While in Bhutan last week, India’s External Affairs Minister, Salman Khurshid, apparently missed witnessing a piece of memory this Himalayan Kingdom had treasured in the name of his maternal grandfather, Dr Zakir Hussain, the third president of India. To commemorate his friendship to the country, Bhutan’s national assembly commissioned a thangkha in 1968, a giant scroll depicting Guru Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan. Fifteen skilled artists were assigned to complete the 66 feet by 55 feet embroidered master- piece.
Dr Hussain died in May 1969 and could not witness the finished work of art. Bhutan chose a very auspicious day to consecrate the thangkha, October 28, 1972, the cremation day of the third king Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.
The thangkha was hung at 6 a.m. from the façade of the sacred Kurjey monastery in Bumthang, central Bhutan, a few hours before the cremation cere- monies of the king began. It was the third king who opened up doors for the country’s modernization by inviting Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1958, who arrived on the back of a yak, crossing mountain paths covered in snow. Bhutanese have a unique way of showing affection as displayed in the unfurling of the thangkha made in memory of an Indian. Though death is considered a personal moment, the Bhutanese chose the cremation day of the late king to dedicate the thangkha – as national newspaper Kuensel recorded, “in true symbolization of Indo-Bhutan friendship”. The thangkha is still unfurled for public viewing in Bumthang on auspicious occasions.
On Saturday, when King Jigme Khesar takes the salute of India’s armed forces as the Republic Day chief guest, he be- comes the third Bhutanese monarch to grace the event. Late King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was the guest of honour in 1954, the second time India celebrated the day after 1950. He was also the first foreign national to receive the Padma Bhushan along with Dr Zakir Hussain in 1954, the year it was instituted. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the father of Bhutan’s famed development philosophy of Gross National Happiness, was the Republic Day guest in 1984 and again in 2005, one year before he abdicated the throne to introduce parliamentary democracy and elections.
With changes in geopolitical realities along northern borders India would have a friend whom it could trust. In King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, Nehru saw a man who shared his idealism, the importance of modernisation and education. Nehru’s visit to Bhutan in 1958 was not without apprehensions, but the Indian PM was quick to allay the fears in his maiden public speech in Bhutan on September 23, which the king himself translated from Hindi to Dzongkha after the translator could not keep up.
While India’s relation with its other neighbours continues on a love-hate mode, its friendship with Bhutan has been on a steady growth since the 50s. For Bhutan, it has been a relation based on trust encapsulated in Nehru’s first speech, “Some may think that since India is a great and powerful country and Bhutan 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.”
Since then India has helped Bhutan with schools, hospitals, roads, and fully funded the first hydropower project. Today India is Bhutan’s biggest trade and development partner with the dynamics of economic relations changing. Salman Khurshid while in Thimphu called for a new economic partnership with both countries benefitting equally.
This shift from Bhutan being an aid- dependent country to that of a trade partner was best exemplified when India suffered one of the world’s worst power outages last July. Additional power from Bhutan, which is just 1% of India’s size, had to be released to the north Indian grid to ’empower’ cities, thousands of villages and 350 million people back to normal life. India has committed to continue this partnership in hydropower for up to 12,000MW of Bhutan’s 30,000 MW potential.
Apart from interest in Bhutan’s hydropower sector, India, especially its booming private sector, should look into the opportunities that the country’s up coming special economic zones along the India border towns of Assam and West Bengal will bring. The government of Bhutan recently floated a global request for proposal for the 733-acre Jigmeling Special Economic Zone, which is near Gelephu, a town bordering Assam. Apart from tax incentives for foreign investors and cheap electricity, Bhutan’s biggest advantage is a stable political environment. The country’s proximity to India also offers enough supply of manpower.
As the first democratically elected government finishes its five-year-term in the coming months, Bhutan has forged diplomatic relations with many countries and increased its international stature by organizing a high-level happiness conference in the United Nations in April last year. Bhutan also made an unsuccessful bid for a non-permanent Security Council seat. It is this once-cloistered kingdom responding to changing global realities. When Bhutan applied for entry into the United Nations, there were rumors that the country’s assertion on the global stage was not good for India. But it was Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister in 1971 who took the initiative to support Bhutan’s bid.
Suspicion has not affected the bond between the two countries as the relation has been based on friendship and warmth. Four decades ago, at a time of suspicion on how two countries, unequal in size and strength, could have a relation based on trust, the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, made this significant statement in his opening address to Bhutan’s parliament in November 1970, “Unless we can discuss frankly, the understanding can never be perfect.” This frankness based on trust has been the bedrock of the strong relation between the two countries. King Jigme Khesar’s State Visit to India will further this trust and friendship.
“Since assuming Kingship in December 2006, I have travelled outside Bhutan four times – each time it has been to India. Indo-Bhutan friendship is of paramount importance and something we hold dear. We must always work to further strengthen and deepen it,” King Khesar told Bhutan’s elected parliament in November 2010.
And since then, he has visited India four times. For India, the King provides a trusted point of reference for a sustained engagement in this uncertain world of politics and change. For Bhutan, the King’s visit to India as the Republic Day chief guest this year is not only a proud moment but also auspicious. Since the Third King graced the same celebration in 1954 as the chief guest, five 12-year cycles have passed, and also, the story of a 60-year-old close friendship.
(This article first appeared in the Economic Times on Jan 25, 2012 for their Republic Day promotional supplement.)