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Pranab's remarks ruffle Bhutan leaders

world Updated: Jun 11, 2007 15:10 IST

External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukerjee's comments that Bhutanese refugees' homecoming could cause a demographic imbalance have angered refugee leaders, who called it regrettable and baseless.

"Though we welcome India finally calling the Bhutanese refugee problem an international issue, we are gravely concerned at the Indian minister saying the refugees' return to Bhutan could cause a demographic imbalance," said Balaram Poudel, president of the Bhutan People's Party in exile.

Poudel's party last month took part in the "long march" staged by the refugees in Nepal in a bid to return home.

After Bhutan evicted thousands of citizens of Nepali origin in the 1990s, the issue of repatriating more than 106,000 refugees became a ticking bomb for Nepal, Bhutan as well as India after 15 rounds of repatriation talks between Nepal and Bhutan failed.

Angered by Bhutan's refusal to allow them to return home, nearly 10,000 refugees, including a large number of women, last month tried to force their way back to Bhutan.

However, they were stopped by Indian security forces guarding the border between Nepal and India - a strip of Indian territory the refugees have to cross to reach Bhutan.

Two protesters died in Indian police firing, creating an international furore. The march was called off after the Indian authorities agreed to convey the protesters' demands to the federal government in New Delhi.

The marchers are demanding that India, which allowed them to come to Nepal during their eviction, now let them return to Bhutan along the same route. They also want India, Bhutan's largest trade partner and donor, to pressure the Druk government into beginning repatriation talks directly with the refugees.

In the past, India had been refusing to be drawn into the repatriation talks, saying it was a bilateral matter between Nepal and Bhutan.

However, last month's violence forced the chief minister of West Bengal - where the clash with the refugees occurred - to hold consultations with federal minister Mukherjee on Saturday.

After the meeting, the Indian media quoted Mukherjee as saying that since the population of Bhutan was only about 600,000, the return of over 100,000 refugees could upset the demographic balance.

"Bhutan's population is considerably higher," Poudel told IANS on Monday, reacting to the statement.

"According to the UN, it was nearly one million in 1971.

"When the same 100,000 people had been living in Bhutan till the 1990s without causing any imbalance, how could their return cause any problem?" he asked.

"We urge the Indian minister to take back his regrettable statement."

The Association of Press Freedom Activists Bhutan, a group of exiled Bhutanese journalists, also issued a statement, condemning the statement.

"India should prove itself to be the largest democracy in the world by allowing the refugees to go home the same way they came to Nepal," it said.

Mukherjee's statement has stirred up a fresh hornets' nest with less than a week left before the refugees' 15-day ultimatum to the Indian government ends.

Three exiled Bhutan parties, that had been leading the protest march, have threatened stronger action once the deadline expires.