Short essay on the political processes in Bhutan


System of Government

The third monarch, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1952-72) who is regarded as the builder of modern Bhutan introduced several reforms in the socio-economic and political set up of the country. The existing political structures were established during his time.

Established as an absolute monarchy in 1907, Bhutan moved towards a constitutional monarchy with the setting up of the National Assembly orTsongdu in 1953. It is the chief law making body of Bhutan and all civil, criminal and personal laws emanate from it.


The Druk Gyalpo retained veto power over actions of the National Assembly until 1969 when the National Assembly, following his 1968 decree, became the kingdom’s sovereign institution. A bill passed by the Assembly can only be returned by the ruler once, but if it is passed again with a simple majority, it automatically becomes an Act.

The ruler of Druk Gyalpo is the head of the state, government and the church. Jigme Drogi Wongchick revived the institution of Council of State established by Nagawang Nangyal to assist and advise-the ruler. Renamed as the Royal Advisory Council (Lodi Tsokde) it emerged as the principal executive organ of the government of Bhutan. Headed by a chairman, rise of its members are the representatives of the people, two representatives of the monasteries, and one representative of the Government of Bhutan.

The Council is advisory in character and its principal role is to assist the ruler in day-to-day administration. Since all its members are also members of the National Assembly, it seldom comes in conflict with the legislature.

Besides the Advisory Council, there is the Council of Ministers. The ministers are appointed by the ruler, but with the approval of the National Assembly.


The first Council of Ministers was constituted in 1968. The ministers are responsible to the ruler and take orders from him. Since the ruler is also the head of the government, there is not such office as that of the Prime Minister.

The strength of the legislature varies from 140 to 200 as the Assembly or Tsongdu is allowed to set its size every five years. The Assembly has three categories of members: representatives of the people elected by indirect vote every three years and comprising between half and two-thirds of the National Assembly membership; monastic representatives also appointed for three-year terms and constituting about one-third of the membership; and government officials nominated by the Druk Gyalpo.

The administrative system which is inherited from Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel times, divides the country into 20 Dzongkhags (dongs districts or states).

Each district has a district officer, appointed by the Druk Gyalpo. Since the Penlop system was abolished, these officers come under direct central rule. Larger districts are divided into blocs, comprising 500 families each. The head of each block is chosen by the villagers; he is the main between them and the district administration.


Bhutan has no political parties. But political organisations are not altogether absent. In 1952, some of Nepalese from southern Bhutan who had settled in West Bengal and Assam formed the Bhutan State Congress (BSC).

The BSC tried to expand its operations into Bhutan with a satyagrah (nonviolent resistance) movement in 1954. But the movement failed due to lack of enthusiasm among the Nepalese in Bhutan and also because of the mobilisation of Bhutan’s militia. The BSC movement was further weakened when the government granted concessions to the minority and allowed Nepalese representation in the National Assembly. The BSC declined and eventually disappeared in the early 1960s.

The country’s judicial system, both-civil and criminal, is based on the foundations laid by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. The highest-level court is the Supreme Court of Appeal-the Druk Gyalpo himself. All citizens have been granted the right to make informal petitions to the Druk Gyalpo.

The Supreme Court of Appeal hears appeals of decisions emanating from the High Court (Thrimkhang Gongma). The High Court, which was established in 1968 to review lower court appeals, has six judges, two elected by the National Assembly and four appointed by the Druk Gyalpo, for five-year terms.


Below the High Court are the district courts headed by a district judge who is usually drawn from the ranks of the civil service. Minor civil disputes are adjudicated by a village head.

Nation Building

Revolutionary changes taking place in the neighbourhood of Bhutan in the post-war period-India emerging as a democratic republic, China emerging as socialist state and the overthrow of the Rana system in Nepal-had their impact on Bhutan.

The king was enlightened enough to grasp the situation and introduce many reform which were not even demanded by the people. For instance, Jigme Dorji Wagchik put a 30 acre ceiling on land holdings, made land revenue more equitable, and abolished land revenue in case of poor farmers with smaller holdings.


He made slavery and serfdom in the country illegal and later on, abolished capital punishment. He also established the National Assembly, the legislative organ of the government and eventually made it into a sovereign institution. Consequently, Bhutan unlike other neighbouring states remained for long period calm and quite.

With the opening up of Bhutan to outside world and exposure to the industrial culture, life style of the people began to undergo a change.

