India-Bhutan Relations – Politics & Prospects

The Bhutanese carried out trading with the plains of Assam, Koch Behar & Bengal through 18 duars or passes. Assam shared 7 duars with Bhutan. The division of the Koch Kingdom in 1581 into Koch Behar (western) and Koch Hajo (eastern) weakened the Koch Kings. In 1614 Koch Behar was occupied by the Mughals and the onslaught of Assam began. Taking advantage of the continuous Ahom- Mughals wars, the Bhutanese captured the plains south of the Bhutan hills. By the middle of the 17th century a war broke out. The Bhutanese were defeated by the Assamese and a treaty was signed by which the control of the Assam duars and the plain adjacent to these duars went to Bhutan against an annual tribute paid to the Ahom king.

After the annexation of Assam by the British, these duars became a constant source of conflict. In 1841 these seven duars were annexed to Assam by compensating Bhutan with an annual tribute of Rs 10,000. But intermittent border clashes led to the Duar War which resulted in the Treaty of Sinchula in 1865 signed between British India and Bhutan by which all the Bhutan duars bordering Bengal, Koch Behar and Assam along with the adjoining territory went to the British in exchange of an annual tribute of Rs 50,000 to Bhutan. In 1910, to resist to Chinese expansionism, the Treaty of Punakha was signed by which Bhutan became a British Protectorate with an undertaking to guide Bhutan’s foreign affairs and defence. The annual tribute to Bhutan was enhanced to Rs 2,00,000.

After 1947, India and Bhutan maintained close relations. Bhutan is a small isolated country (46,500 sq km) located in the eastern Himalayas between India and China, with less than a million people officially practicing tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism. Bhutan was never colonized, fiercely guarding its cultural and spiritual heritage. It shares 699km international border with India. The Indo- Bhutan border was properly demarcated in between 1975-84. In 1949 the Indo-Bhutan treaty was signed by which both India and Bhutan agreed to consult each other closely on foreign affairs and defence. The treaty established free trade and commerce between the two countries. It also raised the annual tribute to Bhutan to Rs 5 lakhs and a strip of land measuring 32.81sq.miles in area known as Dewangiri of Assam was ceded to Bhutan. This was India’s first case of ceding its territory to a neighboring country, thereby compromising its territorial sovereignty.

After the annexation of Tibet by China in 1950, the Indo-Bhutan relations were strengthened. Bhutan became the largest trading partner with India. In spite of close Indo-Bhutan relations, Bhutanese affairs were maintained by India’s political officer based in Sikkim. In 1968, formal diplomatic relations between India and Bhutan were made with the establishment of India’s residential embassy in Timphu. But the Indo-Bhutan treaty of 1949 was seen as India’s control over Bhutan’s foreign affairs and defence. Time and again Bhutan tried to assert itself as a sovereign nation. India’s repeated declarations of military support to Bhutan in case of external aggression were rejected by Bhutan. She maintained that the country was not a protectorate of India. Bhutan was apprehensive of about India’s hegemony and doubted India’s military strength to defend against possible Chinese aggression.

 In 1959, when Bhutan wanted to directly negotiate with China for resolving the Sino-Bhutan border dispute, India raised objections. Indo-Bhutan relations were strained. By the 1960s, Bhutan started to assert its independent status by opening relations with other countries. In 1971, Bhutan became a member of the U.N. and later opened U.N. missions in New York and Geneva.  In 1972, it established formal diplomatic relations with Bangladesh, allowing residential embassy in Timphu. In 1984, Bhutan began boundary talks with China even without having formal diplomatic relations. Both the countries signed their first bilateral agreement in1998 with the opening of Bhutan’s consulates in Macao and Hongkong.

Trying to check growing Chinese influence, India invested heavily in Bhutan by building roads, establishing cement plants, airports, telecommunications, hospitals & hydropower projects. Meanwhile, Bhutan alarmed by the fate of Sikkim, where immigrant Nepalese outnumbered the indigenous Sikkimese and subsequent takeover by India in 1975 after a referendum, began its drive against illegal Nepalese immigrants also known as Southern Bhutanese. Between 1990 -93 about one lakh Nepalese, branded as anti-nationals were forced out from Bhutan. India remained silent on the large scale Nepalese refugee issue.

On the other hand, the 1990 Indian military counter insurgency operations against ULFA forced it to shift its headquarters from the jungles of Assam to the hills of Southeast Bhutan. Within the next decade ULFA had established 18 camps sheltering about 1500 cadres. ULFA had its liaison officer stationed in Timphu and the Bhutanese King paid a number of visits to ULFA’S headquarters. The hit and run operations by ULFA in Assam from the camps in Bhutan became a headache for the Indian Armed Forces. India started building pressure on Bhutan to vacate the ULFA camps. The Bhutanese Govt. tried to convince ULFA leaders to shift their camps and offered logistic supports and money. The ULFA leader refused. The refusal to shift the rebel camps led to the joint military operations by Indian and Bhutanese forces code- named operations ‘All Clear’ in 2003. The ULFA camps were dismantled along with the NDFB & KLO camps. There were reports of 26 missing personals of ULFA including three central committee members and eight officers who were handed over to the Indian army by the Bhutanese army.

In 2007 India and Bhutan renegotiated the 1949 treaty and signed a new treaty clarifying Bhutan’s sovereign status and control over its foreign affairs and defence. Even then the Bhutanese army is trained by the Indian army. Now Bhutan maintains diplomatic relations with 52 countries and the European Union. Bhutan gradually moved towards democracy with a change in the political system from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. The first general elections were held in 2007 for the National Council and for the National Assembly in 2008.

Bhutan is a landlocked country and India allows 16 entry/exist duty free transit points along the Indian borders to do trade with third countries. Presently, India is Bhutan’s largest trading & development partner allowing free trade and movement of each other’s citizens without passports.  Bhutan is the only country in the world which has adopted ‘gross national happiness’ instead of gross domestic product as the main development indicator.

Bhutan’s hydropower potential is huge and power is a major source of its economy. India is a power deficit country and hydropower became central to Indo-Bhutan relations. Bhutan’s three hydro power projects namely the 1020 MW Tala, the 336 MW Chukha and the 60 MW Kurichu are built with India’s assistance. Now Bhutan is exporting electricity to India from these hydropower projects.

In 2008 both the countries agreed to develop 10 more hydropower projects generating 10,000 MW hydropower. With India’s aid constructions are going on the 1200 MW Punatsangchu-I, 1020 MW Punatsangchu-II and 720 MW Mangdechhu hydropower projects. In 2014, the foundation stone of the 600MW Kholongchhu power project was laid by the Indian Prime Minister.  Bhutan’s hydro power projects are being built without assessing the downstream impact on Assam. In 2004 and 2007 Lower Assam was devasted by the released water from the Kurichu dam. India and Bhutan have to take appropriate steps in this regard.

Hiranya Saikia

Sports Organizer, Former Taekwondo player.
PCG member and writer.

Contact: (091) 970 701 3718

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