By Sujatha Fernandes
CALCUTTA — After six years of talks between Nepal and Bhutan over the fate of 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin living in camps in eastern Nepal, the Bhutanese refugees have decided to take matters into their own hands. Demanding the establishment of democracy in Bhutan and proper rehabilitation of the displaced people, they have been organising peaceful protest marches to present their case before the king of Bhutan.
Since January, on three occasions the refugees have attempted to march through the strip of Indian territory that separates Nepal from Bhutan, but each time they have been arrested by the Indian government and sent to Siliguri and Alipurduar jails. On January 17, 300 marchers were arrested, 273 marchers on February 14 and 343 more on February 26.
On February 20, 74 of the refugees in custody began an indefinite hunger strike. Six are currently in a serious condition.
On February 27, the Siliguri court released 150 of the original 300, while the fate of the second and third groups is still undecided. The rest of the hunger strikers said that they would break their fast once news of their release reaches them.
The marches have been organised by the Appeal Movement Coordination Council and the Bhutanese Coalition for Democracy. They have received active support from groups such as the Communist Party of India — Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML), the Gorkha Democratic Front, the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), the Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP) and the Communist Party of Nepal — United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).
Support rallies were organised in Darjeeling, the Dooars and Sikkim to protest against the detention of movement leaders, and a total strike was observed in Darjeeling on January 14.
Many have questioned the actions of the Communist Party of India — Marxist (CPI-M), the ruling party in the state of West Bengal. The CPI-M has declared support for the cause of the Bhutanese refugees, yet on the other hand it is suppressing the democratic movement through use of the police.
For decades Nepalese have lived in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, but an exodus started about six years ago following a brutal crackdown on "anti-nationals" by the Bhutanese security forces. There were many instances of human rights abuses, including government soldiers kidnapping, gang-raping and beating up suspected political dissenters, mostly Nepalese.
The continuing attacks on Bhutanese of Nepali origin are evident from the increasing number pouring into camps in eastern Nepal. The number of registered refugees in these camps is about 100,000, and the number of migrants who have moved in with families is about 30,000. Diseases like gastroenteritis and typhoid have claimed 800 lives in the camps.
The pro-democracy movement in Bhutan has taken up the cause of the refugees, and a militant movement led by the Bhutan People's Party (BPP) and the Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP) has been launched in India, in northern Bengal.
The hunt for BPP and BNDP supporters and Nepali immigrants has forced as many as 475 civil servants to abscond from their jobs, and a large number of soldiers, policemen and forest guards have deserted. Both the CPI-M government in West Bengal and the national Congress government have stated that the issue was creating a security threat in the two border districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri and had to be tackled before it grew out of control.
There are signs that the Bhutanese are linking their struggle with the pan-Himalayan Gorkha movement, which has been agitating for greater autonomy for many years. The linking up of the movement with militant organisations of tea workers in Assam is also a strong possibility. The development of a militant movement in the north-east would present a huge threat to the Indian government, which has used ruthless force to repress ethnic movements for greater autonomy in the region.