BHARAT RAKSHAK MONITOR - Volume 5(3) November-December 2002

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Venkat Govindu and Jay Malkani


Bhutan, a small kingdom nestled in the folds of the Eastern Himalayan range, is sandwiched between India and the Tibetan Region of China to the north.  Rugged geography has contributed to its isolation for over three centuries and forged a unique civilization.  The Bhutanese refer to their country as the Druk Yul, "land of the thunder dragon" named for sound of the rolling thunder in the mountains.  The name Bhutan is derived from the Sanskrit word 'Bhotant', meaning 'the end of Tibet', or from 'Bhu-uttan', meaning 'high land'. Bhutan, a living Eden, with about 70% forestation is among the ten bio-diversity hot spots in the world and is divided into three geographic zones.  The Southern region consists of low foothills, contrasted by Central Bhutan's rich valleys and towering mountain ranges in the North[i].

Image  1: Map of Bhutan copyright

Bhutan is a country undergoing a transformation led by a progressive monarch, His Highness Jigme-Singye Wangchuk.  The last few decades have witnessed incremental political reform and greater modern influence.  The nation faces an arduous journey of change; it has to balance modern influence with traditional values.  Inherent in any change is uncertainty and Bhutan faces uncertainty both inside and outside its borders.  The purpose of this article is to act as a primer, and provide the reader with a greater insight into the history and political issues facing Bhutan. 

History and Monarchy

The origin of Bhutan and its early history is steeped in Buddhist tradition. An important milestone in the history of Bhutan is the visit of Padama Sambhava in 747 AD.  Following that no record of Bhutan’s exists until the arrival of yet another Tibetan monk, Shabdrung Nawang Namgyal, from the Ralung Monastery of Tibet in 1616 A.D. Over the next 30 years, it is said he unified the country and established the foundations for national governance and Bhutanese identity. From the 1600s till the early 1900s, the Shabdrungs were Bhutan's spiritual and political rulers. In 1907, the office of the Shabdrungs was quietly abolished.  The historic assembly of the clergy, official administration, and the people unanimously elected Gongsar Ugen Wangchuck as the first hereditary King of Bhutan[ii].

Sir Ugen Wangchuck became the first king with British approval largely due to his support of   incursions into Tibet. Gongsar Ugen Wangchuck was succeeded by his son Jigme Wangchuck in 1926. Jigme Wangchuck ruled the kingdom until 1952[iii].  He was followed by Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, it was under his rule that the process of modernization began, he initiated planned development and improved quality of life for his subjects.  Bhutan also sloughed off its `Shangri-La' image and improved ties with the international community.  King Dorji Wangchuck was succeeded by his 16-year-old son, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.  His Highness Jigme Singye Wangchuck[iv] is a dynamic monarch who continues to steer the kingdom into the 21st century [v].

Country and People [vi]

Bhutan's national flag represents the two pillars of the country. The orange represents the Buddhist faith, the saffron yellow represents the monarchy and the thunder dragon is representative of the land and the people.

Flag of Bhutan

Image  2: Bhutanese National Flag [vii]

Bhutan is an undeveloped country and most of its economy is based on agriculture, forestry, trade with India and tourism.  Bhutan has limited infrastructure due to its terrain but has enormous hydroelectric power generation potential [viii],[xi]

Despite the outward appearance, Bhutan is a heterogeneous society.  It is home to several ethnicities, the three main groups are the Drupkas, Sharchops and Lhotshampas.  The Drukpas live in the northwestern region belong to Tibetan ancestry, considered to be the politically and economically dominant group. The royal family belongs to this group, Drukpa Kargyupa Buddhism and the language Dzonkha are adopted as the national religion and language.  The Sharchops, who inhabit in eastern and central Bhutan, are part of the Nyingmapa sect of Mahayana Buddhism. They are of Tibeto-Burman ancestry. The third major ethnic group is the Lhotshampas, they speak Nepali, practice mostly Hinduism and migrated from Nepal and India. Additionally, there is an Indian community of nearly 20,000 people, mostly traders, laborers or on governmental deputation working with the Government of Bhutan [x].

As Bhutan treads on a path towards modernization, issues on defining itself are bound to surface.  In the last decade, Bhutan has insisted on documentation proving that a person is of Bhutanese decent.  This has resulted in the displacement of the Lhotshampas from southern Bhutan.  The displacement is borne out of a citizenship issue, as many Lhotshampas do not have the appropriate documentation.  According to official statistics released in 2002, approximately 125,000 Bhutanese refugees live in Nepal and India mostly in UN refugee camps.  The Government of Bhutan fully acknowledges the problem of the refugees and has opened dialogue with Nepal in an effort to resolve this outstanding issue [xi].

