In the early 1990s, Bhutan’s royal regime forced out nearly 75,000 of its Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa people, and with the help of the Indian authorities dumped them in Nepal’s Jhapa district.
The refugees were housed in seven camps in Jhapa and Morang districts and spent the next two decades there until they were repatriated to third countries after Bhutan refused to take them back.
Bhutan evicted one-sixth of its population, and this is regarded as the largest expulsion in recent history of a people by any country in terms of the size of the original population.
Bhampa Rai’s family formed part of that massive refugee population. However, unlike other refugees, he was not hounded out of Bhutan. He joined the exodus because he could not bear the pain inflicted upon his people by the Bhutanese government.
Rai was the royal family physician in Thimphu, and the Bhutan government asked him not to leave. But he refused to stay back, saying he was needed more by the refugees in the camps than by the royal family.
After spending a few months in West Bengal, Bhutanese refugees were chased away by India as well. They first lived in makeshift camps along the Mechi River where they battled with hunger, wildlife attacks and disease outbreaks. Rai did all he could to save ailing refugees, providing free treatment and medicines for them.
Later, when they were shifted to the seven camps supported by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Rai set up a clinic in Damak and continued to provide free health care not just for Bhutanese refugees but also for poor Nepalis. He turned down all lucrative job offers, dedicating his life to the people his country had made stateless.
Most of the refugees for whom Rai sacrificed his life have now been resettled down in the United States, Europe and Australia. Some 6,000 older refugees remain, hoping some day to be allowed back to their homeland. The UNHCR is closing down its last remaining camp.
But Rai, now 68, is penniless and battling cancer. His wife Urmila Rai’s kidneys have failed, and she needs dialysis twice a week. They are destitute and abandoned.
In 2004, Rai told this reporter he would not opt for third-country resettlement, and he has remained true to his word. His dying wish is to be able to return to Bhutan, but Thimphu has turned down repeated requests from the UN.
On Tuesday, members of civil society held a function in Kathmandu to raise money for the treatment of the Rai couple. He sent a message to the meeting that he was more concerned about repatriation of the remaining refugees rather than his own life.
Prakash Angdembe, a filmmaker, says the central character of his award-winning movie Desh Khojdai Jada (In Search of a Nation) was inspired by the life of Bhampa Rai.
“I have never met a more self-less and iron-willed person than him,” Angdembe said. “It is heart-breaking to see such a great soul in misery.”
Rai never asked for anything for himself, but sent a letter to the Nepal government, requesting for free dialysis for his wife — a facility that poor Nepalis can get. However, she is not Nepali, and is not entitled to free treatment.
Prime Minister K P Oli is from the same town in Jhapa where the Rais served their compatriots and Nepalis for nearly three decades.
Says journalist Devendra Bhattarai who is also from Jhapa: “PM Oli knows who Bhampa Rai is and what he has done, I wonder why he is not coming forward to help the couple.”
Ironically, Prime Minister Oli has himself had a kidney transplant and needs constant medical attention.
Donors who want to contribute to the Rai couple can contact [email protected]
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