In the ennui filled days of our sunset years, we find ourselves reminiscing over the past. My mind often dwells on the historical events that shook this country and awakened the sleeping dragon.
My search for the legacies of the successive kings took me on a long journey ending with our present king. We are fortunate to be living under the reign of His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, a king who has dedicated himself to the service of his people. Here is an innovative spirit with fire to meet the challenges head-on. Despite these attributes, he has an extremely difficult task ahead of him. His father, the most illustrious Fourth King of Bhutan, has set the bar so high that he is left with no choice but to struggle at every step. But His Majesty brings with him the spell of fresh air tinged with subtle charm and grace. His concern for the poor and the deprived was evident from the very beginning when he started distributing land to the landless and cash subsidies to the unemployed. Emphasis on modern technology and scientific advancement led to the launch of satellites and Prizm cryptocurrency. Keeping in mind the skills required in the changing environment of the world, the school curriculum has been revamped to meet the challenges that the country will be facing in the coming years. And just when Bhutan was ready to take off, it was struck by the Covid pandemic.
The entire world has been ravaged by the scourge of Coronavirus. This global calamity has affected every country including the most advanced countries of the world. It has changed the world forever. No amount of sacrifice or abnegation will mitigate the havoc caused by it. Daunting as the task may be, His Majesty has remained undeterred. He could be seen repeatedly traversing the entire length and breadth of the country just to ensure the safety of his countrymen. His Majesty has adopted a strategy that not only confronts the dreaded pandemic but also lays siege to it and prevents it from spreading. It was due to his presence, his initiatives and his directions that the entire country could face the virulent disease with astounding success.
The second round of vaccination was conducted even more smoothly than the first round. Within seven days 95.6% of the eligible population were vaccinated, making Bhutan one of the first countries in the world to achieve herd immunity. Everyone was astonished to see this obscure country repeatedly outshining every other country. Some of the major Tv channels, including BBC, CNN, NDTV, Al Jazeera etc pulled out all the stops and ran rave reviews about His Majesty personally spearheading efforts to control and eradicate this pandemic from his country. And not to be outdone, the media journalists and freelancers joined the TV anchors with their litany of praise for the strategies adopted by the Government of Bhutan to combat the pandemic. They realised that it was not an easy task. The mountainous terrain of Bhutan with numerous villages situated in remote and inaccessible corners of the country was a logistical nightmare for the medical teams. The limited resources available within this small country further compounded their difficulties. But despite these formidable obstacles, the dedication of the frontline workers proved to be an overpowering force through which the entire vaccination programme could be completed on schedule.
Even as we celebrate these proud moments, we can not forget to express our gratitude for the generous donations of vaccines given by the USA, India, Denmark, and other European countries, including many unilateral and bilateral organisations such as ADB, WHO, Covax, Gavi and CEPI. Thanks to the media, the success story of Bhutan has now become a case study worth emulating. This is the only country that has managed to contain the spread of the contagion and keep its citizens safe. They saw the adaptability and the agility of the policies laid down by His Majesty The King of Bhutan, They saw that the vitality of this nation is derived from the exuberance of his presence. The world has realised that with good governance and good leadership, countries can transcend the limitations imposed by scarce resources. It has realised that good leadership is not about power, it is about vision, responsibility and determination.
We have seen His Majesty passing through many frustrating moments and yet remaining unperturbed. It was in those moments that we often saw Her Majesty the Gyaltsuen, deferentially walking a few steps behind the king, silently providing comfort and solace at every step of the way. Her fragrant presence created a soothing ambience not only for His Majesty but also for the people of Bhutan who had become weary of their prolonged struggle against the pandemic. Her Majesty is an intriguing combination of grace and charm, which has enamoured the people of Bhutan and it seems to me that every time she smiles, a bouquet of roses and hyacinths falls into the laps of our precious land turning it into a garden of flowers. It is only when we start walking through that garden, that we realise that Her Majesty is one of those rare flowers that bloom only once in a myriad of years.
