January 17, 2020
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'India Is Not Tilting Towards Us'

King of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuk was in India last week to sign two agreements, one for a hydroelectric project and another for setting up a cement plant with ACC. The two governments also initiated discussions on working together to combat and e

'India Is Not Tilting Towards Us'
This is the first joint project between the Bhutan government and a private Indian company. Can one expect more such agreements?

The decision our government has taken is that we can have joint ventures on a selective basis. But the scope for such joint ventures is rather limited because our policy is more to develop hydropower resources. The development of industries suffers from several constraints. One is that since we are a landlocked country, the cost of transportation of products and raw materials is very high.

How are Bhutan's ties with Nepal, especially in the context of the question of Bhutanese of Nepalese origin?

Immigration into Bhutan started at the end of the last century. Those who came were basically farmers and were regularised in 1958. But the majority of the illegal immigrants entered Bhutan after we started the process of socio-economic development in 1961, when we launched our first five-year plan. As we started to develop the infrastructure of a modern state—roads, telecommunications, hospitals and so on—we needed a lot of labour and Nepalese labour was easily available and very cheap. Unfortunately, many of them decided to settle down in Bhutan and that is the genesis of the present problem.

Nepal Foreign Minister P.C. Lohani has said that the country will internationalise the issue.

We are committed to the bilateral process, we are convinced that given the necessary goodwill and political will, the problem can be resolved bilaterally. It is not an intractable problem. If the Nepalese government wishes to exercise some other option, it is their sovereign right to do so. But I think it would be unwise.

Nepal wants India's help to resolve the problem but has charged New Delhi with tilting towards Bhutan.

Till the bilateral process is exhausted, I don't think we should look at other options. As far as this tilt is concerned, I don't think it is a fair assessment. The point which the Government of India has made is that India has friendly relations with both Nepal and Bhutan and it does not want its territory to be used against either country. So, if these organised marches pass through Indian territory and try to create problems for Bhutan, India could be seriously misunderstood of either supporting or, at the very least, of acquiescing in this. Naturally, India is caught in a very awkward predicament.

Nepal says since India let these people pass through India to Nepal, it should allow them back the same way.

Our position is that not all the people in the camps are from Bhutan and all those who may have gone from Bhutan aren't Bhutanese citizens, they are illegal immigrants sans citizenship status. Pranab Mukherjee has explained that because of complete freedom of movement between Bhutan and India, people from Bhutan crossed over into India and then to Nepal. Since India and Nepal also have an open border, it was impossible to stop them. But this case is qualitatively different. There were reportedly two groups of people who entered India two weeks ago. Months before this event, they set up support groups in Siliguri, Darjeeling, all over the place. So when they came to India, they crossed the Meichi river as an organised group, declaring their intention to march across Indian territory. This has security implications for India: there are millions of Nepalese in that area and, secondly, this group had professed a declaration to move into Bhutan. So India said nothing doing.

How long can Bhutan maintain its traditional way of life?

This was one dilemma we found ourselves in when we embarked on the process of modernisation. Ours is a highly traditional society. Bhutan is the last bastion of Mahayana Buddhism in its pristine form. Our government decided it would be futile to modernise by throwing our traditional values overboard. But, without western technology you can't improve the quality of life. We are trying to maintain a balance. We are often criticised for not introducing television. Sooner or later we are going to have it. Expatriates and Indian diplomats already have it. Foreign journalists, who see things in black and white, say this is one means of keeping a reactionary government in place, of keeping new ideas out and maintaining feudalism. This is totally untrue. We do not like the spread of monoculture based on urbanisation and industrialisation. Besides, we sent out over 5,900 students to study abroad in our sixth plan. If we are trying to prevent ideas from coming in this would be the last thing we would do.

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