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Sino-Indian conflict serves to further alienate Bhutanese from India


Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, India is facing tensions with neighbors Nepal, Pakistan and China. Out of India’s neighbors, Bhutan has been a reliable ally all along. When Narendra Modi was elected Prime Minister of India in 2014, Bhutan was the first country he travelled to.

Recently, COVID-19 was transmitted to Bhutan from India. Previously, there was just one case in Bhutan. The Bhutanese are now blaming the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT), which trains the Royal Army of Bhutan. The Bhutanese believe that IMTRAT personnel are not subjected to the same COVID-19 protocols as the local Bhutanese are and this has resulted in the spread of virus in the country.

A recent article in ‘The Bhutanese” said that the Bhutanese have been questioning the government about COVID protocols followed by IMTRAT. The comments section in the article carries demands for removing the Indian Army from Bhutan altogether.

There have also been some cases of racism reported against citizens of India residing in Bhutan. An article in The Diplomat highlighted the growing tiredness of the Bhutanese youth with Bhutan’s dependence on India. Bhutan owes a huge amount to India while there is rising unemployment in the country. It will be to Bhutan’s benefit to partner with China to improve the private sector in the country. While China comes off as a country encouraging private sector investment, India is still struggling to create the same image.

Bhutan as a country also feels that it is getting dragged into the India – China conflict. Recently, China included some “eastern parts” of Bhutan in its list of claims. According to foreign experts, China may be against Bhutan because of its friendship with India. There is also little trust among Bhutanese citizens in the Indian media. 

However, India is getting increasingly desperate to maintain its friendship with Bhutan. Currently, Bhutan is the only northern ally of India which has not developed a pro- China sentiment officially. Most of the other northern neighbors are a part of China’s Belt and Road initiative. 

In June, amidst the Galwan Valley clashes between India and China, Thimphu had stopped releasing water to Assam, affecting thousands of farmers across 25 villages. Bhutan claimed that the stoppage of water was because of COVID 19 protocols to prevent community transmission.

As a small nation of 700,000 people, Bhutan is walking the tightrope between the two giants. Bhutanese citizens trust their King and therefore they have maintained calm despite the India-China tensions.  However, there is a growing sentiment in Bhutan that the country is getting punished because of its friendly relations with India. Since Bhutan is a peaceful country and there is heavy dependence on India for army training and infrastructure, it’s hands are tied. However, the growing displeasure among the Bhutanese youth against India can be fatal to India in the long run.

India now needs Bhutan on its side more than ever. We may just see the Indian Prime Minister making another trip to Bhutan when the pandemic ends.