His Majesty will never cease to surprise us. Whilst most of the neighbourhood countries are still mulling over the benefits of 5G, Bhutan has, once again, surged ahead to announce the launch of 5G technology by the year-end (2021). We are now prepared to meet the challenges of the digital revolution that is just around the corner. What we see today are glimpses of a golden era that is in the making. When the world sees His Majesty as the light of the dynasty, we see him as the rising sun, lighting up our lives and energising our future. They say that legacies are the burden of our expectations. And, it is in those expectations, that the future of the people of Bhutan resides. Fortunately, we have in hand an unfailing leadership as the guardian of that future. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of England was quick to recognise the exceptional quality of his leadership when she remarked that the young Dragon King had brought onboard new standards of leadership, and a legacy that is deeply cherished by the world. I may not live to see the spectacular events that will earmark the flowering of peace and prosperity during his reign, but I am sure that at the end of the day, His Majesty will leave behind a legacy taller than the regal peaks of the Himalayas, and more lasting than the pyramids of Giza.
The genome of this nation carries the story of its evolution as it passed through the hands of successive kings. The narrative is the unmistakable product of the glorious achievements of our Kings. Pages of history are replete with the accounts of their struggles, their accomplishments, and their victories. Through their struggles and sacrifices, they have created a country unique in its presence, with happiness writ large on its face. No wonder so many writers have referred to it as Shangri-La. Their achievements will, in due course of time, be consigned to the pages of history but the DNA of this nation shall always bear the indelible mark of their legacies. Perceptions of these legacies may differ with individuals, but there can be no doubt that their legacies will continue to impact the lives of the people down the millennium.
As per the ancient treasure text of “terton” Drukpa Dorji, Guru Padmasambhava had predicted that “from the direction of Bumthang there will appear a pure lineage occupying my throne and ruling in accordance with the Dharma. They are my emanations”.
And it so happened that in the early years we saw the national psyche torn by decades of internal strife after the death of Zhabdrung in the year 1651. A semblance of peace and stability returned only after the appointment of the powerful Jigme Namgyel as Choetse Poenlop in 1853. Later, in the year 1879, Jigme Namgyel was appointed as the 48th Druk Desi and he, in turn, appointed his 17 years old son Ugyen Wangchuck as the 23rd Paro Penlop of Bhutan. Three years later when Jigme Namgyel passed away in 1881, his son took over the reins and with surprising alacrity overcame the resistance of recalcitrant lords by taking control of almost all the Dzongs. The death of Zhabdrung in the year 1903, and that of the Druk Desi in the following year, created a power vacuum which could only be filled by him. His destiny beckoned him. Fate played into his hands and gave him an opportunity to act decisively and unite the bickering factions under his rule. On the diplomatic front, his cordial relationship with the British earned him the knighthood of the British Empire. Soon thereafter, in the year 1907, with the blessings of the Triple Gems, Sir Ugyen Wangchuck was anointed as the First King of Bhutan. His Majesty Ugyen Wangchuck, the first Druk Gyalpo of Bhutan, laid the foundation for the enlightened rule of the Wangchuck Dynasty.
His Majesty Jigme Wangchuck, the second King was faced with the task of consolidating the kingdom that he had inherited. British India kept swallowing up nearby territories and His Majesty was extremely wary of the danger lurking at his borders. He eschewed the blandishments of the British and kept his interaction with them to the bare minimum. I am told that he used his strong sense of humour as a weapon to carve his way out of difficult situations. His cautious handling of internal and external affairs of his country created stability and coherence within the country and prepared it for a warmer relationship with independent India. The original treaty with British-India was updated, and a fresh Treaty of Friendship was signed between Bhutan and India in August 1949. To this day, it has remained the cornerstone of foreign policy.
