Slavery in Bhutan

Last updated

Slavery in Bhutan was a common [1] [2] legal, economic, and social institution until its abolition in 1958. In historical records, unfree labourers in Bhutan were referred to as slaves, coolies, and serfs. These labourers originated mostly in and around Bhutan, Assam, and Sikkim, and were the backbone of Bhutan's pre-money feudal economy. [2] [3]


Bhutan abolished slavery as part of modernization reforms at the behest of the Third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who ascended to the throne in 1952 at the age of 25. In breaking with slavery and feudalism, King Jigme Dorji enacted legal reforms, awarding citizenship and outright ownership of land to former slaves. [4]


Before the introduction of a money economy in the 19th century and modernization programs in the mid-20th century, the economy of Bhutan was based entirely on payment in kind and in labour, including unfree labour. In the feudal land tenure system, in which all land was held by the sovereign and populated by tenants, serfdom and service to mesne lords was commonplace. Ordinary citizens, for their part, were bound by the driglam namzha to do work such as dzong construction as part of their tax obligation to the state. The gradual transition to a feudal money economy was prompted by Bhutanese military and territorial losses to the East India Company, which resulted in annual cash subsidies to the Bhutanese government. These money revenues eventually replaced unfree labour as the backbone of the Bhutanese economy. [1] [2] [3]

Bhutan had an underclass of prisoners of war and their descendants, who were generally treated as serfs or even as slaves. This class of slave was the most common, however many others were aboriginal or indigenous tribal peoples originally living in scattered villages throughout Bhutan. Criminal freemen facing capital punishment were sometimes spared and made slaves for life. Slave status was inherited, and the value of slaves varied according to age, caste, and sex; an adult high-caste male cost about 20 Rupees at market, while a low-caste female could sell for 3 Rupees. During the 18th century, hundreds of Brahmins were imported as slaves into Bhutan every year. [3] [5] [6]

By the 19th century, Bhutan had developed a slave trade with Sikkim and Tibet. During this time, the kidnapping of British subjects as slaves, as well as the repatriation of escaped Bhutanese slaves, became major points of contention amid rising hostilities between Bhutan and the British Empire. The position adopted by Britain was to allow enslaved British subjects to return of their own free will, but refrain from repatriating escaped Bhutanese slaves back to Bhutan. (Cf. non-refoulement) [1] [2] [6] [7]

During the 19th century, the British government also grappled with slavery in neighboring Sikkim and Cooch Behar. By 1877, slaves from Bhutan were regarded by the British governemtn as Bhutanese refugees. Meanwhile, the slave trade remained a lucrative source of profit to local Bhutanese officials near the Indian border. [1] [2] [7] [8] [9]

In the early 20th century, Bhutan limited the slave trade as it developed laws reflecting the chattel nature of slaves. King Ugyen Wangchuck's 1916 reforms of the Tsa Yig legal code prohibited the sale and purchase of slaves, and limited the use of coolies by state officers to occasions where the health of the officer required such. Otherwise, the institution of slavery was left intact despite reform: slaves attempting to escape were to be detained, and anyone who harbored an escaped slave was to "make good the slave." However, if one returned an escaped slave, the owner faced a legal obligation to compensate him for his time and effort. [2]

Slave demography

Slaves originated from multiple sources, both inside and outside Bhutan. Tribal areas of central, southern, and eastern Bhutan (e.g., Lhop, Lepcha, and Monpa) as well as prisons in Ngalop areas of western Bhutan were domestic sources of slaves. Outside Bhutan proper, various ethnic groups of the Assam Duars including the Mechi were subject to taxation and slaving such that entire villages were abandoned when the British government surveyed the region in 1865. Slaves acquired from Indian Assam, where slaves constituted 5–9% of the total population, were often born slaves or already enslaved as condemned criminals. [8] [10] [11]

Culturally and linguistically part of the populations of West Bengal or Assam, these slaves were mostly caste Hindus and practiced wet-rice and dry-rice agriculture. Indian slaves were generally brought to Bhutan from tribal areas. [5] Many slaves who arrived since the 1800s were the forefathers of modern Lhotshampa, a heterogeneous community of Nepalese origin in southern Bhutan. [12]

As slaves of the state, many slave communities were concentrated in traditional population centers such as Thimphu and Punakha. [5] <

Treatment of slaves

The majority of slaves in Bhutan were bound to government service. Others cleared the humid malarial jungles of south Bhutan to develop the nation's agricultural lands. Foremost, slaves were the primary source of government labour in and around dzongs, which served as administrative centers. [12] Although slaves had no personal or professional liberty, they filled military and administrative ranks within the government, including high posts, a silver lining of upward mobility. The Royal Government placed male youths in the service of the palace and in provincial administrative centers. This provided generations of technically competent, politically dependable cadres serving lifelong roles. Female slaves, however, were used mainly as sex slaves in brothels. [5] [6] [13]

