India’s relations with Bhutan (Comprehensive Coverage): Target IAS 2018 and Beyond

Background of India’s relations with Bhutan


Before taking up India’s relations with Bhutan in detail, let us first look at the geopolitics around Bhutan. The durk yul ‘land of thunder dragons’, it is the second largest of the Himalayan kingdoms, with an area of around 38,394 sq km that is less than one-quarter of the size of Nepal’s area of around 140,797 sq km.


Two-thirds of Bhutan is covered with forest and everywhere there are mountains and strong water flows.


Bhutan is bounded on the north (like Nepal) by the Tibetan region of China, and on the south and the east by the Indian union territory of Arunachal Pradesh.


Geopolitically, the location of Bhutan between the Tibetan plateau and the Assam-Bengal plains of India makes it important for India; as one Indian analyst summarized, ‘Bhutan occupies a strategic position on our northern border’.






In terms of external boundaries, Bhutan has a border of 605 km with India and 470 km with China; the two countries ‘collide’ in and over Bhutan. Bhutan, therefore, emerges as a crucial buffer state between India and China in the eastern Himalayas in the military sense.


Western Bhutan borders the sensitive Chumbi valley, and therefore guards any possible Chinese ingress routes in any possible future conflict. The Indian state of Sikkim, adjoining western Bhutan, until recently was being disputed by China. Similarly, eastern Bhutan adjoins vital Indian Army defences in Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state still wholly claimed by China.



Bhutan’s special relationship with India


On the one hand, Bhutan has cultural affinities with Tibet, as 80% of Bhutan’s population was of Tibetan stock, and their language, customs and religion were much like those of the Tibetans. On the other hand, Bhutan is geographically a part of the Indian subcontinent, and has extremely close political ties to India.


Under the 1949 Treaty of Friendship and Neighbourliness, ‘The Government of India undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations’ (Article 2). That particular ‘guidance’ clause was removed in the revised 2007 Treaty, however.


Between 1951 and 1958 India’s relations with Bhutan and Sikkim were by and large harmonious. Various visits were quickly made by the Bhutanese rulers to India in 1952, 1954 and 1955, reflecting the close relations between the two countries. Nehru, the architect of Indian foreign policy, fully realized the importance of Bhutan for Indian security. Nehru’s description of Bhutan in 1954 was sanguine:

Our relations with Bhutan are friendly. Bhutan is a semi-independent State whose foreign policy has to be conducted in consultation with us. The State receives a subsidy from us also. They are very anxious to preserve their independence, but realise that they have to rely on India. We have no desire to interfere internally in Bhutan but we have made it clear that, so far as external matters are concerned or any defence matters, India is intensely interested and must have a say. This is the position.


Such perceptions remain the position for India. The persistent Indian effort to persuade Bhutan to become a partner yielded some result, and by 1958 Bhutan was persuaded to embark on the gradual modernization of the country and link its fate with India.




Nehru was the first foreign dignitary ever to visit Bhutan. During his 1958 stay in Bhutan, Nehru had discussions with the Maharaja and other high officials of the kingdom. The visit was not only a landmark in Bhutan’s relations with India, but also a step in the gradual opening of Bhutan for India.


It also brought assurances from Nehru in the Indian parliament, on 29 August 1959, that any (Chinese) aggression against Bhutan, and Sikkim, would be considered an act of aggression against India.


A team of Indian military officers visited Bhutan in 1961 in order to make the necessary arrangements with Bhutan for its defence. Half a century later and such linkages are still very evident between India and Bhutan.



Military and economic assistance


India’s continuing military assistance to Bhutan was reciprocated in 2003 when Bhutanese military forces took action in Operation All Clear against some 30 camps of Indian insurgent groups (such as the United Liberation Front of Assam—ULFA—the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, and the Kamtapur Liberation Organization), which had set-up training camps on Bhutanese territory.


India has assured Bhutan of its continued support for military and development projects, and is currently preparing a comprehensive modernization package for the Bhutanese army. It has agreed to sell low-tech arms to Bhutan—5.56-mm INSAS assault rifles, 51-mm or 81-mm mortars, night-vision devices, winter clothing for the army, and military vehicles.


It has also agreed to increase the military training of Bhutanese army officers in India. India will also establish a joint military grid to patrol against Indian militants.


