I posed this odd question to myself and to my fellow-citizens in a little article that I wrote some years back as I reflected on the fundamental tenets of the relationship between State and citizens and the primacy of the Nation as indeed on the many ways nations can die.

This quest, this indulgence, this sacred commitment will continue till a little breath of life remains in my being, only gaining greater urgency and resoluteness as my ‘time’s chariot hurries near’. The advent of Democracy has thrown the State-citizen relationship into even sharper relief now. The stakes are too high to allow complacency and self-aggrandisement.

When we count the great good fortune of our country in the many gifts of its incredible natural beauty and abundance of flora and fauna for a land-area of our size, the profound spiritual traditions kept alive through the centuries by a succession of highly awakened masters and unbroken lineage-holders, and painstakingly nurtured and steadfastly secured and led forward by generations of our far-sighted Wangchuck Monarchs, no nation or citizens could ask for more.

This Jewel of the Himalayas, this envy of the world, at once the home of sages and spiritualists as well as the vision-laboratory of statesmen and nation-builders, is destined by the divine for great accomplishments and to rise to sublime heights as a model for human and societal flourishing as envisioned by our extraordinary Boddhisattava Kings.

To achieve great destinies for nations is to discover the sovereign soul of their being and to envision a role for it to manifest itself in the myriad ways befitting its promise and its potential. Bhutan and the Bhutanese citizens have been supremely blessed with rare vision and great leadership emanating from the golden throne of our successive Kings who have each made the majesty of their being the principal instrument of public service and the vital bulwark of nation-building.

Whether it is uniting a splintered country into an integral whole or consolidating its life into a national mosaic or leading it out of the shadows of medievalism and making it a proud member of the global family of nations or securing the sovereignty and independence of the country and investing it with its own unique vision of development or leading the country’s transition in governance and showing the way forward, our enlightened Kings have each been an extraordinary model of wise leadership, rare in monarchical traditions in the world.

All we need to do as citizens is to do our part befitting the all-embracing royal vision of our all-giving People’s King and becoming of the amazing history and rich cultural heritage of this great country, our shared home.

Right here, in front of us, is the all-important call of the nation to enshrine in our hearts the primacy of our beloved country as we celebrate our National Day as a testament of the sacred relationship between us the fortunate citizens and our beloved country, the God-blessed Kingdom of Bhutan, not only for now, but for all times to come.

For far too long, we have been accustomed to having things done for us by the government, used to receiving generous royal Kidu, whether we deserve it or not, and habituated to expecting ever more whether the country can afford it or not. What we do in return, barring some inspiring exceptions, is far less, even when many can afford to do a lot more than has been forthcoming hitherto. Ironically, some of us have no qualms in putting ourselves first even during national emergencies as has often been reported during the ongoing Covid-19 situation while His Majesty the King has been making supreme sacrifices to secure the well-being of the country and the people.

As we reflect on the magnitude of the responsibility on us, Bhutanese citizens called upon to put Bhutan First, the first place to begin is Discipline, self-discipline, that is. At a time like now, some rights-obsessed individuals might immediately raise their porcupine quills at the mention ‘discipline’. But the fact is that Democracy without discipline is tyranny. The first principle of Democracy is indeed self-discipline, integrity, and a sense of responsibility.

I recall with deep gratitude a rare audience that my four batch-mates and I received from His Majesty our revered Drukgyal Zhipa in Trashichhodzong on April 19, 1987. It pleased His Majesty to command that “Every Bhutanese must be a soldier”. The King explained: “I mean soldier not in the military sense, but soldier in the sense of discipline, patriotism, and sense of responsibility”.

His Majesty added: “If every Bhutanese from the cleaner on the road to the minister in the government conducts himself or herself with discipline, our country will develop fast and we will be able to achieve our national goals. So, every Bhutanese must be a soldier”.

Some three and half decades since my thumping heart enshrined the wisdom of that extraordinary voice that came straight from a King who has always put the country before His sacred Majesty’s Self beyond the historic thirty-four glorious years of the epochal reign of The Great Fourth, those penetrating words still ring in my being as my constant guide.

