The land of the Thunder Dragon has worked hard over the years to be happy, a feeling for which one will be willing to give one’s eyeteeth
While researching a book I was writing on Bhutan, my cousin passed along Eric Weiner’s Geography of Bliss. Published in 2007, the book is a series of articles on different countries, most of whom rank very high on the happiness index, as to why they are happy. Each chapter is titled with a whimsical title, such as “Happiness is failure” and “Happiness is efficiency”; the chapter on Bhutan is titled, “Happiness as policy”. The core of the chapter is an interview with Dasho Karma Ura, the founder and president of the Centre for Bhutan Studies, which was subsequently renamed the Centre for Bhutan Studies & GNH, the “GNH” standing for the policy that has put Bhutan on the global map – Gross National Happiness.
The making of the Dragon King
In many ways the story of GNH in the country is the story of Bhutan and its modern history. There are two major transition points in Bhutan’s recent history, the beginning of the monarchy in 1907, and the transition to a Constitutional monarchy in 2008, and the pursuit of happiness is deeply linked to both of them. The first Wangchuck monarch, Ugyen Wangchuck, is often shown barefoot in photographs. It is how he stood before the nobles and monks in 1907 to assure them that he would take care of them and the country’s interests best.
It had not been easy for the country to come to this position. It had been consolidated in the 17th century by the Zhabdrung – a title that means “at whose feet one submits” – Ngawang Namgyal, in war against Tibet. An incarnate lama, the Zhabdrung’s death was hidden for a period of fifty years. Thereafter his reincarnations were recognised as a body reincarnation, mind reincarnation and speech reincarnation, and various political leaders tried to win power by backing one or the other reincarnation. Except for brief periods, Bhutan existed in a form of almost civil war, as various leaders vied for power. Ugyen Wangchuck’s father, Jigme Namgyal, known as the Black Regent, finally managed to become the most powerful man in the country after leading the country in the Anglo-Bhutan war of 1864 – one of the few wars where the British accepted something less than a victory.
In 1904, Ugyen Wangchuck built on the power his father had left him by being the lead negotiator for the British as they led the brutal and utterly useless Younghusband expedition to Tibet, massacring armies with their Maxim machine guns, even as soldiers broke and fled, continuing to shoot them in the back. Ugyen Wangchuck used his persuasive powers to negotiate the surrender of the Tibetans, limiting the damage that the British would have caused. His help was recognised by both the Tibetans and the British Empire, which conferred a knighthood upon him. Arguing that he was best placed to defend the interests of the Bhutanese, and to ensure the peace of a united country, was what allowed Ugyen Wangchuck to be conferred the Raven Crown of Bhutan, and be given the title of Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King.
Monarchy and happiness
This history of violence and division is essential to understand Bhutan’s emphasis on happiness. It was to keep the peace and ensure the happiness of the citizens of the country that the monarchy was founded. It is the core claim of the Wangchuck dynasty that it delivered on this promise. The fact that it is so loved by its citizens is one of the proofs that they believe the Dragon Kings delivered on their promise. But this is not a promise that has come without cost. In 1964 the prime minister was assassinated, in 1974 the Tibetan exiles that had fled the Chinese People’s Liberation Army were forced to assimilate into the country, or enter a second exile, in 1990-91 a massive conflict in the south led to tens of thousands of Nepali origin inhabitants fleeing into refugee camps, and in 2003, the fourth Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, accompanied by one of his sons, led his troops into battle against the ULFA and other militants who had been camped out in Bhutan’s forests for years.
To understand the pursuit of happiness in Bhutan, therefore, we have to understand that it is not some light-hearted concept that involved airy-fairy ideas; it was about the defence of sovereignty, of national integration, and managing internal and external conflicts. It was also about creating wealth.
Returning from a regional conference in the late 1970s, the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who ruled between 1972 and 2006, was asked by an Indian journalist what it felt like to be the ruler of the country with the lowest gross national product per capita in South Asia. Irritated, he quipped, that it was not the GNP that was important, but the happiness of the people, and this is how the rest of the world heard about the term ‘Gross National Happiness’.
As a former Indian ambassador to Bhutan explained to me, “You have to understand monarchy in Shakespearean terms to understand Bhutan. For the kings, the country and they were the one and the same.” When the king spoke, he spoke of how the world should judge him – whether they were happy with his rule. And they were. During the fourth king’s rule, the human development indicators of Bhutan skyrocketed, with free basic education, free healthcare, and massive expansion of infrastructure. Bhutan issued its first banknotes in 1974, today its per capita GDP is 50 percent more than India’s, based on a combination of grants, loans and hydropower development, all handled by a king who made it his business to walk and visit every single village in the country. There is an apocryphal tale of Bhutanese schoolchildren who did not raise their hands when asked if they would fight to defend their country, but all who raised their hands when asked if they would defend their king.
All of this changed in 2008 when, under the fifth Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Khesar Wangchuck, Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy. As elections were held, and Jigmey Yoeser Thinley became Bhutan’s first elected prime minister – he had been appointed to that role before – Bhutan’s people found that their happiness was in their own hands. They did not wish to let go of the concept, and Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission is the equivalent of a very powerful Planning Commission. It oversees investment and planning of infrastructure, making sure that none of the 20 dzhonkhags or districts goes unrepresented. Thinley also charged the Centre of Bhutan Studies with coming up with indicators to measure metrics of happiness.
It has been a mixed bag. Unlike in a monarchy, a democracy is dependent on the airing of “unhappiness”. Its essence is being able to vote somebody out of power if they did not provide happiness. Thinley found this out to his cost when his party comprehensively lost the 2013 elections. His successor, Tshering Tobgay, has been much more careful about speaking of GNH. It is not, though, a concept that has gone away. The citizens of Bhutan are habituated to expecting their rulers to work for their security, their development, their well-being, their happiness – and they continue to demand that they do. It is a legacy that few countries have, and one to be proud of.
Ahmad, the author of The Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys into Bhutan (Aleph, 2013), is managing editor of thirdpole.net.
(The article appears in May 16-31, 2017 edition of Governance Now)