The Other Side

Bhutan’s con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­tees the free­dom of re­li­gion but the Chris­tians in Bhutan do not have the same le­gal sta­tus as the Bud­dhists or the Hin­dus.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Asna Ali

The Chris­tians in Bhutan com­plain that they do not have the same le­gal sta­tus as the Bud­dhists or the Hin­dus.

Pros­e­ly­tiz­ing is a cen­tral ac­tiv­ity in many re­li­gions and it is be­cause of this that the world’s largest re­li­gions are now spread out to the re­motest cor­ners. Mis­sion­ary zeal has re­sulted in the con­struc­tion of tem­ples, churches and mosques in the most far flung of places but, con­se­quently, lo­cal re­li­gious prac­tices and cul­ture has been in­deli­bly al­tered.

Re­li­gion, cul­ture and na­tional iden­tity are of­ten in­ter­linked, es­pe­cially in coun­tries where the majority prac­tices one faith. Some coun­tries like Pak­istan and Is­rael have their very roots in re­li­gious iden­tity. Oth­ers may not have been formed on the ba­sis of a re­li­gion but faith has a deep im­pact on how a coun­try views it­self and how it is viewed abroad.

For this rea­son, pros­e­ly­tiz­ing by re­li­gious mi­nori­ties is not en­cour­aged in many coun­tries while it is ac­tively pro­hib­ited in some. There are laws as well as so­cial prac­tices in place to curb ac­tiv­i­ties that are seen as ef­forts to turn the pub­lic away from their cur­rent faith. Such bans re­sult in pe­nal ac­tion against pros­e­ly­tiz­ers and may even cause vi­o­lent pub­lic re­ac­tions against them. Vaguely worded laws re­gard­ing blas­phemy, hate speech or ‘hurt re­li­gious feel­ings’ in par­tic­u­lar are of­ten in­ter­preted to dis­crim­i­nate against mi­nori­ties in a num­ber of ways.

Th­ese laws are la­belled as be­ing pro­tec­tion­ist and aimed at pre­serv­ing cul­ture and the cur­rent way of life. Con­se­quently, they of­ten have wide­spread pub­lic support at least un­til the point where a coun­try be­gins to ac­cept di­ver­sity in ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing re­li­gion, as a pos­i­tive.

The threat of los­ing their iden­tity to global cul­tures and larger re­li­gions par­tic­u­larly strikes smaller coun­tries and it may be a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to their ve­he­ment op­po­si­tion for pros­e­ly­tiz­ing.

Bhutan, the tiny neigh­bor of two power houses to its north and south, is a Bud­dhist coun­try. Bud­dhism is the state-spon­sored re­li­gion and it is ex­pressed in ev­ery­thing from the con­sti­tu­tion and the na­tional dress to the gen­eral out­look to­wards life i.e., the gross na­tional hap­pi­ness in­di­ca­tor that is uniquely Bhutanese.

The coun­try does have a Hindu and Christian mi­nor­ity and the law per­mits free­dom of re­li­gion for all.

How­ever, as ex­pected, it is Bud­dhism that drives the coun­try’s so­cial and po­lit­i­cal nar­ra­tive.

De­spite a con­sti­tu­tional clause guar­an­tee­ing the free­dom of re­li­gion, in prac­tice ev­ery­thing is not go­ing well for Bhutan’s mi­nori­ties. There have been re­ports of dis­crim­i­na­tion against the Hindu pop­u­la­tion in the coun­try’s south. The tiny Christian mi­nor­ity finds it­self turned into a fringe group whose prac­tice of its faith is limited to homes. Chris­tians are not al­lowed to build churches or con­gre­gate in pub­lic for ex­pres­sion of their be­liefs. Pub­li­ca­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion of re­li­gious texts is also not al­lowed.

Re­cently, two pas­tors found them­selves on the wrong side of the law. Rev­erend Tandin Wangyal and Rev­erend B Thap were ac­cused and found guilty of hold­ing a pub­lic gath­er­ing in a vil­lage with­out ob­tain­ing prior per­mis­sion from lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, as re­quired.

Pas­tor Thap re­ceived a sus­pended jail sen­tence and was re­leased after pay­ing the court’s fine. Pas­tor Wangyal was con­victed for show­ing a film with­out get­ting an of­fi­cial per­mit and also for re­ceiv­ing funds from abroad pre­sum­ably for the pur­pose of pros­e­ly­tiz­ing. He was handed a jail sen­tence of sev­eral years. The pas­tor has been re­leased on bail but his case could drag on for a long time.