It was left to the third king, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, to begin the process of modernisation. He was endowed with a clairvoyant vision. He saw the rapid changes taking place the world over and he saw the need to gradually introduce a programme of modernisation in his own country. In an attempt to bring the indigent and the underprivileged closer to economic freedom, he banned slavery, and brought about vast social changes, through new laws which allowed a more equitable distribution of land. After centuries of isolation, the gates of the hermit Kingdom were finally thrown open. The road connecting Bhutan with India pioneered the changes that the country witnessed during his reign. Perhaps his most daring political reform came with the establishment of the unicameral National Assembly where elected representatives could voice their grievances and opinions. His Majesty went even a little further; he broke the mould by assigning the National Assembly powers to replace him with a 2/3 majority vote. His Majesty had sown the seeds of democracy which would be ultimately incarnated into a constitution during the reign of the most celebrated 4th King of Bhutan. Despite these extraordinary changes, it seems to me that His Majesty’s greatest legacy was the introduction of Bhutan into the United Nations. It was, in those days, a seemingly impossible task. The astounding success of that mission was wrought about only because of the acuity and the ingenuity of his political perception. On September 21, 1971, after years of perseverance, Bhutan finally gained a berth in United Nations. Without the help and support of the Government of India, Bhutan would have faced insurmountable difficulties. The security and integrity that the people of Bhutan are now enjoying as proud citizens of a sovereign and independent country, is one of the greatest benefits of those legacies.
This is the story of a man who saw tomorrow. The birth of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the 4th King of Bhutan on 11th November 1955 was a pivotal moment of history. The “tertons” (soothsayers) had portended it and the resplendent colours of the rainbows had eloquently announced it. He was the product of the thousands of offerings Her Majesty the Royal Grand Mother Kesang Choeden Wangchuck had made to the sacred temples. In him was consecrated the blessings of the Gods, the wisdom of his forefathers and the eternal love of his country.
Cruel fate blighted the insouciant life of the teenager when his beloved father passed away in the year 1972. The nation stood shell shocked and paralysed by that tragic event. But destiny stepped in to fill that vacuum with the enthronement of the young king in 1974. It was in that confused state of uncertainties that the young king delivered his message of hope. It was a message of change, a message rooted in the aspirations of his people. With the enthronement of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck The Fourth Druk Gyalpo, the stage was set for the glittering reign that would follow. It would lead him to challenge established concepts and replace it with new ideas and sanguine hope. If at that time anyone had told us that within a very short period, of time we will see the efflorescence of wealth and culture that would transcend the bounds of our imagination, we would have dismissed it as a fantasy. And yet His Majesty did it by taking a quantum leap into the 21st century. Today, even though His Majesty is no longer actively involved with the governance of his country, we are constantly reminded of those miraculous changes. Historians have depicted those moments of history as audacious enough to invite comparison with the best and the most powerful people of the world. It is from these records that grace the pages of history, that we can conjure a picture of a leader and a statesman who has wrought extraordinary miracles through sheer determination, hard work and extreme sacrifice. The whirlwind of activities that swept this country bears testimony to the extraordinary capacity of his prodigious mind that could visualise and shape the future.
Prosperity brought in its trail demand for better education, better services and better health care facilities. His Majesty was extremely sensitive to the needs of his people. In fact, he could see their needs before they could. The miracle that he created was the outcome of his fiery resolve to lift his people out of the morass of economic stagnation and illiteracy. He saw the challenges, as an opportunity to galvanise their longings and their sizzling energy to create a more magnificent future. He used those opportunities to accelerate the changes, and enable his country to claim its own space, in a world ever more connected than before and more knowledgeable than before. The difficult choices that he made as a king not only changed the face of the suffering masses but also revealed their true destiny.
The trajectory for economic development changed almost overnight with the construction of a series of hydroelectric power stations all over the country. It fuelled the economic boom that we are now enjoying. And it all began with the words of His Majesty when he said that “what is oil for Arabia is water for Bhutan”.
