Across the Palk Straits By Kuldip Nayar

No school bus stops here to pick up children. No postman comes here to deliver the mail. Not even a curious visitor turns up to know anything about them.

They are refugees from Bhutan who are sitting in protest in front of the United Nations House at Kathmandu. Most of them, about 150,000, which constitute one-sixth of Bhutan's population, are spread all over Nepal and India without much of shelter or succour. The UN gives most of them two square meals.

"That is the maximum we can do," says UNHCR representative Abraham. "It is, however, criminal to keep them in camps for so long."

Reminiscent of the Afghan camps in Pakistan, over the years the children are born into refugee households that do not know other realities. The camps have become a base for pro-democracy dissent activity against the present Bhutanese establishment. The refugees are not radicals. They have never questioned the monarchy which is a history in the country, Nepal, where they have sought refuge. But they do want to have a future.

It was not that any green pasture which attracted them. They were forced to leave their lands and homes.

Royal Bhutan government found them too insistent on the question of democracy and human rights, too restive against the king's occupation of large tracts of land. They still want to go back to the same setup, confident to overcome the difficulties in Bhutan and work for the country's development. But neither Bhutan, nor any foreign nation, is bothered about their future.

A law was passed by what was known parliament overnight — some 16 years ago — to declare Bhutanese of Nepal origin non-citizens. They were born in Bhutan. Their fathers and forefathers had lived there for hundreds of years. Yet they were bundled out. The Bhutanese officials forced many to sign a document of voluntary migration. About one lakh of them who could trace their ancestry to Nepal took shelter in the country, already in dire economic straits. They petitioned to Kathmandu which took up the case with Bhutan.

After negotiations spread over months, Bhutan agreed to take back 600 families. Even they await repatriation. The American government has volunteered to absorb 60,000 of them in the US.

The proposal has, however, been met with conflicting responses. Many Bhutanese refugee leaders feel that while the offer was welcome, the US should be exerting pressure on Bhutan to deepen democracy by taking back its nationals and restoring their dignity and right to be full citizenship of that country.

Others feel that the proposal is not a long-term solution to the problem and could, in fact, act as a destabilising factor within Bhutan and among the refugees. The US ambassador in Nepal, James F Moriority, said it was a human problem which required immediate attention.

He didn't react to the plea to remonstrate with Bhutan except to say: "We are in touch with India." New Delhi should have been active. What is happening in Bhutan or the manner in which one and a half lakh citizens were pushed out should have made India to take some steps.

An authoritarian regime which is solely dependent on it for defence should have been pressured to get refugees back to their homes. But New Delhi is afraid to even ask questions lest Bhutan should be annoyed and tilt towards the next door China.

New Delhi should, however, recall how Bhutan sealed its border in 1950 when the Tibetans were running away for refuge elsewhere. It cannot afford to go near China.

Bhutan, on the other hand, knows from its experience that India has never given it any room for grievance. In fact, New Delhi is revising the existing treaty for deleting any curb that Bhutan may be feeling. Diplomatically and economically, the two countries are close to each other. Therefore, India's role becomes all the more important.

The people or organisations with which I interacted at Kathmandu expressed the urgent need for India to take an active role in resolving the refugees' issue.

With its tradition of multi-party democracy, its pluralistic society and its role as a leading economic power in the region, India is seen the only power in the region which could and should involve itself more closely in the issue and urge Bhutan to sit with its community in exile to resolve the issue. But refugees have a difficult experience.

T.N. Rizal, leader of Bhutanese refugees, said that even though he pinned hopes on India, he was convinced that it would not step in to help. His own experience was not a happy one. When he reached India as a refugee, he was put in jail. The authorities threatened him either to leave India or spend the rest of his life in jail. He preferred to travel to Nepal because it allowed him to live freely and propagate the cause of refugees.

A report by South Asian Human Rights (SAHR) has put the whole thing in perspective: "A major human rights deficit in the South Asian region is the prolonged exile of Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal and India. Both host governments have often ruthlessly cooperated with the Bhutanese government in forced repatriation, arrest or denial of freedom of association and expression to the refugees. This tri-governmental alliance has demobilised the Bhutanese refugee population. Their visibility is low and all attempted solutions lack coherence."

My fear is that one of the consequences of allowing the problem to fester is the possibility that dissatisfaction and unrest among the refugees could lead, over time, to fomenting militant sentiments.

This could create new conflicts in the region. India could experience the negative fallout of this situation. The Naxalites' strongholds are not too distant from the refugee camps. Contact between the two is said to have been established on a regular basis.

Some day the militants may shut down the camps and move out. Bhutan would be more exposed to dangers than today. New Delhi will also get involved, willy-nilly.

It is time that it develops South Asia as a region that values and strengthens human rights and democracy.

Sunday Times, Sri Lanka, January 28, 2007