What’s in an Identity?
On the outset, let me begin with a simple premise that the ‘identity’ of the ‘Nepali speaking’ Bhutanese people is shrouded in confusion. To make matters worse, the confusion continues to grow. ‘Identity’ here and for the purpose of this article refers to ‘ethnic or cultural distinctiveness or characteristics’ of people covered under study. This study covers the Nepali speaking people of southern Bhutan popularly called the ‘Southern Bhutanese’. As we shall see, the number of terminologies has grown over the years, at the cost of inflicting a great disservice to our community.
For instance, I know and I believe many other Bhutanese also acknowledge that at least a dozen different terminologies are used interchangeably in reference to the Nepali speaking southern Bhutanese people namely – ‘Nepali speaking Bhutanese’, ‘Bhutanese Nepali’, ‘Lhotshampa’, ‘Illegal Nepalese immigrants’, ‘Nepali Bhutanese’, ‘Southern Bhutanese’, ‘Nepali’, ‘Nepalese’, ‘Gorkhas’. The jargon continues – ‘Bhutani’, ‘Drup Nepali’, ‘Prabasi Nepali’, ‘Bhupali’ etc. One blogger named Govinda, even went to the extent of proposing rather terms such as ‘English writing Bhutanese’, ‘Nepali speaking American Bhutanese’, ‘Dzongkha speaking Australian Bhutanese’, ‘Nepali-Hindi speaking Bhutanese’, ‘Nepali speaking English writing Bhutanese’ etc.
If anything, these terminologies transport ambiguity to our collective identity. One thing is clear – a continued permeation of these confusions could jeopardize our identity as a distinct ethnic/cultural group of Bhutan. And we cannot let this to happen. Much of these terms are imports from outside. But we are guilty too of not investigating the possible negative impacts to us of such dubious inputs. Therefore, it is in common interest to set the records straight by standing firm on an identity, appropriate and worthy of our proud community and past history.
To begin with, it may be appropriate to understand what an ‘identity’ means or symbolizes. Identities are determined by what people identify with. Culture, to a very large part plays that role in shaping identity. Cultural identity is different from ‘political identity’, which basically refers to a population sharing a national ideology or destiny and a sense of ‘commonness’ generated by common citizenship.
For the benefit of doubt, an attempt to provide a perspective of the origin, history, meaning, usage, strengths and weaknesses of some of these terms has been made here.
‘Bhutanese Nepali’/ ‘Nepali Bhutanese’: Each of these terms combine the nationality of two sovereign countries, Bhutan and Nepal. The political connotation is stronger than the identity of the people it can possibly convey. The term could have been coined for convenience but it is politically not neutral. ‘Bhutanese’ stands for citizens of Bhutan and ‘Nepali’ stands for citizens of Nepal. In the case of ‘Nepali Bhutanese’ the term ‘Nepali’ appears even before ‘Bhutanese’ indicating that more emphasis is placed on ‘Nepali’ than ‘Bhutanese’.
‘Lhotshampas’/‘Southern Bhutanese’: The term ‘Lhotshampa’ has probably aroused more controversy among Bhutanese people than anything else when dealing with questions of ‘identity’. It has become a bone of contention between the government of Bhutan and the Nepali speaking southern Bhutanese people. Needless to say that the southern Bhutanese people themselves have become confused to the extent that they have now started picking up fights over what should be their actual identity.
In Dzongkha, ‘Lhotshampa’ means a ‘southerner’ or a ‘southern dweller’. Call it ‘Lhotshampa’ or ‘Southern Bhutanese’ these terms are no longer appropriate, since these people now live beyond the confines of southern Bhutan. North and eastern Bhutan too carry a sizeable pocket of Nepali speaking Bhutanese. Interestingly, both of these terms are extensively (mis)used by the political parties and the Bhutanese in exile. But neither of them however, define the ethnic/cultural identity of the people. At best, these terms point to geographic territory and not the people, their cultures, languages, history or traditions.
Nevertheless, the government is determined to impose this identity on the southern Bhutanese, while the southerners’ responses at best constitute a mixed bag. There are those who copy the term without a second thought and there are people who are still paranoid.
