By Dr. Jaijit Bhattacharya
King of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck finished his three-day visit to India last week. The context of his visit is interesting. His Kingdom, which has recently transformed into a democracy under the guidance of the monarch, has been trying to resolve a significant border issue with its giant northern neighbour, China.
India and Bhutan have been sharing ties since 1910, when Bhutan became a protected state of British India, allowing the British to “guide” its foreign affairs and defence. When India declared Independence in 1947, Bhutan was among the first nations to recognise it.
Ten years ago, I was fortunate to have a meeting with the charming, well-educated King of Bhutan, who could have easily found an alternative career in Bollywood. Dedicated to his people and nation, the King laid out a striking clarity of thought on how he saw the industry and society of Bhutan as it evolves, and the role of Bhutan in the comity of nations. The conversation also laid out the deep understanding that the constitutional monarch had of the challenges that Bhutan as a nation faced.
Ten years ago, democracy was around five years old in Bhutan. The question is why did Bhutan’s monarch decide to hand over power to the people? The question became even more acute when I spoke to the Bhutanese people in the market, before we met the King. And the people had a common refrain – “We have no clue why the King chose to unleash democracy in Bhutan. We were a peaceful society before democracy leaped in. We were happy under the King. Now, we have chaotic politics like there (in India).”
To understand the transition, it is important to understand the context of Bhutan. As per Dr Sonam Kinga, a well-known researcher on the Bhutanese democratisation process, Bhutan was never colonised.
“Therefore, the formation of its national identity did not take place within the context of freedom struggles or wars of independence. It took place within a specific geographic zone and cultural space with strong Buddhist influences. Bhutanese nationalism, if we can call that, expressed in fighting a series of Tibetan invasions from the north for over a century, British in the South and more recently, the illegal immigrants and Indian militants in 1990s.”
Under the request of the Indian government, the Government of Bhutan with great alacrity took up the responsibility of cleaning up Bhutan off Indian militants. It showed the maturity of Bhutan in ensuring rule of law and contributing to regional stability. However, it still does not answer why a nation of roughly 700,000 people chose to transition to democracy.
Here is where the conversation with the King threw some light. In his quintessential sing-song and eloquent way of speaking, the King explained that democracy was brought in with the best of constitutional experts globally, but adopted in the Bhutanese way.
That was an interesting story. He also explained that he chose to study in the UK, as his sisters were studying in the US, and that he apparently wanted to be as far away from them as possible. But then, he also wanted to study in India, and he had already finished his masters in the UK. So, under the kind advice of the Indian ambassador, he joined the military college in India, and therefore, counted many military officers in the Indian Army as his personal friends.
He also explained that he would not like to have industries in Bhutan that are cyclic in nature, that is, they have a few years of a good run and then a few years of downturn. Bhutan cannot sustain downturns. He was also absolutely clear that any industry that comes into Bhutan must be green to the extent that the Government of Bhutan subsequently stalled the BBIN Motor Vehicles agreement that would have allowed vehicles to freely transit between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. It was because he did not want polluting trucks to transit Bhutan.
However, none of this still explains why the Bhutanese King, who had come to power after his father abdicated in favour of his son, moved the country towards democracy, unless one starts reading between the lines.
Bhutan, sandwiched between the two large powers of Tibet and British India, had to ensure its independence from both of these entities. So, becoming a protected state under British India made sense. As Tibet got gobbled up by China, and as salami cuts into Bhutanese territory became more frequent, Tibet continued the protected state status with India. However, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. The single point of the “failure” of Bhutan as a state was the fact that the monarch had absolute power, and hence, the monarch could be made to do anything, under direct threat. Thereby, transitioning to democracy was a step towards protecting the way of life of the people of Bhutan, as under democracy, one has to compromise many more elected representatives, and hence, there is no single point of failure.
This was also the observation of the famous political strategist, Chanakya. He observed that it is easier to defeat monarchies and is near impossible to defeat republics.
However, what if the elected representatives hijack power and lead Bhutan towards ruin? This is where the “Bhutanese way” of democracy comes in. The Constitution ensures that only educated Bhutanese can run to be parliamentarians, thereby reducing the possibility of “criminal” elements trying to hijack power, the way Caesar hijacked power in Rome, to become an Emperor. Rome was a republic before Caesar declared himself to be the emperor.
And now, what if the people get disgruntled and create anarchy? People get disgruntled when their way of life and liveliness is threatened. And this is where the need for acyclic industries comes in. Acyclic industries will not go through the ups and downs of cyclic industries, and hence, provide stability for the society, thereby taking care of the people.
Also, by ensuring that he and his sisters received education from the powerful nations of the UK, the US and India, they ensured closeness to the relevant people in these countries, that would help in the pursuit of Bhutan being sovereign.
Clearly, a very well-thought-out strategy to maintain sovereignty for Bhutan and to bring in peace and prosperity for its people.
The Dalai Lama
But how does that connect to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama? The Tibetans have been under continuous threat of their spiritual leaders, who are supposed to come back on earth through rebirth, being identified and appointed by the Chinese Communist party, rather than being identified by the Tibetan spiritual process. This just means that the next set of Tibetan spiritual leaders are almost card-bearing members of the Communist Party of China, rather than Tibetan spiritual leaders who can work to uplift the Tibetan people.
In 1995, the Dalai Lama had declared a six-year-old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as the next reincarnated Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Three days later, the boy disappeared and has not been seen since. The Tibetans rejected the Chinese government’s replacement of the Panchen Lama. The fear is that the Tibetan way of life can be compromised by slowly replacing the spiritual leaders with those chosen by the Chinese Communist party.
Last month, the Dalai Lama recognised an eight-year-old US-born Mongolian boy as the reincarnation of the tenth Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa Rinpoche, the third most important leader in Tibetan Buddhism.
According to unconfirmed reports, the boy is one of the twins (Aguidau and Achiltai Attanmar) and belongs to one of the richest business and political empires in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. His ancestors had a close alliance with the rare Krishnacharya lineage of Chakrasamvara, who also established a monastery in Mongolia.
So, how does this help the Tibetan cause? To begin with, the Rinpoche would be a US citizen and hence, will get protection of the US government. Second, being twins, and assuming they are identical twins, one twin can replace the other in public, thus providing leverage.
However, the most interesting move has been by the Dalai Lama himself. The current Dalai Lama has repeatedly declared that he will not reincarnate – that he will be the last Dalai Lama. And that the Tibetans will be provided leadership through an elected leadership structure. This removes the possibility of a Dalai Lama being brought in by the Chinese Communist Party and compromising the Tibetan institutional structures and way of life. The same strategy adopted by the King of Bhutan – removing the single point of control, thereby making it difficult for adversaries to dominate, just as Chanakya had predicted.
The 300-year-old revelation
This was the same strategy revealed by a divine injunction over 300 years ago to the last Sikh Guru, the much-revered Guru Gobind Singh. Two of the previous Sikh Gurus, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur were tortured and killed by the then Mughal emperors, and two of Guru Gobind Singh’s younger sons were bricked alive. Faced with constant threat from the Mughals of annihilation of the Sikh faith, Guru Gobind Singh received the divine injunction that he is to be the last Guru, after which the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy spiritual book of Sikhism, would be the Guru for the Sikhs.
So, it seems that the path revealed over 300 years ago to Guru Gobind Singh, is also the one adopted by Bhutan and by the Tibetan people. It takes leaders with an unfathomable vision and determination to move individual-dependent institutions to people-dependent institutions. Therefore, it takes the grit and the mettle of the people, to protect, preserve and grow the institutions.
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