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The Development of Bhutan’s Relations with India

Bhutan’s religious, cultural and historical ties with India go back many centuries. For many Bhutanese, India is the land of Lord Buddha and, therefore, the source of our spiritual heritage from which stems the Bhutanese identity.

In modern terms, Bhutan and India began a new era of friendship and economic cooperation when Bhutan shed its policy of self-imposed isolation and India gained independence in 1947. At a time when India was going through a period of transition and nation building, the Second King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Wangchuck, perceived the importance of establishing a formal basis, on which to take forward Bhutan’s bilateral relationship with a close neighbour. Hence, in 1949, Bhutan and India formalized the basis of bilateral relations with a Treaty of Friendship and co-corporation. Dr. Ambedkar, who chaired the drafting of India’s Constitution, reported about the relationship of India and Bhutan as follows1:

“A problem demanding separate attention, because of its exceptional character, was that of Bhutan, described from 1924 as “a state under British suzerainty, but not an Indian State”. Her future was a matter of natural concern and interest, both to Bhutan and to India…  Certain questions arose regarding the precise relationship between independent India and Bhutan and her position vis-à-vis the Constituent Assembly. Sri. B.N. Rau, to whom these questions were referred, argued in a note (see Chapter 25 of this volume) that Bhutan’s representatives were not called upon by the relationship existing at that time to participate in the labours of the Constituent Assembly; but that it would be open to the two countries to enter into a fresh treaty at any time in the future”. (Introduction xxxvii)

The Third King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who ascended the Throne in 1952, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, laid the foundations of Bhutan-India cooperation as it is known today. His Majesty made a state visit to India in 1954 and was the Chief Guest for India’s Republic Day. Prime Minister Nehru, accompanied by his daughter Indira Gandhi, who was also to become India’s Prime Minister, traveled on horseback and on yaks over the high Himalayan passes in a historic visit to Bhutan in 1958.

Prime Minister Nehru made a strategically important speech to the people of Bhutan on the grounds of the Ugyen Pelri Palace in Paro, a speech that was translated by the King himself. The Prime Minister declared India’s   policy regarding Bhutan with the following statement:

“Some may think that since India is a great and powerful country and Bhutan is a small one, the former might wish to exercise pressure on Bhutan. It is, therefore, essential that I make it clear to you that our only wish is that you should remain an independent country, choosing your own way of life and taking the path of progress according to your will. At the same time we two should live with mutual goodwill. We are members of the same Himalayan family and should live as friendly neighbours helping each other. Freedom of both Bhutan and India should be safeguarded so that none from outside can do harm to it.”2 

This message continues to resonate today. On January 24, 2013, His Majesty The King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck quoted His grandfather, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck and his father His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck at a banquet hosted in his honour by the President of India:

“The destiny of Bhutan is intimately bound with that of India and it is in our mutual interests to further the bonds of friendship and understanding.” And, many decades later, in a modernizing Bhutan, my father declared, “India is the cornerstone of our foreign policy”. To these profound assertions of intimate bonds, I would like to state, “Indo-Bhutan friendship is indispensable for the future success of Bhutan.” 3

At a time when Bhutan had sensed the need to open up, Prime Minister Nehru’s visit and the personal friendship and rapport he enjoyed with the Third King encouraged Bhutan to end its policy of self-imposed isolation and embark on the process of planned development. The generous offer of friendship and support extended by Prime Minister Nehru was received with appreciation and trust by His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.

The following year in 1959, a delegation led by Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigme Palden Dorji visited New Delhi to discuss the development needs of the Kingdom. This was followed by a visit to India by His Majesty King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. In 1961, Bhutan started opening-up to the outside world with the launch of its First Five Year Plan. Thereafter, with technical and financial assistance, largely from India, Bhutan achieved rapid socio-economic development in a relatively short span of time. His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck recalled to the Prime Minister, Mrs. Indra Gandhi:

“Ten years ago, we had the honour of welcoming your great father, the late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and yourself at Paro. It was a result of that visit and the vision and statesmanship displayed by your father that India started assisting us in our economic development programmes. The first major project in this new era of economic co-operation between our two countries was the construction of the Phuntsholing-Thimphu National Highway started in 1960. 

