Modernity and National Identity in Bhutan

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Bhutan village life – Youtube

by Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra 27 July 2019

Considering evolution of Bhutan has reached a particular stage of modernity, the article broadly discusses the problems that a modern state brings with it. The concept of modern state is defined by the normative changes that modernity brings with it, namely belief in science and reason and the process of “modernization” involving socio-economic changes that are accompanied by scientific and rational temper. Alternatively, modernity denounces institutions that act as the objective allies of dogmatism and superstition and stifle the spirit of rationality. However, the modern state faced both practical and normative challenges to realize the Enlightenment idea of human freedom. The modern state became a closed entity both from identity and territory perspective, which seemed unable to flex itself to embrace the idea of human freedom anchored in a universal conception. This tightness of the modern state became a source for manipulation of identity and sustenance of pre-modern forces that came to occupy the modern state by suitably balancing identity claims and socio-economic and political interests with the Enlightenment idea of liberation. Needless to say, Bhutan distinguishes itself from the rest of the community of nations with its emphasis on people’s quality of life and happiness delinking it from economic growth and per-capita income and has continually been ranked as the happiest country in all of Asia. Bhutan has been placed in the 95th position in terms of attaining happiness for its people in the global ranking of the countries according to the World Happiness Report 2019. However, the small Himalayan state of South Asia has not been immune to the tide of the exclusionary logic of nationalism. According to Freedom House – an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, “The Bhutanese government has for decades attempted to diminish and repress the rights of ethnic Nepalis, forcing many of them to leave Bhutan. The government expelled a large percentage of Nepali speakers in the early 1990s; in 1992, well over 100,000 refugees living in Nepal were denied reentry to Bhutan. A resettlement effort aimed at transferring the refugees to other countries began in 2007, resulting in the resettlement of the majority of refugees, but over 6,500 people remained in camps in Nepal at the end of 2018”. The organization further notes that the ongoing problems in Bhutan include discrimination against Nepali-speaking and non-Buddhist minorities, media self-censorship, and, increasingly, the use of libel and defamation cases to silence journalists. (Freedom in the World, Bhutan, Freedom House,, 2019).

Role of the Pre-Modern Socio-Economic Forces in the Evolution of Bhutan as a Modern State

The rise of dominant ethnic group central to the rise of modern state in Bhutan can be attributed to the successful actualization of socio-economic interests by the pre-modern dominant identity group (Drukpa ethnic group) which could balance identity claims with the idea of human freedom with the assistance of religious postulates of Buddhism and successfully provided liberating ideals to the masses. Religious institutions such as the Dzongs and Monasteries played a key role in furthering its socio-economic and political interests. Previously, during the pre-modern era, the idea of human freedom was tied to the rule of monarchy. However, the traditional elites realized the necessity of directly incorporating the masses into an idea of national identity in a secular democratic age.

All the reforms to ensure popular participation and popular accountability in Bhutan can be seen as contributing to legitimize the Bhutanese monarchy. Leo F. Rose argues that legitimization under any political system is not achieved so much by the capacity to gain power as it is by the ability to maintain and regularize the use of power over an extended period of time and to have the system broadly accepted (Rose, Leo E. 1977. The Politics of Bhutan, London: Cornell University Press).

The early history of Bhutan owes its genesis to the breakup of the Tibetan monarchy in the tenth century and the subsequent struggle among rival Buddhist sects for political supremacy. Buddhist lamas, who were compelled to flee Tibet and settle in Bhutan and, during the twelfth century, established the monastic system which was to provide the institutional dynamism and foundation for the eventual unification of the country. The noble families who eventually emerged as rivals for regional control traced their descent from these lamas and ruled from fortress-like monastic centres scattered throughout western Bhutan.

In spite of repeated attempts by various sects from Tibet to gain hegemonic control over Bhutan, it was the Drukpas who finally succeeded in extending sway into the area in the seventeenth century. Ngawang Namgyal, of the house of Gya, at Ralung in Tibet was the architect of this epoch who arrived in Bhutan in 1616. When Namgyal’s expectation of being recognized as the true incarnation of Pema Karpo (considered to be the greatest scholar and saint of the Drukpa sect) of Ralung Monastery, was foiled by a rival claimant, he left Ralung for Bhutan. He consolidated his temporal as well as spiritual control in Bhutan and became known as Shabdung Rimpoche or Dharma Raja. The dual system of administration, chhosi, which associated the lamas both with religious and secular matters, was introduced by him. The Dharma Raja sometimes delegated his religious authority to the chief khenpo (abbot) whereas he nominated a Deba Raja to run the general administration and placed him in charge of secular matters. In fact, in the beginning, several of the Deba Rajas belonged to the monastic order. Subsequently, another interpretation of the phrase chossi arose by which both lamas and laity were associated with the spiritual and secular administration of the country (Belfiglio, V. J. “The Structure of National Law-Making Authority in Bhutan”, Asian Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1974).

