Samdrupjongkhar and Daranga are twin towns like Phuentsholing and Jaigoan. Historically, Daranga or Gudama or Mela Bazaar was the centre of trade and commerce for the people of the eastern Bhutan. The present Samdrupjongkhar town was simply known as Kothi (inspection bunglow). With the construction of the national highway in 1960s from Samdrupjongkhar to Trashigang and Mongar, the prospective town become the gateway to the eastern region of the country. Daranga, which is under the Baksa District of Assam of India, had transformed into a sort of festive town during the winter season. The people from the entire eastern region would come and camp around the Mela Bazaar. As a business strategy, some Indian traders would construct sheds for the Bhutanese clients, some would stay for a few months. Women would weave cloths, including kishuthara while men would engage themselves in businesses such as selling cloths and other products from Bhutan. The villagers under the Samdrupjongkhar and Wamrong would bring mandarin oranges. The people from Pemagatshel would sell their orange, the main cash crop, at the Shomkatta Bazaar. With the money they earned from mandarin oranges, the Bhutanese would buy paddy/rice, salt, utensils and other household items. The people from the western Bhutan would come to Gudama to buy hand-woven cloths such as burey (silk) ayikapur, silk kishuthagra and also cloths woven by Assamese.
Kothi was then insignificant with no economic activities. However, in 1960s, some Indians were allowed to open shops in the Kothi area,
The first time I visited Gudama and Guwahati was in 1964. I was then 13 years old. This was the year I saw vehicles and trains for the first time. I was thrilled to travel by bus. There were close interactions between the Assamese and the Bhutanese, particularly from the southern part of eastern Bhutan. Some of our people were proficient in Assamese language. Acquaintanceship and intimate relations would be referred to as shazi and kurma. Shazi and kurma from both countries would move freely – no check post, no security problem. The scenario changed with the advent of ULFA and BODO insurgence.
Fortunately, socioeconomic development was taking place at a rapid pace in our country under the far-sighted leadership of Boddhisattva Kings. The people of Pemagatshel did not have to go to Shomkatta Bazaar to sell their mandarin orange. They could sell their cash crops at Marung or Denchi, a small town with the road infrastructure constructed in 1979, connecting Pemagasthel dzongkhag headquarters to the national highway at Tsheringkhor. This satellite town now boasts of housing the newly constructed magnificent dzong of Pemagatshel. The late 1960s saw the beginning of the rapid growth of Samdrupjongkhar town, making it the hub of economic activities in the eastern region.
The randi-khanah (whorehouse) on the Indo-Bhutan border (between Samdrupjongkhar and Gudama), which was the centre of spreading the sexually transmitted diseases, disappeared in 1990. Brothel keepers were mostly Tibetans. This yang-tsong-zamo area was a centre of attraction, amusement and entertainment but also embarrassment for family members to walk through this stretch of footpath as prostitutes would not only solicit but some would pull men by the collar of their ghos. They are now gone for good.
Recently, I was in Samdrupjongkhar for the last few months trying to morally, psychologically and also financially (mobilising loans) help my son to revamp his ailing factory–a small wire factory located at the Phuntsho Rabtenling Industrial Park at Motanga, Samdrupjongkhar. Although it is an uphill task for a small industry to sustain and survive let alone succeed given the small size of market, particularly in the eastern region, the factory is slowly convalescing. Driving through the Indian territory from Samdrupjonghar to Motanga and back almost daily, I have almost become expert in filling out CPMS (Check Post Management System) form. At times, I use the internal road , which is being improved, particularly after 6.00pm because you cannot exit the Motanga gate after 6.00pm. There are two gates, the main gate in the main town and the gate at the Industrial Park. From 6.30am, Indian day-workers queue up on the Indian side of the Main Gate, the line of which, at times, gets longer, making them wait for longer time. According to a day worker, they must complete their entry process into Bhutan before 9.00 am. However, Indian visitors can now enter the main gate any time, and they can stay in the Samdrupjongkhar town till 12.00 midnight. Previously, they were required to exit by 6.00pm.
The labour agents, immigration office and labour office at the entrance of Motanga Industrial Gate are busy daily from morning to evening – processing recruitment and approval of scores of labourers for agencies, construction firms, corporations, industries and so on…
And the Bhutanese commute daily between the twin towns and crowd the place called Garage adjacent to the main gate. This is a mushrooming town. As the name suggests, Bhutanese repair their vehicles in automobile workshops here. Vegetables and fruits are 100 percent cheaper here than the vegetable market in Samdrupjongkhar. The irony is that the Bhutanese vendors buy vegetables and fruits from India.
One can also see a large number of Bhutanese cars parked in and around Gudama or Mela Bazaar. It is difficult for our people, particularly our rural folks to change their mindset. CGI sheets are cheaper in Samdrupjonkhar but they still buy from Gudama. Indian traders capitalise on the psyche of the Bhutanese, who feel happy to buy goods given at deceitful discount after lengthy bargains. However, Gudama will never ever regain the glory of the past because of the socioeconomic developments and transformations taking place both in India and Bhutan.
One fine day, a scholar from Guwahati whom I met at the Vajrayana Conference in Thimphu, visited Samdrupjongkhar town with two of his friends. He shared with me that the State of Assam as a whole was doing good: “There is stability, peace, and law and order, including the strict checking of wearing seat belts in a car; the Bhutanese can travel safely through the Indian territory.” He was referring to the recent news in which one Bhutanese seemed to have shared his bitter experience while travelling from Samdrupjongkhar to Phuentsholing.
The practice of four immeasurables or boundless elements (tshed-med-zhi) proves useful even while driving or travelling in a car. Our Bhutanese police personnel, men and women are doing wonderful jobs at the main gate. When I put myself in their shoes, I appreciate their hard work. Checks at the border gates are necessary to strengthen our sovereignty. Things are changing fast around the world. Geopolitically, it is of paramount importance to promote our identity and sovereignty. CPMS and other checks and controls must be perceived from this perspective besides the prevention of pandemics like Covid-19.
Dasho Zangley Dukpa