The term ‘Lhotshampa’ entered into Bhutanese lexicography sometimes in or after 1980. Its coinage and introduction by the Bhutanese government understandably was to stay clear of Nepalese identity. Stories have it, that Rajiv Gandhi’s four days visit to Bhutan in October of 1985 brought about a watershed in the mindset of the Bhutanese rulers verses the Nepali speaking southern Bhutanese people. Rajiv addressed the National Assembly of Bhutan during this visit. During his Bhutan entourage, Rajiv is said to have slyly commented that Bhutanese distinctiveness was not evident in the streets of Thimphu, and that from what it is, Bhutan looked much like Nepal. From what we saw in the aftermath of Rajiv visit, this little comment opened the Pandora’s Box for Bhutan and for the southern Bhutanese. The Marriage Act of 1980, the Citizenship Act of 1985, the National Census of 1989, the National Security Act of 1992 were all politically motivated by the notion to undo the ‘Nepaliness’ of the Nepali speaking population of southern Bhutan.
The term ‘Lhotshampa’ does not qualify people culturally. Any one who resides temporarily or permanently in the south is a ‘Lhotshampa’ regardless of his ethnic/cultural identity. By this logic even Ngalongs, Sarchhops or Khengpas living in southern Bhutan, could together fall under this broad rubric called ‘Lhotshampas’. Likewise, if the Nepali speaking southern Bhutanese permanently reside in the north, they cease to remain ‘Lhotshampa’ anymore. By territorial logic then, they would become Sarchhops or Knupchhops depending on where they live. The same person is a ‘Lhotshampa’ here, a Sarchhop there, and Knupchhop elsewhere, and yet he is completely different from what these identities stand for him. This logic applies equally to members of other ethnic groups relocating to the south. This points to the flawed concept of using territory as a basis for identifying people.
Cultural identity surely is evolving and flexible. However, it remains fairly stable for a very long period of time. Any cultural group likes to perpetuate the same identity through time and territory, regardless of generational space or geographic location. Changes if any, occur very gradually and generally they can be expected to come from within. Any attempt at breaking this order either by the State or private parties will result in unnecessary social dislocations and political upheaval. This is exactly what took place in Bhutan after 1980.
The actions of the Bhutanese government particularly after 1980 were wholly uncalled for. The RGOB constantly flirted and meddled in the affairs of the people, seeking to prescribe or fix an identity for them. If anything, such State behavior arrested the very principles upon which peoples’ identities are rooted. The series of actions all too often, brought forth by the government set the balance off and ruptured the delicate fault lines between the diverse ethnic groups of Bhutan.
To sum it all, ‘Lhotshampa’ is not a judicious substitute nor does it provide an appropriate cultural identity for the Nepali speaking people of Bhutan.
‘Nepali’/ ‘Nepalese’ / ‘Prabasi Nepali’: Unaware of the terms beyond their literary and emotional reach, many southern Bhutanese commoners identify themselves as ‘Nepali’. ‘Hami Nepali’, ‘Hamro Nepali’ are common themes of daily conversation. Another fairly common term is “Prabasi Nepali”. It is a general term for the Nepali Diaspora outside Nepal, especially referring to those settled in the Indian subcontinent and Myanmar. Not many journalists and even academics seem to discriminate the hidden meanings and legal interpretation of these terms. While on a delegation to one of the NGOs in the Washington DC area, I was stunned when one of the delegates effortlessly explained that we are not ‘Bhutanese’, we are ‘Nepalese’.
To a politically sensitive mind however, the message received could make a different sense. It builds up an impression questioning your national background. Why let others point fingers at you? Going by the Constitution of Nepal, ‘Nepali’ stands for people of Nepal or the citizens of Nepal. Article 2 of the Interim Constitution of Nepal 2007 says “the sovereignty of Nepal is vested in the Nepalese people……” With its meaning defined in the Constitution, ‘Nepali’ can no more be a theme for ethnic or cultural expression. Instead, it connotes a political expression, of an individual’s nationality or citizenship. So the use of the term ‘Nepali’ or ‘Nepalese’ by the Nepali speaking southern Bhutanese looks inappropriate.
Within Nepal itself, the term ‘Nepali’ is seen to bear a huge double standard. In it fuses both the political and cultural identities of the Nepalese people. But the term ‘Nepali’ is not culturally neutral. As such it has become the primary source of social and cultural antagonism among the various cultural groups of Nepal especially between the ‘Pahadiyas’ and the ‘Madhesis’.