The old value system of a feudal society is changing fast. The traditional elite, the Lamas and feudal classes, are gradually losing ground to the emerging middle class. This class, manning administrative and technical positions, is educated more in a secular tradition. As a result, the elite have become highly conscious of preserving their traditional identity and position.

However, the ruling elite perceive threats to their traditional identity and position from another quarter-the assertion of separate identity by the Nepalese in the southern region. With the inflow of large number of unskilled and semiskilled Nepalese into the country since it launched economic development programmes in the 1960s, the ruling elite fears that the ethnic Nepalese would one day out number them and seize political power.

This fear became ingrained in their mind when in Sikkim the Nepalese immigrants who constituted about 75 per cent of the population, rose against the Sikkim ruler in 1973-74 and depraved him of his absolute power.

In order to maintain country’s territorial integrity and cultural identity, the ruling elite has adopted a twin pronged strategy. First, it tightened the citizenship laws. In 1977 and again in 1985 citizenship laws were enacted barring persons staying in Bhutan since 1958 and whose names are not recorded in the census register from acquiring citizenship. Secondly, it took steps to strengthen Drukpa identity. In 1989, the King promulgated decrees aimed at preserving Bhutan’s cultural identity in a “one nation, one people” policy called driglam namzha (national customs and etiquette).

These decrees made it compulsory for all citizens to adopt the Bhutanese style of living, including the dress. Women the required to cut their hair short in the traditional Bhutanese style. The conduct of all required to cut their hair short in the traditional Bhutanese style. The conduct of all individuals was to be based on precepts of Buddhism, the only religion legally recognised for practice.

The government also stressed standardisation and popularisation of Dzongkha, the primary national language. The declaration of 15000 Nepalese as illegal immigrants and the strict enforcement of driglam namzha caused discontent among the ethnic Nepalese. Inspired by the triumph of democracy in Nepal in 1990, the Nepalese in Bhutan launched a political movement under the banner of the newly established political party, the Bhutan Peoples Party (BPP).

The BPP presented a charter of demands to the King, which among others, demanded unconditional release of political prisoners, change from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, proportional representation for various ethnic groups in the cabinet, and amendment “of the 1985 Citizenship Act. When the government refused to yield to its demands, the BPP organised violent demonstrations.

Suppression of this uprising by the government resulted in the exodus of a large number of ethnic Nepalese from Bhutan to Nepal, where they stayed in several refugee camps. With this, the government of Nepal has emerged as an important player in the efforts to resolve the ethnic conflict in Bhutan. External Relations

The mountainous character of the terrain, lack of any intra-societal demands, and above all, a fear of loss of identity, motivated Bhutan to lead a life of splendid isolation. This isolation also prevented the ruling elite an exposure to the happenings abroad. Conscious of their limited capability and the desirous of preserving their independence existence, Bhutan kept her doors shut to the outside world even after the World War II.

However, with the winds of change sweeping in Asia, particularly the withdrawal of British from India and a successful socialist revolution in China, the Dragon Kingdom slowly and cautiously became a member of the international community of states.

In 1947, Bhutan participated in the Asian Relations Conference held in New Delhi. Later the King of Bhutan visited India to seek assurance form the new rulers in India regarding Bhutan’s status and position vis-a-vis India. It was, however, the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to Bhutan in 1958 which proved to be the most decisive event which finally led to the end of centuries old policy of isolation.

The first step Bhutan took in this direction was to accept the economic and technical assistance offered by India. A major consideration evidently behind his change was the Chinese intervention in Tibet in the 1950s and their irredentist claims on Bhutan, Sikkim and the NEFA area of India, threateping the very existence of Bhutan! Bhutan became convinced that recognition by the larger global community would act as a deterring factor on the part of Chinese to repeat a Tibet in Bhutan and ensure its separate existence.

It would also end all uncertainties regarding Indian intentions towards Bhutan. This goal was eventually realised in 1971 when Bhutan was admitted to the United Nations as its full fledged member. Two years later, Bhutan joined the Non-aligned Movement.

In the 1970s Bhutan also began efforts to achieve diversification of economic and technical assistance, particularly through the help of the UN agencies and multilateral financial institutions. Bhutan also diversified her external contacts, with the countries of Asia and Europe. With Bangladesh and Nepal, Bhutan has full- fledged ambassadorial level diplomatic relations.

The assertive role of Bhutan as an independent actor has been evident on several occasions in the UN, Non-aligned Movement and in other international forums. Membership of SAARC also enabled Bhutan to project its independent status and play an active role in the management of regional affairs.

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