Following Bhutan’s unification in the early decades of the seventeenth century under the centralized Buddhist rule of the Dharma Raja, the Dzongs became centres of provincial government and residences for a large body of state-supported monks. Monks played a preeminent role in the administration of the country, but neither they nor the lay officials held private property. Rather, they were fed from the state storehouses or derived revenues from landed estates assigned to them during the tenure of their political office. The rule of the Dharma Raja extended over the low land tribal cultivators of Cooch Bihar and the fertile duar or river valleys of southern Bhutan. Until the British annexed this region in 1865, it constituted a principal source of state agricultural revenues. The Dharma Raja also derived substantial revenues from the carefully controlled trade with Tibet, Bengal, and Assam. Monasteries played an important role in the mobilization of labor, the extraction of agricultural and herding revenues, and the control of trans-mountain trade.

The feudal state directed most of its resources to support religious institutions. Material support for the religious order was necessary because the monks and yogins were supposed to be beyond society and dissociated from material wants and possessions. However, over time, religious institutions began to have communal possessions including land and herds of cattles and yaks, and developed administrative committees. The hierarchy in the committees was based on seniority, knowledge and age. These factors, along with merit, are required even now-a-days for recruitment in civil services.

In organizational terms, there was some stratification. At the top of the pyramid there were a handful of aristocratic families who had religious eminence as well. Then there were eminent but tax-paying families distinguished by claims to common clan ancestry. Below them were a mass of tax-paying ordinary households. The aristocratic families employed serfs and servants.

The existence of a militia system along with a religious order apart from an aristocracy and officials required material support from others in terms offerings, contributions and tax collections. The taxes raised were largely channeled to the religious institutions, administrative officials and to the militia. Religious institutions spawned Bhutan’s culture and tradition, and the militia system was necessary for defence. Indeed, between the 17th and the 19th century, Bhutan had to defend itself many times against the Tibetans in the north and the British in the south. Resources generated through taxation made it possible for the state to maintain a system which enabled medieval Bhutan to consolidate its sovereignty, unity and national identity (Ura, K, 2001. “Perceptions of Security”, Journal of Bhutan Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2).

The role played by the Dzongs and monasteries along with the appeal of Buddhism in securing the primacy of the socio-economic interests of the pre-modern forces led to the emergence of a dominant ethnicity in Bhutan named Drukpas which came to the fore with the settlement of the Nepalese in the southern part of Bhutan. The Nepalese settlement in Bhutan engendered the notion of and need for a pan-Bhutanese identity by bringing about a transition in the economy from that of a ‘backward’ economy in which barter was the principal medium of exchange and taxes in kind were the source of income for the ruling establishment to a more ‘modern’ cash economy. The economy began to adopt a new unified framework throughout the whole of Bhutan (Hutt, M. 2000, “Unadmitted Histories: The lives of Dalchan and GarjamanGurung”, European Bulletin of Himalayan Research).  

The interactions between Drukpas and Nepalese were structured and regulated in Bhutan in such a way for the first half of the twentieth century that each community monopolized a separate territory. Competition for resources, therefore, took place at the points where the ethnic groups came into contact with each other, or where their territories overlapped and their articulation primarily involved ‘politics along the border’. Later, this structuring of interaction has been described as a government policy which was designed in order to protect the ‘Bhutanese culture’ from being eroded or displaced by the ‘Nepali culture’ through demographic pressure. While the boundary line appears to have been negotiated with reference to mundane considerations such as the need to avert competition over natural resources, it has since been invested with a loftier role (Hutt, M. 2003. Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood, and the flight of Refugees from Bhutan, London: Oxford University Press).

Construction of Identities in Modernizing Bhutan

Jigme Dorji Wangchuk representing the institution of Monarchy as well as the dominant Drukpa identity is considered to be the architect of the modern Bhutan. His rule was dedicated to reform and restructure the existing political and economic system to allow the kingdom to adapt to new challenges from a rapidly changing world. He separated the judiciary from the executive by establishing a High Court. He created the National Assembly in 1953 and progressively increased its role and powers. In 1965, the king also established the Royal Advisory Council and in 1968, he created what became the first Council of Ministers in Bhutan. Major social and economic reforms were introduced during his rule. After abolishing serfdom and promoting land reform in 1952, the ruler developed a mass education system that became one of the key elements of further development. According to Mathou (2000), one of the most significant systemic reforms introduced by the institution of monarchy has been administrative decentralization, which was initiated in 1981 through the establishment of 20 District Development Committees (Mathou, T. 2000. “The politics of Bhutan: Change in Continuity”, Journal of Bhutan Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2, p. 255). This was followed by further decentralization to the block level in 1991 with the introduction of 202 Block Development Committees. The king was keen to strengthen these institutions – for example, they were more and more involved in the preparation and implementation of the Five Year Plans – which enhanced the capacity of the traditional local forces by increasing people’s participation in the socio-economic decision process. Thus, in Mathou’s views, political and economic reforms started simultaneously as each facilitated and necessitated the role of the other.