There was no substantial difference between the state and treatment of feudal serfs and chattel slaves in pre-modern Bhutan. [3] [14] Slaves and servile classes attached to land grants were regularly traded as a showing of goodwill among rulers of neighboring states. [6]

Abolition and legacy

As part of King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck's modernization efforts, land reform was accompanied by the abolition of slavery and serfdom. [14] After abolition, many ex-slave communities were near traditional population centers because it was there that they had been pressed into service to the state. Many of these former slaves and their descendants have remained in urban centers, supporting and joining an emerging rentier class. [5]

Rural slaves including many Lhotshampa, who had developed malarial jungles into productive agricultural lands, feared eviction and deportation. With the enactment of land reform and the Nationality Act of 1958, they were granted citizenship and began to prosper. In part because the manumission of slaves and serfs was accompanied by land redistribution awarding them outright ownership, slavery left no legacy in Bhutan comparable to that of African Americans in the United States and Brazil. [12] [15]

The Nationality Act of 1958 was repealed by the Citizenship Act of 1985. After this the first nationwide census was implemented from 1988. The largest group within the country affected by the enforcement of the Citizenship Act were the Lhotshampa people; this group, a generalized term for those of Nepalese descent, comprised 43% of the total population of Bhutan in 1988, including all illegal aliens. Bhutanese security forces moved through the southern regions of the country, home to most of the Lhotshampa, forcing them from their homes and across the southern borders into Nepal. Because most of the people exiled did not speak Dzongkha, they were classified as illegal aliens, thus able to be removed from the country. In total, between 100,000 and 150,000, 1/6 of Bhutan's population in 1988, ended up in Nepalese refugee camps. By 2015 over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal were settled in third nations. [16]

See also

Related Research Articles

Lhotshampa Bhutanese people of Nepalese descent

The Lhotshampa or Lhotsampa people are a heterogeneous Bhutanese people of Nepalese descent. The Lhotshampa people, native to southern Bhutan, are thus colloquially referred to as Southerners. Starting in 2007, most of the Lhotshampas, or Bhutanese Refugees, were resettled to various countries, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and other European countries. As of 2021 the number of Lhotshampa in Nepal is significantly lower than that in the United States and other countries where they have resettled. People of Nepalese origin started to settle in uninhabited areas of southern Bhutan in the 19th century.

History of Bhutan Aspect of history

Bhutan's early history is steeped in mythology and remains obscure. Some of the structures provide evidence that the region has been settled as early as 2000 BC. According to a legend it was ruled by a Cooch-Behar king, Sangaldip, around the 7th century BC, but not much is known prior to the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism in the 9th century, when turmoil in Tibet forced many monks to flee to Bhutan. In the 12th century, the Drukpa Kagyupa school was established and remains the dominant form of Buddhism in Bhutan today. The country's political history is intimately tied to its religious history and relations among the various monastic schools and monasteries.

Bhutan Country in South Asia

Bhutan, officially known as the Kingdom of Bhutan, is a landlocked country in the Eastern Himalayas. It is bordered by China to the north and India to the south. Nepal and Bangladesh are located in proximity to Bhutan but do not share a land border. The country has a population of over 754,000 and a territory of 38,394 square kilometers which ranks 133rd in terms of land area. Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy with Vajrayana Buddhism as the state religion.

House of Wangchuck

The House of Wangchuck is the royal house of Bhutan since it was reunified in 1907. Prior to reunification, the Wangchuck family had governed the district of Trongsa as descendants of Dungkar Choji. They eventually overpowered other regional lords and earned the favour of the British Empire. After consolidating power, the 12th Penlop of Trongsa Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck was elected Druk Gyalpo, thus founding the house. The position of Druk Gyalpo – who heads the house – is more commonly known in English as the King of Bhutan.


Penlop is a Dzongkha term roughly translated as governor. Bhutanese penlops, prior to unification, controlled certain districts of the country, but now hold no administrative office. Rather, penlops are now entirely subservient to the House of Wangchuck.

Bhutanese refugees Lhotshampas, a group of Nepali language-speaking Bhutanese people

Bhutanese refugees are Lhotshampas ("southerners"), a group of Nepali language-speaking Bhutanese people. These refugees registered in refugee camps in eastern Nepal during the 1990s as Bhutanese citizens deported from Bhutan during the protest against Bhutanese state and monarch by some of the Lhotshampas demanding democracy and different state. As Nepal and Bhutan have yet to implement any agreement on repatriation, many Bhutanese refugees have since resettled to North America, Oceania and Europe under the auspices of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Many Lhotshampa also migrated to areas of West Bengal and Assam in India independently of the UNHCR.

