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Paro Taktsang, an ancient Buddhist monastery built against the cliff side in Paro, Bhutan. By Pema Gyamtsho. 

Nitasha Kaul, a Kashmiri novelist, multidisciplinary academic, poet, economist, and artist who is based in London, headlines the April 7 talk, ‘Inbetween’ India and China: Bhutan’s International Relations. The talk, sponsored by the Mittal Institute, Asia Center and Fairbank Center, traces Bhutan’s history as a Himalayan country sharing borders with India and China, and its foreign policy trajectory. Dr. Kaul, who is also an Associate Professor (Reader) in Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster, spoke to the Mittal Institute ahead of the talk. 

Mittal Institute: Nitasha, thank you for speaking to us ahead of your April 7 talk. You are a writer and scholar both, and you have said that you are committed to engaging with audiences who do not typically have a lot of overlap – economists, poets, street-artists, academic scholars, and so on. Why is this type of engagement important to you, and how has it informed your work?

Nitasha Kaul: Thank you so much for inviting me for this. While we as human beings are never uni-dimensional, professional specializations and specific institutional cultures of expertise often force us to be one or the other and almost never both and more. In my view, the difference in perspectives and positionalities contributes to the variety of narratives and lived experiences, and being able to know and bridge across those is important.

Further, one often gets the best and most crucial insights into any system by viewing it with unfamiliar eyes, from the outside in, as it allows for interrogating one’s own assumptions and conceptualizations, too. A passionate and multidimensional engagement with the world for me means being alive to contradictions as well as to radical alterity in the quest for knowledge and sense-making across the divides of disciplines and geographies. It is this that shapes my affective as well as analytic engagements. I combine what others may see as being worlds apart: being an economist, a novelist, a poet, a political scientist and international relations professor. 


Dr. Nitasha Kaul. 

These different modes of thinking, writing, and rigorous engagement with the world are for me a constellation of pursuits for various pressing questions that animate me intellectually and politically. Across disciplines, geographies, and over the years, the themes that motivate my work are as follows: the need to foreground and critically analyze — institutions and systematizations of knowledge trajectories (and their link to systems of oppression, discourses of legitimization, and narratives of dispossession); indigenization of political expression; the use of memory as a resource; and an understanding of identities as they travel through the disciplining processes of territory and time.

​My book Imagining Economics Otherwise: Encounters with Identity and Difference was as much a work of philosphy as it was of economics. My Man Asian Literary Prize short-listed novel Residue, as well as my recent novel, Future Tense, are works of fiction but inspired by urgent political questions relating to borders, bordered lives, conflicts, and conflicting identities in Kashmir. My most-recent paper is on the challenges of explainable artificial intelligence. It is perhaps harder to work in this way and it generates less instant recognition, but I would argue that it is more rewarding to sense-make in this way.

A lot of my work over the years on the challenges of nationalism, neoliberalism, democracy, gender, identity is not just a reaction to despair-inducing events, but also a testimony to the hope that we need to undertsand across polarities and dare to imagine better and differently. For instance, my scholarship on what I call electorally legitimated misogynist authoritiarians’ argues for recognizing the centrality of misogyny to political legitimacy, and similarly, my work on postcolonial neoliberal nationalism’ analyzes a political project ascendant in various countries at the present global moment.

Finally, and most importantly for this talk at Harvard, my work on Bhutan stems from my affection for the Himalayas as well as love of rigorous scholarship that ought to move beyond cliches and modes of disengaged knowledge production, in order to be genuinely multidisciplinary.

Mittal Institute: In 2006, you began spending long stretches of time in Bhutan, and have since led research studies on the country’s transition to democracy. Can you talk about why you initially focused on Bhutan? Why did you decide to focus on its political identity?

Nitasha Kaul: I often get asked this question: What took you to Bhutan, or why Bhutan? My own origin is in a place that is a byword for entrenched conflict — Kashmir. At the other end of the Himalayas is Bhutan, a small state that is one of the only Asian countries in the top 20 in the Global Peace Index. What initially drew me to Bhutan was the contrast it presented to many countries in the region and beyond in how it democratized in the 21st century. Bhutan also presents us with a counterfactual example for an alternative future that other Himalayan polities might have had, but did not.

My own origin is in a place that is a byword for entrenched conflict — Kashmir. At the other end of the Himalayas is Bhutan, a small state that is one of the only Asian countries in the top 20 in the Global Peace Index. What initially drew me to Bhutan was the contrast it presented to many countries in the region and beyond in how it democratized in the 21st century.

My connection to Bhutan and work on the country grew organically at first when I traveled in the region prior to a momentous change that was to take place in Bhutan. When in Bhutan in 2006, I came across numerous indviduals from all walks of life who were deeply fearful about the forthcoming transition from a monarchy to a universal suffrage democracy with a constitutional monarchy. Their anxieties were informed by both the stories and experience of democracies in neighboring countries in South Asia and by a deep trust in the monarchy. Rather than ascribing it to cultural difference alone, as orientalist scholars may tend to do, I wanted to listen to, witness, and study the transition as an outsider and make sense of the exceptional phenomenon. After all, as I argued in my published work on Bhutan at the time, the transition to democracy happened in Bhutan at a time when a referendum on the desirability of such a transition to democracy would have failed!

I researched and studied this country and won several grants and awards that made this possible over the years. I was a rare outsider scholar who comprehensively analyzed its democratization and witnessed the first national elections in 2008. Over subsequent years, my intellectual questions took me further back into the archives and into the history of the country over the last several centuries, as I wrote about Bhutan’s engagement with the external world and thus connected its history and the present, and parsed through the dominant representations of Bhutan and the Bhutanese narratives of their country.

