India’s Role in the Bhutanese Democratic Movement

Published on Jan 30 2010 // Commentary
By R. P. Subba

The role of the Indian government on the paraphernalia of the Bhutanese democratic movement for human rights and democracy begs for more criticism than appreciation. India’s strategic advantage both in terms of location and influence on  governance in Bhutan is hardly concealed from anyone. But after two decades, India’s attitude on the Bhutanese movement remains cold and questionable. The Bhutanese leaders believed that India’s image as the largest democracy in the world could help them sail the current of democracy into Bhutan. They were all proved dumb. And why not, India is a huge beneficiary of the Bhutan’s bustling hydro-projects. When it comes to foreign policy matters, India has always looked to widen its own national interest even at the cost of  promoting autocracy.

India perceives Bhutan’s democratic movement as one that has a strong ethnic character. In the adjacent area, the Gorkhas of Darjeeling hills have long been struggling to carve out a separate state for themselves. Neighboring Nepal is not easy on matters of national interests, like Bhutan. A resurgent Nepali speaking population in neighboring Bhutan could further catalyze that movement in Darjeeling and other parts of India. In its view, if properly unchecked, this population can transform the entire Himalayan politics to India’s disadvantage. No doubt, the government of the West Bengal state of India has been fighting hard to deny the Gorkhas of Darjeeling, their demand for a separate land.

When human rights and democracy itself are at stake, any government should step up into action in favor of these universal values. India, obviously has been missing that lesson. So, India cannot be a conduit for the resolution of the problem in the true interest of the Bhutanese people. Even though, India played the instrumental role in brokering peace and chasing out King Gyanendra from Narayanhiti, its approach in Bhutan’s case has remained just the opposite. India heavily favors the Bhutanese regime in place of the democratic forces, which has been a cause of apprehension for the Bhutanese democratic forces. India stands as a big stumbling block to their efforts to return to Bhutan. The Bhutanese dissidents feel that they have been betrayed both by their own country and by India.  In fact, they suspect, any mediation navigated by India could be counter productive to their inherent interests in Bhutan and for their movement. Therefore, neither the government of Nepal nor the Bhutanese political leaders in exile should desire India’s involvement in the process of resolving the Bhutanese imbroglio.

Some Bhutanese dissidents charge that the Bhutanese were first repressed by their own country Bhutan and secondly by India. The Indian police forces have arrested, jailed, tortured and shot the Bhutanese democratic activists in the Indian soil, while trying to cross to Bhutan. Surprisingly, they were ‘unnoticed’ when they crossed into Nepal in hordes but when they attempt to return to Bhutan, the Indian government intercepts even a single individual and either locks them up or deports them back to the refugee camps.

The ordeal of the Bhutanese refugees from the oppression from their own government has been matched only by a few autocratic countries. This writer is a witness to both.

Here is an example. On the morning of June 2nd 1999, I led a group of about 101 refugees from the various refugee camps in Nepal to Bhutan. By 8.00 am we were inside Phuntsholing town. Our plan was to put up a protest demonstration. We took out our party banners and started rallying. Before we could walk about 300 yards, the Royal Bhutan Police arrested all of us and walked us back to the building used for booking bus tickets. There, we were confined within the iron chains of building for a couple of hours. A few hours later, we were moved to a different building in the other side of the town, where we were again confined until 12.00 midnight within its iron chains. While inside the chained building we were manipulated, coerced and insulted.  At 12.00 midnight, two Indian state buses arrived and we were led into the buses forcefully. I was seated in the front seat, close to the driver with four alert, Bhutanese policemen guarding me with automatic guns. The bus swiftly moved. When it arrived at Jaigaon, the adjoining Indian town, local Indian authorities greeted and welcomed the Bhutanese team. The Indians took charge and we were driven towards Nepal during the night. Each bus was secured by convoy vehicles of the Indian police force.