Immigration to Bhutan has an extensive history and has become one of the country's most contentious social, political, and legal issues. Since the twentieth century, Bhutanese immigration and citizenship laws have been promulgated as acts of the royal government, often by decree of the Druk Gyalpo on advice of the rest of government. Immigration policy and procedure are implemented by the Lhengye Zhungtshog Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs, Department of Immigration. Bhutan's first modern laws regarding immigration and citizenship were the Bhutanese Citizenship Act 1958 and subsequent amendments in 1977. The 1958 Act was superseded by the Bhutanese Citizenship Act 1985, which was then supplemented by a further Immigration Act in 2007. The Constitution of 2008 included some changes in Bhutan's immigration laws, policy, and procedure, however prior law not inconsistent with the 2008 Constitution remained intact. Bhutan's modern citizenship laws and policies reinforce the institution of the Bhutanese monarchy, require familiarity and adherence to Ngalop social norms, and reflect the social impact of the most recent immigrant groups.

There are numerous ethnic groups in Bhutan, and no one group constitutes a majority of the Bhutanese population. The Bhutanese are of four main ethnic groups, which themselves are not necessarily exclusive: the politically and culturally dominant Ngalop of western and northern Bhutan; the Sharchop of eastern Bhutan; the Lhotshampa concentrated in southern Bhutan; and Bhutanese tribal and aboriginal peoples living in villages scattered throughout Bhutan.

The development of Bhutanese democracy has been marked by the active encouragement and participation of reigning Bhutanese monarchs since the 1950s, beginning with legal reforms such as the abolition of slavery, and culminating in the enactment of Bhutan's Constitution. The first democratic elections in Bhutan began in 2007, and all levels of government had been democratically elected by 2011. These elections included Bhutan's first ever partisan National Assembly election. Democratization in Bhutan has been marred somewhat by the intervening large-scale expulsion and flight of Bhutanese refugees during the 1990s; the subject remains somewhat taboo in Bhutanese politics.

Penlop of Trongsa

Penlop of Trongsa, also called Chhoetse Penlop, is a Dzongkha title meaning "Governor of the Province of Trongsa (Chhoetse)". It is generally given to the heir apparent of the Kingdom of Bhutan. The most recent holder of the title was King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who was then a prince. The current heir apparent is Prince Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck, because the title is reserved for the officially designated heir apparent, and is subject to change by the reigning king. Also, the reigning Druk Gyalpo may retain the office or award it to another person after coronation. The proper reference style is His Royal Highness Trongsa (Chhoetse) Penlop.

Bhutanese nationality law

Bhutanese nationality law is the law governing the acquisition, transmission and loss of Bhutanese citizenship. The Bhutanese Citizenship Act of 1985 was introduced by the Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck, on June 10, 1985, modifying the definition of a Bhutanese citizen. The Act was implemented as part of a new national policy of Driglam Namzha, national customs and etiquette. Because of its emphasis on Bhutanese culture, the Act is also referred to as the "One Nation, One People Act." The 1985 Act was amended by the Immigration Act of 2007 and then superseded in 2008 by the Constitution of Bhutan insofar as previous laws are inconsistent; where not inconsistent, the provisions of the 2007 Act, the 1985 Act, and previous Acts relating to immigration continue in effect.

Bhutan–Nepal relations Diplomatic relations between the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal

Bhutan–Nepal relations refer to the bilateral relations between the Bhutan and Nepal. Relations were formally established in 1983. The two Himalayan countries are both landlocked, separated only by the Indian State of Sikkim. Both countries are bordered by India and the People's Republic of China. However, the current state of relations remains strained owing to the Bhutanese refugee crisis.

Capital punishment in Bhutan was abolished on March 20, 2004 and is prohibited by the 2008 Constitution. The prohibition appears among a number of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution; while some fundamental rights—such as voting, land ownership, and equal pay—extend only to Bhutanese citizens, the prohibition on capital punishment applies to all people within the kingdom.

The Tsa Yig is any monastic constitution or code of moral discipline based on codified Tibetan Buddhist precepts. Every Tibetan monastery and convent had its own Tsa Yig, and the variation in Tsa Yig content shows a degree of autonomy and internal democracy.

This is a timeline of Bhutanese history, comprising important legal and territorial changes and political events in Bhutan and its predecessor states.

The Dorji family of Bhutan has been a prominent and powerful political family in the kingdom since the 12th century AD. The family has produced monarchs, Prime Minister of Bhutan, Prime Ministers, Dzong lords and governors. The fourth king of Bhutan [Druk Gyalpo : Dragon king], Jigme Singye Wangchuck, as well as his son the current fifth king of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, are also members of the Dorji family and therefore also descendants of the royal family of Sikkim. The Dorji family is also the holder of the Bhutan House estate in Kalimpong, India.