In addition to the refugee problem, Bhutan faces the constant threat from the Ngolop problem.   The term `Ngolops’ refers to outsiders or anti nationals.  The government of Bhutan blames these Ngolops for attacks on its citizens, security forces, and past riots in Thimpu.  Furthermore they are also accused of desecrating shrines and banditry.  This problem occupies the small number and limited resources of the Bhutanese security forces [xii].


Bhutan insulated itself over the decades from the influence of social and political forces of the outside world.  The reasons for this inward looking nature are believed to be a low literacy rate, a low political consciousness and terrain that limits contact with the outside world.  Bhutanese are very protective of their culture, tradition and environment. The Government of Bhutan generally restricts the media, though in 1999 it did introduce television and Internet services.  The state welfare system by contrast is quite mature with education and health services provided free.

Over the years, there has been a slow but a steady progress from absolute Monarchy towards more pluralistic government. The establishment of District Development Committees in 1981 was the first step in this direction.  This was followed in 1991 by Block Development Committees and the introduction of a system wherein the National Assembly would elect a council of Ministers by secret ballot and cabinet gets the full executive powers. The national assembly of Bhutan consists of 154 people, of these 105 are representatives of the people, the King appoints 37 members, mostly from the bureaucracy and the clergy appoints the last 12 members.

Bhutan was admitted to the United Nations in 1971 and opened a permanent mission in New York City in 1972.  Bhutan and India mutually agree on a wide spectrum of international issues.   Bhutan has limited diplomatic contact with other countries.  It maintains embassies in five countries India, Bangladesh, Kuwait, and the United Nations in Geneva and New York and only India and Bangladesh have embassies in Bhutan.  Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China, although it is believed that China is pressing for the establishment of diplomatic relations, and some Bhutanese view China as a potential solution to its internal and external issues.

Indo – Bhutan, the special relationship [xiii]

As a landlocked country but between China and India, Bhutan was bound to tilt into a friendly relationship with at least one of them.  In 1910, provoked largely due to aggressive Chinese territorial claims, Bhutan signed a treaty enabling British India to guide its foreign relations. This policy was continued by Independent India, in the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1949.  Bhutan's spiritual and historical ties to Tibet, and China's oppressive reign in Tibet has shaped Indo - Bhutanese relations. 

The Peace and Friendship treaty of 1949 forms the basis of relationship between the two countries.  It is considered a working treaty for both countries.  This is purposeful as it accommodates a change in perspective and needs of either Bhutan or India.  It guarantees non-interference in Bhutan's internal affairs while allowing New Delhi to guide its foreign relations.  Bhutan has shown interest to be independent in its foreign relations and to get international recognition.  India, actively helped Bhutan conduct its foreign relations and also helped Bhutan to join the UN. Bhutan generally concurs with Indian views in international forums but Bhutan is not completely bound by Indian policy decisions. For example, Bhutan has initiated dialogue with Nepal about the refugees independent of India.

According to India's strategic view, Bhutan falls under its security umbrella and Prime Ministers since Jawaharlal Nehru's time have been very vocal about it. Sri. Nehru declared in the Indian parliament in November 1959 that "any aggression against Bhutan would be regarded as an aggression against India."  The debacle of Tawang in the 1962 War, made Bhutan skeptical about India’s capability to look after its defense.  This temporarily eroded confidence however was restored following the successful liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. Today India trains Bhutan's security forces and funds a large part of its military budget.

Bhutan’s economy is strongly linked to India.  The Ngultrum, Bhutan's currency, is on par with the Indian Rupee [xiv], which is also considered legal tender.  India has been the largest donor of external aid to Bhutan and its main development partner. Indian initiatives are calculated in Bhutan’s Five Year Economic Development Plans.  In fact, the first two were completely funded by India and has generously contributed to the other Five-year plans. In addition, India also funds all major development and infrastructure projects in Bhutan, monetarily, in terms of technical assistance and skilled workforce. A free trade regime exists between India and Bhutan, and India remains the biggest market for Bhutan’s exports and the source of most of its imports.

Bhutan and India's Northeast [xv]

Bhutan’s strategic location, geographic features, and limited security resources provide an ideal setting for opportunistic terrorist groups fighting India.  Since early 1992, terrorists of North-east India have taken unauthorized shelter in Bhutan. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and Kamtapuri Liberation Organization (KLO) have established camps in the forests that run along the Indo-Bhutan border and have also established bases in southern, eastern and central Bhutan. These groups collaborate resources in training, shelter, money, weapons and terrorist strikes.