“The Phuntsholihg-Thimphu National Highway was built on the sweat and tears of my people. We had no surplus labour force and so we had to conscript men and women from all parts of the country to work on this project. Many countrymen lost their lives in this venture. On your part, you were generous with financial and technical assistance.  It was this combined effort that saw the completion of this project in record time. The benefits from this road have been innumerable. It has ushered in a new era of progress and prosperity in my country. No longer do my people walk for seven days from’ Thimphu to Phuntsholing and seven days back just to buy salt from the Indian border towns. No longer do my people think only of the affairs in their village, for the roads have opened a window to the outside world and made them feel one with the rest of humanity. Our journey is not yet over; in fact, it has only begun. We shall not rest till the humblest citizen of my country is free from the scourge of ignorance, poverty and disease and is able to lead a life of human dignity. In this great undertaking, I hope I will continue to have the goodwill and support of the great Indian nation.” 

Bhutan’s evolving foreign policy 

The foreign policy of a country is formulated and implemented to promote its national interests. In essence, a nation’s foreign policy seeks to strengthen and safeguard its status as a sovereign, independent country and promote economic growth.

During the British colonial rule in South Asia, Bhutan adopted a policy of self-imposed isolation. In 1958, Prime Minister Nehru stated to the Chief Ministers of India:

“The people of Bhutan are sturdy and attractive and rightly very jealous of their independence. In fact, the rulers have not welcomed any outsiders.” 4

The Treaty that Bhutan had signed with the British in 1910 reflects this approach, which was aimed at preserving its sovereignty at a time when many countries in Asia were being colonized. After the British left South Asia, the perception in Bhutan changed. The Kingdom viewed independent India, not only as a close neighbour, but as a friend, which could help Bhutan take the path of socio-economic development and assume its place in the world as a responsible member of the international community. India, therefore, became the most important development partner and bilateral relations with India became the cornerstone of Bhutan’s foreign policy. Hence, the Autumn Session of the National Assembly of Bhutan in 1967 resolved as follows:

“After prolonged debate, the National Assembly by a majority vote agreed to the appointment of a senior Indian officer in Bhutan whose main functions would be to prevent delays in release of funds for Indian-aided projects in Bhutan, and generally act as a Liaison officer between the two Governments in matters relating to release of foreign exchange, Inner Line Permits, etc.”

Pursuant to the Resolution, diplomatic relations between Bhutan and India was established on 8th January 1968, with the appointment of a Special Officer of India to Bhutan thereafter. Resident representatives were exchanged on 17th May 1971. On the occasion, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck said:

“To-day marks the culmination of a long historical process.  Centuries
of friendship and close association found fulfilment in the exchange full-fledged ambassadors between-our two countries.  Slightly over a decade ago, we gave up our traditional policy of national isolation, and embarked on a process of modernisation with the active assistance and guidance of your Government. Since then much progress has been achieved in the sphere of international development. Externally, we are about to enter the international scene, and I think it is only in the fitness of things that our first major in this direction should be the establishment of diplomatic relations with your country.”

Welcoming the move by Bhutan to upgrade its representation in India to an Ambassadorial level in 1971 when Lyonpo Pema Wangchuk was presenting his credentials, President V.V. Giri of India stated:

“… Our relation with Bhutan are of a very special nature is as sacred and firm as the Himalayas themselves. Geography, history, religion and culture have served to link our destinies together… Your Excellency, I have every confidence that as the Representative of Bhutan your efforts would be successful in further strengthening the ancient and enduring bonds between our two countries and forging newer links of cooperation in every field.”

On 8th August 1978, Bhutan changed the name of its diplomatic office in New Delhi from the Royal Bhutan Mission to Royal Bhutanese Embassy. 

Internationally, Bhutan considered it very important to become a member of the United Nations and other international and regional organizations like the Colombo Plan, Universal Postal Union, Non-Aligned Movement and SAARC to foster good relations with all countries. At the same time, as a very small and least developed country just emerging from self-imposed isolation, it was necessary to avoid getting involved in international power politics. Bhutan followed a low key and gradual approach when it came to establishing formal diplomatic relations with other nations. A conscious decision was taken to refrain from formal ties with the P5 countries. The Kingdom focused on establishing diplomatic ties with friendly countries that were willing to provide economic cooperation without strings attached. Today, the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan provides a guideline on foreign policy:

“The State shall endeavour to promote good will and cooperation with nations, foster respect for international law and treaty obligations, and encourage settlement of international disputes by peaceful means in order to promote international peace and security.” 5

On the international scene, as Bhutan started taking tentative steps, India supported the country in becoming a member of the Colombo Plan in 1962 and the Universal Postal Union in 1969. With India sponsoring its candidature for membership as “a final manifestation of Bhutan’s independent status and nationhood”, Bhutan was admitted as a member of the United Nations in 1971. The Secretary General noted at the flag raising ceremony of Bhutan:

“I am particularly gratified to have this opportunity of welcoming, as Secretary-General of the United Nations, three new Members to our community. It augurs well that the General Assembly should start its twenty-sixth session by enlarging the family of nations from 127 to 130 with the admission of the Kingdom of Bhutan…  If Bhutan has long kept away from the turmoil of the world, it is now about to bring us the value of the words of wisdom and moderation inspired by Buddhist precepts and profound vision of human relation.”

