“India good, not bad,” argued my driver in Thimphu. We drove past India House, known to just about everyone in the capital city. It looks like something you might expect in a James Clavell novel. The titles ‘Shogun’ and ‘Tai-pan’ were not far from my mind’s eye. Surrounded by Himalayan Hemlocks and White Pine, the tall trees enveloping this 67-acre estate complement the hilly tracks that define much of Bhutan. The late King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck gifted the grounds to Indira Gandhi’s government in 1967. She laid the foundation stone of what was then the Resident Mission in the summer of 1968.
Squashed between two fellow-passengers, my somewhat sharper questions on India, China, and the future of this landlocked country elicited a soft and startlingly layered answer. My traveller-companion to the right spoke of Indian politics with as much alacrity as the policies of her own prime minister, Tshering Tobgay. Educated at Dr. Graham’s School in Kalimpong and at Harvard, Tobgay “was a people’s man”, she said. For this retired schoolteacher, her memories of India date back to the time Jawaharlal Nehru visited Bhutan by horseback. That was in September 1958.
It took Nehru, accompanied by Indira Gandhi, six days to travel from Gangtok to Paro. His entourage made its way through the Nathu La pass onto Yatung (or Yadong), a frontier trade market in the Chumbi Valley in Tibet, 16 miles from the Sikkim border. The only hurdles to his journey, he wryly complained to his chief ministers, were the “precipitous mountains covered with thick forest” and “bridle paths.” Needless to say, the Indian prime minister was awe-struck. It was his first time in Tibet.
At a dinner at Yatung, he raised a toast to “the health of Mao-Tse-Tung.” He told his hosts, the representatives of China’s central government, that it was significant that “for thousands of years,” the two large neighbours “have never had a war between them.” That this state of affairs would change so very quickly and dramatically for India was a distant possibility on that unforgettable night. The next day, Nehru made his way to Bhutan, skirting the northern reach of the area known today as Doklam – the place near a tri-junction where the borders of India, Bhutan and China meet. The tri-junction point and the area around it are disputed, and were at the centre of the latest standoff between Indian and Chinese forces. Till very recently, artillery and well-acclimatised armies dotted the route that Nehru would have taken.
That Chinese guards provided security for Nehru through these very areas might seem somewhat ironical given the impasse in the present day. At the time, it was perfectly normal. They escorted Nehru and his daughter up to a point where instinct and custom rather than cartography and pre-determined lines separated one country from another.
As Nehru’s entourage of horses and yaks made their way through the Torsa National Park to Paro, these very lines were being reimagined in Peking. An ambitious People’s Republic was hurriedly turning them into something more definite. A map published in China in 1954 lay claim to 300 square miles of territory in northern Bhutan. Two thousand Sino-Tibetan troops took up positions in pockets of 200, each across Bhutan’s borders. As a report for the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) underlined, these pockets included “the passes lying between the Ha Valley and Yatung,” or the area north of Doklam. A year later, and soon after the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, the People’s Liberation Army captured a set of enclaves in western Bhutan. “These are almost exactly the areas under dispute between China and Bhutan today,” said a senior civil servant. At the time, Chinese premier Zhou En-Lai, offered for the first time, to discuss the border.
It was sharply rebuffed. Bhutan not only closed its 470-kilometre long and undemarcated borders with China, but also withdrew its representative from Lhasa. Thus began Bhutan’s long journey to strengthen relations with India, especially in the south of the country alongside West Bengal and Assam, whilst delicately managing China’s forceful advance. For Bhutanese academics, like anthropologist Dorji Penjore, China’s belligerence has always had to do with a “desire to punish Bhutan for allying” with India. “Territorial conflict,” he writes, “is only a tip of an iceberg.” To an extent, treaties first signed with British India (in 1865 and 1910) and then independent India (in 1949), cemented Bhutan’s fate. In matters to do with external affairs and “defence”, as Nehru did not fail to tell his gracious hosts, Bhutan was to be guided by New Delhi.
Yet, it would be a gross mistake to think of Bhutan as India’s “protectorate.” Terms such as these are abhorred. “When western papers and Indian commentators,” argue young Bhutanese students, “refer to us this way, we feel the need to move more away from India than we want to.” As a Bhutanese official argued, “attitudes like this make our jobs more difficult.” “We,” he said despairingly, “find it harder to explain the good things in our relations with India.” “Democracy,” this experienced official made clear, “has made everything into a matter of argument.”
