India and Bhutan have enjoyed sound relations from before the former’s independence. The defining moment of their relationship was the signing of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship by the representatives of both sides in 1949, marking the continuity of friendship and non-interference between the two neighbouring states. Their amity has since been evident in their interactions; India has been a helpful contributor to Bhutan’s political and economic prospects. 2020 saw the continuation of this trend, despite the ravaging pandemic. This article aims to assess India’s foreign relations with Bhutan, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ever since the inception of Bhutan’s first Five Year Plan in 1961, India has been extending financial help running into thousands of crores of rupees. Apart from this, India remains Bhutan’s top trading partner and mutual linkages between the two countries are at its peak. Bhutanese projects like the Tala Hydroelectric Project, Chukha Hydroelectric Project, Kurichhu Hydroelectric Project, Penden Cement Plant and the Paro Airport have all been implemented with the assistance of India.
The bonhomie between the two countries remains unshaken even in the face of the pandemic, and is reflected in their actions. In 2020, after the world was wrecked by the coming of the COVID-19 pandemic, international restrictions materialised in full swing. Air travel shut down, and the world saw a rise in trade protectionism. In such uncertainty, the economies of all countries took a beating. In Bhutan, this distress was alleviated by India’s commitment to its neighbour. Throughout India’s lockdown, it has maintained the supply of essential goods and services into Bhutan. India has also been actively engaged in Indo-Bhutanese repatriation, helping around 1,700 stranded Bhutanese citizens in India to go back to their homeland. Bhutan, on the other hand, has reciprocated this gesture by ensuring the timely return of seven Indian citizens who were in quarantine under the Bhutanese government.
Another example of these strong mutual ties is the launch of a new trade route, Jaigaon-Ahllay, operating between Jaigon in West Bengal and Ahllay in Bhutan in June last year. This project was facilitated to ensure connectivity in light of the global pandemic. An article in The Economic Times stated that the route would ‘boost bilateral trade and commerce, and would be especially beneficial for the movement of heavy vehicles like trucks and industrial raw materials from India to Bhutan’. More recently, Indian PSUs like the REC have entered into agreements with Bhutan-based companies to finance a new hydropower project in the latter.
India’s stake in the development of Bhutan is evident in its varied partnerships and projects in the area. Amidst the pandemic, the countries launched the second phase of their RuPay card project, which will enable Bhutanese card holders to access the debit and credit card payment network in India. The representatives of both states have also decided that India would launch Bhutanese satellites into space with the help of ISRO, and even help train Bhutanese space engineers. All these evince the affability of Indo-Bhutanese relations, especially in the face of the global pandemic.
The geniality is not only restricted to actions, but includes words as well. Both countries have been equally vocal in their support for the other. Diplomats have also been exchanging kind tweets, giving voice to their support. For example, in the first few months of the pandemic, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a talk with Bhutanese PM Lotay Tshering about the urgency of the COVID situation. PM Modi tweeted that India would stand by its ‘close friend’ and neighbour in fighting the effects of the pandemic, and was met with Tshering’s reply, “Your unconditional friendship and support give us confidence and reasons to deal with the situation better. We will work together and win this battle.” In September last year, Modi conveyed India’s support by speaking to the King of Bhutan as well.
Recently, Bhutan became the first country to receive India’s gift of the Covishield vaccine, along with Maldives. India delivered 1,50,000 doses of the vaccine and even ‘expedited the release of Rs 501 crore for their reprioritized projects to meet the emerging challenges caused by COVID-19, in addition to other fund releases for the ongoing projects’. Last month, Bhutan received another 4 lakh doses as a gift from India.
An important factor in the evolution of Indo-Bhutanese relations is Bhutan’s relationship with China. Both countries have a tense relationship and border disputes have been rife. The most recent blow came in June last year, when China contested Bhutan’s application for a grant for the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, saying that the territory was ‘disputed’. This came close on the heels of China’s stand-off with India in the Galwan Valley. According to an article in the BBC, many Bhutanese commentators believed that Beijing was trying to drag Bhutan into the territorial stand-off with India. This points to the attempt of exploiting India’s friendship with Bhutan to further Chinese aggression. Dorji Penjore, the head of the Centre for Bhutan and Gross National Happiness Studies wrote in his paper, “The Sino-Bhutan border dispute is not so much a contest over territory as it is of China’s desire to punish Bhutan for allying with its regional rival, India”. Thus, Sino-Indian and Sino-Bhutanese ties have, to an extent, led to tensions in India’s relations with Bhutan.
From all these instances, it is quite clear that India and Bhutan enjoy a special friendship. Both the countries are supportive of each other and contribute towards the other’s development. All signs are indicative of this proximity continuing in the future as well. With India’s assistance, Bhutan has signed off multiple projects and funds. India’s border disputes with China have also elicited Bhutanese support. Thus, while the COVID-19 pandemic has been rough on both countries individually, together they have only emerged stronger.
Karishni Puri is a third-year student of Economics and International Relations at Ashoka University.