His Royal Highness Namgyel Wangchuck, Representative of His Majesty the King and leader of the Bhutanese delegation, emphasized the following when he addressed the 26th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on 21st September 1971:

“It is now only a decade or so since we ended our age-old policy of national isolation and opened up our country to the outside world. The policy of national isolation was motivated in the past by self-interest due to geo-political considerations and not because of a lack of desire or capacity to play an active role in the international community. The policy served its end and was instrumental in preserving the country’s sovereignty and independence. With the changing circumstances in the world and our desire to participate actively in the functioning of the international community, the policy lost its relevance when we joined the Colombo Plan for Cooperation Economic Development in South and South-East Asia in 1962……

“That we should today have succeeded in gaining admission to this organization whose aim represents the highest aspirations of mankind, whose contribution to the maintenance of international peace and security has been substantial, and whose work in nation-building has done so much for the progress of mankind, is an occasion for great happiness and rejoicing in my country.”

Subsequently, Bhutan also joined the Non-Aligned Movement and has become a member of all major organizations affiliated with the United Nations and, along with India, was a founding member of SAARC. It was with India’s support that Bhutan was able to progress so quickly from a “hermit kingdom” to a full-fledged and active member of the international community. Bhutan and India have been cooperating closely in the international arena and supporting each other’s positions on all issues of mutual concern and interest.

Personal memories

As the Chairman of the National Organizing Committee for the Golden Jubilee celebrations to mark diplomatic relations between Bhutan and India this year, I cannot but reflect on my own perceptions of and experiences with India. I was a beneficiary of the Indian teachers who traversed into mountainous Bhutan for weeks since 1961. Without electricity, tap water or modern toilets, they endured hardships to teach young Bhutanese like me. During a visit to India, His Majesty The King shared the following with Indian friends:

“India has played a vital role in the field of education in Bhutan. Numerous Indian teachers have for decades taught in our schools and thousands of young Bhutanese have availed quality learning in academic establishments all over India. Such contributions remain invaluable to our friendship.” 6

In obedience to His Majesty The King, forty-three senior retired Indian teachers, who served in Bhutan since the 1960s were invited as guests of honour to celebrate Teachers’ Day in Bhutan on 2nd May 2018. This day also coincides with the birth anniversary of His Majesty the Third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. On this special and joyous occasion, the Office of Royal Media stated as follows:

“43 teachers from India, who taught in Bhutan in the 1960’s were specially invited from India as guests of honour, as this year also marks the 50th anniversary of Bhutan-India Friendship. His Majesty The King and Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen graced the Teachers’ Day celebrations at Changlimithang and interacted with more than 1,500 teachers who were especially honoured by the Ministry of Education for their valuable contributions to the education system in Bhutan.”

I remember General O.P. Dutta7 , who was praying for hours during the His Majesty the Third King’s funeral in Bumthang in 1972. He had shared many personal experiences with His Majesty the late King, who had once advised him,” One kind word with a driver and labourer is more than thousand rupees.”

I remember many Indian Ambassadors and diplomats, who are still my friends. I admired their intellect and their unflinching loyalty to their country. Many of them became very close to Bhutan. I always learnt a new word from Ambassador Sudhir Vyas whenever we met. Ambassadors Johari, Dalip Metha and VP Haran had great hearts like that of Mother India. Ambassador Haran taught me the importance of accountancy and frugality. With their unfailing help and understanding, the Judiciary of Bhutan was able to build monuments and edifices of historical importance with modern functional facilities. When Shri Narendra Modi, the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India, unveiled the inaugural plaque of the Supreme Court of Bhutan in May 2014, the Chief Justice of Bhutan acknowledged:

“We stand before yet another grand testimony of the friendship between Bhutan and India, a friendship that is rooted in an illustrious past built by our enlightened forefathers and is entrenched in the minds of our leaders and our people. The grandeur of the Supreme Court building symbolizes the generosity and enduring support of the Government of India. The Court’s firm structures will keep alive the flame of friendship and the aspirations of our two nations and people. The Government of India has also assisted the Judiciary of Bhutan with the construction of eight Drungkhag (Sub-Divisional) Courts, taking justice nearer to the people. The path of justice and peace that Bhutan treads is further strengthened by the assistance provided by the Government of India in the development of human resources in the legal sector. Many Bhutanese students are graduating from the best legal institutions in India. We, in Bhutan, and particularly those of us who serve in the judiciary, undertake to pledge that India’s generosity and goodwill will not go in vain.”

