By Abhismita Sen
Located at the eastern end of the Himalayas as a buffer state between India and its crucial neighbours, Nepal, Bangladesh and China, Bhutan - which had only featured in Indian foreign policy as an aid receiver thus far - welcomed the first official diplomatic visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year.
India’s growing emphasis on its neighbourhood through multilateral cooperation is not a sign of its shrinking paradigm of ambitions, but a strategy to pursue the same. India would have to face both its prodigal neighbours China and Pakistan in order to attain regional leadership. Though both China and India are wary of each other’s growth, none can seize diplomatic and trade relations with the other in the globalized world.
In this regard, Bhutan is one of India’s most crucial neighbours in its China containment strategy. Besides, there are also a considerable number of domestic considerations which make Bhutan a significant neighbour.
The Indian state of Sikkim separates Bhutan from Nepal in the west, Assam and West Bengal separate Bhutan from Bangladesh in the further south. Hence from the geostrategic point of view Bhutan can determine and regulate the balance of both power and terror in South Asia.
Insurgency is a sensitive issue across northeastern borders of India at large. The Himalayan kingdom was chosen by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), and later the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) because southern Bhutan, where it set up base, was not properly policed and was densely wooded and located just across the border from Assam. The north Bengal areas of West Bengal run the risk of acting as a bridge between the Maoist insurgents in India and Bhutan. India’s interest is to develop the security forces through personnel training institutes and aides in Bhutan and strengthen its anti-insurgency forces. Development in terms of trade, infrastructure and better employment scopes is also a way to evade growing resentment which translates into insurgency.
Bhutan’s northwest is adjacent to the Chumbi Valley, a tri-junction of Bhutan, India and China which adjoins both Sikkim and Tibet. The area is important for India as the sole link between the Indian mainland and the northeast. Infrastructure remains extremely ill-developed in Bhutan, very much like India’s northeastern states. Building of newer roadways between Indian northeastern states and Bhutan will not only reduce transport costs incurred through longer routes of the well-developed states, but also lead to the installation of security forces, thus combating insurgency in a way.
India has planned to assist Bhutan to set up a digital library which will provide access to Bhutanese youth to two million books and periodicals, and is also keen on embarking several cultural projects with Bhutan.
The Indian northeastern population has a religious connectivity with its Bhutanese counterpart through ideals of Buddhism. Cultural activities across the border can be a soothing safeguard for them. Tourism initiatives between India’s northeastern states and Bhutan across the beautiful Himalayan belt can play a key role in socio-economic progress through newer enterprises and employment opportunities, infrastructure development and foreign exchange earnings.
Student and cultural exchanges between India and Bhutan will not only produce newer leaders for Bhutan but also foster a sense of inclusiveness and security in the Buddhist and northeastern communities of India.
Hydropower has been the cornerstone of Indo-Bhutanese economic cooperation. Bhutan is blessed with several fast flowing rivers which can be excellent sources of hydroelectricity. Although, the frail economic standing of Bhutan makes it impossible to tap into the hydro resources of the country for India to a major extent, the power projects in Bhutan, set up with Indian investment and technological support, provide clean and green energy to India in exchange, in its own currency of rupees, which Bhutan uses to pay for its imports.
Bhutan, abundant in many endangered species of flora and fauna, has the untapped potential of becoming one of India’s major import partners for herbs and spices. On his visit, Prime Minister Modi recalled the free trade arrangement and promised to expand bilateral trade between both the countries. India has also been recorded to announce a number of measures for concessions, including the exemption of Bhutan from any ban on export of milk powder, wheat, edible oil, pulses and non-basmati rice.
It is theoretically believed that a nation-state pursues the policy of benign economic nationalism in order to secure its interests by appeasing its neighbors and the big powers, only when it is on the verge of decline. The Gujral Doctrine (accommodative policy with regard to India’s neighbours) pursued at a time when India was in its worst economic phase reinstates the manifestation of this theory.
However, India’s neighbourhood has been in a rather dynamic and proactive mode for the last couple of years and is likely to continue so for the span of the next. Thus, India’s engagement with the same can also be seen as a worthwhile decision to percolate its influence on the region, especially when these neighbours are being subjected to a lot of international attention.
(Abhismita Sen is a student of the Department of International Relations at the Jadavpur University. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)