Bhutan’s con­sti­tu­tion pro­vides for free­dom of re­li­gion and this has of­ten been as­serted by the po­lit­i­cal lead­ers who have led the coun­try to­wards democ­racy. But the Chris­tians in Bhutan do not have the same le­gal sta­tus, recog­ni­tion or rights as the Bud­dhists or Hin­dus.

This is par­tially be­cause the Chris­tians con­sti­tute a tiny per­cent­age of Bhutan’s pop­u­la­tion – two per­cent. The other rea­son is that the Chris­tians are viewed some­what sus­pi­ciously. Spread­ing the mes­sage of their re­li­gion and en­cour­ag­ing oth­ers to join it are the ba­sic tenets of the Christian faith. This may be done through ac­tive pros­e­ly­tiz­ing or through com­mu­nity ser­vices and phi­lan­thropy, such as pro­vid­ing free health­care and ed­u­ca­tion to the needy.

Chris­tian­ity is viewed as a western re­li­gion that can en­croach upon the lo­cal re­li­gions and the val­ues they es­pouse. It is felt that pros­e­lyt­ing poses a threat to the way of life which is uniquely Bhutanese and which is de­rived from the Bud­dhist faith.

Coun­tries like Bhutan face the acute strug­gle of keep­ing their na­tional iden­tity free of taint while at the same time let­ting in enough of the out­side world to ben­e­fit from what it has to of­fer. It is a very dif­fi­cult bal­ance to main­tain. There is al­ways a dan­ger that the need to sur­vive in a glob­al­ized world could erase lo­cal her­itage and cul­ture.

This fear is well founded since in an in­creas­ingly con­nected world, the views ac­cepted by the ma­jori­ties are prop­a­gated and ac­cepted glob­ally. The same few lan­guages and cul­tural val­ues are gain­ing ground ev­ery­where. Ho­mo­gene­ity is grow­ing and the very di­ver­sity that glob­al­iza­tion is sup­posed to cel­e­brate and embrace is be­ing wiped away.

Bhutan, after years of avoid­ing the global econ­omy, is now grad­u­ally join­ing in. Its sys­tem of gov­er­nance has changed from monar­chy to democ­racy which it­self is a western value. State­ments have been is­sued by the rul­ing politi­cians re­gard­ing Bhutan’s de­sire to be a part of the world. Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness is no longer enough for the Bhutanese to thrive. But Bhutan is not will­ing to give up on its cul­ture for the sake of as­sim­i­la­tion.

Re­li­gions that pros­e­ly­tize do tend to spread at a much faster pace than those that do not and, given this, it is easy to un­der­stand the aver­sion of Bud­dhist Bhutanese to this prac­tice. The de­sire to pre­serve their own way of life has re­sulted in laws that are dis­crim­i­na­tory – if not in word then in prac­tice.

It is a well-known fact that pro­tec­tion­ist laws made for the pur­pose of shield­ing re­li­gious sen­ti­ment against hate speech, blas­phemy or pros­e­ly­tiz­ing are of­ten mis­used. They may be used to set­tle per­sonal scores or to in­flame re­li­gious sen­ti­ments till they turn to vi­o­lence as has hap­pened re­peat­edly in Pak­istan. The more loosely termed th­ese laws are, the more open they are to mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion and mis­use. Re­li­gious zeal might also en­cour­age peo­ple to pur­sue the ob­ser­vance of the laws more strictly than is nec­es­sary or to imag­ine wrongdoings where none have taken place.

Such laws also make the mi­nor­ity groups feel un­safe even if that is not their out­ward pur­pose. Mi­nori­ties of­ten feel that the laws pro­tect­ing majority sen­ti­ments are used against them.

Bhutan con­tin­ues to find its foot­ing in the ever-chang­ing global land­scape as a bur­geon­ing democ­racy and a mem­ber of the free world which be­lieves in hu­man rights that in­clude the free­dom to hold and ex­press vary­ing re­li­gions. Pros­e­ly­tiz­ing is a dilemma faced by many coun­tries and laws against it have been im­ple­mented else­where as well.

Cur­rently, the majority of Bhutanese agree that they do not want pros­e­ly­tiz­ing to take place around them. Whether this will change as the coun­try opens up to global in­flu­ences de­pends on how rigidly Bhutan is will­ing to hold on to its re­li­gious iden­tity. The writer is a business grad­u­ate. She has in­ter­est in po­lit­i­cal and so­cial is­sues.

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