INDO-BANGLA TRANSIT ISSUE:Bracketing Bhutan, Nepal misguides our people and policymakers

(This blog is a follow-up of the former blog posted in this site titled “The debate and dilemma of Transit”)

By: K. Mahmud, Altaf Parvez and MM Ali

While talking about connectivity between Bangladesh and India a section of intellectuals and academics in our country, perhaps with some hidden agenda, intention or otherwise, never forget to tag the names of Nepal and Bhutan in their list. They routinely present the case of allowing India, a passage through Bangladesh, with the transit for Nepal and Bhutan.

Without questioning the intellectual capability or rational and ethical aspects of their argument, we would like to make an attempt to understand how the relationship of Nepal and Bhutan vis-à-vis India has progressed over the years.

The development and dynamics of bilateral relationship between Bhutan-India and Nepal-India are not the same. This is evident from the fact that Bhutan and Nepal—both landlocked— do not enjoy the same and equal facilities from India on the subject of their access to the sea and their trade with other countries.

Discriminatory: Indian engagement with Bhutan can be termed as friendly and warm in terms of transit trade, while the treatment meted out to Nepal is step-motherly, discriminatory and in violation of legal, moral and ethical aspect of the modern society, to say the least.
Violating international law, undermining ethical and moral standards the biggest democracy in the world made the people of Nepal hostage or the like, to its whims and imposed trade embargo on that country.
A recent study conducted by a UN organization (vide UN Report on Bhutan-India Relationship 2003) reveals Indian discrimination towards its landlocked neighbour that makes it a unique example of its kind after the WW II.

Bhutan enjoys ‘the best’ transit procedure through India, the study reveals that the same country is getting ‘tremendous advantage’ over Nepal.
“Bhutan enjoys probably the best transit procedures of all of the countries”, reports the Country Case Studies: Challenges Facing the Land Locked countries, conducted by the UNDP. The study which investigated into the relationship between the 38 landlocked countries of the world and transit neighbors mentioned, ”Bhutan enjoys a generally very strong relationship with India and any friction between the two nations has been promptly minimized.”

“There is almost no involvement of Indian Customs in Bhutan’s transit trade”, the study pointed out adding that ”an additional benefit to this is that there is no requirement for the insurance of goods in transit” in case of Bhutan and ”all its transit trade takes place under Royal Bhutan Customs”.

”In contrast”, comparing the status of Nepalese transit trade with India, the study says that ”while Nepal has a generally positive relationship with India, where the policies of the two governments have been in significant disagreement, India has had a tremendous advantage over Nepal”.

Panchayat govt: Violating the provisions of international laws how India exploits Nepal’s geographical handicap is also understood from the same study as it says, ”this advantage was most evident through the 1990 Indian blockade of Nepal, which was cited as a major cause of the overthrow of the Nepalese Panchayat government”.
After the WW II, Nepal is probably the only country in the world that suffered from such trade embargo. The Indian policy on Nepal is evidently reflected in the UN Study; it states, ”Relations were generally good, although between 2001 and 2002 India placed significant trade restrictions on Nepal during the negotiation of a bilateral trade treaty”.
It is also not unknown why Bangladesh’s offer for transit to Nepal through India also could not be materialised for a number of decades now.

Bracketing Nepal, Bhutan: Taking into account these developments of the recent past we feel those bracketing Nepal-Bhutan transit issue with that of Indian transit are either misguiding the policy planners in Bangladesh or have certain other agenda up their sleeves.
In this context we feel Bhutan-India relationship deserves a detailed discussion not only from the perspective of the evolving equation between the two countries but also from consideration of Chinese presence in its next door.

The much-talked-about hydro-power potential of Bhutan and its development under Indian guidance and prospect of its export to Bangladesh also deserve threadbare analysis.

In this article we, however, would examine and discuss the evolving patterns of Bhutan-India relationship only. An in-depth analysis of Bhutan-India relationship will open new dimensions to expose the Indian mindset and facilitate discussions on other points raised above.
The basic framework of India-Bhutan bilateral relationship is governed under the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed between the two countries on 8th August 1949 and updated in 2007. Critics say, the status of Bhutan as some sort of protectorate of India remains unchanged under the renewed treaty, though the treaty recognizes Bhutan as a sovereign republic.
‘The Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan reaffirming their respect for each other’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity’, writes India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty 2007 in its preamble.
‘There shall be perpetual peace and friendship between India and Bhutan’ the Treaty declares in its Article 1.
Maintaining ‘free trade and commerce’ between the two countries, the Article 3 calls upon the governments to provide, ‘full cooperation and assistance to each other’.

