Travelling north on the Mechi Highway, terraced rice fields give way to tea plantations that carpet the foot of the hills. From Happen Chowk, strangely named after the shorts, we head east, driving through a deeply-rutted road penetrating the Burne tea plantation in Jhapa towards the Timai refugee camp.
The Timai camp, one of the seven UNHCR-overseen Bhutanese refugee camps, sits on the edge of the Timai River. About 100 km away from Bhutan, the area adjacent to the hills is as topographically close to the refugees’ homeland as it can get. But for now, home is a small bamboo hut where life is spent just waiting.
Amid the hundreds of huts, we drive towards the end of the sprawling camp. Past the stupas and the settlement of Sarchops, one of the three major ethnic groups of Bhutan and probably the original inhabitants of the country, we come to a hut with a solitary inhabitant. Fifty-year-old Karma Zangpo weaves a sweater while waiting for us. A mother of two, her eyes are rheumy and her words punctuated by sobs. Karma has earned a different epithet inside the camp; she is known as the wife of the most high-profile political prisoner in Bhutan—Tenzing Zangpo.
Fifty five-year-old Zangpo, the general secretary of Druk National Congress-Democratic (DNC-D), a splinter group founded by the Sarchops, was deported to his country by the Indian state of Assam’s police in April last year. On Nov. 10, 2008, he was arrested in Guwahati along with Sabin Boro of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, a separatist outfit active in northeast India. The Assam Police booked him under the Explosive Substances Act and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
But these charges turned out to be false, and after three months, Zangpo was released in April. Karma had deposited bail for her husband in two installments of IRs. 10,000. The court passed a release order on Apr. 3, 2009, but the day he was supposed to be released, he was arrested again. Later, it was confirmed that Zangpo had been handed over to Bhutanese authorities.
I first met Karma in April that year. She was still coming to terms with the fact that her trip to Assam, made in the hope of reuniting with her husband, was shattered in front of her eyes. Short and slender, she appeared to be a demure woman forced into dealing with the complex and often ruthless world of politics involving three countries: Nepal, India and Bhutan.
Zangpo’s case is an example of how India and Bhutan work hand in hand for their interests and how Nepal’s Bhutanese refugees—marked by factionalism and petty interests—are helpless in lobbying for one of its leaders’ release. Though he was a member of the DNC-D when he was arrested, Zangpo had been a member of two more parties earlier: the Bhutan National Democratic Party, and the Bhutan People’s Party. Karma bitterly complains about DNC-D’s failure to demand his release. Referring to the party president Thinley Penjore, she says, “Since he’s our leader, he should have called me. I was not expecting him to feed me.”
Karma has made it a point to establish contacts with her husband and know his whereabouts. She has procured a form from the International Red Cross Committee (ICRC). After submitting it, ICRC will hand it over to Zangpo during one of its monitoring visits, if the jail where he is detained falls under its purview. Apart from legal recourse, Karma has also sought divine intervention through a Lama in Sikkim, who told her that her husband was fine, but it would take time to know all the details.
Still, Karma hasn’t lost hope. She lives mostly in a friend’s house in Birtamod, where she weaves woollen sweaters and shawls for living. She says her husband’s food rations have been slashed, forcing her to rely on the allowances of her two children, 15-year-old daughter Sangey and 10-year-old son Minjure. To add insult to the injury, she has been de-registered from the camp because she wasn’t there to collect her ration card. She is now waiting for the regular UNHCR census to register her case, which is why she is in the camps these days.
Little is known about her husband who is projected as a national threat to his country. Because of his arrest with a separatist leader, he was projected by the Indian media as someone having links with insurgents. In a picture taken immediately after his arrest, he wears a flower-embroidered shirt and looks much thinner than earlier. Bhutanese leaders who worked with him say that he frequently travelled to the North-East where he had good contacts. Zangpo was a rural credit officer in the Agriculture Department in Chukha district before he left Bhutan in 1993. His colleagues describe him as a dedicated refugee leader who was very fluent in English. A vocal opponent of the monarchy and a relentless fighter for the refugees’ right to return, his friends say he was amicable and independent.
For those who think that the refugees consist of only the Lhotsampas (Nepali-speaking south Bhutanese), Zangpo will seem like an oddity. But the Sarchops, the largest ethnic group in Bhutan, has faced suppression and discrimination from the ruling elites of Thimpu dominated by the Ngalongs. As a result, several Sarchop dissidents have fled the kingdom to escape persecution. Rongthong Kunley Dorji, a prominent Sarchop businessman, fled the country in 1993 after being jailed for over a month. He sought asylum in Nepal where a year later he founded Druk National Congress. In 1997, he was arrested in New Delhi and then released a year later with severe restrictions on his movement. In December last year, the Delhi High Court eased the restrictions: he can now travel abroad after obtaining permission from authorities. Thinley Penjore, another Sarchop, now heads DNC-D from Kathmandu. These three prominent Sarchop leaders are now scattered in the three countries.
Where could Zangpo be? Though the Bhutanese regime is extremely secretive about its political prisoners, rumours about his presence in a certain jail continue to float around in the camps. According to a refugee, a few months back, a police personnel saw Zangpo in a Bhutanese jail. Another refugee claims that he’s detained in Chemgang, which is notorious as a death camp. But Chemgang, which has the largest number of political prisoners, is frequently visited by ICRC, and new prisoners will be highlighted by the organisation—which seems unlikely in Zangpo’s case. Balaram Paudel, president of Bhutan People’s Party, says that Zangpo might have been taken to Dradulmakhang, an underground army prison—Bhutanese refugee leader Tek Nath Rizal has described this jail as a place “whose very name evoked fear.” Paudel believes Zangpo was first shifted to Chukha jail after he was deported, where the Bhutanese government had filed a case accusing Zangpo of embezzling 200,000 ngultrum. In 1993, Kuensel, the government mouthpiece, had published a notice of death penalty for him.
In her spartan hut in Timai, Karma recalls the times she spent with her husband. She says he had already predicted his deportation. “He would often worry about the family in case he was arrested and handed over to Bhutan,” she says. Nevertheless, she is sure that Zangpo will return. “I’m waiting for that day,” she says, with a small smile.