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What use is Gross Domestic Happiness to Bhutan's 106,000 global refugees?

In Aberdeen, outside a takeaway called The Gurkha Kitchen, I met a Bhutanese refugee called Landless. Landless was eager to talk.

Bhutanese people of Nepali origin have no means of repatriation to Bhutan. Photograph: Getty Images.

In Aberdeen, a takeaway called The Gurkha Kitchen sells plump dumplings, Haggis pakoras and greasy north-Indian foods that infiltrate the menus of Nepalese restaurants across the UK. 

Outside The Gurkha Kitchen, I met a Bhutanese refugee. It was the first time I had met a refugee. Let’s call her Landless. Landless was eager to talk.

Landless had flown into London only three months earlier. Before Aberdeen, her “home” was Nepal. Before Nepal, her “home” was Bhutan. Both Nepal and Bhutan didn’t want her, so she was homeless. With the help of the International Organisation for Migration, she moved to Scotland. Some of her friends were moved to America, thanks to the efforts of the IOM. Others to Australia. 

Landless spoke lovely Nepali. Landless liked the churches in Aberdeen. She disliked Scottish weather. She tried replicating Bhutanese dishes in Aberdeen, but failed – the cheese didn’t taste right.

Landless was among the 106,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees who had been ejected from Bhutan. Bhutan, nervous about the growing number of Nepali-speaking people within its borders, needed to silence the murmurs of dissent which had begun rippling among these Nepalis. Bhutanese lawmakers had seen what happened in the neighboring kingdom of Sikkim - a Nepali-speaking majority, it was widely believed, had joined hands with India to overturn the monarchy, thus making Sikkim the 22nd state of the Indian union - and definitely didn't want Bhutan going that way. The government, therefore, declared that all Nepali-speaking people in the country should produce citizenship documents from 1958 – 1959 wouldn't do, 1957 wouldn't do – to prove their status as legitimate Bhutanese.

Landless claimed her family had documents from 1957.

“Go back to Nepal,” Bhutan barked to Landless and thousands of others. “That’s where you’re from. You’re not Bhutanese but Nepalese."

“Go back to Bhutan,” Nepal snapped. “That’s where your family has lived for generations. You aren’t Nepalese but Bhutanese.”

Landless was one of the more than 100,000 people herded out of Bhutan like cattle.

Finally, Nepal begrudgingly agreed to temporarily allow Landless and her brethren to inhabit refugee camps there. Bhutan, meanwhile, embraced a concept known as Gross National Happiness – something about measuring her people’s happiness as instead of their domestic product – while Landless and co. languished in shanties. Landless shared her bathroom with three dozen people.

Landless lived in a state of statelessness in a refugee camp in Nepal for a decade and a half. Landless claimed her family still owned acres and acres of fertile land near Phuntsholing, one of Bhutan's border towns. Landless was lying. The land had been redistributed to the Bhutanese – the bona fide Bhutanese who were still living in the country. The land she had left behind wasn’t any longer her land.

In Aberdeen, Landless was living in a council flat with running water. The tap even spewed hot water! And the flat had electricity all the time. Landless and her family had light all the time in Bhutan before darkness shrouded their world.

Some of Landless's distant relatives were still in Bhutan. One was a doctor Bhutan would have good use for, so he was allowed to stay. Landless couldn't speak to him on the phone, though. Landless's cousin was nervous that the Bhutanese government wouldn't like it. 

Landless saw pictures of the 2011 wedding of the king of the country that didn’t want her. The world gushed about the handsomeness of the couple. Bhutan continued talking about Gross National Happiness. The international media paid more attention to it – and the peck on the cheek the king gave his wife – than the displacement of all those refugees. Too much was happening in the Sudan, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Now Bhutan has archery competitions and literary festivals - the most recent literary event took place last August. No one talks about the refugee situation. Everyone talks about the kings with reverence – the good looks of the current king, the fifth king who's popularly known as K5, and the selflessness of the last king, the fourth king who abdicated the throne in favor of his son (and who is responsible for one of the most heartless ethnic-cleansing experiments in the modern world).

The monasteries are beautiful, the kings are good looking, and, oh, there's Gross National Happiness. Didn't the UN declare 20 March as the International Day of Happiness? Newspaper reports said the declaration came from Bhutan's inspiring concept of Gross National Happiness, didn’t they? That was endorsement enough. Life was good.

What were Landless and the other 106,000 displaced former citizens anyway?

Prajwal Parajuly writes about Nepali-speaking people – the Nepalis of India, Nepal and Bhutan – in Land Where I Flee, his first novel, available now in hardback from Quercus Books at £16.99