Ethnic Groups

Ethnic Groups

Bhutan's society is made up of four broad but not necessarily exclusive groups: the Ngalop, the Sharchop, several aboriginal peoples, and Nepalese. The Ngalop (a term thought to mean the earliest risen or first converted) are people of Tibetan origin who migrated to Bhutan as early as the ninth century. For this reason, they are often referred to in foreign literature as Bhote (people of Bhotia or Tibet). The Ngalop are concentrated in western and northern districts. They introduced Tibetan culture and Buddhism to Bhutan and comprised the dominant political and cultural element in modern Bhutan.

The Sharchop (the word means easterner), an Indo-Mongoloid people who are thought to have migrated from Assam or possibly Burma during the past millennium, comprise most of the population of eastern Bhutan. Although long the biggest ethnic group in Bhutan, the Sharchop have been largely assimilated into the Tibetan-Ngalop culture. Because of their proximity to India, some speak Assamese or Hindi. They practice slash-and-burn and tsheri agriculture, planting dry rice crops for three or four years until the soil is exhausted and then moving on.

The third group consists of small aboriginal or indigenous tribal peoples living in scattered villages throughout Bhutan. Culturally and linguistically part of the populations of West Bengal or Assam, they embrace the Hindu system of endogamous groups ranked by hierarchy and practice wet-rice and dry-rice agriculture. They include the Drokpa, Lepcha, and Doya tribes as well as the descendants of slaves who were brought to Bhutan from similar tribal areas in India. The ex-slave communities tended to be near traditional population centers because it was there that they had been pressed into service to the state. Together, the Ngalop, Sharchop, and tribal groups were thought to constitute up to 72 percent of the population in the late 1980s.

The remaining 28 percent of the population were of Nepalese origin. Officially, the government stated that 28 percent of the national population was Nepalese in the late 1980s, but unofficial estimates ran as high as 30 to 40 percent, and Nepalese were estimated to constitute a majority in southern Bhutan. The number of legal permanent Nepalese residents in the late 1980s may have been as few as 15 percent of the total population, however. The first small groups of Nepalese, the most recent major groups to arrive in Bhutan, emigrated primarily from eastern Nepal under Indian auspices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Mostly Hindus, the Nepalese settled in the southern foothills and are sometimes referred to as southern Bhutanese. Traditionally, they have been involved mostly in sedentary agriculture, although some have cleared forest cover and conducted tsheri agriculture. The most divisive issue in Bhutan in the 1980s and early 1990s was the accommodation of the Nepalese Hindu minority. The government traditionally attempted to limit immigration and restrict residence and employment of Nepalese to the southern region. Liberalization measures in the 1970s and 1980s encouraged intermarriage and provided increasing opportunities for public service. More in-country migration by Nepalese seeking better education and business opportunities was allowed.

Bhutan also had a sizable modern Tibetan refugee population, which stood at 10,000 persons in 1987. The major influx of 6,000 persons came in 1959 in the wake of the Chinese army's invasion and occupation of Tibet. The Tibetan expatriates became only partially integrated into Bhutanese society, however, and many were unwilling to accept citizenship. Perceiving a lack of allegiance to the state on the part of Tibetans, the government decided in 1979 to expel to India those who refused citizenship. India, after some reluctance, acceded to the move and accepted more than 3,100 Tibetans between 1980 and 1985. Another 4,200 Tibetans requested and received Bhutanese citizenship. Although Bhutan traditionally welcomed refugees--and still accepted a few new ones fleeing the 1989 imposition of martial law in Tibet--government policy in the late 1980s was to refuse more Tibetan refugees.

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