As 35,000 Bhutanese prepare themselves to be resettled in Canada, Australia, Netherlands, United States, Norway and New Zealand, skeptics raise their voices against an “indifferent” India, which they say has for quite some time become a mute spectator to the issue of Bhutanese refugees. Despite the clarion calls from the international community at large, India has chosen to be a neutral party. One of the only statements made explicitly on the refugee issue was in 2007, when the India External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee stated that “if the refugees in Nepal get back to Bhutan, there will be demographic imbalance in the region”.
On 16 and 17 May 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed the Joint Session of the Parliament of Bhutan. The address largely focused on strengthening economic linkages, educational exchanges and institutional cooperation. Hydropower and infrastructure were the key highlights of the visit, with the Indian government’s announcement to commit almost Rs 10 crores for Bhutan’s development for the next five years. India and Bhutan share an open border of 700 km, a visa -free regime, and duty free trade.
While Bhutan enjoys free trade with India under the Free Trade Agreement signed in July 2006, India on its part is Bhutan’s largest donor supplying approximately 80 per cent of foreign assistance. Bhutan can be highly beneficial to India in supplying hydro-power, which at present stands at 1,400MW. Both countries have set the export target of 5,000MW by 2020. Bhutan at present has the capacity of 30,000MW. What drives India’s heavy economic investment to Bhutan is perhaps the strategic factor.
It would not be an exaggeration to state that Bhutan can provide immense strategic weight to India. In the past one year India has been increasingly concerned about Chinese foray into the Bhutanese territory, especially areas which are close to India’s chicken’s neck-the Siliguri Corridor. According to the sources, in November 2007, Chinese forces dismantled several unmanned posts. This, as analysts put it has “distorted the Sino-Bhutanese border at Sikkim”, with Chinese forces only a few km away from the Siliguri-Corridor. Chumbi Valley, a vital tri-junction between Bhutan, India and China, is another strategic choke point, and an area of concern. Chumbi Valley is 500km from Siliguri corridor and is of geostrategic importance to China because of its shared borderline with Tibet and Sikkim. China on its part has offered a generous land for land exchange deal to Bhutan. In November 1996, China proposed to exchange 495sq. km. area of Central Bhutan in lieu of 269sq. km. of West Bhutan, where Chumbi Valley is located.
With this strategic weight that Bhutan holds for India, the refugee issue probably gets less visibility in the policy circles. The 1949 Peace and Friendship Treaty, which was updated in 2007, stated that both the countries would cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests and not allow the use of their territories for activities harmful to the national security and interest of one another. This “Perpetual Peace and Friendship Agreement” scored full support in 2004, when Bhutan launched “Operation All Clear” to flush out Indian militants operating from Bhutan.
The twin blasts on June 2008 in Bhutan by the Communist Party of Bhutan (Marxist-Leninist- Maoists) are a pointed reminder to restive elements that India is surrounded with. Repatriation to Bhutan and participation in democratic processes is what the rebel groups seek. Though Bhutan set the pace for democracy in 2008, the situation of refugees remains unchanged. According to the new constitution, the “Bhutanese citizen” has been categorically defined in terms of (a) having no record of criminal offences and (b) having natural born citizens of Bhutan as parents. This has inevitably left negligible space for any repatriation measure. India is well aware of the Bhutanese sensitivities and has accordingly supported third-country settlement as the most feasible solution.
As far as the repatriation of Bhutanese refugees to Bhutan is concerned, any kind of potential policy change on issues is much dependent on external pulls and internal pressures. In the case of Bhutan both of these appear to be missing. Civil-society mobilization within Bhutan, which at present is negligible, and the policy outreach of Bhutanese refugees in exile would however determine the political will of Bhutan on the issue. Meanwhile external pressures from states are always driven by their own perceived calculations and interests. India’s stance is a case in point here. While humanitarian diplomacy is an important tool to isolate and articulate issues of the voiceless, leadership provided by civil society to advocate and persuade state actors is a key element. The option of third country resettlement programme is probably the result of the exercise of such humanitarian diplomacy. Whatever repercussions the third country settlement programme will have on the lives of Bhutanese refugees and whether the issue of repatriation will still be politically alive is something which only time will tell.
Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi