For a 21st Century Indo-Bhutan Relationship

In November 1959, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru declared in the Indian Parliament that “any aggression against Bhutan . . . would be regarded as an aggression against India.” In December 2003, His Majesty the Fourth King, personally led Bhutanese forces and drove away Indian militants who had taken shelter in the thick and inhospitable terrains of Bhutan, causing security problems for India.

The above are just two anecdotes of the domain and strength of Indo-Bhutan relations, forged in the cauldrons of mutual respect, trust and understanding over centuries. And Indian Foreign Secretary (FS) Vinay Kwatra, had to repeat that Indo-Bhutan relation is “time-tested” several times to the Indian media fraternity during his special briefing. He also said that the fundamentals of the relation are shared values, trust, mutual respect and a close understanding and sensitivity to each other’s interests and concerns.

However, in a world that is changing everyday, sensitivities, needs and concerns would change. What was once a concern for New Delhi will no longer be. Similarly, the needs and sensitivities of Bhutan will change.

It was heartening to hear the Indian Foreign Secretary say that His Majesty’s visit enabled charting a future road-map for multifaceted cooperation and partnership. We need to move away from just hydro-power, which indeed has been the cornerstone of our economic relationship. And if we go through the five areas pointed out by the Indian Foreign Secretary, the crux is economic development, which Bhutan desperately needs, now. It is a huge concern and an area where we need assistance.

India has committed raising tariff for Chhukha, extending an additional standby credit facility, supporting the 13th Plan and considering positively Bhutan’s request to sell power from the Basochhu hydro-electric project. But nothing concrete about the figures, except for Chhukha has been mentioned. For a close friend, India definitely knows our economic situation. Thus, expediting what has been committed, especially on the remaining commitment of the 12th FYP, trade and other possible areas would be like a true friend responding to concerns of the other. As we say, what are friends for if they are not there in times of need? 

Connectivity in all fronts was also part of the discussion, though the only specific one pertained to the Gelephu-Kokrajhar railroad. Air connectivity would definitely be an area that would benefit the two nations.     

Both New Delhi and Thimphu know the intricate dimensions of Indo-Bhutan relations. However, anything about Indo-Bhutan relations, especially when our Northern neigbour is involved attracts the media, especially Indian media, like the most powerful magnet would do. It is then picked up by social media and those who do not understand the paradigms of the relation that the two countries share believe what is covered.

Institutional memories are very vital to grasp knowledge about any topic.   

The sanctity of the relation between the two countries is embodied in the fact that India was the first country His Majesty The Fourth King visited after the formal coronation in 1974. After adorning the Raven Crown in 2006, the first country that His Majesty The King visited was India in February 7, 2007. India was also the first foreign country that His Royal Highness, Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck visited in November 2017. Similarly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, chose Bhutan as the first foreign country for his visit after he was sworn in as the country’s premier in June 2014.

When India and Bhutan revised the long standing treaty of 1949 in 2007, the Indian government involved all political parties and even informed the Indian media in advance. Nobody found any reason why it should not be revised; and it was due to trust. India said that the revised India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty not only reflects the contemporary nature of the relationship but also lays the foundation for their future development in the 21st century. It aims to consolidate the mutually cooperative relationship in a manner that is responsive to and serves each other’s national interests through close cooperation. It was said that the Treaty will enable the further intensification of relations in areas such as hydro-power cooperation, trade and commerce, and human resource development.

During His Majesty’s visit in 2009, The Tribune in its December 22, 2009 issue, said: “India can ill afford to ignore its relationship with Bhutan.” Bhutan cannot, too. “Steadfast friends, India, Bhutan have reasons to smile,” reported The Pioneer in its December 24, 2009, issue. To the Indian media, His Majesty said that the visit is a reflection of the importance that Bhutan attaches to Indo-Bhutan friendship and at the same time a reflection of the commitment that His Majesty has, for further strengthening the special ties of cooperation and friendship that exists between the two countries. “One of the things that I must say is that I am a friend of India and always will be a friend,” His Majesty said.

Today, the knot of Indo-Bhutan relation has become strong. However, what the people and leaders should understand is that there will be times when one’s national interest overrides the interests that the two share. Nonetheless, this national interest will always benefit both countries. Experts say there is no way for both Bhutan and India to move ahead in isolation. The destinies of the two are intertwined.  

 “How far we have come from the start of our friendship with the most difficult yet personal and intimate journey of Pandit Nehru to Bhutan in 1958, and to my own very first foreign visit as King to India – we have indeed come a long way.” His Majesty said so in 2007. We have come a long way; but the road ahead is long, too, and the journey has to be based on the fundamentals of our relation and recognition that needs, concerns and sensibilities also change. It should be a relation reflecting the 21st century and beyond.

Today, as we look ahead, we see a long journey – not without its challenges – but nevertheless, a journey whose road will be paved with geopolitical and historical foundations; borne on the spirit of trust, interdependence and constancy, but above all, a journey defined by India and Bhutan, together.

Excerpts from His Majesty’s speech at the state banquet hosted by India’s President. January 26, 2013, Delhi.