India is the single largest donor to Bhutan; in fact, it has flooded Bhutan with economic aid. Eight Five Year Plans in Bhutan have been completed since 1961, the first two of which were totally financed by India. Indian contributions to Bhutan’s Five Year Plans remain significant. The Indian contribution to the 7th Five Year Plan for 1992–97 was 750 crores; to the 8th Five Year Plan for 1997–2002 it was 1,050 crores (26% of the total plan outlay); to the 9th Five Year Plan for 2002–07 it was 2,600 crores.


India has also contributed to Bhutan’s development outside the scope of the Five Year Plans, through megaprojects on infrastructure and power supplies. Bhutan also enjoys complete free trade with India, and remains dependent on India for most of its imports and exports.



During 2008 imports from India were of the order of Rs17,330m. and constituted 74% of Bhutan’s total imports. Bhutan’s exports to India in 2008 amounted to Rs21,480m. and constituted 95% of its total exports.


Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bhutan in May 2008, the previous visit being by Narashima Rao in 1993, brought a rafter of economic and hydro-electric energy deals, with India also again agreeing to fund nearly one-quarter of Bhutan’s 10th Five Year Plan, with an outlay of 3,400 crores.


In his speech to the Bhutanese parliament, the Indian Prime Minister reckoned that India’s wider total bilateral economic engagement with Bhutan over the next five years was to be of the order of Rs 10,000 crores. In terms of security, he flagged up new security issues, where ‘India and Bhutan are well placed to create a new paradigm for intergovernmental cooperation in the areas of water security and environmental integrity.


The Himalayan glaciers are our common asset and we can do much more together to devise strategies to combat global warming’. Interestingly, though, he avoided any mention of Bhutan’s security problems with China, though he did announce the construction of the first railway linkage between Bhutan and India, perhaps a response to China’s construction of a direct railway line to Lhasa and its moves to extend it to the borders of Nepal and Bhutan.


Bhutan’s moves against terrorist groups and its common problems with China have moved Bhutan’s relationship with India ‘from development cooperation to strategic partnership’, albeit between two partners with very different power.



The Chinese stand on Bhutan


The July 1958 issue of China Pictorial published a map of China in which the Sino-Indian border was indicated by a thick brown line. This map once again included a large chunk of Indian territory within the territorial limits of China.


A considerable area of eastern and northeastern Bhutan was also portrayed as part of China. China had always claimed rights in Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim on grounds of traditional, ethnic, cultural and religious affinity between the populations of these lands and China’s Tibetan region, in which the chief aim of the Government’s current manipulations in the region seemed to be to detach these territories from India and integrate them into the Chinese orbit by any means short of war.



It came to the notice of the Bhutanese and Indian authorities that the Chinese had occupied eight villages on the Bhutan–Tibet border in 1959. In accordance with the Article 2 provisions of the 1949 India-Bhutan Treaty, India took up the border matter with China on behalf of Bhutan.



In a letter dated 22 March 1959, Nehru wrote to the Chinese premier that the publication of Chinese maps showing parts of Indian and Bhutanese territory as parts of China were not in accordance with long-established usage as well as treaties. Even though Nehru firmly adhered to the view that the security of Bhutan and Sikkim was the concern of India, Zhou Enlai refused to recognize any ‘special relation’ of Bhutan and Sikkim with India. Since 1984 some 19 rounds of border talks have been held between Bhutan and China, but with little result.



Recent developments in Bhutan and concerns for India


India assumed the responsibility for the defence of Bhutan because of what it considered to be China’s ruthless actions in Tibet and its aggressive posture along the disputed borders. Bhutan has also become concerned about China’s road-building ventures on its immediate northern borders in recent times.


In November 2004 Bhutan lodged a formal protest to Beijing stating that some of China’s road building programme violated the Bhutan-China Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Along the Sino-Bhutanese Border Areas (1998).


The agreement stipulates that China and Bhutan will maintain peace and tranquillity on the borders, uphold the status quo of the boundary prior to March 1959 and not resort to unilateral action to alter the status quo of the border.


China purportedly agreed to suspend the construction work until the next round of border talks in 2005, but then resumed activity, amidst inconclusive border talks and cross-border incursions. This all led to Indian accusations of China’s ‘bullying and teasing tactics’.


Chinese troop movements in late 2007 into the disputed Chumbi valley tri-junction between Bhutan, China (Tibet) and India (Sikkim) brought immediate Indian reinforcements, and pointed attention towards Sikkim’s role in Himalayan politics.



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