Execution of Chhabda at Changlimithang

Published on Apr 17 2011 // Untold Story

It is not that every major event of a country is documented by the history. Nor we can accept that all events recorded in the history are principally significant. In every community, there can be many events that are always excluded by the writers.

And, in a country like Bhutan, where mostly the paid Indian writers have written the history in the government-prescribed tone, many things have been missed out, wrongly interpreted or just a brief narration mentioned to curtail the actual happenings. This is why analysts and some historians often claim that a significant part of the history dies unreported as the time passes.

The story behind the execution of the first Chief of Royal Bhutan Army, Namgay Bahadur, popularly known as Chhabda, has been a popular anecdote among senior citizens in the Bhutanese community, though only a few writers have documented some facts on this. The real charm of the story has been fading away along with the passage of eyewitness of the breathtaking public firing at the Changlimithang army parade-ground to execute Chhabda and his aides in 1964.

Who was Chhabda?
Born in 1916 in Luntse, Chhabda was regarded as one of the strongest and most powerful persons among his contemporary friends. It is said that he had possessed exceptional courage and strength, addressing him as a person of double spinal cord. The title ‘Bahadur’ was offered to him by the British as a guard of honour since he was reported to have broken two riffles with his hands in the final day of the training in the Assam Riffle in India.

Chhabda/Picture courtesy : Dr CT Dorji

By relation, Chhabda was uncle of the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. Having strong trust on him and his ability, he was later conferred with the title of the chief of Royal Bhutan Army.

According to Nari Rustomji, who was a childhood friend of the first prime minister Jigmie Palden Dorji – assassinated by Chhabda’s aide Jambey – and the first Indian advisor to the third King, Chhada was personally known to him and had even shared several moments together. Rustomji has documented that Chhabda was a man of just average ability and with no English, but rudimentary Hindi and Dzongkha.

Dr CT Dorji has claimed that there are no any records of formal education by Chhabda throughout his schooling age. Thus, as claimed by Rusthomji, he didn’t speak English, limiting his spoken-languages to rudimentary Hindi and Dzongkha.

Plot against Palden Dorji
When Chhabda was the chief of army, Jigmei Palden Dorji was the prime minister (PM) of Bhutan, although he used to rule the country from India with his administration based in the Bhutan House, the home of Dorjis in Kalimpong. Being an educated personality, PM Dorji was rapidly gaining his popularity among the younger generations and young civil servants. Chhabda was annoyed at Dorji’s action of replacing old servants by young minds. There were even rumours that the PM would remove all old servants including Chhabda on the forced pension sooner or later.

Citing lack of progress in his work, Dorji had even taken away the vehicle used by Chhabda and there are even informal claims that he had scolded Chhabda with insulting words at one occasion and in presence of some junior army staff. Murder-accused Bachhu in his final statement revealed that Chhabda’s highest position in the army was insure and had once even asked if it was advisable to murder the PM.

First Bhutanese PM Jigmei Palden Dorji (m) with his brothers / Picture courtesy : Nari Rustomji

The verdict of the royal commission formed to investigate the assassination of Dorji disclosed that the plot was being planned a month ahead of the event. Interestingly, Chhabda in his statement uttered that he had felt that he too was likely to be sent on the forced pension. He even made a ridiculous statement that he uncovered a plot by PM Dorji to kill the King. But, the commission proved the plot against the King as false, concluding if Chhabda had any real evidence of such a plot, he should have informed the King or could have made arrangements to arrest the prime minsiter.

The final judgment of the commission said that Chhada’s aide Jambey shot at the PM through window when he was playing cards with his friends and family members at the royal guesthouse at Phuntsholing on April 5, 1964 and injured him fatally before he went into the dark. PM Dorji died about one and a half hours later due to excessive bleeding. However, he could say, before he breathed his last, that he had always served his king and country faithfully and loyally to the best of his ability.

Fearful arrest
When the unexpected mishap fell upon the Dorji family, the prime minister’s wife, Tessla, was in Calcutta. Someone broke the news to her on her way to Phuntsholing and as she reached the royal guesthouse just a few minutes before he bid good-bye forever.

A special request to the Bengal government was made to send some trained dongs to search for assassin’s tracks and with extensive search, the dogs were able to figure out Jambey on April 8, 1964 and was arrested. It was Jambey who disclosed that chief of army Chhabda and his two masterminds, quarter-master-general of army, Bacchu Phugel and Sangye Dorji, insisted him to make a fatal shot at the PM.

Jambey under arrest

The royal commission that investigated the case also revealed that when asked for as many army staff as possible to search for the shooter, Chhabda reported that it was late night and was unable to fulfill the request. The next day, he replied stating that his staff were busy due to heavy pressure of work and could send only a few.

The king, who had been undergoing treatment in Switzerland, decided to cut-short his stay and decided to fly back to Bhutan to handle the situation. Upon reaching Calcutta, he appointed Dorji’s half brother, Lhendup, as a regent. Some rumours already were on ground that Chhabda had ordered to even attempt at the king, as he would arrive in Bhutan.

Interestingly, the helicopter carrying the king from Calcutta did not land at the helipad in Thimphu where several senior officials and a special squad of the Royal Bhutan Army were eagerly waiting to receive the king, but landed at the palace helipad at Dechencholing.

The actual date of Chhabda’s arrest was kept secret fearing the probable retaliation from the army. The newly appointed regent met the king and discussed the possibility of arresting Chhabda, as both were cautious to take defensive measures in case Chhabda and his bodyguards would decide shot at anyone while arresting him. Probably, they discussed to line-up all the palace guards at the time of arresting Chhhabda. However, as usual being the king’s uncle, Chhabda went to the palace on March 8 following a royal order. He was then arrested, handcuffed and detained for investigation. The king appointed a young colonel, Ugen Tangbi, as the new chief of Royal Bhutan Army.

Public Execution
When Jambey was arrested, the whole plot to kill PM Dorji was uncovered. According to his statement to the commission, he and his fellow-friend Doley, were teamed up to assassinate the PM. Doley had even taken rupees 1000 from Chhabda as an advance reward for bringing the plot into action. However, only Jambey was able to shot the prime minister on one fine night. After the arrest of Jambey and Chhabda, murder-accused Sangye Dorji, Bacchu and Doley were also arrested and booked.

Soldiers take Chhabda at the firing spot / Picture courtesy : Nari Rustomji

The six-member royal commission headed by Gyelden Thinley Dorji and appointed by the king, conducted an open hearing where each of the accused was asked to give his statement. The court charged them with the Law of Treason, Act No. 17 and proved guilty by law. The court ruled that Chhabda, Sangye Dorji and Jambey should suffer death by being shot by a firing squad of the Royal Bhutan Army at a time and place to be ordered by the king. Doley, who failed to play his part in the designed plot, was issued a sentence of imprisonment for life altering his death sentence while Bacchu committed suicide inside the prison cell on May 8, 1964.

Based on the verdict of the kangaroo’s court on May 16, Chhabda, Sangye Dorji and Jambey were publicly shot at a time by a firing squat at the army parade-ground of Changlimithang on the next day. It is said that Hari Koirala, who was later promoted to the post of Dzongda with a pseudo name Hari Sonam Tobgay, shot repeatedly at Chhabda’s forehead when even a number of bullets failed to finish him.  There are even speculations that not only those three, as many as 41 Royal Bhutan Army staff were subjected to the firing execution on that day. Still, some claim that number was 21, but not 41.

(The matter presented by the writer is based on his own findings and necessarily it doesn’t represent the official say of the Bhutan News Service as regards to sequence and truth of facts highlighted in the article by him. He can be reached here.)