Its numbers increasingly scattered across the globe, Bhutanese Nepali-speakers are wondering how to ensure the continuation of their unique lifestyle.
Bhutanese-Americans: The newly resettled Pradhan family, North Carolina, August 2010
It was against this backdrop that the US government proposed to resettle a minimum of 60,000 Lhotshampa; several other Western countries, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, followed suit. This move led to acrimonious debate among the refugees, however, as the first priority for many in the community had long been to go back to Bhutan. Nonetheless, since early 2008 some 40,000 have indeed left the camps to be resettled in the West, leading to some initial euphoria in making such a significant move. As time has passed, however, some have begun to sense a new problem: In this new context, what will happen to their culture? What will happen to their language, their religious ceremonies – how will they cremate their dead? Such a churning has gained energy among the Lhotshampa intelligentsia, chiefly those in exile, but clear answers are yet to be found. The situation today is one in which the Lhotshampa cultural identity itself is at stake.
First off, how exactly is Lhotshampa ‘culture’ to be defined – how unique is it? The Lhotshampa represent an underdog migrant population in Druk Yul (Bhutan), divided among multiple castes and communities, many of them with distinct mother tongues. Over the centuries of living in Bhutan, however, several signifiers of ‘Nepaliness’ – including clothing and Nepali as the lingua franca – gave them a common identity against the dominant Drukpa, the rulers of the land. Other such markers included food taboos (especially regarding beef), recitation of the Bhanubhakta Ramayan and other Hindu mythologies and visiting holy places. While there have been identity movements in Nepal, in the Bhutanese context all of these gave the Lhotshampa a distinct socio-cultural commonwealth, in spite of their internal communal divisions. As the land and its rulers were hostile to any form of organisation among the Lhotshampa – in part a legacy of the discovery, in 1932, that the Lhotshampa constituted some 20 percent of the Bhutanese population – there was no question of, for instance, producing a written body of literature. This is hardly surprising, given that formal education started in Bhutan only in 1962, and that the publishing industry was practically non-existent in Bhutan.
The Himalaya scholar Michael Hutt has noted that the Lhotshampa were regarded as ‘more conservative, more submissive to the figure of authority, more “old-fashioned” than their “Nepali” or “Gorkha” counterparts across the border in India and Nepal’. The reason is historical, as it has widely been observed that migrant communities tend to stick more zealously to their inherited cultural kitbags in an alien context. Further, in the absence of contact with the mother country, their language, culture and even religious practices tend to become ‘fossilised’ – even as the mother country continues to evolve. In this way, Lhotshampa community offers a uniquely evolved and today the largely distinctive set of cultural indicators.
Lhotshampa culture is not confined to Bhutan, nor to the Nepal camps, nor to the Western countries where refugees have newly resettled. Being particularly specific about this spread is difficult, however. Population figures in Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal had always been suspect, as the three erstwhile kingdoms long identified their respective favoured communities for special treatment, often at the cost of a real or putative migrant community. The Bhutanese state tends to suggest the community makes up anywhere from 14 to 25 percent of the country’s total population (the latter is currently the official figure); however, claims from within the community go as high as 64 percent. In general, scholars agree that the Lhotshampa’s share in the Bhutanese population stands at somewhere between a quarter and a third – thus, 80,000 to 100,000.
In India, there are no specific, compact Lhotshampa settlements. As per bilateral agreement, Bhutanese citizens are allowed to live and work in India unregistered, and tens of thousands do. In general, this scattered population is estimated at between 30,000 and 50,000.
As of the end of November 2010, the official record of the Nepali government provides figures of 12,530 Lhotshampa families continuing to live in 15,087 huts, for a total of 74,861 individuals. UNHCR recently announced plans to significantly consolidate the seven camps, given the reduced numbers still living in them.
Finally, the Kathmandu government maintains a list of the population of Lhotshampa who have left the UN camps to be resettled around the world. Again on 30 November 2010, this list offered the following statistics:
All of these figures together come to a grand total of just under 246,000. In the absence of more reliable statistics, it would probably be prudent to accept figures on the higher side, perhaps around 300,000.