‘Illegal Nepalese immigrants’: This is the regimes’ invention and a pet name for the southerners. This is nothing but a fat baloney, which not only contradicts facts but also leads to the undoing of Bhutan’s southern population. Bhutan’s formula is simple and straight. First label the southern Bhutanese as ‘illegal Nepalese immigrants’ and then expel them.
‘Bhupali’: Wikipedia says “Bhupalis are Bhutanese of Nepali origin living as refugees in Jhapa, Nepal….” It adds, “Bhupalis have camps also in Bagrakot, Kalchini, Looksan and Birpara tea gardens in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, India”. The source of the term is not known but a few leaders in exile suspect if RAW has a hand in its origination. First spotted in some local Indian papers, today “the term is used by the Indian officials in and around Indo-Bhutan and Indo-Nepal regions”.
Some Bhutanese who are awakening to the cultural identity issue seem to find some attraction to this term. Dick Chhetri, a Bhutanese, who lives in California, USA recently wrote an article forwarding an idea if the term ‘Bhupalis’ should be considered for public debate. The sugestion is bold and commendable. My guess is that, barring some exceptions, many people may be interested in this debate. After all what is wrong in a debate? A good extensive debate could play the vehicle for knowing why we can or cannot adopt such a term. Remember, arguments which are logically true may not be publicly supported and widely supported ideas may not be logically true. The wisdom of the crowd and the wit of the intellectual must weave together should this debate ever take place.
‘Gorkhas’: It appears that the choice of the term has been influenced by a political belief that identities can sometimes be negotiated through political movements emphasizing on group identity. Close in the neighborhood, the Gorkhas in Darjeeling have partly done this with some success. They understood the political and cultural capital accruing from adopting the term. Obviously, its import to Bhutan could have been natural. The formation of a Bhutan Gorkha National Liberation Front (BGNLF) in 1993 brought the context closure home but led to a hotly contested debated among its adherents and opponents.
It is necessary that we try putting the term in historical context and assess its relevance to us today. Important also is to look into the nefarious misconceptions and uproar it has generated in the society. In Gorkha Baangmoya, Yogi Narhari Nath, talks about ‘Gorkhajati’. Yogi was considered an authority in ancient Nepalese history and remained a firm proponent of ‘Gorkhajati’ concept till his death. In contrast, there are others in whose view; the Gorkhas took their name from the Gorkha region of Nepal or from the erstwhile Gorkha regiment. Indeed, the reverse is true.
If there was no ‘Gorkhajati’, how did the Gorkha regiment come about? The existence of ‘Gorkajati’ must precede the formation of the Gorkha regiment. In fact, the Gorkha region derived its name only after the Gorkhas established their control over this area and named it ‘Gorkha’ in honour of their patron saint Guru Gorakhnath.
Legend has it that the Gorkhas took their name from the eighth century Hindu warrior-saint, Guru Gorakhnath. Guru Gorkhanath had a Rajput Prince/disciple – the legendary Bappa Rawal. Pleased with Bappa Rawal for his services, Guru Gorakhnath gave him a khukuri, the famous traditional weapon of the Gorkhas. The Guru, then professed that he and his people would henceforth be known as ‘Gorkhas’, meaning the disciples of the Guru Gorkhanath. Consequently, Bappa became the first ‘Gorkha’. The ancestors of Nepal’s contemporary Shah dynasty were his later descendants.
In Bhutan, the southern dwellers, who the Bhutanese government now calls as ‘Lhotshampas’ were known as ‘Gorkhas’ until 1958. A National Assembly resolution in 1958 converted them into ‘Nepalese’. The southerners were then mandated to identify themselves as ‘Nepalese’ and not ‘Gorkhas’. From what we know now, it appears that this could have been the regime’s initial ploy to change history and label them ‘illegal Nepalese immigrants’. That plan met fruition when in the 1990s; the regime unleashed its strategy and finally pointed the exit door towards Nepal.
Conclusion: Identity issues are pertinent to all. Not having an identity is like not having a name. But we seem to be sitting at the crossroads of an identity crisis. Identity issues are very sensitive, delicate and tend to become very susceptible at times, especially when our Diaspora is expanding. The gravity of the situation pertaining from this quandary suggests the need for finding a timely, stable and non-controversial terminology that fits well into our situation in Bhutan.