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Published:December 3rd, 2008 20:13 EST
Gross National Hopelessness

Gross National Hopelessness

By I P Adhikari

Bhutan, well, emerged as a promoter of happiness parameter to measure the status of social well being. Unfortunately, the country failed to ensure that the principle becomes part of the Bhutanese society. Bhutan talked much of happiness, implemented less of it.

Bhutan King`s idea of Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product to measure development has stoked interests among many western scholars and even governments today denying the fact that the idea of happiness had evolved well before the enthronement of the King Jigme Singye Wangchuk in Europe, as early as 1970, and entered Bhutan in late 1990s.

Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, that make up most of the Himalayan ranges in Asia, have always been seen as the exotic place. The increasing tourism flow and exposure to consumerism in Nepal make it lost the idyllic status but Bhutan still holds the charm as the relatively un-spoilt and pristine place of nature. It has been exoticized as the peaceful and last remaining awe-inspiring places on earth in addition to the fact that Dalai Lama`s closeness to westerners made them soft to Buddhism. And today, Bhutanese rulers claim the principle of happiness comes from the core of Buddhist philosophy and that the found is King Jigme.

Though Bhutan talks much about happiness, it strives less to what makes people happy, most prominently the respect to cultural identity. With several policies in hand, developed since early 1980s, such as Driglam Namzha, One Nation One People, Citizenship Act, Marriage Act, Bhutan step into forcing other ethnic groups to comply with the culture and language of the ruling class. Dziglam Namzha`s primary objectives were to enforce compulsory use of Gho and Kira to all ethnic groups of the country. The enforcement of the policy extended to such a grave situation that residents, especially in the south, had to wear the dresses even during they are at farmland under hot summer sun. It aims not only to preserve the Ngalung (the ruling class) culture and dress but wants it to be expanded to other ethnic groups as well, as part of the Bhutan-izaton campaign. The policy contradicts the basic foundation of the Gross National Happiness.

Culture for Happiness
In one hand, GNH aims to preserve national culture, and to its paradox government takes steps to eliminate culture of other ethnic groups to replace them by that of the rulers. National culture of Bhutan consists of various forms derived from a large number of tribal and ethnic groups. Three major groups have different cultures and traditions. In addition to them, there are over a dozen tribal groups who practice entirely different social norms. In totality, Bhutan as a multi ethnic nation, consisting of large number of cultures and practices integrated into one to form a distinct identity of a Himalayan nation. Many Hindus and Christians were demoralized by the government action to wear gho or kira while performing domestic rituals.

Culture matters a lot when it comes to happiness. Culture is the reflection of social phenomenon and a person`s attachment with culture is his daily involvement in social life. Being a social animal, it is otherwise to say, human being remains happy in absence of his culture and tradition.

Ed Diener and Christie Scollon, say, how we define happiness has as much to do with our cultural influences as it does with our personality, goals and other individual factors.

The movement for religious reform in Europe was a glaring example of people`s sentiments towards culture. In forming a cultural identity, people come to identify with and attach themselves to a particular set of ideas that are characteristic of their larger family. A strong cultural identity can contribute to people`s overall wellbeing, which has been the most desired aspect of life by human being. Protection of culture has been distorted in the campaign of GNH by the Bhutanese rulers.

Religion is part of the cultural traits. In fact, the social aspects of organized religion may hold greater influence on well-being like culture does than just about anything else. For instances, sharing of greetings, hugging and staying together during Tshechus (Buddhist festival in Bhutan) or Dashain (Hindu festival in southern Bhutan) adds more pleasure, satisfaction and happiness to people than they are in daily job schedules. Certainly many faces of religious participation make it a powerful potential resource for improving one`s happiness.

Bhutanese rulers have in some instances highlighted the necessity of promoting national identity over cultural identity, contradictory to what GNH emphasizes. In the post communist world where thoughts of multiculturalism have dominated, creating national identity exclusively through the cultural and religious dominance of one ethnic group is beyond imagination.

Identifying with a particular culture or religion makes people feel a sense of security in their community. Cultural identity provides them access to social networks, which helps to break down barriers and build a sense of trust what has sometimes been called the social capital. Social capital has two aspects and the government of Bhutan has masterminded on bonding social capital ignoring the importance of bridging social capital. So, when boding social capital drowns bridging social capital, conflict is inevitable.

