September 23, 1958
Pundit Nehru was already getting irritated with his translator.
After riding on horses and yaks, crossing mountain passes as high as 13,000 feet, he has reached the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. And this is his first speech here. The Bhutanese translator was fumbling over the Indian prime minister’s ornate Hindi.
Thousands of villagers have gathered at the vast ground to listen to the leader of India and see his beautiful daughter, Indira Gandhi.
After every sentence, the interpreter gave the helpless once-again-please look toward Nehru. Then something unexpected happened.
Bhutan King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck who was sitting on the podium stood up and replaced the translator. The intonations of Nehru’s Hindi flowed into the deep baritone of the king’s Dzongkha. A subdued clap rose from a corner of the audience which grew to a roar.
That moment is embodied in a beautiful potograph that pronounces a friendship that is not defined by geographical size, population, or shifting political terrains; but by a deep bond of trust and friendship.
Last month, the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu saw the inauguration of a new cultural center; aptly named Nehru-Wangchuck Cultural Center.
King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck’s grandson, King Jigme Khesar’s visit to India this week will only strengthen this bond carried over half a century. In December last year, New Delhi witnessed the young king attract an unprecedented audience for his lecture at the Teen Murti Auditorium. The charm of his speech lay in his willingness to accept the precarious socio-political premise in which he talked. He was constitutional monarch in a parliamentary democracy. Whereas, in India, the opinion-forming urban lot have started becoming apathetic to party politics and the genuineness of what goes on in the corridors of its parliament. Then, there is global warming, struggle against poverty, and enmitiesamong nations.
“This is a world that is shared – not between governments and nations but among us, the people. I truly believe that the only way to observe the most important things in life and in this world is by putting them through the lens of ‘Simplicity’. You must break everything down to its fundamentals, break it down to basic human instances. It may sound idealistic – but this is a natural and practical way of approaching things that seem intractable and inflexible – no matter how big the problem,” he said then.
From the time he was handed over the throne to lead this country of around 700,000 people, King
Jigme Khesar has tried to live up to the high bar his father who ushered democracy to Bhutan and abdicated at the age of 53 had set.
He loves sharing. It can be Maggie noodles with kindergarten students or giving prayer beads to the older folk or eating a meal together with villagers. His favorite mode of transportation is walking; that too, through the difficult terrains of this country. He is the first to reach places of natural disasters or fires, which is common in Bhutan. In one of his tours to earthquake affected areas, the king spent his night in a house which the residents feared would crumble anytime. Officials say it is tough to work with the king as he demands the best of them in office and in the field. He walks fast; only the fittest can keep pace. He enjoys spending time with children, sometimes playing football with them barefoot in remote community schools. What he asks from them is devotion to studies and the pursuit of perfection in what they do.
Though born the crown prince, his upbringing was strict. He studied in local public schools and grew up as a servant-retainer in the service of his father. Most of his royal tours to remote Bhutan are to give land to the landless. This historic land reforms program initiated by the king in 2007 has already benefited around 10,000 families.
Apart from groups of villagers who wait to meet the king at local centers, people gather along the roads or mountain trails to meet the king. This practice has also infected foreigners working in Bhutan. Once while he was moving to the eastern province of Trashiyangtse – which borders Arunachel Pradesh – the king was pleasantly surprised to see Indian engineers and workers who had lined up along the trail burning incense sticks and holding tashi khaddar (traditional white silk scarf) to welcome him. The king stopped, enquired them on the progress of the upcoming power project, shook hand with each and every Indian.
For Bhutanese, the king is not just a constitutional head. He is a unifying force and the nation’s moral conscience. Bhutan’s new democracy is facing its own challenges. There are frequent disagreements between the houses of the parliament, between the government and the opposition and even the young media houses are accused of being irresponsible by the government.
It was a speech by the king at a parliament session last year that gave perspective to the situation. “As King I have the sacred duty to look beyond the next one or two, or even five or ten years. It is my duty to serve the People such that, for generation after generation, era upon era our nation becomes stronger, more prosperous and happier. Therefore, from where I stand, I do not see different players and institutions.… I see our small Bhutanese family …and this immense world in which we have the challenge and responsibility to stand on our own feet and build a nation into which our future generations will always feel proud, secure and happy to be born, ” he said reasserting the fact that he has to look beyond the life span of electoral politics.
Despite two years into democracy, there are Bhutanese who want monarchy back. It was a student who asked the king the big question in one of his tours. “If democracy fails will you take back the power?” The king didn’t need much time to reply. “It will never happen. I will make sure that it doesn’t happen,” he told the boy.
For Bhutan watchers, the monarchy here is unique. While the fear of being squashed between China and India was at its height, the third king started a policy of deep engagement with India in this 50s, which has matured into a strong friendship. The fourth king, after coming to power in 1974, started building democratic institutions at the local village level nurturing the country to a fullfledged parliamentary system. Now, it is King Jigme Khesar, affectionately known as Khesar, who has to see that the young democracy flourishes.
Bhutan is no more a fairyland kingdom. It is a nation moving in its own pace; cautious but confident.
With its commitment to remain carbon negative for all times to come, this country which has 72% forest cover is becoming a global voice of conscience in the age of climate change and rising military spending.
“I hope we will realize that we are at the cusp of a fundamental change of thought – a social revolution that will change the way humanity will pursue growth forever. Our generation is called upon to rethink, to redefine the true purpose of growth. And in doing so, to find a growth that is truly sustainable,” King Jigme said at the convocation of the Calcutta University early this month.
Led by the vision of the king, Bhutan is leading a global quest for sustainable development through its policy of Gross National Happiness, which considers a life of spiritual, ecological, material and cultural balance over just economic growth. Huge corporations and small townships across the world are adopting Bhutan’s happiness philosophy in its own ways to chart a new growth paradigm. This is spearheaded by small groups of ‘friends of Bhutan’ who are inspired by the Bhutanese way of life.
But Bhutan’s best friend has always been India. And Bhutanese monarchs have always cherished the friendship between the two countries. And in King Jigme Khesar, India is sure to find the best guarantee for a long-term engagement for the king takes it as his “sacred responsibility” to ensure the continuity of this relationship. Apart from physical structures like hydropower projects, hospitals, schools and roads that has cemented this friendship, the king is aware of the task of keeping this relationship organic, fresh and intimate.
“If we view India Bhutan Friendship through the prism of simplicity the perspective of fundamental human values, Indo-Bhutan friendship began as a bond between two men – two leaders – and our best future lies in an unaltering bond between our two peoples,” the king said.
And it is to strengthen such bonds that the King would have travelled twice to India this year – something really unprecedented for a head of state.