The current King Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck introduced democracy, calibrated as it is, in 2008. The decision, however, to institute a constitutional monarchy was taken by his father. The King remains the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, whilst two primary political parties vie for legislative power. Bhutan will hold its third elections in 2018.
Much has been written about Bhutan’s changing dispositions with regards to India. Terms such as “pro-Chinese” and “anti-Indian” are now common. What they actually mean is less understood, and do little for analytical justice. When asked if Bhutan would do better with communist China, the same students who question India’s place in the future of Bhutan, quickly take refuge in the comfort of an India that they both admire and connect with. “Mumbai is my favourite get-away,” argued one nineteen-year old. “I want to intern in Delhi,” said another student. This sense of comfort is facilitated and guaranteed by the free travel of persons across the border. What has worked in India’s favour is its low profile on the streets and parlours of modern-day Bhutan. Indian Oil stations maybe found everywhere. TATA powers the lights beneath which a new generation of professionals aspire for the football world cup.
Still, for a country that is Bhutan’s largest financial benefactor, India is largely absent in the art and architecture of this very old and un-colonised kingdom. If architectural sovereignty could be said to symbolise internal political objectivity, Bhutan, as an Indian official in New Delhi underlines, “has done well.” Till now, “they have managed their ties with India and China.” When asked if the Indian government is worried about the future direction of this Himalayan kingdom, the answer remains a flat “no.” Blunt reactions such as these make clear the degree of hypnosis that has set in. It makes change difficult to detect. Popular challenge is simply internalised as an aberration catalysed by the recent state of affairs around Doklam.
There is a surge in the political electricity running through the veins of this mountainous country that Indian officialdom may yet need to absorb. While there is no likelihood or want of a break in Bhutan’s inimical association with India, there is every chance for a younger, more determined and freer Bhutan to test India’s resolve. The Bhutan of the future will less likely be schooled at Dr. Graham’s or St. Stephen’s College, removing the advantage of familiarity that has played a central role connecting leadership in both countries. That the best and the brightest prefer Thai boarding schools and universities in Australia and Singapore are telling, especially for a country where 55 per cent of the population is under the age of 25. These fault lines will cut across the 2018 electoral campaign.
A grandfather, and a legal consultant, Wangcha Sangey has fast become Bhutan’s most popular blogger. “I don’t have any vice,” he tells me. “I can say what other’s don’t.” Argumentative and challenging, Sangey fervently stated that formal relations with China are inevitable, “this is important for Bhutan’s security,” he argued. This, however does not mean that Bhutan will turn against India. “No one is anti-Indian in Bhutan,” he says, but why should “we help India in Doklam?” he said of the recent standoff. “What do we gain from doing so,” he asked as if I spoke for the Indian government or represented the same. Suspicious and unassuming, at first sight, Sangey’s views seem hyperbolic and conspiratorial, but the premise underlining his questions are hardly far-fetched. His word counts. Bhutanese officials are more than concerned about the force of social media and particularly “the views of the bloggers.” Social media is a new frontier. The Bhutanese Forum on Facebook has 110,000 members, that’s a little more than an eighth of Bhutan’s population.
The views expressed in such forums are hardly flattering to India, although not always generous to China either. Freedom from interference (in foreign affairs) is the common crying mantra of the majority of its members. It is the only place for open debate. The print media in Bhutan is more controlled than local journalists would like to admit.
No doubt, the standoff at Doklam has had a dramatic impact on Bhutan. “It’s a curious state of events,” a senior official confessed. “The dispute is on Bhutanese territory,” he said as the crisis was unfolding, “but are we willing to compromise relations with China?” he asked, “I don’t know.’ There is an overwhelming view amongst academics, senior civil servants and parliamentarians that a border settlement with China is a top priority. Parliamentary resolutions over the last decade suggest the same. “Doklam,” argue officials, “is not as central to Bhutan’s concerns as ten years ago,” “an overall settlement with China is.”
The border talks with China started in 1984 following a Chinese incursion into Bhutanese territory five years earlier. Chinese road construction activities in the north – prized territory for Bhutan – in 1996 led to negotiations and the conclusion of the Agreement on the Maintenance of Border and Tranquillity two years later. “The border talks have gone on for more than thirty years,” argues Karma Phuntsho, the author of a magnificent history of the country. “How long are we going to wait?” “A big country like India can live with unsettled borders,” he calmly argued, “Bhutan cannot.” Senior officials make similar points.