Despite the fact that GNH aims to protect and promote culture and religion for overall wellbeing of the citizens, religions and cultures other than that of the ruling elite have faced array of pre-planned prosecution from the government authorities in Bhutan. Existence of Christianity has been denied since the establishment of monarchy while Hinduism is extensively discouraged. In fact, since 1970s, government has sent several Buddhist monks to turn Hindus in the south into Buddhists while those following Christianity faced inhuman treatment.

In fact, it is not the state that determines the form of culture or religion for its citizens rather it is the individuals who have rights to choose that culture they like to adopt or which religion they follow. It is not forced adoption but an informed choice that brings cheers, pleasure and happiness.

One of the propaganda that Bhutanese regime has been raising since years is that the country like Bhutan cannot withstand the multiculturalism and ethnic diversities. However, countries like Switzerland, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Kuwait, Cyprus, Bahrain and scores of countries smaller than Bhutan have well maintained their diversities and they still top the list of world`s happiest nations.

Bhutan stresses the need for a distinct `national identity`, but does not envision forging this identity to encompass the diversity of nations` cultures. Nationalism campaign was driven in for debate to justify its racial policies of annihilating culture, religion and language of Nepalis, Sharchhops and other minority ethnic, religious and linguistic groups. Bhutan projects other ethnic groups, religions and cultures as unwanted cultural elements of the foreign lands, which could rise as obstacle to its movement for revival of conservative Drukpa rule.

Beauty of happiness lies in the harmony in diversity, love and respect to values and culture of other groups and tribute to friendship that exists in multi-culture societies. Respect brings harmony and peace and harmony brings happiness. As we walk the way to global village, absolute control by single ethnic group means demoralizing human values and waylay to democracy and peace.

In late 1990s, the regime initiated further steps to assimilate the southern culture. Residents from northern districts were forced to resettle in southern districts vacated after 1990-eviction. The Nepali names of places like Chirang, Sarbhang, Samchi and Pinjuli among many in southern districts have been replaced with Bhote sounding names like `Tsirang`, `Sarpang` `Samtse` and `Penjoreling" to eliminate the traces of Nepali settlement in the area.

The government and the GNH campaigners must understand that one cannot live one`s own spirituality while rejecting other people who do not share the same convictions. In a civilized society, the state does not infringe on the individual`s rights to culture and religion and the principle is not exceptional for the Bhutanese rulers.

Bhutan, where happiness ideology is claimed to have germinated, still counts its growth in terms of market value yet saying economic growth is not valid rod to measure the well being of a nation. Government`s annual reports on national economic indicators so far have not attempted to measure the national happiness. The campaigners say, it is time for us to measure how happy are we rather than how much wealth we accumulated, yet during annual budget session, government presents the economic status of the country in terms of Gross Domestic Product. Despite considerable attention from the international community and experts appreciating the way to measure the status of a country in term of GNH, the claimant founder Bhutan is still to implement the idea into reality.

Bhutan`s 23 percent of the population live under extreme poverty " earning less than 1 dollar a day. Trade has drastically moved to positive lines, yet incomes from this have rarely reached the poorer class. Development activities have hardly increased while benefits, allowances and salaries of those at higher positions have swelled up. Demand for luxury goods has increased sharply while the country`s dependency for daily consuming goods continues to grow.

Movement for democracy around the world is the pursuit of people for happiness. A study by Frey and Stutzer establishes political participation is an important determinant of citizens` well-being. According to them, there are two possible reasons why a higher degree of direct democracy may raise individuals` sense of well-being. First, due to the more active role of citizens, politicians are better monitored and controlled, and government decisions are subsequently closer to the wishes of the people. Second, the institutions of direct democracy extend the opportunities to get involved in the political process. Democracy and happiness are closely co-related.