So what do these statistics tell us? First, the Lhotshampa community was entirely a Bhutanese population prior to 1990. Second, for the next two decades it constituted, at most, a regional issue between Bhutan, Nepal and India, in which Nepal was the main spokesman of the Lhotshampa against alleged Bhutanese excesses. But India, which provided the vital link among these two parties, refused to play any role in this relationship. Third, with its dispersal to the West, the Lhotshampa has become an international community, complete with a whole new set of challenges and possibilities.
So, is there a distinct Lhotshampa culture, separate from the Drukpa and the Nepali communities elsewhere? The answer is a loud and clear ‘yes’: the Lhotshampa are culturally and socially different from the Drukpa, despite several decades of inter-marriage and Nepali long being shared as the unofficial lingua franca of Bhutan. Of course, the Lhotshampa are culturally closer to their ethnic cousins from Nepal and India, and they proudly accept the two as their social and cultural founts; but history, geography, their social structure, cultural experience, folk memory and struggles in Bhutan, cultural practices among the Drukpa, religious performances, worldview and vision of the future make the Lhotshampa distinct.
Today, the Lhotshampa community’s worries about its collective future are also uniquely its own – something with which the Lhotshampa’s ethnic cousins in Nepal and India can sympathise but cannot fully understand. This raises a second question: Will the collective Lhotshampa community in Western countries now be able to retain its cultural and ethnic identity? (Similarly, will they be able to establish networks among their far-flung settlements in the West?) In fact, the answer to this question will depend to a great extent on what happens to the Lhotshampa in Bhutan. Will the latter be absorbed in the dominant Drukpa ethnic fold, or will they continue to maintain a distinct identity of their own? Or will they eventually be forced by the regime to leave Bhutan as economic migrants – or immigrate entirely?
One of the most significant problems faced by the remaining Lhotshampa in Bhutan is the lack of reliable support from across the borders. The Nepali community in India is too weak politically, and immersed in its own problems, to give meaningful support. Indian policymakers appear to feel that economic integration of the Drukpa Bhutan would serve India’s own long-term purposes, and that there is no immediate benefit in rushing to the rescue of the Lhotshampa. Nepal is occupied with its own political problems and there is hardly any chance of concrete support from that country at the moment, with New Delhi’s long-standing hands-off policy looking set to continue.
With regards to India, the Lhotshampa community has long pushed New Delhi to allow its members to set up a centre, preferably at Varanasi, where they can engage in education on the Hindu scriptures, train their priests, cremate their dead, and so on. Thus far, however, such approval has not been forthcoming. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) of India has been lobbying the government of Bhutan for the construction of a Hindu temple in Thimphu, but this is not something done to favour the Lhotshampa. Indeed, the group has had some success on this front, as a Hindu temple has already been constructed – though in the south of the country, not in Thimphu – and a Sanskrit pathshala initiated, again in the south. But this is akin to tokenism – the Thimphu authorities continue to oppose giving space to the Nepali language within educational institutions, and do not allow Nepali-language schools to function as they had in the past.
The Lhotshampa destiny will also be significantly influenced by events taking shape in Nepal – whether there will be a resolution to the present political stalemate in Nepal, and what stand the emerging dispensation will take on the Lhotshampa vis-à-vis Bhutan or on integration within Nepal itself. Equally significant will be the ongoing imbroglio in Darjeeling district: Will the agitation for a new state of Gorkhaland be resolved in the near future? If yes, will there be a Gorkhaland state on the western frontier of Bhutan? This issue will have significant bearing on the status of Nepali-speakers in India – their capacity to influence the Indian national opinion on Bhutan and the Bhutanese treatment of its minority Lhotshampa. At the same time, will the Lhotshampa resettled in the West be better able to lobby and divert international opinion towards their cause? As yet, it is unclear.
Thus, the future of this distinct community of Nepali-speakers – the Lhotshampa – over the next decade will depend upon the flow of events in Druk Yul, India as a whole, Nepal and the Western countries of resettlement. How they will work together remains to be seen.
--A C Sinha is professor of anthropology at the North Eastern Hill University, author of books on the Indian Northeast, including Bhutan: Ethnic identity and national dilemma.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
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Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
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Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)