“Few had heard of Doklam, inside or outside of Bhutan,” says Phuntsho. Only those in the Dzhongkhag (or province) of Ha, said an official familiar with the border dispute, know the area. Some maps place it in the western province of Samtse and others in Ha. Every map depicts Doklam within Bhutanese territory. The Chinese claim that the area historically belonged to it is completely untenable. Yet, it was only during the 14th round of the Sino-Bhutanese border talks when Doklam, and two areas known as Senchulumba and Dramana, were formally included within Bhutan’s claim line. What role India had in this decision is impossible to determine. What is clearer is that domestic concerns served as a crucial driver, and they continue to do so.
For years, the Haaps of Ha have complained about Tibetan encroachments. This is after all, as Phuntsho argued, “an old country with medieval landscapes.” Borders were determined by herding lines. Scuffles with Tibetan Yak shepherds are not uncommon. They are noted, Phuntsho argues, “in aristocratic records that are mostly about scripture.” The Chinese, he argues, “have done 100 times more,” in terms of surveys. Swedish-made equipment was used to settle Bhutan’s internal borders between its twenty provinces. It’s time to do the same in the international frontier with China, Bhutan’s best-known historian underlines. “Our lands get eaten by China every year,” another official, more familiar with the border, argues. “We need to demarcate it.”
In 2004, China built a 3.5-km road inside Bhutan’s claim line in the north. A year later, these construction activities were spotted in seven more areas. At a meeting between Chinese and Bhutanese expert groups, it was clear that as far as “boundary demarcations” were concerned, the maps did not tally. The complexity of the dispute and the divergent cartographic positions between the two sides led to a temporary pause, leaving negotiating specific points of divergence for the future. Further, a resolution in the National Assembly stated that the tri-junctions (near Doklam and in the east alongside Arunachal Pradesh), “would be taken up only after it was agreed by China and India.”
Today, that view has changed. “It’s not possible to separate one sector from another,” an expert argues. The Doklam standoff has made clear to Bhutanese officials that waiting for India and China is a bit like waiting for Godot – a visitor who never arrives. This, perhaps, explains Bhutan’s somewhat muted position throughout the crisis and immediately after. In fact, whilst India’s position on the tri-junction (at Batang La) bares historical justification, Bhutanese officials are less forceful about their claims. All of the five maps I saw in Bhutan make clear that Batang La serves as the tri-junction point, this is as exact as print on paper. Yet, throughout the crisis officials were less willing to advertise such claims. The Bhutanese government and the opposition remain concerned about stated lines and how they may shape or impact future relations with China. Doklam may have been placed within Bhutan’s claim lines as far back as 2001, but National Assembly resolutions (much like official statements) on the disputed border with China are purposefully ambiguous. They leave enough space for future reconciliation. This, as a local official argued, “is needed.”
In the near term, when and how the government in Thimphu will proceed with regards to China, will depend both on the internal impact of the standoff on Bhutan and equally, on India’s patience in dealing with a country in transition. The government in New Delhi did very well to remain rhetorically cautious throughout the crisis at Doklam. Where it and its predecessors have fallen is in the eyes of ordinary Bhutanese through activities undertaken by its agencies within Bhutan.
Project DANTAK, led by the Indian Border Roads Organisation, has been notoriously late in completing projects. Its motto of “cutting through mountains, connecting hearts” is yet to cement the affection of common people. “This is something we find a lot of problem with,” says a local Bhutanese official. Reports in the National Assembly make clear the “very poor” state of construction, pressuring the government to handover pending projects to the Bhutanese Ministry of Works and Human Settlement. Indo-Bhutanese hydroelectric projects are another matter of controversy. “We want more equitable terms with India,” officials underline. Mostly, they say, “we want efficiency,” something that has been less than palpable in a sector that provides 25-30 per cent of Bhutan’s GDP.
Curiously, even those exasperated by India’s less than effectual ways cannot hide their fondness for a country that has stood alongside Bhutan for more than six decades. There is an India beyond government. It lives in the vibrancy of its schools, colleges, in the workplace and on the streets. This is the India that those I met in Bhutan have absorbed. That these associations are changing is equally evident.
The standoff at Doklam might have ended, for now at least, but there is an urgent need to consider a new modus vivendi with a country that is increasingly impatient about its own future. For if this moment is lost and the fast-moving changes in its pulse ignored, Bhutan’s millennial population is less likely to find refuge in the history of Nehru and India alike. Building better roads and bridges is a matter of efficient administration. Saving the past with an eye on the future is a matter of delicacy, something that governments have not always been able to master. In Bhutan, one can only hope that India will buck the trend.