In 1958, the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, visited Bhutan via Sikkim and the Chumbi Valley, journeying astride ponies all the way to Paro. His letters to chief ministers on this arduous trip are a joy to read, and underscore India’s deep relations with Bhutan, confirming the latter’s isolationist stance. He was welcomed with open arms by the then king of Bhutan. Nehru thought that the two Himalayan kingdoms, Sikkim and Bhutan, as well as Nepal, were to be kept sacrosanct, to work as buffer states vis-a-vis Tibet and China. This, despite the first murmurs of democracy beginning to take root in Sikkim by 1949.
Bhutan has used seclusion and high tariffs to keep itself from evolving politically into a Nepal-like situation. This strategy has worked in its favour. However, there has been an inglorious past of ethnic Nepalese being driven out and several human rights violations being brought to the fore. That Delhi kept this issue tightly canned was a huge overture to Bhutan. Bhutan, meanwhile, has countered these concerns by ushering in democracy, greatly facilitated by the king of Bhutan. The incumbent Bhutanese prime minister, Tshering Tobgay of the People’s Democratic Party, was catapulted to power after the 2013 elections. He won on a “good relations with India” platform. It was widely believed that the former PM, Jigme Thinley of the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party, would win. But in the final round, the shortage of LPG cylinders and the loss in subsidy on cooking gas took centrestage.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to Bhutan assumes significance against this backdrop. It signals a tweak in policy by making neighbourhood relations as important as those with the Western powers.
Bhutan is the SAARC country with the closest ties with India. India has helped it fashion itself into a modern country, with representation at the UN from 1971. India’s interest in Bhutan can be in no doubt as Bhutan plays a crucial role in the Northeast geopolitically. The role it played in driving out the ULFA and other militants from its southern borders, which were used as safe havens, is a prime example of active cooperation.
For its part, Thimphu will want to secure the balance of trade with generous rupee grants from India, and more market access. There was a time not long ago when shipments of simple goods into Bhutan had to be stopped because of a policy of “thrift”, since rupees had all but dried up. Bhutan’s trade deficit with
India increased to 35 per cent in 2012-13. Exports are mainly in the form of hydropower energy. Bhutan will continue to play a crucial role in India’s power security regime, especially for the region.
The China factor weighs heavily on India’s relations with other SAARC countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. These countries “balance” their geopolitical stance vis-a-vis India in this fashion. Although India would like to have a greater say in South Asian matters beyond trade, so far we have not been able to exercise substantial political clout. Modi’s first visit to Bhutan will have to be looked at in this light.
As for the other “fabled kingdom”, Sikkim and Bhutan were equals before the imperial British Raj in 1947. Their political trajectories could not have been more different since. In 1975, Sikkim became the 22nd state of India through the insertion of Article 371F in the Constitution. On the other hand, Bhutan entered the UN as a sovereign nation in 1971 with India’s help. Until then, diplomatic relations were looked after by the political officer stationed in Gangtok till 1968. A resident representative was then sent to Thimphu, establishing full diplomatic relations in 1968.
There is a history of aggression between the two, but Sikkim and Bhutan have ties that extend to royalty and other marriages. Further, monastic and religious ties exist in the form of Kagyupa, the black hat sect of Buddhism, which today is marred by the competing demands of different Karmapa claimants to the Rumtek Monastery. Some of the other engagements can be seen in the context of the Northeast and perhaps even against the backdrop of the Look East policy. Bhutan’s major exports are transferred via the Siliguri corridor or through Assam. Their physical imports are also routed this way. Hence, maintaing good relations in the region is of utmost importance to Bhutan.
Flanked by Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, the Northeast too can boldly go forward to develop a robust policy of development and trade. It cannot remain isolated within a security-oriented framework, though there are major concerns about illegal immigration. Tourism is an area of great potential. Sikkim, under Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling, has developed well around this mantra. The sheer diversity of the Northeast can be marketed and segmented in different ways. A big push could be given to the Buddhist circuit covering Bodh Gaya, Sikkim, Bhutan and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.
Trade, facilitated by the opening of Sikkim’s Nathu-la Pass in 2006 thanks to an Atal Bihari Vajpayee initiative, also makes for a great opportunity to secure ties along this part of the world. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Bhutan then can be the harbinger of substantive development for the Northeast and, perhaps, with it a liberal dose of Gross National Happiness.
The writer is the Sikkim Democratic Front Lok Sabha MP for Sikkim.