Fresh from a joyful visit to Bhutan, and the memories of time spent with dear friends there, it is dismaying to read the bitter commentary in the press of India’s alleged mistakes and misdeeds against this important friend, ally and neighbour.

My family and I had a travel-filled month. We unpacked our sweaters from the Bhutan trip, only to pack our summer clothes for a trip to Japan a few days later. I was looking forward on our return to sinking my teeth into my hoard of Bhutanese paintings, textiles and other purchases from there. My gorgeous Vajrayogini or Mahakaali (the subject of my painting was so identified by a Tibetan and a Bhutanese friend, respectively, so this is not any hegemonic nomenclature by me) by a Bhutanese master-artist was back from the framers. Now that the kids were due (at last) back to school, I was pleasurably anticipating a few quiet mornings spent poring over its exquisite detail and bold lines. I was sketching in my head a book based on the popular Bhutanese fable of the Four Friends; about how four very different beings, an elephant, a monkey, a rabbit and a bird, resolve their differences over a fruit-laden tree. The tale is apposite in the current times for the whole region, including China, whose recent border dispute with India has drawn in Bhutan, giving rise to the flurry of commentary on Indo-Bhutanese ties.

Now I survey my Bhutanese treasures with a sinking feeling, with the morning’s supply of angry editorials on Indian machinations in Bhutan, echoing in my head.

India is accused of squeezing the Bhutanese economy. One report says that 60% of Bhutanese expenditure is on Indian imports; and that 75% of Bhutanese imports are from here. 95% of exports are said to be to India. The study reports the export figure as an indicator of Bhutanese dependence on India, but, in fairness, it also shows that Bhutan has a large market in India, and is selling more to India than it buys from her.

Be that as it may, I did notice in Paro that, other than the paintings, it was difficult to find locally-made products, at least in the shopping spots popular with tourists. I am now, after reading the reports of India’s overshadowing presence in the Bhutanese economy, beginning to understand the curious stare I got from shopkeepers, every time I’d sigh over some woven textile, and say, “This is beautiful, where is it made?” A pause. That look. “Assam,” would be the reply. “It’s a special Bhutanese design, madam,” they would assure me, no doubt sensing my disappointment. “Hand-made here it would be too expensive.” So I bought quite bit of the made-in-Assam Bhutanese cloth. Shops seemed not to be even stocking Bhutanese-made cloth, despite the advertisements on the windows promoting local textiles. Or perhaps they assumed because I was Indian, that I wouldn’t be able to afford it—as the Chinese have been saying in their hilarious purple-faced editorials: Indians come to Bhutan on free visas and spend nothing! Unlike the high-end Chinese tourists!

But I also bought rather a lot of something else which I had been coveting for many years—Chinese cloth! There was a lot of it there. Half the shop in some cases. So, there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye that looks upon only the Indian or Chinese newspapers. I wish that our commentators would actually go to Bhutan and assess the state of affairs for themselves. As often happens, the case from each side—whether India has acted rightly or wrongly by Bhutan—is presented rather more severely than is deserved.

A lot of the infrastructure in Bhutan has been built in collaboration with India. Bhutan’s rugged terrain, harsh winters and isolated hamlets pose a challenge for interconnectivity and the delivery of water, electricity and so on. If India has been able to partner with Bhutan in building this infrastructure, that is to both countries’ mutual benefit.

Our military presence there, though distasteful to the peacenik in us all, is not such an exceptional thing in international affairs. Many countries have military camps on foreign lands. It would be better if there were no such camps, and the local populations are right to resent them. But it is a bit unfair for anyone to point to IMTRAT, the Indian military base in the Haa Valley, as an egregious example of foreign intervention by India.

So far as China is concerned, it looms over us all. Compared with us and our neighbours, China is rich and strong. It is also closed, and appears ambitious. Even the mighty West seems more than a little intimidated by China. In some ways Bhutan is stronger than us in facing up to China—because, unlike multi-opinionated India, Bhutan can speak in one voice on any matter, including China. It is taking too easy a view of things to look at the Indo-Bhutanese tactics vis-à-vis China as one of Indian chess-player and Bhutanese pawn. India and Bhutan need each other against China—even for peace with China. And IMTRAT may be seen in that light as well.  

India is accused of dictating Bhutanese foreign policy. Under Article 2 of the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 1949, Bhutan had agreed to be “guided” by Indian advice in foreign affairs. Ten years ago, a new India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty was brought into effect, which is silent on foreign affairs and merely says in Article 2 that the two nations will “co-operate with each other on issues relating to their national interest.” And will not allow their territory to be used for activities harmful to the other’s national security or interest. A lawyer would note that the language of the 2007 Treaty is deliberately ambiguous on the status of the earlier treaty which it is said to “update”, not “modify” or “repeal”. Arguably, this means that the earlier understanding as to foreign affairs remains in force. But even so, the fact is that Bhutan has taken its own course, different from India’s, on international issues. India backed the Bhutanese membership of the United Nations; and it supported the Bhutanese transition into democracy. India knows well, the unruly horse that is democracy. These steps indicate India’s recognition, at least in principle, of  Bhutanese sovereignty, and its support of Bhutanese self-determination. If the complaint is that nevertheless India and Bhutan tend to act in tandem in foreign affairs, then the answer is that this is what they choose to do as friends.

Much has been written of India’s alleged manipulation of the last Bhutanese election, in 2013, by withdrawing a subsidy that caused a spike in local prices leading, as the story goes, to the ouster of the then ruling party, which is said to have been less conciliatory to India than the party which won.

Bhutan has been stable under the new government, which has now completed four years. That is a full term in many democracies around the world. So, it is fair to reckon that the Bhutanese electorate favoured the incoming government for at least some reasons other than the alleged Indian manipulation. Ofcourse, India should not play dirty tricks in her neighbourhood.  But if democracy is what occupies the Bhutanese mind, then they are faced with much deeper challenges than Indian interference.

It is not easy to say what the Bhutanese really think of their current system of government. It is not exactly a typically open society—as yet. Incidently, this is a factor that should temper commentators quoting anti-India bloggers and writers in Bhutan. It may be easier for people there to criticise India, than to criticise their own government.

The state of Bhutanese democracy is something the Bhutanese will hopefully work out smoothly for themselves over time. In the meanwhile, it would be both unethical and mistaken for India to play fast and loose with events there. Heaven forbid that we should ever be called upon to take sides in an internal conflict in Bhutan. So we should not do, or be seen to do, anything to foment such a situation. From this point of view, it was India’s failing that it was perceived by many quarters to have interfered in the Bhutanese election of 2013. If the pulling of the subsidy was not ill-intentioned, then it should have been better timed.

Taken all in all, India and Bhutan have a multifaceted relationship based on an array of compulsions, interests and points of concurrence, and it is very unfair to reduce this complex whole to any simple power equation. Besides, there is always the potential for great friendships between the nations of Asia. My beautiful Bhutanese paintings are testament, if any is needed, to our natural and ancient kinship with Bhutan.

India should certainly be held to account when it tries to bully its neighbours. But I would plead that we Asian nations regard our differences in the spirit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam—all the world is but one family. But “family” as understood in the Asian sense—riven with grudges, irritations, timeless grievances and intergenerational feuds, and yet irrevocably intertwined by destiny and a shared legacy. Even China has a place somewhere in the clan—even if for us in India, it will be as the slightly demented uncle who can always be counted on to spoil the family gathering.

Suranya Aiyar is a lawyer, writer and artist