Sir Raja Sonam Topgay Dorji CIE, also called Tobgay, was a member of the Dorji family and Bhutanese politician who served between 1917 and 1952 in the Royal Government under the First and Second Kings of Bhutan. During this period, Topgay Dorji officially held the posts of Gongzim, Deb Zimpon, and Trade Agent to the Government of Bhutan. As such, Topgay Dorji was responsible for fostering Anglo-Bhutanese relations, and later, Bhutan–India relations. Topgay's ties with the west and modernist political factions contributed significantly to the modern political landscape and modernization of Bhutan.

Treaty of Punakha

The Treaty of Punakha was an agreement signed on 8 January 1910, at Punakha Dzong between the recently consolidated Kingdom of Bhutan and British India. The Treaty of Punakha is not a stand-alone document, but represents a modification of the Treaty of Sinchula of 1865, the prior working agreement between Bhutan and British India. As such, the Treaty of Punakha is an amendment whose text incorporates all other aspects of the Treaty of Sinchula by reference.

Military history of Bhutan

The military history of Bhutan begins with the Battle of Five Lamas in 1634, marking Bhutan's emergence as a nation under the secular and religious leadership of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. Before Bhutan emerged as a separate nation, it remained on the periphery of Tibetan military and political influence. The region that became Bhutan was host to several battles and waves of refugees from turmoil in Tibet. After its founding, Bhutan was invaded numerous times by outside forces, namely Tibetans, Mongols, and the British. Bhutan meanwhile invaded its traditional tributaries in Sikkim, Cooch Behar, and the Duars.


  1. 1 2 3 4 Risley, Sir Herbert Hope (1894). "History of Sikkim and Its Rulers". The Gazetteer of Sikhim. pp. 14, 20.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 White, J. Claude (1909). "Appendix I – The Laws of Bhutan". Sikhim & Bhutan: Twenty-One Years on the North-East Frontier, 1887–1908. New York: Longmans, Green & Co. pp. 11, 272–3, 301–10. Retrieved 2010-12-25.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Worden, Robert L. (1991). Savada, Andrea Matles (ed.). Bhutan: A country study. Federal Research Division. Social System. PD-icon.svgThis article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  4. "Timeline: Bhutan". BBC News online. 2010-05-05. Retrieved 2010-10-01.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Worden, Robert L. (1991). Savada, Andrea Matles (ed.). Bhutan: A country study. Federal Research Division. Ethnic Groups. PD-icon.svgThis article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  6. 1 2 3 4 Gogoi, Jahnabi (2002). Agrarian system of medieval Assam. Concept Publishing Company. p. 129. ISBN   81-7022-967-7.
  7. 1 2 Gupta, Shantiswarup (1974). British relations with Bhutan. Panchsheel Prakashan. pp. 79, 205–6.
  8. 1 2 Labh, Kapileshwar (1974). India and Bhutan. Studies in Asian history and politics. 1. Sindhu Publications. p. 70.
  9. Singh, Amar Kaur Jasbir (1988). Himalayan triangle: a historical survey of British India's relations with Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan, 1765-1950. British Library. pp. 183, 279, 317. ISBN   9780712306300.
  10. Karlsson, B. G. (2000). Contested belonging: an indigenous people's struggle for forest and identity in sub-Himalayan Bengal. Psychology Press. pp. 70–71. ISBN   0-7007-1179-1.
  11. Kumar, Dharma; Raychaudhuri, Tapan (1987). c.1200 - c.1750. The Cambridge economic history of India. 1. CUP Archive. ISBN   0-521-22692-9.
  12. 1 2 3 Sinha, Awadhesh Coomar (2001). Himalayan kingdom Bhutan: tradition, transition, and transformation. Indus Publishing. pp. 25, 183, 215. ISBN   81-7387-119-1.
  13. Kautsky, John (1997). The politics of aristocratic empires. Transaction Publishers. p. 87. ISBN   1-56000-913-6. citing Rose, Leo E (1977). The Politics of Bhutan. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
  14. 1 2 Worden, Robert L. (1991). Savada, Andrea Matles (ed.). Bhutan: A country study. Federal Research Division. Modernization under Jigme Dorji, 1952–72. PD-icon.svgThis article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  15. Tashi, Tshering (2009-07-20). "A King's Tea Cup". Bhutan Observer online. Retrieved 2011-05-17.
  16. Refugees, United Nations High Commissioner for. "Resettlement of Bhutanese refugees surpasses 100,000 mark". UNHCR. Retrieved 2016-03-14.