The ULFA and the  NDFB

ULFA's clandestine activities inside Bhutan have increased since 1995 after its presence in Bangladesh had to be curtailed under pressure from the Indian government [xvi]. According to estimates, approximately 36 ULFA camps are now located in the forests of southern Bhutan and the Samdrup Jongkhar (Samdruk Dzonkha) area. The ULFA also has linkages with several officers and personnel of the Royal Bhutan Army and Police.  This ensures a steady flow of logistical support as well as a money-laundering network [xvii]. ULFA has a reported strength of around 2000 cadres distributed between the General Headquarters, Council Headquarters, a Security-Training Camp and a well-concealed `Enigma' Base[xviii].

ULFA's camps and establishments are believed to be located in Sandrup Jongkhar, a district in Southern Bhutan that borders Assam’s Nalbari district. A road from Sandrup Jongkhar runs via the towns of Darrangamela,Tamulpur and Rangia connecting eastern Bhutan with one of Assam’s biggest cities, Guwahati. The Darrangamela-Tamulpur-Rangia road from Sandrup Jongkhar is considered the most important "revolutionary artery" in the region. The NDFB also has a number of camps and acts in collaboration with ULFA. The NDFB cadres use the Manas National Park as a corridor to slip in and out of Bhutan [xix].  

Image  3: Map of the "Revolutionary Artery" copyright

The Government of India and the state government of Assam have impressed upon the government of Bhutan the need for a joint Indo-Bhutan army operation to drive out these terrorists from Bhutanese soil. In 1996, India and Bhutan have concluded an extradition agreement, making it more effective to deal with cross border terrorism and organized crime. Bhutan's initial rounds of talks in 1998 and 1999 with ULFA militants for leaving their territory were inconclusive and meanwhile, the number of ULFA camps inside Bhutan steadily rose.  In June 2000 the Bhutan’s National Assembly decided on a four-pronged strategies to resolve the ULFA-Bodo problem.  The strategy involved the following points:

1) To continue peaceful negotiations with the militants to try and make them leave the country peacefully

2) To stop ration and other supplies to the camps of the militants;

3) To punish all persons who helped the militants in accordance with the National Security Act; and,

4) As a last resort, use military action to evict them from Bhutanese soil.

Bhutan was also ready to conduct joint operations (Op Rhino) with Indian security forces at ULFA and NDFB bases in Bhutan as the talks were hitting a deadlock. However, the need for long term stationing of troops made the operation impractical.  There are as yet no confirmed reports that the two governments have taken a joint action or conducted joint raids. In June 2001, the Royal Government of Bhutan reached an understanding with ULFA militants to close down four of their camps in Bhutan by the end of December 31 2001 and to hold discussions on winding down of the remaining camps. Reports indicate that four camps have been vacated [xx]. There are also indications that ULFA has plans to reduce their presence in Bhutan. However persuasion of the ULFA to leave Bhutan seems to be a short-term solution and in the long term other solutions have to be looked at [xxi].

The government of Bhutan does not patronize terrorist groups operating against India.  Bhutan's reluctance to conduct military operation against the terrorist groups stems from several sources.  Bhutanese security forces strained by the internal Ngolop problem do not have enough strength to launch an offensive against these terrorist groups.  Bhutan fears reprisal attacks against its citizens, if it launches offensives against ULFA and Bodo terrorists.  Another factor is that public opinion favors peaceful resolution to military operations.  The people are highly concerned about the presence of terrorists within Bhutan and its long-term impact on the country.  However, public opinion is divided, one section contends that India has the responsibility to solve the problem, while another states that Bhutan should not involve any external power into internal issues.

Despite Bhutan's desire to resolve issues thru dialogue, the terrorist groups continue to have a negative impact on the country.  In December 2000, ULFA terrorists attacked Bhutanese citizens in Assam[xxii].  These groups are also responsible for several raids and armed robberies on businessmen and government offices[xxiii]. Additionally, the presence of ULFA and other terrorist groups could worsen Bhutan's existing security problem.  It seems likely to the authors that the numerous terrorist groups operating from within Bhutanese territory could in principle form synergistic links to the Ngolops.


Bhutan is a microcosm of the Indian subcontinent, a nation in flux between tradition and modernity.  A complex array of internal and external security issues threaten its existence.  The Bhutanese people face tough decisions on a wide variety of problems such as the refugee situation, presence of terrorist groups and modernization.  India is Bhutan's long time ally and friend and is ready to assist her in any way necessary.  It is in India's interest to see the kingdom as a secure and prosperous country that is economically integrated into the region.  


[iv] Assam Tribune 25 years A King - His Majesty king Zigme Singye Wangchuck.

[xiii] Relations with India and Current Indo-Bhutan Relations: Serving Mutual Interests 

[xxiii] News on Bhutan  

The authors are very grateful to Laxman Bahroo for his assistance in making this article

Copyright © Bharat Rakshak 2002