The fact that the ruling elites in Bhutan have been largely unchallenged by the adverse forces emanating from the society tells their success story in constructing national identity. They are willing to lead the modernization process which has gone a long way in preventing the emergence of organized factional politics. Apart from the organized decentralization, the consensus politics that characterizes the evolution of the Bhutanese polity has provided little space for popular participation on a large scale in the decision-making process. Nevertheless, the tradition of consensus politics and decentralization process helped in engendering a sense of democracy and deepening the faith in the institution of Monarchy among the people.

As a modern nation-state has to incorporate the core ideas of modernity such as the liberal preference for equality, multiculturalists’ notion of recognition and the idea of solidarity floated by welfare state nationalism, Bhutan attempted to incorporate all these notions into its policy making. This can be observed in the context of the shift in the attitude and policy making of the Bhutanese government till date. First, a loose territorial nationalism evolved and acknowledged the historical validity of the Nepalese claim to a presence in southern Bhutan. In 1958, this gave way to a civic vision in which the Nepalese were allowed to play a larger role in the administration and development of Bhutan, both locally and at the centre, though their representation and influence at the most senior levels were limited. During this time, the Nepali language was recognized and Nepali traditions were respected by granting national holidays on the occasions of Nepali festivals. This period lasted till the end of the 1970s. Due to growing resistance from different quarters, the civic vision was gradually replaced by an essentialist ethnic vision. This presented the Nepalese with a choice between two alternatives: they had either to subscribe actively and visibly to the Drukpa customs which had been ‘elevated into rules and laws’ and acquiesce again to a subordinate status, or else surrender their right to continue to reside in Bhutan. 

Bhutan became a part of the international liberal normative order by becoming a member of the UN and ratifying a number of human rights instruments at the international level. While the UN respects the territorial integrity and sovereignty of member-states, it also commits itself to protecting and promoting observance of human rights. Commitments to protecting human rights entail democratization of state institutions that would facilitate congenial conditions for human beings to exercise their rights and ventilate their grievances. Although modernity and liberalism as its intellectual offshoot contributed to the development of the doctrine of self-determination, it failed to develop a democratic base for self-determination without reference to identity. All the theories of the liberal tradition consider that some sort of identity thick or thin necessary for self-determination which, in turn, unleashes a nation-building process which may turn a thin identity to a thicker one moved by the necessity to protect the pre-modern socio-economic and political privileges of the elites. In this light, Bhutan has not dismantled the pre-modern privileges of the political elites. Rather, modernity has given them the ideology of nationalism to maintain their pre-modern assets and regulate the democratization process of the state institutions accordingly.

Bhutan has traversed from the pre-modern to the modern era by committing itself to democratization within. It is, however, still going through the dilemma as to how to differentiate between interests of the political elites representing the people in the government and people’s will (people as a historical and cultural entity). Secondly, it also faces the quandary as to how to reconcile the interests of the people as historic entity with individuals as the bearers of universal human rights. Without any perfect democratic model available so far, Bhutan became a nation rising from its medieval feudalism. It was recognized by the UN as a sovereign independent nation in the year 1971.

In Bhutan, Buddhism has been tied to the developmental policies of the state by evolving the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). To secure the primacy of the Buddhist religion, Drukpas have resorted to modern norms of human freedom and happiness by interpreting the religious postulates in the light of science and reason. GNH can be seen in opposition to the anti-democratic and consumerist tendencies of globalization and therefore, can provide rational explanations for why and how the development process in Bhutan should incorporate and implement the idea of GNH (Tashi, K. P. 2004. “The Role of Buddhism in Achieving Gross National Happiness” In Karma Ura and Karma Galay eds. Gross National Happiness and Development, Bhutan: The Centre for Bhutan Studies). Therefore, Bhutan defends cultural nationalism against the western norm of political nationalism. However, contextualizing the Buddhist religion which has universal applicability within a nation-state framework and relating it to a particular historical context appears to be contradictory to the Enlightenment idea of linking reason and science to human freedom in a universal sense. It leads to relative rationalism and seems to bring symbolism to the fore.