Is India abandoning the Raj mantle?

13 January 2007
Article
India is fashioning a major shift in its relations with its smaller neighbours Bhutan and Nepal by revising bilateral treaties that were inherited from the British Raj, writes Praful Bidwai.

India is fashioning a major shift in its relations with its smaller neighbours Bhutan and Nepal by revising bilateral treaties which embody asymmetry, inequality and imbalance.

The agreements were inherited from the British Raj and retain a deeply colonial impress.

The first restructuring of India's relations is taking place in the case of the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan (pop 700,000), India's smallest contiguous neighbour.

India and Bhutan have "reviewed" and decided to "upgrade" the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty signed in August 1949. The new agreement will reflect, according to Indian foreign ministry officials, "the contemporary nature of the India-Bhutan relationship" and lay the foundation for its future development.

The greatest revisions of the 1949 treaty pertain to Articles 2 and 6. Article 2 requires that Bhutan be "guided by the advice of Government of India in regard to its external relations." "Advice" likely to be replaced by "friendly cooperation" and less imperious language designed to indicate greater independence or autonomy for Bhutan in conducting its external affairs.

Similarly, Article 6 of the treaty will be amended. It allows Bhutan to import "arms, ammunition, machines, warlike material or stores" for its "strength" and "welfare", but only with India's "assistance and approval".

This article was used in the past to demand that India must approve every military purchase proposed by Bhutan. This is likely to be relaxed so that no approval will be necessary for the purchase of non-lethal military stores and equipment.

These articles were a direct reflection of Bhutan's status as a protectorate during the Raj.

"The colonial rulers were keen to draw India's boundaries as expansively as possible," says Sumit Sarkar, former professor at Delhi University and one of India's best regarded historians. "They also wanted to promote pliable and obedient behaviour on the part of India's neighbours in the East and the North. British imperial policy involved creating buffer zones vis-à-vis the Czarist empire in the North and China in the East."

To this end, the colonial state imposed a series of unequal agreements and treaties on neighbouring states or principalities like Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim.

The 1949 treaty with Bhutan and the 1950 Treaty of Friendship with Nepal were signed by Independent India's government. But they both derived from agreements signed during the late 19th century and early 20th century between India's imperial rulers and its incomparably weaker neighbours.

In the past six decades, New Delhi, citing "security", has often acted in threatening or imperious way towards its small neighbours and behaved as if it were South Asia's gendarme.

India's most aggressive hegemonistic act was to annex Sikkim in 1974-an event which, strangely, did not evoke one-tenth as much protest as India's justifiable liberation of Goa from Portuguese rule in 1961.

India's foreign ministry says the changes in the treaty with Bhutan reflect their close bilateral relations at the political, strategic and economic level, based on "the firm foundations of historical ties, shared interests and mutually beneficial cooperation."

Behind this thick, opaque diplomatese is some robust practical reasoning on India's part, which favours modernising relations with Bhutan in line with the changes taking place in that country.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who reigned for 24 years, abdicated just last month in favour of his son, and announced that Bhutan would become a constitutional monarchy by 2008.

The Bhutanese government has already circulated a draft constitution, which is strongly biased in favour of the King, and vests a great deal of power in his court. Bhutan has promised to hold its first-ever election next year.

"Revising the treaty with Bhutan was long overdue," says K.P. Fabian, former Indian ambassador, with extensive experience in diplomacy. "The interesting question is why New Delhi did this now. The short answer is two-fold. First, it decided that it would be prudent to effect changes in the Bhutan treaty before Bhutan asks for it, as is bound to happen. Second, it knows Bhutan would demand this sooner rather than later under the impact of India's changing relations with Nepal."

Nepal is making a far bolder, assertive and radical transition to democracy than Bhutan.

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which is one of the key leaders of the popular movement that has propelled the transition, wants the India-Nepal treaty abrogated altogether. Many other parties too wanted it amended to remove inequalities, particularly in respect of trade, transit and sharing of river waters.

"It would be odd if India revises its treaty with Nepal, but not with Bhutan," argues Fabian. "The sequencing is explained by the fact that Nepal is still debating the interim arrangements that will lead to the election of a constituent assembly."

Revising the Bhutan treaty is also New Delhi's way of rewarding Thimpu for its loyal support to India. In international forums, Bhutan has been India's only firm, 100-percent reliable, all-weather ally.

Only India and Bhutan have opposed (sometimes with Mauritius) an annual United Nations resolution calling for discussions to establish a nuclear weapons-free zone in South Asia, which is usually backed by a huge majority of member-states.

Since 2004, Bhutan has also helped India by flushing out militants from India's Northeast, hiding within its borders.

In return, India agreed to keep silent over the expulsion of over 100,000 Bhutanese citizens from the South (or one-seventh of the Kingdom's population), and by facilitating their entry into Nepal.

The reordering of India's relations with its smaller neighbours is part of a larger process "of further crystallisation of state structures in South Asia", says Neeladri Bhattacharya, professor of modern Indian history at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Adds Bhattacharya: "The Indian anti-colonial nationalist movement did not have a radical orientation on international relations. For instance, unlike some revolutionary movements, it did not promise to tear up the unequal treaties and agreements signed between British India's rulers and other countries.

"Rather, like many other nationalist movements, it too accepted the idea of India as a nation-state that had existed for many centuries. It was deeply unhappy with colonial rule, but it didn't question critically enough the aggressive projection of India with its expanded boundaries by Lord Curzon, India's Viceroy (1899-1905)."

Many leaders of the Indian National Congress, including Gandhi and Nehru, had a more critical perception of the issue of nationalism. So did influential intellectuals like Rabindranath Tagore.

"There was a debate of some sort within the Freedom Struggle on Independent India's foreign policy," says Sumit Sarkar. "Non-alignment and decolonisation were born of this debate. But there wasn't enough questioning of the idea of India as it was reshaped by British rule, nor of the concept of nationalism. Historians know that the idea of a nation is not a given. It evolves, it is fluid."

Adds Sarkar: "People like Nehru were aware of this, but nevertheless caved in to the compulsions of statecraft. The same Nehru who had declared that India could transfer a part of Ladakh to China because not "a blade of grass" grows there, succumbed to hardline nationalist pressure before and during the 1962 war with China".

In pressing its claims in its boundary dispute with China, India used all the arguments that its former rulers had employed in respect of water and land boundaries. This included a notional line, called MacMohan Line, foisted upon Tibet, but which the Chinese have never accepted.

India is now modifying some of the notions underlying its policy continuity with Empire. This can only make for more balanced relations with its neighbours.

Copyright 2006 Inter Press Service