Even as His Majesty understood the enormity of his task, He never wavered in accepting the challenges that threatened to derail those objectives. The problem of the dissidents in the southern part of the country was handled adroitly by building bridges that integrated them into society as proud citizens of one nation and one people. The swift extirpation of the camps of Indian militants in the inaccessible jungles of Bhutan bore testimony to the genius of his leadership. The compassion that saved the lives of the vanquished not only won the hearts and admiration of the adversaries but also paved the way for their peaceful co-existence.
I sometimes think that His Majesty’s achievements were so astounding and glorious that they tend to eclipse his legacy. Dr Julia Kim in one of her talks narrates a story about the sagacity of a 17 years old King. According to Dr Kim, in 1972, just before his coronation, a journalist had accosted the young King and asked him about the GDP of Bhutan. Without any hesitation, His Majesty had replied that Gross National Happiness is more important than GDP. It took the world quite a while to fully comprehend the full import of that remark. Today it has become the genesis for new world order. It brings into focus a paradigm shift in discerning the measure of progress. In simple terms, GNH is a philosophy that measures development in a country not only in terms of material progress but also in terms of the happiness and well being of its people. More and more world leaders have begun to realise GNH as the unchallenged mantra for a better life and a better future. It is a matrix of the four guiding principles, namely, good governance, sustainable development, preservation and promotion of culture and conservation of the environment. The world has now accepted that the true path to a brighter future lies in the happiness of its people. It has now been accepted that unbridled materialism is a recipe for disaster. In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly finally adopted a resolution that brought to the consciousness of its members the concept of GNH. I find it exceedingly astonishing that at an age of 17 His Majesty could create a legacy that will benefit not only his own country but also the entire world.
Here is a King who was never touched by the panoply of power, never swayed by the pomp and splendour of the station, nor craved the luxuries of an ornate palace. Here he was, always righteous, always gracious, always compassionate and forgiving. The accoutrements of a monarchy never changed him, but he did change the monarchy. Even the most virulent critics of the monarchy stood silenced by the introduction of a Constitution that not only introduced democracy but also guaranteed basic human rights based on justice and equality. He sacrificed his powers to empower his people. It was a sacrifice that proved to be unparalleled in the annals of history. The power to define and choose their destiny is a gift which the people of Bhutan will cherish and enjoy in perpetuity.
It would have been much easier if I were to write about someone who is not so well known all over the world, or who is less worshipped by his people or who is not such a dynamic and charismatic leader. His Majesty’s life and achievements have been covered so exhaustively by a multitude of writers, publishers and family members that it leaves me very little room to make any meaningful addition. And yet, I feel deeply touched and inspired by the poem, The Perfect King, of HRH Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, who has so beautifully epitomised the very essence of His Majesty’s life as a great leader and a doting father. Going a little further, we see that Arunadhiti Roy has defined the personality of creative leaders as persons who “redefine the meaning of civilisation, who redefine the meaning of happiness and redefine the meaning of modernity.” His Majesty has done it all.
I sometimes allow my imagination to run wild. Most people tend to visualize His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo as a big man in a small country. But it seems to me that he was ordained to transform this country and make it bigger. He extended its borders by influencing the world and giving its leaders the concept of happiness as a tool for good governance, by educating the world about Kings who willingly give up power to usher in democracy and, by spreading the footprints of Buddhist philosophy with the message of love, peace and compassion. Indeed Bhutan is no longer a small unknown country in the backyard of the comity of nations. In his hands, it has become a country much larger than its size. I believe that, that is his true legacy.
It is not easy to capture the eloquence of His Majesty’s vivacious and vibrant life or to find words to paint a portrait true to his image of an effervescent and intrepid spirit. It is not easy to articulate his story in a few words. Yet I must admit that nothing describes His Majesty better than the words of Her Majesty the Gyalyum Tshering Yangdoen Wangchuck when she said “He lived a life which far surpassed the expectations of even His own destiny”.
Contributed by Afroze Bukht