External Affairs

Is India Endangering Its Relationship With Closest Foreign Ally Bhutan?

Thimphu may have been the destination of Narendra Modi’s first foreign visit as prime minister, but events since then prove that India’s Bhutan policy is driven by ignorance. Case in point – the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay. Credit: PTI

Bhutan rarely features much in Indian foreign policy, so when Narendra Modi made it the destination of his first foreign visit after becoming prime minister, it was big news. A great deal was read into his decision. Certainly Bhutan was pleased, although the last minute nature of the decision meant that they had very little time to prepare and the king had to instruct the army to help the civilian government make arrangements in double time.

Modi received a very warm reception in Thimphu, was surrounded by people all the time and gave a speech to our closest neighbour from their parliament. Of course, there were a few glitches. The official translator struggled to transform Modi’s colloquial Hindi into the staid Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language, but the more worrying thing was that Modi’s speech, beyond the banalities of grants and historic friendship, hardly addressed any Bhutanese concerns. The comments about terrorism dividing neighbours while tourism brings them together seemed to be addressed more to Pakistan. Moreover, the comments missed a key point: Bhutan did not want to be any closer to India than it already was.

As Modi expanded on the idea of creating greater links between Bhutan and India’s northeastern states – whether through sports, tourism or trade – he brought home the point that he understood Bhutan not at all. What most Bhutanese see of India around their borders are the badlands of Assam and West Bengal, the tea estates where the exploitation and poverty have been so extreme that they bred the original Naxal insurgency. The militancy prone small states of the Northeast are not that inviting either, especially as Bhutan had to go to war in 2003 to expel ULFA and other  militants from its territory. And Sikkim, just a hop, skip and jump away, was swallowed by India in 1975.

Not such a good friend after all

If you were Bhutan, would you want closer integration into these regions, or would you prefer to keep a distance and market yourself as an untouched Himalayan paradise? Bhutan chose the latter course. It has worked out brilliantly. Tourists from around the world are happy to pay $250 a day (this charge does not apply to Indians or Bangladeshis) as a minimum charge to travel to this elite destination.

A speech, though, is only a speech. Unfortunately actions taken after Modi’s visit have only served to drive the point home that the government’s Bhutan policy is driven by ignorance. From the rising costs of the hydro-electric dams that underpin India-Bhutan trade, to misplaced chest-thumping when it came to cross-border raids, it seemed in each and every case that the Indian government was wilfully neglecting Bhutanese interests.

Of all of these, the crisis around the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement (BBIN MVA) is the clearest example of how Indian foreign policy is negatively impacting Bhutan.

Originally meant to be a SAARC initiative, the BBIN MVA was mooted when Pakistan expressed reservations on the pan-South Asian deal during the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November 2014. The BBIN countries then decided that a sub-regional initiative might work best. Pushed through as part of India’s “eastern strategy”, which would help build stronger links with the northeastern states and countries like Bhutan and Bangladesh, the BBIN MVA does not really look much at what the interests of Bhutan might be, perhaps because it is the smallest of the countries involved.

But while Bhutan may be small, it is not insignificant. As everybody from environmentalists to taxi drivers to transporters in Bhutan realised, the agreement, which would allow free movement of vehicles across the country from Nepal, India and Bangladesh, was not in its interests, they blocked the passage of the agreement. Bhutan is a country of mountains and only mountains. Most trade-related traffic occurs on the plains, in the south of Bhutan, in the Duars located in India’s Assam and West Bengal. Opening the country through relentless traffic would degrade its environment, subject the country to sound pollution, air pollution and huge traffic problems (there is only one road snaking from the east to the west of the country), with little gain.

After a great deal of wrangling, Bhutan’s National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, passed the agreement on June 22, 2016. Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay promised that the BBIN MVA “would not allow free flow of foreign vehicles into the country but regulate the cross-border movement of vehicles in the sub-region”, defeating the very purpose of the agreement. The agreement has, as yet, to be passed by the upper house, the National Council.

In all of this, what has been lost is why Modi’s original Bhutan trip was so important. Bhutan lies in the middle of India’s largest land border dispute – that with China. Bhutan has, so far, chosen to stay firmly within India’s security umbrella, but a country’s decisions are driven by its own self-interests. If India keeps neglecting those of Bhutan, we may end up endangering the closest foreign relationship we have.