By morning we were brought to Panitanki, a small town near the Nepal India border. Then the Indian policemen lined us up and escorted us for about half a kilometer through the tea gardens and finally we reached a steep slope from where we could see the Mechi river. Then, we were ordered to climb down the slope, cross the river and walk into Nepal, while the Indian police men stood on the top pointing guns at us. They did not want us to walk over the Mechi bridge which connects Nepal and India.

Such incidences and even more serious ones repeated every time the Bhutanese democratic forces attempted to return home. The arrest and incarceration of Rongthong Kuenley Dorji in New Delhi is a clear example of how Indian government uses each and every opportunity to punish Bhutanese leaders who oppose the Thimphu regime.

During my stay in lock up inside Bhutan, I have found out that Bhutan is looking for answers in easy places. My impression was that Bhutan government basically views this problem as an administrative issue. It does not in way see the need to solve the problem politically. And there lies the crux. As long as Bhutan does not feel this problem is a political one, needing a political solution, it will not be resolved. Thimphu sends its beaurocrats as emissaries to talk to dissident leaders when they protest inside Bhutan. The outcome of the bilateral talks would have been different if it was approached with a purest political sense.

Indian double standard has also been seen during Bhutan’s transition to ‘democracy’. Instead of lending its support to the struggling democratic forces, the Indian government sided with the  autocratic regime. Bhutan’s Constitutional development did not happen in the villages of Bhutan. Bhutan inherited its first Constitution as a gift from India. Only a few handpicked courtiers of the King were involved in drafting the Constitution. Unfortunately, the central government of India, which is a coalition government of several political parties did not foresee that the Constitution they gifted could kill pluralism in Bhutan.

Apparently, Bhutan’s much touted transition to democracy piloted by the king is a sham. The abdication of the throne and the election was a political gimmick. Monarchy is still the most powerful institution in Bhutan. Elections do not ensure the emergence of democracy, they do happen even in countries governed by authoritarian rulers. Bhutan’s ‘democracy’ did not provide any political space to the dissident groups functioning in exile. A third political party formed and operating inside the country was declined registration by the Royal Election Commission and therefore, could not participate in the polls. Neither, did it lift the ban on political parties struggling for the establishment of democracy and human rights in Bhutan.

The elected government has not imbibed a culture of political tolerance and respect for political pluralism. It feels revolted if anyone tries to genuinely criticize its malevolent actions and policies. The government still tortures political prisoners to extract information and to weaken the dissent. It still considers the refugees as ‘illegal immigrants.’  ‘Change’ has not really come to Bhutan in its true meaning.

One finds hard to reconcile how a Constitution devoid of a real Bhutanese flavor can represent the aspiration of the people. The constitution does not envisage a truly inclusive democracy for all the political minorities in the body politics of Bhutan. Approximately 30,000 southern Bhutanese who are related to the refugees but living inside Bhutan and 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in exile were disenfranchised in the general elections of 2008. Bhutan has not learned lessons from recent political developments Nepal.

Despite India’s cynicism, it is clear that Bhutan’s democratic movement will continue to grow. There is a large section of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal and India who would favor repatriation to Bhutan in the first place. Those refugees who have accepted resettlement may not fight anymore to return to Bhutan, but they will still continue to love Bhutan. They will continue to speak out in favor of democracy and human rights. For many of them, the desire to sustain and stay the course of the struggle for democracy in Bhutan is a core mission of life. The resettlement program has reshaped the general landscape of the Bhutanese movement. In fact, it has triggered an ambitious international campaign on the part of the refugees to lobby favorable parties and governments in favor of the Bhutanese movement for democracy and human rights.

If India continues to nurse its own agenda of coaxing the King, she may lose her own credibility in the international arena. The Bhutanese haven taken stories of Indian paranoia to every country of settlement. India should clearly stay away from an active involvement in cooking a solution to the Bhutanese problem. But it would be a big help if they could educate the Bhutanese government on the long term benefits of instituting an inclusive democracy, rule of law and allowing the dignified return of willing citizens from exile to Bhutan.