Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

India-Bhutan Relations


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: NA

Mains level: India-Bhutan Relations and China Factor


Central Idea

  • The recent three-day visit of Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk to Assam marked a significant milestone in India-Bhutan relations.
  • Notably, it was the first-ever visit by a Bhutanese monarch to the state, signifying the close ties between the two neighbours and a fresh chapter of cooperation.

Bhutan and India: Historical Context

  • Border Proximity: Despite sharing a 265.8 km border, this visit was the first of its kind, underscoring the uniqueness of the occasion.
  • Challenging Times: The peaceful relationship between India and Bhutan faced complexities in the 1990s when insurgent groups from Assam established camps and operated in Bhutan’s southeast forests.

1990s: Indian Insurgent Presence in Bhutan

  • Backdrop: Pressure on insurgent groups in Assam, due to Indian military crackdowns and changes in Bangladesh’s political landscape, compelled them to seek refuge elsewhere.
  • Bhutanese Sanctuary: Insurgent groups, including ULFA, NDFB, and KLO, set up camps in Bhutan’s Samdrup Jongkhar district, near the Assam border.

Bhutan’s Initial Approach

  • Reluctant Engagement: Bhutan initially ignored the presence of Indian insurgents on its territory and attempted dialogue with them.
  • Diplomatic Pressure: The situation strained diplomatic relations with India, its significant neighbor, funder, and trade partner.
  • Limited Military Capability: Bhutan’s small and inexperienced military hindered decisive action against the insurgents.
  • Unfruitful Talks: Despite multiple rounds of dialogue with ULFA and NDFB, no tangible outcomes were achieved, with the KLO refusing to engage in talks.

Triggers for the Military Crackdown

  • Direct Threat to Sovereignty: The presence of insurgents became a direct threat to Bhutan’s sovereignty and national security.
  • Impact on Relations: Insurgent activities had negative implications for Bhutan-India relations, affecting development, economic activities, and bilateral trust.
  • Humanitarian Consequences: Attacks on Bhutanese nationals, threats, extortion, and violence-affected innocent lives and disrupted travel and trade routes.
  • Arms Supply to Ethnic Nepalese: Concerns emerged that insurgents might supply arms to ethnic Nepalese Lhotshampas, who were subjected to repression by the royal government, potentially sparking an ethnic insurgency in southern Bhutan.

Operation All Clear: The Result

  • Coordinated Offensive: On December 15, 2003, the Royal Bhutan Army, supported by the Indian Army, launched ‘Operation All Clear,’ simultaneously targeting ULFA, NDFB, and KLO camps.
  • Indian Support: India provided logistical and medical assistance and sealed the Indo-Bhutan border to prevent insurgent escape into India.
  • Significant Outcome: The operation resulted in the killing or capture of at least 650 insurgents, including top leaders from the three groups.


  • Bhutan’s historic royal visit to Assam signifies a strengthening of bonds and a reaffirmation of friendship after a complex period.
  • The military operation ‘Operation All Clear’ demonstrated Bhutan’s commitment to safeguarding its sovereignty and security, ultimately contributing to regional stability.
  • Today, India and Bhutan stand united, fostering peace, cooperation, and prosperity in the region.

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