In transit to the Golden Land

Govinda Rijal, a refugee from Bhutan who refused to be resettled overseas, killed in a freak accident in Kathmandu

Govinda Rijal, 52. Photo: Sanjiv Balami / Facebook

Unlike tens of thousands of refugees from Bhutan, Govinda Rijal had no inclination to apply for third-country repatriation. Even when his parents Chandra Lal and Devi Maya decided to join the 90,000 refugees resettled in the United States 15 years ago, he remained behind in Nepal.

He excelled in studies, went to Kyoto and the Philippines to get a PhD in rice research, and was a professor at the Institute of Agriculture and Animal Science at Tribhuvan University.

Govinda’s parents arrived on the Nepal border in Indian trucks after the Bhutan regime drove out nearly 100,000 Nepali-speaking citizens in 1992. The Lhotsampa, as the refugees were called, were consigned to eight refugee camps in eastern Nepal.

Govinda stayed on in Bhutan, determined not to abandon his beloved homeland. But the persecution and threats became untenable, and at age 22 he himself left in February 1993 tracking his parents down to a bamboo hut in Beldangi refugee camp of Jhapa district. 

Outside his pleasant and relaxed exterior Govinda harboured a fierce fire for justice and human rights which he expressed in poetry and activism. He was involved in the Peace March in 1996 to walk to Thimphu, but was arrested by Indian police right after crossing the Mechi Bridge to be detained in Jalpaiguri Jail.

After Bhutan, Nepal was Govinda’s second home — the land of his forebears. And it was here last week on 5 May that he was tragically killed at age 52 when a commuter bus overturned and careened into a sidewalk where he was standing. 

Govinda had just taken a selfie with his long-lost former college classmate Suman Bandhu Koirala with whom he used to organise nationwide Mathematics Olympiads. The two had not seen each other for 20 years after Suman Bandhu went for his PhD in the United States. 

Unlike other students who paid no heed to stateless classmates from Bhutan like Rijal, Koirala was different.  The two had lost touch, but met again on Sunday, 5 May at the Tribhuvan University campus in Kirtipur. 

“We hadn’t met for such a long time, and chatted all day, reminiscing about our student days and planned to spread awareness about the Bhutan refugee issue,” Suman Bandhu recalls, his voice breaking with emotion. 

It was just before 3PM and the two decided to take a selfie on the pavement in front of the Ayurved Hospital in Kirtipur. Just then, a scooter sped out of the parking lot into the main road, an approaching commuter bus that swerved to avoid it overturned, slithering sideways on the asphalt into people on the sidewalk. 

Bhutanese refugee freak accident
The sidewalk outside the Ayurved Hospital at Kiritpur where the bus hit Govinda, killing him on 5 May. Photo courtesy: Nepal Khabar

Govinda was seriously injured, and died later in Kirtipur Hospital. “He took out his phone and had just taken a couple of selfies when we heard this terrible sound and saw an overturned bus coming towards us, I managed to get out of the way but Govinda was not quick enough,” Suman Bandhu recalls.

The photos are still in Govinda’s mobile phone and perhaps one day we will be able to see the self-portrait he took an instant before he was hit. 

During the cremation at Pashupati the next day Govinda’s fellow refugees spoke of him as a generous friend who placed the interests of others before himself — a sensitive poet, committed activist, and an accomplished agriculture scientist. 

“He was one of the few among us refugees who was an intellectual and an academic,” said Tilak Rai, another refugee who stayed behind in Beldangi. “He attended every Literature Society of Bhutan event at camp or memorials to fellow refugees like the physician Bhampa Rai.” 

Govinda got married to classmate Shanta Karki who is now a joint secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture in Kathmandu, and he has written about her in his 2018 book, A Pardesi in Paradise. In it, he ruminates about the concept of ‘homeland’, especially after his parents and ounger brother Shiva Lal opted for resettlement in the US

‘America has not been the homeland my family expected. I got news that after my father lost his job and started losing his memory. Other relatives are working day and night to pay car and house loans. Other refugees are so stressed and depressed that they are under medication and need pills to sleep,’ he wrote. ‘That is why my dream, my goal and future are tied up here. Wherever I am, wherever I go I am always an outsider, but that is my Golden Land.’ 

Tara Lal Shrestha, who edited the book, said: “Govinda moved around everywhere on his bicycle. He found Nepal to be unlike any other place because it was so welcoming of people seeking refuge. Nepal may have been his Golden Land, but it was not his final destination. He was in transit to heaven.”

Bhutanese refugee accident
Govinda’s bicycle helmet and bicycle. Photos: Sanjiv Balami / Facebook

Govinda talked about Beldangi fondly, almost nostalgically, as a safe haven: “Despite its bamboo huts and clay plaster walls, the well water that smelled of iron, and the joy of getting hold of  kerosene or rice after standing in line, Beldangi was a refuge. I want to write a book about this chapter in my life.”

Last year, after Govinda heard that his parents were not well in America, he tried to get travel documents to see them for the last time. For six months he was given the run around by Nepali officialdom. As soon as those behind desks heard he was a refugee, they would ask “Real or fake?” 

At the Home Ministry in Kathmandu, they did not even want to look at him after he said he was a refugee. After the fake refugee scandal broke last year, Nepal has stopped issuing travel documents to Bhutan citizens in Nepal.

Govinda was still trying to get his papers to see his parents when he was killed this week. Ailing parents in America who were waiting to see him one last time are now performing funeral rituals. 

Recently, he visited refugee leader Teknath Rijal while the Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience was still in detention after being framed for his involvement in the fake refugee scandal

Bhutanese refugee freak accident
Photo: Ashok Budathoki / Facebook

Govinda had arrived on his bicycle from his house in Tokha, and brought some avocado from his garden. He had started writing his book, Beldangi: A Refuge, and recited its beginning paragraphs in Nepali:

‘I arrived in a place called Beldangi after taking a bus from Damak Chok on the last day of February 1993, looking for the hut of my father Chandra Lal and mother Devi Maya. They had left Bhutan one year before me.

At the bus stop and all around, I met fellow refugees. I used to see them in Bhutan and had always regarded them as proud citizens. But here, they were stateless nobodies. I had only seen the word ‘refugee’ in books, now I was one myself. 

People got on and off the bus as we travelled towards Beldangi camp. At the edge of a forest there was a row of bamboo and thatch huts. How do I find my parents here, I thought.’