What I found fascinating was the unique ways in which Bhutan, as a small state, has managed to create a largely peaceful and sovereign identity for itself in the Himalayas where most other traditional polities, including Tibet, Sikkim and Kashmir, did not survive in the same way. Not only has Bhutan survived, it has flourished over time. The country has undergone a massive developmental shift over the last few decades; it is also a carbon-negative country and the home of Gross National Happiness. All this is a reminder that we must shift our understanding of development and of geopolitics beyond great powers alone and take seriously the endogenous drivers of the agency of smaller states.

Coincidently, one of the first places I gave a talk on Bhutan was Harvard University in 2008 on the still-new process of democratization; now, here I am, so many years later, speaking of a country that is not only a well-functioning multi-party democracy but an astute sovereign actor negotiating the quagmire of geopolitics in the Himalayas. Finally, in recent years, I have been also led a project on Bhutan that brings together the ecological and the political in ways that I term as ‘biodemocracy’, but the details of that may be for another lecture and interview!

Thimphu, Bhutan. By Pema Gyamtsho. 

Mittal Institute: Part of your talk will focus on Bhutan’s role as a border country between India and China, and how any hostilities between these countries have affected Bhutan. Can you give us a little preview of that – what is the relationship like between these countries? What are some similarities between them, and what are some differences?

Nitasha Kaul: I have argued in my work how as a small Himalayan state, contemporary Bhutan is geopolitically mapped through an exhaustive and southward oriented “inbetweenness” (“inbetween India and China”) that is taken to be natural but in fact has shifted over the centuries. The antagonistic relationship between India and China is marked by a high mutual threat perception, frequent hostilities along their shared border across the Himalayas and a demonstrable ineffectiveness of big power diplomacy in bringing about conciliatory understandings in spite of increasing volumes of trade between them.The disputes, mutual suspicion and antagonisms all have a severe impact on the different communities and people for whom home is in one or the other part of the Himalayas. In my talk on April 7, I put forward a subaltern geopolitical perspective to first trace a longer imperial and post-colonial history of this inbetweenness for Bhutan and its effect on knowledge-making about smaller states. I then present the indigenous aspects of this small state’s foreign policy, suggesting that Bhutan’s foreign policy trajectory is important in both descriptive and analytical terms to better grasp the Indian and Chinese interests as they are negotiated by the Bhutanese, as opposed to accounts where Bhutan is constructed as a passive placeholder of great power politics.

Mittal Institute: Why is it so important to understand Bhutan’s foreign policy trajectory, as it relates to the landscape of South Asian politics, and where do you think that trajectory lies?

Nitasha Kaul: Bhutan has undergone tremendous political changes in the 21st century that deserve reference, ranging from renegotiating its treaty with India to remove a clause that potentially restricted its foreign relations; to an elite-led transition to democracy that was widely seen as undesirable within the country; to three general elections (in 2008, 2013, and 2018), bringing three different political parties to power; to internal contestations around the potential influence of India or China in Bhutan’s own internal political sphere; to gradually design and evolution of democratic mechanisms that clarify division of powers, growing awareness and practice of freedom of speech, demand for public accountability of officials even in high profile cases involving ministers or the judiciary; to defining nationality in more internally inclusivist terms; to enacting progressive legislation such as the recent decriminalization of homosexuality.

In a region marked by severe internal and external contestations, crises of democracy, emergence of authoritarian tendencies, divided political elites in smaller states being caught in the China-India competition, and fractured polities, Bhutan offers instructive lessons.

Bhutan continues to be restricted in its maneuverability vis a vis China to settle a border dispute in an area that India considers as strategic, and is economically closely intertwined with India through trade; however, as I’ve argued in my work, it is nonetheless on a carefully calibrated pathway to democratic consolidation and incremental internationalization. In a region marked by severe internal and external contestations, crises of democracy, emergence of authoritarian tendencies, divided political elites in smaller states being caught in the China-India competition and fractured polities, Bhutan offers instructive lessons.

While Bhutan will continue to face governance and foreign policy challenges resulting from tensions between imperatives of development and values of environment, progress of democratic values, aspirations of the younger population, overwhelming economic linkages with India, need for border resolution with China complicated by the stand off between China and India in the Himalayas, based on the incremental and cautious approach taken by Bhutan so far, one can be hopeful that it will continue to be a country with a difference in the region. Also, much attention is paid to Bhutan’s bilateral relationship with India, and the analysis is often exclusively from the Indian point of view, Bhutan’s gravitational distance to India notwithstanding, countries which may be seen as ‘close’ for Bhutan are not only the ones ‘near’ in terms of physical distance (due to shared attributes). Bhutanese diplomacy has facilitated this along with managing its long-standing friendship with India.

Mittal Institute: You write creatively, too, and are the author of novels including a 2020 work of political fiction on Kashmir, Future Tense. What projects are next on the horizon for you?

Nitasha Kaul: Being from Kashmir, the personal is always political. I have been speaking about my fiction, too, at talks on this US visit. And last winter, I addressed Harvard students in a lecture online on the topic of a desideratum for 21st century decolonization. I will continue to write and speak to various audiences in analytical and affective registers both, and work on projects that are scholarly as well as those that are creative. It is hard to summarize my ongoing academic work but broadly speaking, some strands of my current work are on unusual means of conflict resolution in entrenched territorial disputes, the uses of misogyny in politics, the contestations over indigeneity in conflict, and the challenges of emerging technologies in international relations.

Aside from my consistent work on Kashmir, I will be building on my existing work on biodemocracy and resilience in Bhutan. In the context of the Himalayas more generally, some of my forthcoming work is about the ways in which the shifting lines between strategy and sympathy have played an important role over time in constructing frontiers. I specifially investigate how the idea of friendship has been a particularly fertile and creative category against the backdrop of imperial expansion and modern state consolidation in the Himalayas.