Lost in transit

Wednesday’s episode at Kakarbhitta is by all means an unfortunate one. The Indian security forces stopped some Bhutanese refugees from crossing over into India because their final destination was Bhutan. The situation became more tense when some enraged Nepali locals, after being denied access across the Mechi bridge, entered the fray. Later, five Nepali locals, arrested by the Indian security forces, were released, and Bhutanese refugees, including SB Subba, the president of the Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan, were handed over to the Jhapa district administration. Three hundred and twenty-three refugees took part in the sit-in.

This is not the first time that Indian officials have prevented Bhutanese refugees from returning home through the Indian territory. The explanation that failure to prevent them would affect Indo-Bhutanese diplomatic ties might have its justification. But the same argument did not apply when Bhutanese refugees, when expelled, had used Indian territory to flee into Nepal, nor when the Indian security forces had brought truckloads of them to the Nepali border. These actions have created in Nepal the impression that its southern neighbour may not be wholly disinterested and detached.

Nepal has sought India’s good offices to settle the 15-year-old problem, particularly because of New Delhi’s tremendous clout and leverage with Thimphu. But New Delhi has, except for the then Indian prime minister P V Narasimha Rao’s initial assurance of cooperation, maintained that as the refugee crisis is a bilateral issue, it should be bilaterally dealt with. On Nepal’s part, its successive governments, including those under Article 127, have practised inept diplomacy and demonstrated weak stances, thus easily playing into wily Bhutanese hands. Therefore, even belatedly now, Nepal should be bold enough to seek international intervention. In fairness to Bhutan, it should not be asked to take back anybody who does not qualify as a Bhutanese under international norms and conventions. But it cannot be allowed to dump its ‘unwanted’ citizens on a neighbour. In making possible such a fair deal, India could play a big role not only as a close neighbour to both the disputants but also as a major regional power.