BY P. STOBDAN
Why did Bhutan, which stood by India during its conflict with China and Pakistan in 1972, to drift away? What caused the crisis in bilateral relations in 2013?
It is clear that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power he was deeply aware about the impending strategic imperatives of the Himalayas. He made Bhutan his first visit abroad, followed by a visit to Nepal in 2014, albeit under his government’s emphasis on the “neighbourhood first policy”.
Even though India’s ties with Bhutan remained enigmatic throughout as a case of having inherited a British India’s protectorate since 1949, it was managed well.
Modi’s visit was dominated by themes including benefiting from Bhutan’s rich natural resources and hydropower potentials et al, but deep down he was painfully aware of the palpable signs of China stepping up contacts with Bhutan. In fact, before he came to power, Beijing had laid sufficient ground work to cut India’s “sacred” bond with India first and then create a string of political electrons along the Himalayan region from Arunachal, Sikkim, Nepal to Ladakh.
Indeed, most Indians were not fully aware about Indo-Bhutanese propinquity until critics cried shrilly over the crisis that erupted in the summer 2013 and put India’s “carefully nurtured and fostered” relations with Bhutan under major strain.
However, it needs to be underlined that over the years, India’s traditional sacred bond with countries like Bhutan has been disastrously allowed to erode and the Himalayan state merely remained as an object of strategic play against China where cutting deals by using the carrot-and-stick approach became the rule of the business. The policy was neither sustainable nor showcased a sign of prudent foreign policy for which India had to face a lot of flack.
Druk’s allegiance to Gyagar
The 1949 Friendship Treaty has guided the contemporary Indo-Bhutan relationship, ensuring India’s non-interference in Bhutan’s internal affairs, and inter alia Article 2 of the treaty critically entrusted India to guide Bhutan’s foreign policy. It said “The Government of India undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.” The treaty, therefore, did embed values of trust and equality that may have kept the spirit and momentum of the relationship moving unhindered.
However, the keystone that drove the main engine of this relationship was Bhutan’s deep devotion to gyagar (the holy-land India) – fidelity embedded into Bhutanese ethos by the wisdom of the 8th century Indian leader and philosopher
Padmasamhava, also known as Guru. He belonged to Uddiyyana of the modern-day Swat Valley of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, regarded as the third Buddha in the Vajrayana tradition. Largely, this piousness today seems to be confided to one side but the Bhutanese have so far diligently displayed their obligations towards India. Sadly, on the Indian side that sense of historical responsibility and cultural ownership seemed to have been lost forever.
However, notwithstanding all geopolitical pulls and pressures, Bhutan steadfastly and unshakeably stood behind India as the most reliable ally. It used to be explicit when the Bhutanese king escorted the Indian prime minister to the dais and waited at the foot of it to walk her/him back to the seat during multilateral summits – he knew what he was doing. The gesture was highly nuanced, very rare in international diplomacy.
The Himalayan nation’s commitment towards India remained unwavering. When King Jigme Singye Wangchuck personally led his troops to confront Indian insurgent groups, it was an unparalleled example of displaying Bhutanese strategic obligatory commitment towards the defence of India.
It stood by India in the face of its conflict with China in 1962. When India broke Pakistan into pieces in 1972, Bhutan and Mongolia were the first to endorse India for Bangladesh’s independence.
Bhutan never played the China card and never ruffled India’s feathers in the region, and never refused India’s exploitation of its hydro-power assets, unlike Nepal.
Seemingly, India’s strategic sense has also long eroded. Even though the tenability of colonial-style protectorate-ship had vanished, India’s new brown Englishmen started to take a country like Bhutan for granted. In fact, they mistook Bhutanese adherences for their obeisance to Indian paternalism. Scores of commentaries have concluded that such misconceptions and mistaken assumptions have bred resentments, resulting in India’s foreign policy turning topsy-turvy.
What Indian policymakers thoughtlessly pursued was the colonial-style of buying loyalty through economic aid. As aptly described by Raja Mohan, “Instead of abandoning them we took pride in perpetuating for self glory”. In fact, unlike other neighbours who quickly learnt the art of balancing the game, Bhutan has been rather late in joining the anti-India ranks. This is because the relationship could continue for so long on the basis of Bhutanese conscientiousness. It seems that the rift would have surfaced long before, had it been left to New Delhi.
