Books

The history of Bhutan

Such a massive tome (663 pages) on a country that calls itself India’s only permanent friend in South Asia demands serious attention. Bhutanese scholarship is so rare and scholarship on Bhutan has been so scanty since Michael Aris’s death that Karma Phuntsho’s The History of Bhutan is especially welcome.

May 31, 2013

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

THE HISTORY OF BHUTAN By Karma Phuntsho, Random House, Rs 999

Such a massive tome (663 pages) on a country that calls itself India’s only permanent friend in South Asia demands serious attention. Bhutanese scholarship is so rare and scholarship on Bhutan has been so scanty since Michael Aris’s death that Karma Phuntsho’s The History of Bhutan is especially welcome. Add to that the author’s impressive background as monk, scholar and teacher of Buddhism and Bhutan Studies at home and abroad with Oxford, Cambridge and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris glowing in his provenance. Bhutan’s current staggered second general election invests the work with topical interest.

Westerners will be drawn to the subject because, as the author says, the concept of Gross National Happiness “is increasingly becoming the trademark of Bhutan to the outside world.” More of that later. What he could also have mentioned is that Bhutan is a unique relic of a culture that once straddled the heartland of Asia. It’s the sole survivor, too, of the five kingdoms — Ladakh, Nepal, Mustang, Sikkim and Bhutan — along the Himalayan chain. But despite these undeniable claims to attention, it would be idle to pretend that any but hardened aficionados will wade through 400 pages of the intricacies of Tibetan politics, the arcana of Drukpa Kagyu rites and incarnations, and a wealth of dizzying detail about religion, art, language, architecture and dynasties in medieval times. A succession of explorers and writers — George Bogle, Samuel Davis, Clements Markham and, of course, Aris — have left their indelible mark on Bhutan studies for those years. This work is special for being the first exhaustive survey by a Bhutanese. Even so, most readers will focus on the last 150 or so pages, expecting to learn about Bhutan’s emergence into the modern world under a brand new hereditary monarchy, and the tightrope between India and China that the kingdom walks. They will be disappointed. It’s in his treatment of contemporary developments (barring GNH) that the scholar in Phuntsho (picture) seems to have yielded to other considerations.

The absence from his formidable 13-page bibliography of this reviewer’s book, Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, is one sign of circumspection. Nari Rustomji’s Bhutan: The Dragon Kingdom in Crisis has not been similarly suppressed but Rustomji’s role in shaping modern Bhutan has. That also goes for India’s first representative in the kingdom, B.S. Das, and another Indian diplomat, A.N. Ram, who guided the kingdom at the United Nations. There is no mention either of Sikkim’s patriarchal Tashi Dahdul Densapa who was lent to Bhutan at a time when the Druk kingdom had no administrative machinery to speak of. Densapa helped to launch Bhutan’s first five-year plan. Were these four written out of the text because they were foreigners? Astonishingly, there isn’t a word either about Dawa Tsering, Bhutan’s first foreign minister who held the job for a record 28 years (1970 to 1998). Does that mean he is posthumously out of favour?

It’s unlikely Phuntsho was censored. The probable explanation lies in instinctive caution. He doesn’t mention Sir Charles Bell’s cable after the treaty of Punakha was signed in 1910, “By one o’clock the signing and sealing of the Treaty were over and Bhutan was incorporated in the British Empire.” He plays down the role of the Dorjis. He cannot bring himself to name Yangki, the third king’s Tibetan mistress accused of conspiring to blow up Tashichhodzong, murder the fourth king and place her own son on the throne. Prudence and selectivity go well with lavish praise for successive monarchs. The first was blest with “sagacity and leadership skills.” The second was “a farsighted and savvy leader.” The third was “a true visionary”. Running out of superlatives, Phuntsho says the fourth “ruled with sagacity and foresight”. The adjectives may be well-deserved but in the absence of any mention of other players, history turns into hagiography. But, then, far more eminent subcontinental historians also know which side their bread is buttered.

Two factual omissions must be noted. Phuntsho rightly applauds the third king’s revolutionary step in empowering the National Assembly to remove the monarch through a no-confidence vote. But there’s nary a word about his successor getting the law repealed as soon as crisis erupted in adjoining Sikkim. This reviewer reported the repeal. He also reported Bhutan’s first major essay in bilateral diplomacy — the Sino-Bhutan border talks that began in 1984 — which is barely mentioned here. It’s a tribute to King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s adroitness that he succeeded in enlarging Bhutan’s diplomatic options while strengthening relations with India to such an extent that a new treaty removed the earlier restriction about foreign relations being guided by New Delhi. Discussion of both events and their implications would have lifted the book from the level of narrative to analysis and helped to create better understanding of both contemporary Bhutan’s aspirations and methods and India’s Himalayan policy.

Even the narrative style could have been improved by better editing by Random House. What, for instance, is the meaning of “Sikkim… got usurped by India”? Usurped isn’t annexed. There are such things as dictionaries for those in doubt. Those who are never in doubt are frequently wrong and have no business to be in the writing/publishing trade.

Phuntsho compensates to a great extent for these failings by not taking the usual starry-eyed view of GNH. King Jigme Singye introduced the novel concept to define the official development paradigm for his country. The idea caught on and, reportedly, even China borrowed it. So did several developed countries suffering from the effects of recession and disillusionment with the standard model of measuring progress through growth and consumption. Phuntsho tells us they “are now turning to Bhutan for a new order of life balancing material comfort with spiritual well-being and economic growth with ecological and cultural integrity.”

But although acknowledging the ideal’s merit, he takes a critical view of it in practice. “While many agree that GNH is a useful framework for guiding development and giving it a sense of direction, they argue that for a developing country like Bhutan, the government’s priority must be in improving the basic conditions for happiness rather than excessively talking about happiness itself.” He appears to endorse critics who “point out that even today over 20 per cent of the population live under the national poverty line, governance and public services are far from efficient, youth delinquency and crimes are rising while the cultural heritage is eroding and the economy is ever more precarious with too much dependence on imported goods.” In such conditions, the pursuit of GNH “can be an ideological distraction from the real issues and problems.” It would be futile for the “state or government to provide, let alone impose, a uniform value or definition of happiness” which “differs from person to person depending on their cultural background (and) individual interest.” However, the state must create conditions conducive to generating happiness.

Phuntsho’s critique of GNH may not be acceptable to everyone. But it does show that he is capable of objective assessment. It’s a pity the gift is not more generously used. That would have added immeasurably to the book’s relevance.

The Telegraph, 31 May 2013

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