Discipline comes from a sense of self-respect, from an ability to distinguish between right and wrong, truth and falsehood. It comes from personal integrity and worth and informs all that one does in one’s personal as well as professional life. A self-disciplined life enjoys a rare sense of freedom, peace and worth. Such a life is more productive, creative and in harmony with oneself and with the world around.

Imagine Bhutan if and when every Bhutanese is a soldier in the sense in which our revered King of Destiny defined the word!

The quality of our governance at all levels, the performance of our public functionaries, the integrity of our service delivery infrastructure, the tone and tenor of our public discourse, as indeed the spirit and conduct of our interpersonal relations will score welcome gains with a corresponding positive impact on our collective national life if we can exercise some basic self-discipline and decency in our private as well as public engagements.

Taking ownership is another critical step in nation-building. It goes beyond what we possess by right or as a function of good fortune but entails internalising the country in its tangible self as well as in its ideals and its hopes.

In terms of State-citizen relationship, taking ownership involves the need to look after and care for everything that belongs to the country, as if they are our own, as they most certainly are. The well-being of our country, the protection of our sovereignty, the unity of our people, the health of our environment, the sanctity of our institutions, the integrity of our public service, the security of our children’s future – these, and more – are as much a responsibility of individual citizens as they are that of His Majesty the King and of the elected government and its agencies.

An attitude that emboldens individuals to take liberties with what belongs to the State and the people if it benefits the self and to disown and neglect what one is expected by one’s role and responsibility to secure for the collective wellbeing of the country and citizens is a betrayal of the trust placed in those called upon to serve and to build.

Securing the primacy of the nation means that we place the country before self in all respects – reinforced by the conviction that if Druk Yul is secure, we are secure, that if the nation succeeds, we succeed, that if Bhutan flourishes, we flourish too.

Taking ownership also means discovering our best, doing our best, and living our best, individually and collectively. It is taking pride in achieving excellence in everything we do as in the wise words of our beloved People’s King. In the royal audience reported above, His Majesty Drukgyal Zhipa observed:  “Every Bhutanese must be a professional” – meaning “one who does to the best of his or her ability whatever he or she is expected to do”.

Imagine Bhutan if every citizen from the peasant on the farm to the civil servant to the entrepreneur to the educator to the health-worker to public servant were to aim for and achieve excellence and challenge themselves to be professionals in the sense in which our enlightened Kings have wished us to be!

Complacency, compromise, corruption and communalism are lethal viruses that we need to eliminate altogether to secure our sacred commitment to the country. We are only so big as a nation. We are only so many as a people. Our hearts must be large enough to accommodate each other and make space for all of us to build our nation. “We cannot afford the problems that beset large nations” or “divide our house from within”, as cautioned by our all-seeing King on many occasions.

We need to remain vigilant and confront the divisive and corrosive forces that threaten our country and that make her vulnerable. Putting the nation first is recognising and practising what is in the best interest of the country – above populist policies, short-term adventures, personal motives and alien practices.

It has been my good fortune to have witnessed the glorious reigns of three of Bhutan’s greatest Monarchs and to welcome the most auspicious birth of our exceptionally promising future King. I have seen great moments of joy in the life of our beloved country as well dreary nights of despair when she was faced with unprecedented challenges.

I have received much but given so little. But this little is all that I have. And, I have given my best to my beloved country – outright, unconditionally, devotionally – through body, speech and thought – such as I am, such as my country deserves.

Nearing the twilight zone of my life, I feel deeply fulfilled and amply rewarded that through this long and deep engagement with the outer and the inner life of my beloved country, it has forever been my dearest Bhutan First.

As we come together to celebrate the historic 114th anniversary of our National Day, let’s pray for the well-being of our precious Tsa-wa-Sum and uphold the sacred wish of our beloved King to protect ‘our most sacred treasure’ and make our first priority forever Bhutan First.

Contributed by 

Thakur S Powdyel

Former Minister of Education