A peep into the past suggests that Bhutan started to doubt India’s ability to protect her against China, especially after the Sino-India War of 1962 and the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. The incorporation of Sikkim by India may have also added to Bhutan’s insecurity.
When India helped Bhutan secure a UN membership in 1971, it was done ostensibly to enable Bhutan to avail international development and financial assistance. China quickly voted in favour of her entry.
Bhutan’s UN membership thus fundamentally impaired the sacredness of Article 2 of the 1949 treaty. Concomitantly, Thimphu affirmed its independent status, that is, it established diplomatic ties with Dhaka and raised its diplomatic representation in New Delhi to full ambassadorial level in 1971.
On the international front, Bhutan started to take a divergent approach – it sided with China and others on Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge issue at the NAM’s Havana summit in 1979; didn’t follow India’s stance on the status of landlocked nations at the UN; signed the NPT in 1985; and supported Pakistan’s Nuclear Free Zone South Asia proposal. Very recently, Bhutan has pulled out of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement for the regulation of passenger, personal and cargo vehicular traffic signed under SAARC in June 2015.
Since 1979, the Druk king started pressurising New Delhi for the boundary resolution and an “update” in the 1949 treaty.
After fathoming the severity of the potential crisis, India ultimately agreed to the amendment and removed Article 2 of the treaty in 2007 and thereby freed Bhutan from, among other things, seeking India’s guidance on foreign policy and obtaining permission over arms imports. Article 2 in the new treaty only says India and Bhutan “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”
Though the amendment was enacted in deference to the king’s desires, the festering angst among the Bhutanese elite against India unfairly holding Bhutan hostage for its own geopolitical interests, affected the change in the Article 2. Bhutan carried serious misgivings – nuanced or rather the lack of it – about becoming another Sikkim (annexed by India) or meeting the fate of Tibet (invaded by China).
India found solace in the fact that Article 2 was never invoked and as such was irrelevant for it to retain its influence. Instead, the clause has been a sort of a burden, for it tagged India as having “hegemonic and expansionist ambitions” by its adversaries.
The impending crisis in Indo-Bhutan relations ultimately exploded in mid-2013, amidst India’s bid to thwart the Bhutanese foreign policy drive, especially their overtures towards China in 2012.
Following the voluntary abdication of power by the Druk king in favour of a democratically elected government in 2007 Bhutan made a sudden shift in its India-centric foreign policy.
The first democratically elected government led by Prime Minister Jigme Yozer Thinley of the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) had managed to diversify Thimphu’s diplomatic ties with nations from 25 in 2011 to 53 in 2013. The DPT government even bid for a non-permanent seat of the UNSC and opted for having missions of P-5 countries established in Thimphu.
The real rift surfaced when a meeting took place between Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Yozer Thinley and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Rio in June 2012. No substantive deal had been made except for the purchase of 20 buses from China that Thinley committed to. The action deeply hurt New Delhi, which accused Thimphu for the lack of transparency and acquiring a habit of keeping India in the dark even on matters impinging upon our common security.
India’s key concerns primarily involved the Chumbi valley’s strategic sensitivity and the need to prevent China’s deeper encroachment southwards, and the possible resolution of China-Bhutan border impinging on India.
The extent to which Bhutan compromised India’s security concerns was unclear but the extra overtures to Beijing seemed to have sowed the seed for mistrust and that undermined the spirit of the treaty with India.
India was certainly uncomfortable about the increasing cosiness between Bhutan and China, and hence looked for an opportunity to punish Thinley. Critics in Bhutan suggested that New Delhi had made up its mind to write a fine script for Thinley’s exit from power and for India, playing with electoral politics was not a big deal. In the days leading up to the general election in July 2013, New Delhi, in an unambiguous signal, abruptly cut subsidies on gas and kerosene among other tough measures to Bhutan.
Critics inferred it was simply meant to rock the election campaign. But the underlying message by New Delhi to the Bhutanese was clear – be prepared to face sanctions if DPT is voted back to power. In fact, nobody was convinced that the outright cut was purely a commercial decision, which is how the Indian officials presented it.
