Dr. Karma Phuntsho in the local temple of his home village, Ura | Photo by Matthieu Ricard
Last week, India and China pulled their troops back from a two-month standoff on Doklam that seemed to have disturbed the happiness quotient of their Himalayan neighbour, Bhutan. A day later in Thimpu, Mohua Das met Bhutanese scholar, author and expert in regional politics Karma Phuntsho, who spoke about peace, security, and his country’s tryst with democracy.
Are you relieved that India and China have signalled a bid to resolve the Doklam standoff?
I am! I don’t think the 21st century is a time when countries need to be bellicose or provocative. I was so disappointed with both India and China. Their leaders seemed so aggressive and ego-centric. Why would they want to fight over a small patch of land in Doklam? What interest does it serve their vast population or their wellbeing? We’re in a world where you can press a button in Beijing and wage a war. You don’t need to be positioned in Doklam to attack India. India, too, should pay greater attention to integrating its northeastern states. If Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland aren’t happy, what’s the use of protecting the Chicken’s Neck? This was really politics with a very narrow scope.
Did Bhutan weigh its options as India and China rubbed up against each other?
Did we have an option? Bhutan kept the noble silence because it was the best strategy. When you have two bellicose countries bent on waging war, what can Bhutan do? I don’t think either of them consulted Bhutan. If Bhutan took sides, it would have severe consequences for the country at different levels.
How do the Bhutanese view their ‘sacred bond’ with India today?
The sacred relationship is turning into rhetoric and I feel sad because I spent 11 years studying in India. The relationship has remained at the state level between Delhi and Thimphu, based on each other’s interests. There have not been enough social and cultural exchanges at the ground level. There need to be robust people-to-people programmes and less of a big brotherly approach. There have been many instances where India has upset some vocal Bhutanese.
What are those instances?
Project Dantak, an Indian border roads building company that helped develop roads and telecom networks across Bhutan, has a big sign at Paro airport welcoming people into the country. That created a stir on social media here. There were also some grievances about the alleged Indian influence on cancellation of a border road in the south. Then the dzong (monastery) in Haa is occupied by Indian military officers while the monastic bodies are located elsewhere, an issue locals raised in parliament. While India is seen as a great ally, these and other similar issues affect people’s perceptions of India’s intentions.
Is that a consequence of Bhutan being an Indian protectorate?
For Bhutanese, India is one thing and Delhi another. With no human resources at home, independent India’s contribution to Bhutan’s development is still cherished by the Bhutanese and whatever political control Delhi has over Bhutan is overshadowed by the larger economic support. But with the introduction of internet, Bhutanese know of a world beyond India today, even as Delhi continues with its 20th-century foreign policies as far as Bhutan is concerned.
What about Bhutan’s links with China?
Most Bhutanese don’t know much about China. Cultural or language influences are very little. It’s only recently that communication with China has started in a substantial way. Today, lots of Bhutanese are doing business with the Chinese and a lot of Chinese tourists are coming to Bhutan.
How has the tryst with democracy turned out?
A misperception the rest of the world has about Bhutan’s democracy is that they think it’s new and sudden. We’re largely a Buddhist country and Buddhism is all about egalitarianism and free will — same principles of democracy. Also, under the reign of the fourth king, Bhutan practised grassroots democracy. What is new is the electoral process as practised in Western democracies. If you compare with other countries, there was no unrest or bloodshed but electing a leader has brought its share of discord. It has led to severe divisions in society — communities not on talking terms, neighbours giving up relationships, families being split along political lines. One could say Bhutan was never as divided as it was during elections in the past decade — an emotional assault on a society known to be cohesive and harmonious.
Do you fear an erosion of Bhutan’s unique cultural practices?
Yes and no. Youngsters have little inhibition. They happily hug each other or walk hand in hand. Bodily touch except with children was almost a social taboo in the past. Bhutan has had a very refined culture of manners that people pick up as they’re growing. For political office holders and national institutions like the monarchy, there is a calculated programme now to standardise people’s manners — a mandatory training in ‘driglam namzha’ or code of etiquettes that teaches you how low to bow to a minister or a lama, how to wear robes, look at somebody or hold a cup.
Mohua Das | TNN | Sep 3, 2017
GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS
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