With its third successful assembly elections in 2018, the small Himalayan country of Bhutan is maturing as a democratic state. Despite initial apprehensions by the world and the people of Bhutan, the country surprised many. This success can be credited to the people and the former king of Bhutan, but the role of India cannot be discounted either.
Bhutan is supported by India on various fronts including development, education, foreign policy and security. The two countries shared very strong ties right from the time of the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. In a gesture meant to continue and further strengthen ties with India, Bhutan’s newly elected prime minister, Dr Lotay Tshering, made his debut foreign visit to New Delhi. However, unlike before, this time Bhutan approached India as an investment partner, not as an aid recipient. This shift can mainly be attributed to the dynamic geopolitics of Asia, mainly driven by the ambitious and emerging power China, as well as Bhutan’s own aspirations.
India and Bhutan celebrated 50 years of diplomatic ties in 2018. Now it is time for New Delhi to level up its relationship with Thimpu. In this pursuit, the focus should not only be on government-to-government engagement but also on people-to-people interaction and development. And this must begin from regional diplomacy with Indian Himalayan states, such as Ladakh, which share common religious and cultural ties with Bhutan dating back centuries.
Pre-Modern Links and the Modern Revival
In the popular narrative of the India-Bhutan relationship, the mainstream media largely ignores the age-old people-to-people relationship between Bhutan and Ladakh (the erstwhile Kingdom of Ladakh until 1846), now a region of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. The linkage between Bhutan and Ladakh can be traced back to 1677, when both were allies following Drukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism against the then-imperialist kingdom of Tibet, which used coercive policy in order to enforce its preferred Gelukpa sect. However, over the course of time, while Bhutan held fast to the Drukpa sect under its monarchy, Ladakh laid its arms open to all sects of Tibetan Buddhism. Becoming a melting pot of all sects of Tibetan Buddhism, which originated from India’s famous Nalanda University, Ladakh became a safe haven for those who wished to practice nonsectarian Tibetan Buddhism.
The geopolitical dynamics in the region and internal conflicts eventually pushed Ladakh to integrate with India as part of the much controversial state of Jammu and Kashmir, while Bhutan retained its sovereignty. This saw a decay in the relationship between the two regions. The final nail in the coffin was the sealing of the border between India and Tibet, after China put down an uprising in the latter in 1959.
However, the relationship between Ladakh and Bhutan saw an unprecedented rise in the last decade, as Gyalwang Durkpa, the head monk of the Drukpa sect of Ladakh, drove a mass movement in order to revive the decaying Drukpa sect in Ladakh. As the patron of one of the largest and oldest monasteries in Ladakh, Hemis Gonpa, he is taking initiatives beyond religion by contributing to social and cultural engagement between the people of Ladakh and Bhutan, including the Druk Padma Karpo school, popularly known as the “Rancho school,” and the recently established Naropa Fellowship. Initiatives like the Naropa festival (also known as Kumbh Mela of Ladakh) and the Annual Drukpa Council are now well-known events in the region which see many Bhutanese, including representatives of Je Kehnpo of Bhutan, visiting Ladakh in recent years. In fact, in many ways, the annual Naropa Festival has overshadowed the government-sponsored Ladakh Festival held annually ever September. In addition to monastic institutions, these engagements are backed by organizations such as the Young Drukpa Association, Drukpa Trust, and Live to Love, which operate at the local, regional, and international level, respectively.
With more people from Ladakh visiting Bhutan for pilgrimages and vice versa, the tour operators in Ladakh found a new economic opportunity. Every year more people from Ladakh visit Bhutan in the winter. From cultural point of view, the people have started interacting as well. In 2012 a song in the Bhutanese movie Sa Dha Nam, which became an instant viral in both regions, was sung in both the Bhoti (Ladakhi) and Dzongkha languages. Despite being geographically far apart, the synthesis of the culture is so much that today it is not surprising to witness youths of Ladakh dancing to Bhutanese songs in various cultural programs.
Rationale for Regional Diplomacy
It is a hard fact that New Delhi does not have any coherent policy toward its trans-Himalayan regions, including Ladakh, or its Himalayan neighbors. Not surprisingly, India’s neighborhood policy toward the Himalayan countries has been reactionary and devoid of diplomatic sophistication. One example was the cancellation of the gas subsidy as punishment for Bhutan’s first Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley’s informal meeting with then Chinese premier in 2013. Also, the concerns raised by India’s strategic and policy thinkers over the agenda of “economic diversification” in the election manifesto of the ruling Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) have been condemned by Bhutanese.
Although the relationship between India and Bhutan is termed as “exemplary” or “unique” in tested times, diplomatic hiccups, such as in 2013, between the two can be damaging in the long run. Citing ‘Bhutan Policy’ of India as main reason of 2013 bilateral crisis, P. Stobdan, a Himalayan expert and former ambassador of India, blamed New Delhi for the 2013 bilateral crisis and criticized India’s “model of economic assistance” to Bhutan as “exploitative.”
On the other hand, China has always been farsighted in terms of its policies toward the Himalayan region. This is evident from developments in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which borders India’s Himalayan region and the neighboring states of Bhutan and Nepal. With its three-pronged strategy (local, regional, and government-to-government) China is not only trying to become the champion of Buddhism in the Himalayan region, it is also propagating the mythological conception of Zhangzhung in the western TAR as a historical fact. This, as argued by the prominent Tibetologist Professor Per Kværne in his lecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in January 2019, is being done in order to mainstream a counternarrative to the existing claim that situates India as the cultural and religious origin of present Tibet.
As Bhutan aspires to be a “developed country” by 2045, its importance to India, especially vis-à-vis China, is something New Delhi cannot afford to ignore. While the relationship between the two countries is coming back to normalcy, India needs to have a mature policy toward Bhutan. By focusing on religious and cultural engagement between Ladakh and Bhutan, New Delhi can begin the process of a sustainable soft-power approach to strengthen ties with Bhutan. This will also initiate the much needed process of bringing the fringes to the center of India’s diplomacy, as highlighted by Happymon Jacob. As Jacob put it, “Himalayan linkages can be seen as a constraining factor or as a great regional foreign policy connector.” Pursuing engagement between India’s Himalayan regions and Bhutan will not only help shed the common misconception that India and Bhutan have vastly different cultures, but also bring the people of the two countries much closer together
While the diplomatic ties between New Delhi and Thimpu recovered after Lotay Tshering’s visit to India, it is time for India to take Bhutan seriously, with a more mature and coherent policy. India’s casual dealings with Bhutan could be detrimental to its security and economy under the present geopolitical dynamics steered mainly by China.
The first step toward this is going beyond economic diplomacy to leverage the reviving religio-cultural exchanges between Ladakh and Bhutan. This must be supplemented by institutions and policies that could ease the people-to-people connectivity between the two Himalayan regions.
Stanzin Lhaskyabs is a Ph.D. candidate in the division of Diplomacy and Disarmament, Center for International Politics, Organization, Diplomacy and Disarmament (CIPOD) from School of International Studies (SIS) at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India.