Thursday, October 08, 2009

Battle for Bhutan

Recently, I was in Bhutanese refugee camp in Beldangi, Jhapa. The camp area looked tense due to the recent murder of KB Khadka, former camp secretary. I'm working on a story about refugees. Below, I've reproduced my story on a Bhutanese leader's wife's struggle to find the whereabouts of her husband who could be in jail in Bhutan.

Also check this fine piece on Bhutanese refugees in New York at NY Times.

A Lone Battle

By Deepak Adhikari

Kathmandu, April 29—On a recent morning, a diminutive woman wearing long, black and blue Tibetan skirt and a white sweater arrived at the Bouddha monastery’s gate to talk about what seemed like a one person mission. Prayer flags fluttered as she sat to speak amidst the incessant chanting of om mani padme hum that emanated from the several cassette and CD shops in this tourist destination.

The serenity of the Buddhist temple could hardly hide the severity of Karma Zangpo’s predicament: her Bhutanese refugee husband Tenzing Zangpo was rearrested by Indian police immediately after being freed on bail from a jail in Guwahati, the largest city of Assam state in northeastern India. And, she was witness to the bizarre incident on April 6 when Zangpo, the General Secretary of Druk National Congress (Democratic), without having a word with her, was whisked away in a van to an unknown location.

Ever since that day, Karma has made it a point to fight for her husband’s release, albeit with a little achievement but a lot of hope. She has sought the help from DNC leaders, Bhutanese leaders, fellow refugees and media. Her tiny telephone diary is scribbled with phone numbers of supporters from Kathmandu, Jhapa in Nepal to Siliguri, Sikkim and Guwahati in India. After sending her 12-year old daughter Sangye and 8-year old son Minjure to nearby Pegasus School in Boudhha, the 48-year old embarks on the solo mission to find out the whereabouts of her husband. She fears that the Assam authority might have deported Zangpo to Bhutan where he is likely to face extreme form of punishment, even torture.

The 49-year old leader who was on his way to meet his in-laws in Arunachal Pradesh in Indo-Bhutan border was arrested on November 10 from Guwahati under the Explosive Substance Act and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. He was arrested along with Sabin Boro, a leader of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), a separatist outfit active in northeast India. In an attempt to sensationalize this arrest as a link between Bhutanese refugees and the terrorist group that was uprooted from Bhutan in early 2003, Indian police projected Mr. Zangpo as a terrorist involved the serial bomb blasts in and around Guwahati in October last year.

“I even asked him if he had committed such acts (of terror) being a devout Buddhist,” said Karma who herself follows Buddhism. But, he denied any wrongdoing, she said and recalled him reiterating his commitment to fight for his country. A member of Sarchop community from eastern Bhutan, Zangpo had met Karma 15 years ago in Arunachal Pradesh where she had gone to visit her maternal uncle. At that time, he had already been a refugee registered in Timai camp in Jhapa, one of seven refugee camps run by UNHCR in southeastern Nepal. Until last year, they had lived in Birtamode, Jhapa from where Zangpo often travelled to India (they have even secured a travel document from Indian Embassy in Nepal for all four family members). In Kathmandu, Karma ran a restaurant to support her family while her husband kept himself busy in party works. Without her husband to support, she has sold the restaurant.

Hem Lall Bhandari, a Harvard educated advocate pleaded on behalf of Zangpo. It didn’t take long for Bhandari to prove his client’s innocence. After the expiry of the 90 days in Guwahati central jail, he was granted bail by Subhabrata Datta, Special Judicial Magistrate (CBI Court) on March 20.

His wife stood bailer at the court depositing IRs 10,000. The court passed the release order on April 3 but Zangpo was released on the evening of April 6 only to be rearrested shortly. “How long can he remain in jail when there are court orders for his release,” asks advocate Bhandari, a native of Sikkim.

Similar questions must have occurred to Karma, all alone in Kathmandu.

Courtesy: The Kathmandu Post/April 29, 2009

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