However, the issue unfolding in the Himalayan state did not seem as simple as the usual outcry for China’s assertion in India’s neighbourhood. China may well have been the cause but that was not the complete story and was in fact believed that the fissures in the neatly stitched ties remained long under wraps due to closely securitised relationship between New Delhi and Thimphu.
Scathing criticism of India’s meddling influence on the Bhutanese election outcome poured in both at home (India) and from abroad. Many saw it as an act of rage over Thinley’s “harmless” bid to improve relations with China. When the Indian media reacted to Bhutan’s north shift, Kinley Tshering, the former editor of Bhutan Times, thought they were “spinning a yarn of conspiracy theories that are naïve at best and ludicrous at worst”.
In a wave of criticism, the Bhutanese, through websites and blogs expressed shock and dismay at India’s carrot-and-stick policy. Some were simply “baffled and confounded” by the Indian actions they were not used to while others felt “simply stunned, lost and scandalised” by the spate of strange and disconcerting developments. In a scathing comment Wangcha Sangye, a popular blogger, said, “National interests of Bhutan have to rise over and above the politics of always playing the Indian tune and only pleasing India? In response to articles appearing in the Indian media, Karma Temphel Ngyamtso, a writer and an avid political observer commented, “Our friends in India, unwittingly ensnared in this game of political brinksmanship, must remember that such inadvertent, mercenary and gravely injurious attitudes and moves do not bode well at all for Bhutan-India friendship in the long run.” Such perceptions among the Bhutanese only indicated the degree of erosion that had taken place in the Indian wisdom of handling their friends over the years.
The DPT’s defeat had nonetheless reinforced the Bhutanese fear of India’s armed-twisting. The events led conspiracy theories to flourish as distrust of India were also abound. In a tsunami of public outcry, bloggers wrote at length about how the Indian intelligence service had rigged the elections. The comments ranged from how India needlessly punished Thinley and how “world’s largest democracy could influence elections in world’s youngest democracy.” Critics urged the Indian media and politicians to stop their “over-lordship” over the kingdom’s affairs and end treating Bhutan as a “pawn” for manipulating the Bhutanese like “lambs in a pen to slaughter whenever India desires a dish of lamb stew.” One could not imagine such ferocity amongst ordinary Bhutanese against India ever before.
For a while, it appeared as if Bhutan’s eternal goodwill for India had vanished overnight. Given South Asia’s hostile environment, many viewed this as Bhutan too sadly joining others who habitually accused India of interfering in their domestic politics. Even at home, critics thought India was needlessly scoring an exciting political self-goal against a tiny but friendly state. They described New Delhi’s handling of Bhutan “ham-handed”, “sordid manipulation”, “poorly conceived”, “counter-productive” and “completely disconnected from any strategic thinking” so on and forth. Miffed with recurring trend, the commentators suggested “India’s foreign policy makers to rethink over their mentality towards neighbours and realise the need to rectify it at the outset.”
The Chinese dailies too quickly commented on India’s coercive and brazen interference in Bhutan’s election and said India was treating Bhutan as its colony to meet its own strategic needs. The article, penned by Liu Zongyi, suggested that the move was to thwart Bhutan’s attempt at freely engaging with China to resolve the border dispute.
The defence of India’s actions came from the former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal who argued in a column that Bhutan was playing the China card to both balance India and extract more concessions from it. Sibal accused Thimpu of scoping to “disregard” India’s concerns with some “impunity” by exploiting India’s weaknesses like “internal problems”, “high level of tolerance”, “lack of consensus”, “existence of sympathetic lobbies and sensitivity to accusations of hegemony”.
Coming from India’s bureaucratic elite, Sibal’s wordings may have either frightened the Bhutanese or perhaps further damaged the already fractured relationship. Clearly, by stoking the discontent within Bhutan, real or conspiracy, India allowed itself to become a subject of attack and contempt amongst sections of Bhutanese. Surely, Bhutan’s opposition People’s Democratic Party may also have played its role by leveraging on India’s influence. However, India for having fully supported Bhutan’s democratisation processes since 2008 risked the denigration of subverting it in 2013. For Bhutan to lay the foundation of democracy on anti-India sentiments surely was not desirable for India. Thus, India’s image as a villain and not a friend in the Bhutanese eyes was beginning to unfold.