Interestingly Bhutan’s exercise of independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity mentioned in the preamble is qualified in Article 4 which says, ”India agrees that the government of Bhutan shall be free to import from or through India to Bhutan, whatever arms, ammunition, machinery, warlike material or stores as may be required or desired for the strength and welfare of Bhutan and that this arrangement shall hold good for all times as long as the Government of India is satisfied that the intentions of the government of Bhutan are friendly and
Criticizing the revised treaty, Hari Parsad Adhikari, a former National Assembly Member of the Bhutanese Parliament wrote in the daily Rising Nepal, in 2007 that the people in Bhutan expected replacement of the old treaty for long.

According to Adhikari, the people of Bhutan ”suggested mobilizing international aid” to replace Indian assistance in ”key development projects”. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk ”could not keep this policy for long”, he wrote adding that the monarch ”slipped and got trapped into the marsh of Indian diplomacy”.

Helplessness: In the following passages we would like to examine how India has choked Bhutan and penetrated into its private and public sector alike, taking advantage of geographical position. Bhutan probably offers a glaring example of helplessness of a landlocked country by its mighty transit neighbour.
To maintain its grip over trade and commerce of the land landlocked kingdom, State Bank of India took over 25 per cent share in the Bank of Bhutan. Among the board of directors the kingdom is represented by key officials from the economic ministries and departments along with two officials from the Indian banks.
A sizeable number of licenses issued by the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Bhutan are held by Indian nationals who operate a range of small-scale trading and service activities that include groceries, auto parts out lets, furniture shops, scrap dealing, distribution and dealership agencies. They are also involved in the business of hotels/restaurants, tailoring shops and cobbler services in Bhutan.
Indians have also made investment in Bhutan’s manufacturing and processing industries, construction business, service sector, engineering, steel and electronic industries, consultancy and so on. Indian companies also carried out major works for the Tala and Kurichhu Power Projects respectively.
Travelling without visa: It is to be mentioned here that Indians and Bhutanese may travel each other’s countries without a passport or visa using National ID cards.
There is no in-depth study on the level of informal trade between the two neighbours, but such activities are rampant partly because of the open and porous border. Another informal but common practice is the operation of a wide range of businesses by Indians using the licenses of Bhutanese nationals. These include anything from small shops trading in petty consumer items to large-scale investment businesses of various nature.
In 2002, there were a total of 11,499 Indians working in 30 Indian companies undertaking joint ventures in Bhutan. There were also 734 Indians working in 24 different public corporations. In the civil service, Indians number 871 of which 128 are regular employees and 734 contract employees. As of August 2003, the total number of regular Indian employees was 32,776.which passively now has been doubled or more.
It is not unknown how India had exerted pressure on the rulers of the tiny kingdom to form the Royal Bhutanese Army in the 1950s in response to the Chinese takeover and subsequent People’s Liberation Army actions in Tibet. In 1958 the Bhutanese government introduced a conscription system and planned for a standing army of 2500 soldiers.
During those days Bhutan’s hope to maintain neutrality was dashed and the country was reportedly pressured to accept Indian economic and military assistance.
Soon after Bhutan accepted the Indian offer the Indian army became responsible for the training and equipping the Royal Bhutan Army. By 1968 the RBA consisted of 4,850 soldiers and its current strength is 16,000.S
The Indian Army till date maintains a training mission in Bhutan, known as Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) and is responsible for training of Royal Bhutanese Army and the Royal Body Guard personnel. RBA and RBG officers are sent for training at the National Defence Academy in Pune and Indian Military Academy in Dehradun.
In the international arena, Bhutan not only always voted identically with India on every issue; rather it has maintained a consistent pattern of support to India in significant issues on many or all occasions.
Indian foreign policy experts always maintain that that Bhutan, unlike Bangladesh or Nepal, has in its foreign policies never tried to play off China against India.
Indian attitude towards Bhutan’s external, internal as well as strategic matters, cast sufficient reason to question the kingdom’s wish to get connectivity through Bangladesh.

Transit not important: Besides, does Bhutan really need to explore any further avenue for its trade, taking into account what she is already getting from India? According to that UNDP’s report, ”Transit trade is of less importance to Bhutan than the bilateral relationship with India”. The reason being, the report says, India is the main partner for overwhelming majority of trade with Bhutan which accounts for 94.6 per cent of its export and 69.4 per cent of its import. Taking into account the picture narrated above (which is only a small part) the overwhelming majority of the people in Bangladesh urge the present government to think very carefully before it allows transit to India bracketing with Bhutan, a country with a land area of 14,987 sq.km and a population of 691,141(2009).

(The Transit Study Group is a multi-disciplinary group comprising civil servants, journalists, lawyers, environmentalists, tax experts and other professionals. The group can be reached at Email:transitstudygroup@ gmail.com)

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