Tek Nath Rizal in fake Bhutanese refugee scam: The metamorphosis of a true refugee leader

Tek Nath Rizal
Bhutanese refugee leader Tek Nath Rizal

On May 18, 2023, after one call from Dharmaraj Bhandari, Tek Nath Rizal booked the first flight of the day from Jhapa to reach Kathmandu. DSP Bhandari, who is investigating the high-profile fake Bhutanese refugee scam, had called the true Bhutanese refugee leader Rizal to sign some papers.

Police had called him for questioning a week ago too. This time, Rizal was not expecting that the police would be waiting at the Tribhuvan International Airport. But as soon as he was about to leave the domestic terminal, the police arrested him and took him to the Kathmandu District Police Range, Teku. Seeing the police waiting for him and later getting arrested, he was disappointed and felt bad.

“I was tricked; the police arrested me by calling me under the pretence of signing the papers,” he told the investigating officers. At the police office, Tek Nath Rizal said, “I will write how the police tricked me in the next book.”

The arrest of the respected refugee leader was equally unexpected for the police as well as the public. Rizal has spent decades of his life advocating for the rights of the refugees displaced from their homeland. But, recently, he has been accused of working in cahoots with the government authorities to create fake documents to recognise non-refugees as refugees.

Unexpected arrest

L-R: SSP Dan Bahadur Karki and Tek Nath Rizal
L-R: SSP Dan Bahadur Karki and Tek Nath Rizal

As Tek Nath Rizal expressed his sadness about the arrest, the police range chief SSP Dan Bahadur Karki said he was even sadder.

“I had heard your name while I was in college, and read all four of your books,” Rizal intently listened and remained silent while Karki was speaking.

Karki continued, “I did not think that such an ideal person would be arrested and prosecuted one day, that too during my term.”

Tek Nath Rizal did not say anything in response.

During the interrogation, however, he claimed he was framed by the investigating officers. He said that he wants any Bhutanese refugee still in Nepal to not suffer. Apart from that, he claims that he is not in a position to influence government-level activities.

SSP Karki believes that the network involved in the fake Bhutanese refugee scam extorting millions from Nepali citizens misused Tek Nath Rizal’s image. “After getting Rizal’s name involved, other people can be easily influenced. That’s why it seems that he was used by this gang through Sagar Rai, the former ward chair of Pathari Shanishchare-10.”

According to an investigating officer, one of the accused has revealed that Rizal was given NRs one million for his role in the scam. Meanwhile, Rizal shared that he had borrowed NRs 700,000 from Sagar Rai a few days before he was arrested but claimed, “I had taken that money in a different context, and returned it already.”

The true leader

Tek Nath Rizal had always been adamant that the refugees who were forced to leave Bhutan and settled in Jhapa and Morang should be allowed to return to their country. He also has a role in internationalising the Bhutanese refugee issue.

According to an investigating officer, most of the people on the list as fake Bhutanese had reported their addresses to be in Lamidanda, South Bhutan. Lamidanda is also the birthplace of Rizal. It is the place from where he won an election, becoming a representative of the Bhutanese people. He also became an advisor to the king of Bhutan. He was also a member of the powerful commission to control corruption there.

At that time, the influence of the Nepali-speaking population was increasing in Bhutan. Rizal protested when the census in Bhutan divided Bhutanese citizens into three categories: descendants, immigrants and non-Bhutanese or Bhutia (also called Ngalop), Nepalis, and Sharchop. He objected to the fact that most of the Nepali speakers were kept as non-Bhutanese.

In the election for the deputy speaker in the Parliament of Bhutan, when the person supported by Tek Nath Rizal won but the one supported by the king lost, the latter got angry with Rizal. Later, in 1988, the king accused him of various political charges and declared him a rebel. He fled Bhutan and came to Nepal but then he was arrested from Birtamod in Jhapa and deported by the then Panchayat government.

He spent 10 years in various prisons in Bhutan as he was sentenced to life imprisonment. But he was released on December 17, 1999, saying that the refugee problem would be solved through Bhutan-Nepal dialogues. After his release, as his repeated attempts to meet the Bhutanese king failed, he came to Kathmandu on October 17, 2003, via Siliguri, Kolkata and Delhi.

Suspicious role

home ministry The Ministry of Home Affairs, Singhadarbar, Kathmandu
The Ministry of Home Affairs, Singhadarbar, Kathmandu

Tek Nath Rizal is the same person who informed the high government officials that extortion was rampant in the Jhapa and Morang districts, in the name of Bhutanese refugees. After the information was spread, a notice was issued in the camp in Beldangi and Pathari Shanishchare asking people to be careful.

In Kathmandu, he spoke about the issue and held fast-unto-deaths repeatedly advocating for the same. 

When CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli led the foreign affairs ministry in 2006, the government decided to give him a monthly allowance of Rs 100,000, a private security officer and vehicle facilities. The services stopped after a few years, only to resume when Oli was back in the government as the prime minister. “Given the facilities he had, I do not think he had to gain benefits through any other means,” Karki says.

Tek Nath Rizal was in consistent conversation with almost all prime ministers and Home Ministry officials after that time.

On September 17, 2004, the government made a travel document for him for international visits. After that, he went to Geneva and participated in the meeting of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

At present, there are 6,577 refugees left in camps in eastern Nepal. Out of the total 113,428 refugees, others have been resettled in Western countries.

But Tek Nath Rizal had been raising concerns over the long-term management of the remaining refugees. He submitted a 12-point memorandum, including the need to create an environment for families to unite instead of separating them caused by complications from resettlement in third countries.

Based on Rizal’s memorandum, the then Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa decided on May 28, 2019, to form a task force under the leadership of former joint secretary Bal Krishna Panthi to find a permanent and long-term solution to the Bhutanese refugee problem. 

But when the report did not come in favour of the extortion network, the scandal started. In the case, high-profile names like former deputy prime minister and energy minister Top Bahadur Rayamajhi, former home minister Bal Krishna Khand and security advisor to the then home minister Indrajit Rai are involved.

This story was translated from the original Nepali version and edited for clarity and length.

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Pokharel is an Onlinekhabar correspondent covering security and crime.

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