It was not very long when Bhutanese, especially youth, would eagerly anticipate the winter vacation. Not because they would be boarding a flight to travel abroad, but because they would get to meet with their Indian family in Gudama, also known as Mela Bazaar back then and other border towns. It would be a time to savor the delectable chapattis, tea, mazoor dal, and various other mouthwatering delicacies. Entire families would stay in the houses of their Indian hosts, sometimes for more than a month.
The above connections were rooted in the traditions of Shazi and Kurma, which in many ways have become dormant. It was a special and unique bond; one that transcended politics. Almost every Indian spoke Tsangla, and this connection extended to towns like Kumarikata, Tamalpur, Dadgiri, and Bongaigaon in Assam. Many Bhutanese would hop on the 6:00 AM bus from Samdrup Jongkhar to Guwahati, explore the area, and return on the same day. This relationship was built on the foundations of history, trust, and love.
The rise of militancy in Assam not only hampered the development of these regions but also impacted the exceptional people-to-people relationships described above. Numerous businesses in Gudama relocated to Jaigaon, while some closed their shops and returned to their hometowns. We cannot say that the relationship died, but it took a nap, an indefinite one.
While many of the early settlers along the Bhutanese border have passed away, their descendants, who have heard the fascinating stories of the relationships of the past, are very much alive. Most of them yearn to revive and relive those golden days, and His Majesty’s historic visit to Assam serves as a beacon of hope for this rekindling.
With the Indian media extensively covering every aspect of His Majesty’s visit, the people of Assam and Bhutan see a silver lining in the revival of the relationship. Their optimism is bolstered by the fact that His Majesty is the first Bhutanese King to visit Assam.
The dynamics of present-day relations will differ from those of the past. The world has evolved, and so have the people of Assam and Bhutan. Embedded within the narrative of this relationship lie opportunities for both regions to explore new avenues of trade, encompassing services and manufacturing. Bhutan has yet to tap into Assam’s resources, just as Assam has not fully harnessed its proximity to Bhutan. Guwahati is merely around 100 km from Samdrup Jongkhar, while Bongaigaon is even closer to Gelephu. Assam and Bhutan can also draw valuable lessons from each other, especially in dealing with shared challenges, like human-wildlife conflict.
The air is filled with optimism. While in Assam, His Majesty will embark on journeys to different parts of the state, and engage with a diverse range of people, including the Chief Minister of Assam. The Assam government’s Cabinet’s decision to offer five MBBS seats to Bhutanese students as a goodwill gesture prior to His Majesty’s visit signifies their earnest desire for this visit to mark a milestone in the relationship between Assam and Bhutan.
Assam-Bhutan relations also echo the words of President John F. Kennedy, who, during a visit to Canada, once said, “Geography has made us neighbors, history made us friends, the economy made us partners, and necessity has made us allies.”
Nonetheless, Assam-Bhutan relations should transcend political boundaries and embody the essence of the extraordinary relationship that once thrived. This is the heartfelt wish of the people of Assam and Bhutan.