India’s Political Officer cautioned Bhutan
“My father said at the public meeting that he was leaving a part of his heart at Paro. That is true of me also. We both love the mountains, their magnificence scenery and the sense of peace they give. Bhutan has these in full measures and it has something more — a special quality.” Mrs Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) penned down her thoughts to Her Majesty Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck after her 1958 trip to Bhutan.
Captivated by the unique architecture and impressed by the people, Mrs Gandhi expresses her fascination in the same letter. She wrote that one cannot help admiring the quaint house which looks like a jewel studded casket or be impressed by the Dzong whose architecture symbolizes the characteristic of the Bhutanese people who are simple but strong.
In the personal letter, dated 27 September, 1958, the 41-year-old daughter of India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), describes the Bhutanese paintings and the attractive handicrafts that she and her father saw in Paro. She said that the architecture and handicrafts were testimony of the skills and artistic talent of the Bhutanese people.
When Mrs Gandhi wrote the letter, she was already on her way back to Delhi after a successful trip to Paro with her father. It was during the night halt in Haa, that she wrote down her thoughts to our Queen. The future Prime Minister wrote, that the Indian delegation were all captivated by the charm of Her Majesty and the warm friendship which was showered upon them.
She wrote that the memory of their visit to this beautiful state will remain a cherished one. She expressed her gratitude to Her Majesty for all the trouble that the royal family of Bhutan had taken to make her and her father’s journey and their stay comfortable and enjoyable.
Better than the Best Tourist Resort
A few days after the Bhutan visit, Pandit Nehru echoed the same sentiments as his daughter at a private dinner in Calcutta hosted by career diplomat Apa Parshuram Rao Pant who was at the time serving as Political Officer for India in Sikkim (1955-1961), where he was based in Gangtok. According to Dasho Prithvi Raj Bakshi’s (1917-1997) unpublished memoirs (1986), titled “Stepping Stone,” Apa Parshuram Rao Pant hosted a quiet party, since Pandit-ji wanted a restful evening after the Bhutan visit.
Dasho Bakshi, an Indian national and a trusted friend of Bhutan, functioned as Bhutan’s trade agent in India. In 1971, our third King conferred on him the red scarf and title of Dasho. Based in Calcutta, the Dasho had not met Pandit-ji until that evening. He was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation to dine with the party. In his memoirs, he recollects a joke that Pandit Nehru shared with the guests and records that the Indian statesman laughed the loudest. In the words of the Dasho, “In fact, he was the happiest and in the most relaxed mood that day. By his own admission, those ten days in Bhutan had soothed him more than a six-month holiday in the best tourist resorts in the world could have.”
Don’t Spoil it!
Before Pandit Nehru visited Bhutan, in April 1955 His Majesty the Third King (r.1952-1972) invited the Foreign Secretary of India to Bhutan. At that time, diplomats in Delhi did not think much of the invitation. Some, at the South Block thought that the Bhutanese were insincere, and had doubts about our King’s invitation.
At that time, Mr. Ratan Kumar Nehru was the Foreign Secretary (1952-1955) of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). He was the second Foreign Secretary of independent India. As the top diplomat in the Nehru administration, he had his plate full and showed little interest in Bhutan. At the time, Bhutan was not even on the back burner of Indian Foreign Policy.
Information concerning the Foreign Secretary’s visit has been published in the book, “Ashi Tashi Dorji, Her Life and Legacy” (2017). Her Majesty Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck’s letter to Ashi Tashi Dorji is reproduced in the book. In the letter, Her Majesty mentions Nehru’s reluctance to undertake the journey by horse when he found that Bhutan had no airport. The letter has information on how Pandit Nehru was keen for his Foreign Secretary to accept Bhutan’s invitation before his own to China. Pandit-ji was the architect of Indo Bhutan Friendship. He was of the view that the Foreign Secretary should seize this opportunity to visit Bhutan and to make friends with the Bhutanese.
Left with no choice, the reluctant Foreign Secretary started doing his due diligence to gather information. So, the MEA sent its Political Officer, Apa Pant up to Bhutan on a reconnaissance trip.
Apa Pant (1912-1992)
On 21 May 1955, Apa Pant arrived in Bhutan with his wife and their two children. They received an audience with His Majesty the Third King who was highly impressed with the Political Officer. His Majesty said, “Pant is a completely different man and their policy towards us seems to have changed completely. They are now trying hard to make us like them.”
At the time, some friends of Bhutan in South Block, Delhi felt that by following the British Raj Policy they had succeeded in making more enemies than friends. So, they were changing their policy as they really wanted to be friends.
During his trip, Apa Pant soon discovered that it was not the best time for his visit. He said that the Bhutanese nevertheless received him with great warmth. Three years earlier, His Majesty the Third King had just moved the capital from central Bhutan to Thimphu and he was in the middle of rebuilding the Tashichhodzong as his headquarters. From all the efforts and sacrifices, it was clear that the Bhutanese wanted to cultivate ties and forge friendship with India.
Her Majesty’s letter of 7 June 1955 to Ashi Tashi Dorji, published in the same book, recorded what Apa Pant reported to His Majesty. “Bhutan is so beautiful and peaceful, and the people are happy. Don’t spoil it. He also said that we must not let in any foreigners not even Indians.”