in their own country. This is at stark contrast with the idyllic and homely image Bhutan has carefully curated for itself. As the world looks on at Syria and the deepening migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and concern grows, Bhutan attracts little attention. But as the world finally wakes up to the plight of refugees, it is important that one of the largest refugee populations in South Asia is not forgotten."

"While Bhutan expelled “migrant laborers” in the 1990s, to understand the complete picture we have to turn back to the 1600s. Bhutan may claim that the Lhotshampa are newcomers to Bhutan; however, people of Nepalese origin have been in Bhutan since 1620, when Newar craftsmen were commissioned to come to and build a stupa in Bhutan. They have been there ever since. Settling in southern Bhutan, the country’s major food producing region, their numbers flourished and continued to do so for a long period. They gained the name Lhotshampa, which means people from the south. What is more, these were not uninvited or unwelcome intruders. There was a need for foreign labor during this period. Bhutan actively brought this “crisis” on themselves — lacking the manpower for infrastructure projects like the Thimphu-Phuntsholing highway meant importing manpower from India was inevitable. The migration into Bhutan continued, relatively unregulated and without government supervision. It was only in 1990 that border checkpoints and controls were introduced."

"What is more, the report notes that only it is only “Nepali-speaking people in southern districts who have to produce their documents to prove they were in Bhutan before 1958… Bhutanese from other places are regarded as Bhutan[ese] by [virtue of] their race.” This is a blatantly discriminatory government policy."

"An exploration of a community-based rehabilitation program for tortured Bhutanese documented over 2,400 instances of physical torture (Sharma and Van Ommeren, 1998). The most commonly reported torture techniques include severe beatings; verbal and sexual humiliations; deprivation of hygiene, nutri-tion and sleep; and being forced to eat pork, a form of ‘spiritual’ torture for some Hindus (Sharma and Van Ommeren, 1998). A study of over 800 Bhutanese refugees found that one in five suffered a psychiatric disability; and those who had been tortured experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, spe-cific phobia, anxiety disorders and physical disease (Thapa et al., 2003). Another study found that trauma and loss predicted medically-unexplained epidemic illness among Bhutanese refugees (Van Ommeren et al., 2001)."

You can watch Rajeev Malhotra's interview with some Hindu refugees. They're not so upfront in expressing themselves in English.

The ethnic cleansing of Nepali Hindus ultimately resulted in exodus of 120,000 Bhutanese Nepalese from among total Bhutanese population of 600,000 back then in 2000 which is equivalent to expulsion of 20% of the country's population. This massive expulsion never came into limelight like the Rohingya persecution was shown in mainstream media. Initially, Nepalese were invited to work in the South Bhutan; some of them were invited as back as 1620 AD, but when the govt saw this community's growing development in 1980s, they began to persecute Hindus for their race, religion & culture due to their unfounded fears of state capture by the Southerner Hindus. The Bhutanese Buddhists wear the mask of the peaceful Buddhist and promote Gross National Happiness Index program but deep under, they silently persecuted a large section of Hindu population for their race, religion and culture. Their mentality reflects the similar ongoing persecution/treatment of Tibetans under the Han Chinese administration. They're currently showing fake and cheap appeasements by distributing useless ministries to Nepali Hindu politicians, allowing publication of Hindu journals and displaying as if the remaining minorities have religious freedom. Deep down under, these Hindu priests and politicians live like in the totalitarian state patrol. In Nepal, we never had any experience of religious violence and intolerance even against non-native religions like Islam/Christianity. It's a matter of shock to us how closely related Buddhists whose philosophy and culture are not very far from Hindus, strongly persecuted Hindus.

A Hindu journal from Bhutan lol religious freedom.