Bhutan’s Citizenship Laws: A History Lesson That India Must Pay Heed To

Bhutan, a small Kingdom in South Asia, is known for its captivating landscapes, pristine mountains, and booming eco-tourism. In addition to these, Bhutan is also famous for presenting the world with the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). This (GNH) index differs from the traditionally beleaguered concept of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which tends to reinforce the heavy capitalist-driven consumption patterns and growth rates. However, a statement made by the President of Bhutan People’s Party, Balaram Poudyal, a refugee, who claimed, “It’s not gross national happiness; it’s gross national sorrow,” which spurred research into this index and it’s validity. Therefore, we are going to trace how, and when, the concept was coined, and in what context.

Before, we move forward, the Gross National Happiness (GNH) is evaluated by the total average of per-capita of the wellness measures. The following are its nine domains:

The nine domains of GNH. Image Source: Provisional findings of 2015 GNH Survey, p. 11

1. Psychological well-being
2. Health
3. Time-use
4. Education
5. Cultural diversity and resilience
6. Good governance
7. Community vitality
8. Ecological diversity and resilience
9. The living standard in this perspective, ‘happiness’

Today, the concept, though maybe universally recognised, still faces theoretical backlash, ranging from how subjective the notion of ‘happiness’ is, to the role of culture in this value, to who gets to decide its definition, and how to scale the same. Now we need to revisit the history of the conceptualisation of the index—was it based on even or on uneven grounds?

Where It All Began

Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth King of Bhutan, is credited with creating the phrase ‘GNH’ and deciphering the western capitalist-economy driven societies. “Gross National Happiness is more important than the gross domestic product,” he had said. The world warmly embraced the same without questioning the nation’s intention or taking into consideration its history.

Examining the history of Bhutan, a schism emerged owing to the interaction between different ethnicities, combining it with political tension that resulted in the mass exile of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people. Ethnic Nepalese who had migrated to southern Bhutan in the nineteenth century were granted Bhutanese citizenship by the 1958 Nationality Law. “However, their growing numbers and the formation of a political party were perceived as a threat to the cultural and political order of Bhutan, ruled by the Ngalongs, the descendants of Tibetan Buddhists.”

Around the late 1970s, the Bhutanese government systematically introduced a series of progressively discriminatory measures to socially exclude the ‘Lhotshampas‘, the Nepali speaking ethnic group. The government had taken a call and imposed the ‘One Country, One People’ program, to get the minorities to assimilate into the majority culture and establish a ‘pure Bhutanese’ race in the nation. Later, two Citizenship Acts (1977 and 1985) were introduced which tightened the requirements to obtain and retain citizenship.

The Citizenship Act of 1985 was enforced by the government through a census done in 1988, which received backlash from the Lhotshampa community. Eventually, as they resisted, many were forced out. The world witnessed over 1,00,000 Nepali-speaking people labeled as refugees, and who were stuck in a limbo⁠—as being statelessness and as prisoners⁠, having no human rights. Forced into camps, it was once called the longest-running refugee camp in the world. A large number of refugees were given space under the Nepali, American, and Australian systems under the Third Country Resettlement scheme, although the process remains slow.

Lhotshampa refugees in Beldangi camp in Nepal. The man is holding a Bhutanese passport. Credit: Alemaugil/ Wikimedia Commons

That being said, today, approximately 2,115 refugee families live in the outskirts of Beldangi, Damak, and Pathari Sanischare in Morang. With the Indian National Register of Citizens of India (NRC) underway, will it result in the mass-displacement of people in India with no identities and rights? This is a question we must all raise with the current political regime.

Numerous refugees have voiced claims of the GNH index being a part of the larger government propaganda, as the very idea arose at the cost of the oppressed minorities. Is it perhaps the institutions of power—political, social, economic elites—that decide what it means to be happy, and who gets to be happy? Was the GNH proposed at the very expense of those individuals whose identity and livelihoods were stolen by those who once promised to protect them?

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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