| Dragon king
Wherever he might be, Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal must have been pleased this week as his fresh-faced, soft-spoken, slender, young grand-nephew, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, Bhutan’s fifth Druk Gyalpo (dragon king), succeeded where he had failed, and India abandoned the imperious diplomacy of its imperial predecessor.
Treaties have always been a sore point in the Himalayas. The Chogyal lost everything struggling to obtain some relaxation in Sikkim’s 1950 treaty with India. Nepal grumbled that though the peace and friendship treaty, signed the same year, committed both countries to mutual consultations on defence, India did not ever discuss anything with the kingdom. The exasperated Bhutanese placed on record their interpretation that Article 2 of the 1949 treaty requiring Bhutan’s foreign policy to be “guided” by India’s “advice” only meant they could seek Indian “advice” if they wished, but that acceptance was voluntary.
Recognition of Bhutanese sensitivities demonstrates that India is no longer insecure enough to cling jealously to every linguistic shred of the British Raj, nor still paralysed by fear of China to indulge in petty manoeuvres along the border. On the contrary, India now has the courage and resilience to take within its sphere of influence boldly imaginative measures that authoritarian China would not dream of doing in its own neighbourhood.
Once upon a time, five landlocked kingdoms — Ladakh, Nepal, Mustang, Sikkim and Bhutan — were wedged in the mountains between Asia’s two giants. They were all, in Prithvinarayan Shah’s memorable words, like yams caught between two boulders. Of the two Himalayan thrones left, one is tottering while the promising young heir to the other reaches out to a new dawn.
Leh’s nine-storey mud palace is a reminder that Jammu’s 19th-century Maharajah Gulab Singh tore Ladakh out of Tibet. In turn, the Chinese seized Ladakh’s Aksai Chin plateau, which is today one of the two main territorial disputes with China. As for tiny Mustang, it may have been no accident that King Gyanendra’s grandfather Tribhuvan annexed it in 1951, the year after Tibet fell. India must have heaved a sigh of relief, for although Mustang acknowledged Nepalese suzerainty as early as 1789, its Tibetan culture and connections made it vulnerable to Chinese influence. New Delhi may even have slipped a word to Tribhuvan, India’s all-time-favourite monarch, though Bhutan’s now reportedly abdicated King Jigme Singye, the 27-year-old monarch’s father, is a serious contender. I don’t know whether Tribhuvan really offered India his kingdom, as some patriotic Indians claim, but as the Sikkim saga showed, there are many ways of arranging offers and invitations.
Bhutan’s new treaty replaces one that replicated the instrument British India imposed on the kingdom in 1910. That event marked the culmination of typical imperial bullying. For, when Bhutan resisted pressure, Lord Auckland (then known as Ashley Eden), who had already humbled the Chogyal’s grandfather with the unequal treaty of 1861, marched up to teach the Bhutanese a lesson. Instead, he took his medicine, being led on a merry dance through jungle and forest, imprisoned, insulted, abused, and compelled in 1863 to put his seal to humiliating terms. After Eden escaped to Calcutta, the Raj repudiated the document he had signed. The 1865 Treaty of Sinchula forced Bhutan to cede the Duars and parts of Assam.
When another treaty was signed in Darjeeling three years after Ugyen Wangchuck was elevated as Bhutan’s first hereditary Druk Gyalpo, a jubilant British official cabled back that Bhutan had become a part of British India. London quickly silenced him, preferring actual control to juridical sovereignty. The terms of that document were repeated almost exactly in the treaty that independent India signed on August 8, 1949, with “the Government of His Highness the Druk Gyalpo, Maharaja of Bhutan”. That was Jigme Wangchuck, second Druk Gyalpo.
Much water has flowed down the Pho Chu and Mo Chu, the Father and Mother rivers, in whose union nestles the ancient dzong of Punakha where the new Druk Gyalpo will presumably be consecrated. Precedent suggests it will not be a coronation. His father — then the world’s youngest monarch — rejected a coronation in 1974 because, he said, the ceremony had no place in traditional Bhutanese ritual. The raven crown was pictorially superimposed on his head for postage stamps. Instead, he received the royal scarf in the Chapel of the Shabdrung — ancestor of the new king’s mother — at Punakha.
Ritual need not lose its sanctity as absolutism yields to a constitutional monarchy, village elders pore over a new democratic constitution and Bhutanese prepare to vote in the first national election. In The Queen, Britain’s monarch makes Tony Blair kneel at her feet and gently shuts him up when he claims his right to form a government. Instead, she invites him to do so, tells him to answer “Yes”, gives her hand to kiss, and only then lets him rise. The Bhutanese don’t kneel. When the Chogyal’s courtiers stretched out full-length in the Chinese ko-tow, Bhutanese ministers greeted their king with a slight bow. The old-fashioned followed the Tibetan custom of putting out their tongue and turning their open palms outwards to display mouth and hands were clean. But then, Bhutan’s monarchy has democratic roots: his fellow penlops, or regional governors, elected Ugyen Wangchuck.
Apart from Article 2, Article 6 of the 1949 treaty, allowing Bhutan to import “arms, ammunition, machines, warlike material or stores” for its “strength” and “welfare”, but only with India’s “assistance and approval”, was also regarded as incompatible with sovereign status. But in practice, these clauses may not have restricted Bhutan’s options more than geopolitics would — and will — do in any case. It’s how national imperatives are reconciled that matters. Bhutan resisted bulldozing Indian planners anxious to harness rivers for power with little thought for the environment. Conscience also obliged it to take an independent line on Afghanistan and Cambodia.
This was possible because Bhutan is the only country that stands by India in every crisis. As Dawa Tsering, the world’s longest-serving foreign minister would say, Bhutan is India’s only friend in south Asia. A natural graciousness reinforced friendship. I watched at the non-aligned movement’s Colombo summit when King Jigme Singye, then only 21 but astute beyond his years, got up from his seat in Row B, walked back to Row I when Indira Gandhi was due to speak, and escorted her to the dais with all the courtesy of an old world cavalier. He repeated that gesture when, speech over, she was due to come down.
Contrast that with reports of King Mahendra of Nepal sitting with legs crossed on his balcony at NAM’s Lusaka summit six years earlier, taking no notice at all of Mrs Gandhi as she walked past. Or of his son, King Birendra, declining her breakfast invitation at another of those jamborees. India did not need to smite the Shah dynasty. But Bhutan’s monarchy thrives while Nepal’s languishes.
No doubt Bhutan is fully aware of the challenges that the morrow will bring. First, 23 years of border-talks with China have not led beyond an Agreement to Maintain Peace and Tranquillity, presumably because India has not yet composed its own differences with the Chinese, and the eastern end of the 470-km Sino-Bhutanese border forms a trijunction with Arunachal Pradesh. All the same, it may have been something of a diplomatic coup for the Bhutanese negotiators to get China to “reiterate its position to fully respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bhutan” in 1998. Second, a Chinese embassy may be the logical outcome once the border problem has been settled. Where China goes, can Pakistan be far behind'
Perhaps these are challenges more for India than for Bhutan. The Bhutanese, in any case, are bound to have anticipated future difficulties and shrewdly worked out already exactly how the kingdom will cope with them. It’s the new India’s response that may have a bearing on India’s wider global ties.