A ten-member delegation from Bhutan took part in a two-day conference in New Delhi on India- Bhutan relations from 3-4 December to mark the 50 years of diplomatic relations between Bhutan and India.
The conference was well attended not only by the ten mostly senior figures from Bhutan along with Bhutan’s Ambassador to New Delhi, but it also the saw the participation and attendance of senior Indian figures like India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale who delivered the valedictory address and also the Joint Secretary North Sudhakar Dalela, DG of ICWA T.C.A Raghavan, other MEA officials and former Ambassadors to Bhutan.
The session started on 3rd December with opening remarks by T.C.A Raghavan and the Director of RIGSS.
The ICWA DG in his speech highlighted the fact that the ICWA had organized the 1946 Asian Relations conference in which Bhutan had taken part in. He said that the current conference was to look at how the unique partnership and the hopes and aspirations of the two people can be enhanced.
Director Chewang pointed out that RIGSS among other things is working to promote the close friendship with India. He outlined the history of the relation and India’s assistance to Bhutan and how the successive Kings of Bhutan had nurtured this relationship.
This was followed by a presentation on GNH by Dr Dorji Penjore of the Center of Bhutan and GNH Studies.
India’s formed Ambassador to Bhutan Sudhir Vyas in the first session ‘Partnership for Peace, progress and prosperity,’ highlighted three sets of issues.
The first was that the the nurturing of the relationship would fall on the shoulders of young Bhutanese and Indians. He said the younger generation in Bhutan have a wider horizon and exposure to the world.
The second was the land border and and its function in electricity passing through it and the need for better infrastructure along it, as well as coordination to combat smuggling and trafficking and in managing the eco systems.
The third was on the impact of climate change on Bhutan’s water resources given its importance and also the stress on the mountain ecology.
He said Bhutan has the vision for the region and India has the resources to partner in it.
Bhutan’s Ambassador to India, Major General V. Namgyel outlined the Bhutan government’s official position.
He said that the India-Bhutan relations are excellent and that there are no problems to be resolved. He said that Delhi is like a second home for him.
The Ambassador said that what makes the India-Bhutan ties close, warm and special lies in the rich culture and traditions emanating from Buddhism that came from India, the geography as a land locked Bhutan faced the open plains of Assam and Bengal and wise leadership.
He said that Bhutan’s wide and pragmatic leaders recognized the geographical ground realities of a land locked and south facing Himalayan country and the importance of close friendship and cooperation with India.
He said that that His Majesty The Fourth King during his reign had said that friendship with India is the cornerstone of Bhutan’s foreign policy.
The Ambassador recounted how Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had reached out and invited His Majesty The Third King as the Chief Guest for the 1954 Republic Day celebrations followed up with the historic 1958 visit to Bhutan.
He recounted how India had supported Bhutan’s planned development since 1961, its entry to the Colombo plan in 1962, the membership of the Postal Union in 1969 and then then the membership of the UN in 1971.
The Ambassador said that the India-Bhutan relationship is an excellent example of how a large and powerful country and a very small neighbor can enjoy close ties of friendship and cooperation.
He said that Bhutan has a positive view of India’s size and strength and see’s it becoming a great economic and political power and that Bhutan would benefit from this.
He recounted Prime Minister Modi’s first ever foreign visit being to Bhutan and the opening of the Consul General in Guwahati.
The Ambassador said that both India and Bhutan take care of each other’s key interests and neither would allow its soil to be used to harm the security of the other.
Former Ambassador V.P Haran said that it is important for India to open up more slots in its best institutes for Bhutanese students as India is no longer considered the best destination for top Bhutanese students. He said that the Indian government should also bear the full costs of such seats.
Ambassador Haran called upon the Indian media to be more sensitive in writing about Bhutan. He said that though Bhutan knows that Indian policymakers do not convey messages to Bhutan through the media the Indian media should be aware of the sensitivities of smaller neighbors.
Former Ambassador to Bhutan Ranjit Rae recounted His Majesty The Fourth King’s flushing out of the militants in 2003.
He said that when it came to India, Bhutan was never on the fence recounting the important contributions made by Bhutan to the relationship. He said that the India side of the border needs to upgrade its infrastructure.
He also called on the Indian media to be more informed while writing about Bhutan and accused some Indian media of being insensitive to Bhutan.
This open session was followed by a closed door and candid session called ‘Advancing Economic and Development Cooperation,’ which saw discussions on hydropower, economic cooperation, trade and rupee reserves. The session looked at the future of hydropower cooperation and also the issue of the impact of the economic developments in India on Bhutan.
On the second day the the first session was on ‘Expanding Vistas of People to People ties,’ where there were important discussion on tourism and the impacts of mass regional tourism on Bhutan, the religious connections of the two countries, need to free up more seats for Bhutanese students in top Indian institutes, youth engagement and more.
This was followed by a session called ‘Working together on Regional and Global Challenges.’ The highlight of this session was the positive and important role played by Bhutan in environmental conservation and protection of various species along the border. The issue of joint environmental challenges was also raised.
The two-day session concluded with an address by the Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale who recounted a family connection to Bhutan as his uncle is the oldest living ambassador to Bhutan. He said he had heard stories about Bhutan while growing up.
He thanked ICWA and RIGSS for the joint initiative in organizing the program as a commemorative event for the golden jubilee. He recounted the main areas of discussion during the two-day conference and thanked those who took part in it.
“India and Bhutan share very extraordinary ties of friendship and cooperation marked by mutual goodwill, understanding and a respect for each other’s interests,” said the secretary.
The foreign secretary pointed out that the golden jubilee year has given an opportunity to reflect on new pathways to further expand the relationship. He said the importance of youth, parliament and media interaction are important additional areas of interaction.
The secretary said that they are hopeful to commission the flagship 720 MW Mangdechu project and they are also working on a number of ongoing and planned projects which promises to ensure that the relations in this sector continues in the future.
He said that the Indian market offers tremendous opportunities.
As Bhutan enters its 12th plan, the secretary said that India stands committed to partnering with Bhutan in its quest to bring greater prosperity and happiness to its people and while doing so India would respect the priorities of the people and the government of Bhutan.
“GNH is Bhutan’s gift to the world and India stands in awe of it. India should include it in its education curriculum,” he added.
He said the road ahead for India-Bhutan ties is of tremendous potential and opportunities.
The delegation from Bhutan comprised of President of of CBS Dasho Karma Ura, RMA Governor Dasho Penjore, DGPC MD Dasho Chhewang Rinzin, former NC Chairman Dasho Dr. Sonam Kinga, former MoIC Secretary Dasho Kinley Dorji, Director Chewang Rinzin, Dr. Dorji Penjore, Dr. Kuenga Wangmo, Thinley Namgyel, and the author.