Happiness in Democracy

The claims are that happiness policy in Bhutan began as early as 1970. However, the democratic transition initiated by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk faced set back with the enthronement of the fourth monarch. Most legislative authorities of the parliament were confiscated, cabinet of ministers was made more powerless and against the spirit of democracy, power was centralized to Tashichodzong. By the end of 1970s, the culture of electing national assembly members through popular votes turn into the culture of pick-and-sent by local administrators. After 1990, participation of southern Bhutanese in the political sphere came to a complete halt. Their involvement in decision making process, governance and village life was also substantially marginalized.

Democracy is not for exclusion but for maximum participation. Democracy is for accepting chaos of views and practices. Democracy means promoting pluralism and enhancing tolerance to others` way of life and opinion. Democracy means sponsoring personal liberty, autonomy and self expression. Since the beginning of 1980s, Bhutan evolved for zero tolerance to multiculturalism, multiple views and pluralism in all aspects. Participation in governance and politics was based on the merits of loyalty to rulers.

Economic growth helps foster trust between citizens and the state, and trust is essential to democracy. That`s why in nations such as South Korea and Taiwan, a spurt of economic growth has preceded democratic reforms.

Bhutan has come late to join the intuition of democratic practices, thus having less fruits to bear for happiness. Most media reported when democratic transition initiated in Bhutan that people are not happy with the move and prime minister said the democracy in Bhutan is the gift of royal family. This leaves spaces for speculations over survival of democracy and multi party political system in the country ultimately the existence of happiness in Bhutanese society.

Selling the idea

Bhutan`s efforts so far are concentrated on selling the idea of happiness to the western countries.  The idea of happiness resists consumerism while consumers for Bhutan`s GNH have been the western societies who thrive on consumerism. Interestingly, Europe, first land where thoughts of happiness philosophy germinated centuries back and America that incorporated the idea of happiness its independence declaration, are now pretending to learn from Bhutan. The idea of Gross National Happiness did not get enough attention from present day scholars until the US media took initiatives to write on it.

Today, Bhutanese regime makes effort to sell the idea but is less concern that it has to be practical within the country. Within Bhutan, GNH debates circle only around select urban centers, more specifically in Thimphu despite the fact that people in the remote parts of the country live under extreme poverty and happiness has no signs in their lives. In that sense, happiness principles that Bhutan talked today penetrated the New York society but failed to meet Bhutan`s poor populace.

The packages that Bhutan today sells of happiness do not speak anything about democracy and human rights. Happiness does not prosper in absence of democracy and human rights, be it not necessary criteria. Liberty and freedom are not all, but essential components of human well being, for which civilization has so far directed to.

Question of founder

On January 10, 2005 Nadia Mustafa wrote in Time weekly, "When Jigme Singye Wangchuck was crowned king of the Himalayan nation of Bhutan in 1972, he declared he was more concerned with `Gross National Happiness` than with Gross Domestic Product."

Few writers today claim the happiness ideology is the product of the Bhutanese king and project him to be the philosopher who crafted middle path for capitalists and communists. I scanned over seven dozens speeches he has given in his life on important occasions and nowhere he mentioned that his attempt was to find a new ideology of happiness.

Additionally, there are no records so far that this philosopher has ever delivered any speech or has written any article or book underlining the principles, objectives and prospects of his ideology.


The Bhutanese rulers destabilized the society in late 1980s to such a horrific condition that consolidating happiness again here would take a long walk. Harmony and unity flourished in Bhutanese society until the late 1970s have now almost knocked off the balance that building similar society under multiculturalism requires another few decades. Unless, the racist policies and legal instruments formulated in those decades are declared void, campaign for happiness around by Bhutanese politicians will bring litter or hardly any cheers to nationals.

Three major ethnic groups of the country are not in eye-to-eye with each others. Easterners and southerners still feel suppressed while ruling class see them with suspicion. Without filling up this gap, building confidence for harmonious living and inculcate trust, formation of happy Bhutanese society will be a distant dream.

The seminars and conferences so far Bhutan organized have been successful on building theoretical foundation for GNH. What it really makes to general people if practical approaches are not brought out that bring happiness and cheers to grim faces in distant villages.

With no systematic approach to operationalize the concept of GNH and a significant portion of population still under poverty or in a state of unhappiness in refugee camps in Nepal, it`s clear who it (GNH) really makes happy: the regime.