I also enjoyed warm friendship with officers of the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) in Bhutan. Established in 1962 with the objective of training the Bhutanese Army. The armed forces of Bhutan capable of facing external threats, maintaining domestic tranquility and pledging their commitment as required by the Constitution:

 “The Royal Bhutan Army shall serve as a professional standing army … for the purpose of maintaining (Bhutan’s) security, territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

I remember General Dillon, Commandant of IMTRAT, tearfully attending every funeral of the Bhutanese soldiers, who had laid down their lives while fighting the Indian Insurgent Groups in December 2003.

Many IMTRAT Generals and Chiefs of the Border Roads Organization known as DANTAK were intellectuals and scholars. I always learnt something after meeting them. Acknowledging DANTAK, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck wrote in April 2011:

 “The active participation and valuable contributions made by Dantak in Bhutan’s development process has been particularly distinguished by the bonds of friendship and mutual understanding and respect that developed and grew over the years between all the members of the Project and the officials and people of Bhutan. The officers and men of Dantak have proven to be outstanding ambassadors of India in Bhutan. The goodwill and understanding between Dantak and the Government and people of Bhutan reflect the exceptionally close friendship and exemplary bilateral relations between our two countries.”

Bhutan-India Treaty

In the bilateral relations between Bhutan and India, it was the leaders, who laid the foundation and then nurtured the growing friendship. From His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck and Prime Minister Nehru to His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and all successive leaders of the two nations, regardless of party affiliations, the close friendship between the two countries has been nurtured at the personal and the national level. Rightly, President Giri during the banquet hosted in 1971 stressed that His Majesty was:

 “the embodiment of modern and ancient values a monarch who ruled by the consent of his people. India has known you not only as a pillar of Indo-Bhutanese friendship but also an outstanding statesman and far sighted leader.” 

 The friendship between many Bhutanese who, studied in India and their Indian school friends also contributed to the enhancement of the close relations.

The signing of the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty in 2007 reflects both the maturity of the bilateral relations between the two countries as well as the commitment to work closely together to safeguard each other’s national interests. On this, President Pranab Mukerjee, who was also India’s former Foreign Minister, wrote in his book titled ‘The Coalition Years’ as follows:

“However, with ushering in of democracy and a changing geopolitical situation, Jigme Singye Wangchuck (fourth King of Bhutan) discussed the revision with me…The King remained persistent… On 8 February 2007, the revised Treaty was signed in New Delhi … The amendments were reflected in Article 2 and 6, Bhutan autonomy to pursue its foreign policy and in the purchase of non-lethal military equipment as long as such decisions did not damage India’s vital strategic interests. Following the signing of the Treaty, King Namgyel Wangchuck said, ‘From a guiding role upon Bhutan’s first step to modernization, we now stand as a close friend and equal partners in the global arena.’”

The treaty provides a renewed framework for further strengthening the friendship,   understanding and cooperation between India and Bhutan in a new era of an increasingly globalizing world. The India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 2007 demolished the imperial relic of Article Two in the treaties of 1773, 1774, 1865, 1910, and 1949. A champion of freedom and a reliable friend, India demonstrated this understanding and eliminated any potential irritant in future Bhutan-India relations.

Bhutan is an oasis of peace and tranquility. Based on historical records and pragmatic national interests, Bhutan-India relations aptly reflect the words of President John F Kennedy, who when visiting Canada had once said:

“Geography has made us neighbours, history made us friends, economy made us partners, and necessity has made us allies” 

The Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Bhutan and India is a sacred remembrance of the past and assurance for the future. Bhutan’s economic growth as well as bilateral and multilateral relations, with unwavering assistance from India, has strengthened an enduring friendship. His Majesty The King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck elucidated:

“I believe in dynamic change and that all relationships must adapt to changing times. The true measure, for me, of the success of our relationship has been this remarkable quality in our friendship. In the beginning, Bhutan and India were different nations to the ones we see today – one freshly independent and one newly entered into the modern world. Yet from such a time to this day, our relationship has been marked by continuous goodwill and cooperation in all spheres.

May the spirit of our triumphant past be irreversible in our shared future.

Contributed by  Justice Sonam Tobgye 

Retired Chief Justice of Bhutan & Chair, National Organizing Committee, 50th Anniversary Celebrations on the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bhutan & India

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