Both subsidy withdrawal and the 2013 election episode had become immediate causes, but there were perhaps a long list of reasons for the evolving strain in relations. To repair the damage caused New Delhi invited the young Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk as the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations in January 2013. But, Jigme was not the first choice but a replacement for the Sultan of Oman who rebuffed New Delhi’s clumsy protocol of invitation.
Thus, many such events caused the stable relationship with Bhutan adrift. The refutation of the problems and keeping them concealed was perilous though. If it was China’s mischief then perhaps India may have well played into its hand. The two countries may have salvaged some of the impending issues; however, the elements of wariness seemed to have crept into the relationship. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, it may have been difficult to undo. The issues though appeared enigmatic the consequences could have been perilous. There was a need for understanding the ominous trends. In fact, it was important for Modi to grasp the issues from a broader perspective that shapes the processes at work. Instead, his advisers appeared to have dealt with Bhutan more ham-handedly in the pretext of countering China.
Without a doubt, the imperatives of geography always determined the fragile nature of Bhutan’s economic independence. However, India’s coercive commerce diplomacy may not only have effectively demonstrated the advantages it holds, but also may have reminded the Bhutanese of the limits of their urge for an independent foreign policy pursuit. The economic aspect of Indo-Bhutan relations is not sufficiently articulated in the open strategic discourse as yet but studies have highlighted how Bhutan’s economy has become so dependent or auxiliary to India’s economic intervention model. The study has found that over 60% of government expenditure alone goes into imports of goods from India. The impact of this is not only been found detrimental to Bhutan’s sustainable growth but also unsuitable for a healthy bilateral relation with India. India’s stranglehold over Bhutan’s economy along with unfair business practices often leads to economic crisis such as the debt and rupee crunch that finally trigger political hostility. The fundamentals of economic dependency including the hydropower projects are becoming subjects of debate, essentially to highlight the massive Indian influence in Bhutan. Many analysts have begun to view the dependency relationship in the geopolitical context of India-China zero-sum rivalry and the manner and extent to which Bhutan has been sacrificing its interests. The remedy they see lies lay in balancing the nature of Bhutan‘s relations with India vis-à-vis China. The study highlights the following issues:
India’s limitless budgetary support loans, grants and lines of credit in billions of crore including the setting up of hydropower-plants were expedient to Bhutan, but on the other side, they only helped India captivating the benefits. Bhutan’s exports (95 per cent) and imports (75%) of goods to and from India reflected the dependency degree. A comment cited by the study said, “90 to 95% of what Bhutan borrows from India goes back to India.” Even India’s investment in hydropower industry was squeezing the space for domestic stakeholders thus creating “jobless growth” for Bhutan. Moreover, over-dependency caused a disparity i.e., the grants inflow did not match up the rupee outflow leading to “rupee” crunch as witnessed in 2012.
The other detrimental aspects included, illegal cross border trade, under-invoicing, tax evasions, illegal bank transaction and unfair, exploitative, monopolistic commercial practices by Indian contractors especially in the mining and construction sectors. Heavy dependency on imports of materials, machineries, labours and the practice of profit contracts by sub-contractors were squeezing the local stakeholders. In addition, decades of subsidy system promoted imports of even essential food products from India with severe consequences that led to neglect of Bhutan’s own agriculture sector, the share of which declined in GDP to 14%. Moreover, the subsidy benefits only helped India captivate the Bhutanese market and the latter’s economy remained highly susceptible to Indian inflationary trends with financial distortions that Bhutan was unable to withstand. Such practices led to continual accretion of public debt, i.e. over 80% of country’s GDP in 2011, as noted in the study. The huge amount of loan and grants rendered to Bhutan ultimately benefited India. Consequently, even the small cut on the fuels subsidy and the delay of currency supply by India led to Bhutan’s economy go in disarray. The tragedy was that India chose to leverage economic assistance as an effective tool to influence the election results. The story is no different from what China also does to its neighbours. However, China does not allow itself look like interfering in internal affairs of others. In essence, India’s model of economic assistance to neighbours such as Bhutan and Nepal remain exploitative and no remedy exists for altering it yet.
P. Stobdan, a former Indian ambassador, is an expert on Himalayan affairs
Courtesy: The Wire. This Article First Appear in The Wire Online on 14 July. https://thewire.in/157293/india-china-doklam-real-problem-bhutan/