India at 75: Some Sepoy Stories of a Shared Saga

Veteran Late Tsho Tsho Drukpa
Naik ( Retd) Dhan Rup Rai and his medals

We met at Fedi where the water ends and the land begins for the traveller headed towards Dorokha as the land ends and the water begins for those who are Samtse-bound. Dhaam Dhoom retains the exclusive distinction of being perhaps the moodiest river in the world changing its mind some 25 times in a matter of hours and obliging the traveller to defy the ancient Heraclitus law that you cannot step into the same river twice! 

And, prior to the arrival of motor-road in 2009, Dorokha was, for all its privileges as an important conduit between the national capital and the outside world, one of the most forbidding and desolate places in Bhutan often serving as the dreaded destination for government officials sent on punishment transfer.

I was on my way back to college in Shillong and Acho Tsho Tsho was on his way home. The eager me ventured to ask, ‘Where are you coming from, Acho?’ The ever gracious, always self-effacing, elder brother smiled and obliged me with the treasure of an answer that I would have missed if I had been better behaved!

“I received an invitation from the President of India to attend the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi. I am on my way back”.  I had never realised till then that somebody from my nondescript remote village would have this rare honour to be a guest of the Head of State of the Indian Republic at such a high profile event in its national calendar.

My curiosity grew and I persisted almost to the point of being impolite to ask what that special privilege was for, but Acho was most gracious. “I served in the Indian Army and still receive my monthly pension from Chamurchi Post Office. They haven’t forgotten their retired soldier from Bhutan”.

The moment suddenly turned emotional. Words were few and with a lump of joy in my throat, I took leave of my brave village-elder and waved at him as he trudged up the inexorable Fedi climb and I crossed the first bend of fickle Dhaam Dhoom.  

“How good of them to remember and acknowledge this soldier years after he left their ranks”! 

It was my turn then to honour Acho. I still do, though he is long gone from us. Dorokha remembers veteran Tsho Tsho Drukpa as an outstanding Gup during one of the most turbulent times in our country.

As the fabled Republic of India celebrates the Diamond Jubilee of its Independence, I am humbled to discover the multiple threads of the ever-refining silken knot that that forms the bedrock of our Bhutan-India relationship. The abiding memories and everlasting camaraderie, that many of our Bhutanese young men who served in the Indian Army and retired to their villages carry, are among the most poignant despite the years that have gone by. 

During my visits to far-away Minduling, I would make it a point to pay my respects to WWII veteran Signalman Bhaijit Rai who was always most animated as he narrated his experiences of his time in the British-India Army, his assignment in Malaya, in Hong Kong, in Burma, and his encounters with the Japanese, his days without food, and a myriad other memorable episodes of his heroism.

It was my fervent wish to spend time with this endless reservoir of a life of action and record his lived experiences, but it was not to be…

Retired Naik Dhan Rup Rai of Assam Regiment belonged to the 1963 batch of some 300 young men who were selected from various parts of the country and sent by the Government to serve in the Indian Army as a symbol of goodwill close on the heels of Indian Prime Minister Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru’s historic visit to Bhutan that led to the forging of a deep friendship with His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck and the beginning of an abiding Indo-Bhutan relationship.

Naik Dhan Rup remembers the date of departure from Samtse: February 18th, travelling by train from Aliporeduar to Guwahati and reaching Happy Valley in Shillong for their training. He was posted in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Bangladesh and returned to Bhutan as a pensioner after serving in the Indian Army for 21 years. He fondly remembers his boss Lieutenant Colonel B.B Mal.

At 87, Naik (Retd.) Dhan Rup Rai is still active and energetic in his village at Jaringay in Dorokha’s Dumtoe Gewog, reminiscing his Fauzi days as he tends his family cattle.  

Sepoy Tsheri Dukpa of Pungthra in Denchukha, also of Assam Regiment, 1963 cohort, has vivid memories of training in Happy Valley in Shillong and serving in different parts of India. He does not remember the names of his many batch-mates from other districts but proudly names those still living in his neighbourhood who served in the same Regiment: Chirbirey Kanchha of Kaduri, Maniraj Rai of Nevarey, Janga Bahadur Banya of Myona, Thinley Dukpa of Dogap, now settled in Samtse, among others.

Some men returned early because of health reasons or family compulsions back home while others continued till retirement. Still hale and hearty and nearing 80 now, Sepoy Tsheri Dukpa served in Nagaland, Jammu and Kashmir and other locations for eight years before returning home. He can tell in one breath his multi-digit identification number of his Assam Regiment days.

Obviously, many cohorts would have preceded and succeeded the 1963 batch and left their own imprints on the roll of honour in the world-famous Indian Army even as Bhutan has received from India many learned men and women in diverse fields of national endeavour to help with the development of our country.

I am struck by the timing of this dispatch. It was about the same time that the first batch of teachers from south India came to Bhutan as the country launched its first five year development plan, with support from India. Education was a priority from day one. Bhutan invited and honoured many batches of retired teachers from India in Thimphu, and in several cities in India, during important occasions.

Over the years, Indo-Bhutan relationship and collaboration have gained ever greater impetus and ever deeper levels of mutual satisfaction and trust as we look to the future together and explore new horizons for the well-being of our peoples and our nations.

As India reaches this historic Diamond Jubilee milestone of its cherished independence, I offer my humble tributes to the great visionaries and proud citizens of this ancient nation for the myriad success stories that the incredible sub-continent has recorded and wish our trusted friend and neighbour ever greater progress and well-being in the years ahead.

May our exemplary Indo-Bhutan friendship grow ever stronger and achieve ever higher levels of purpose and integrity, generation beyond generation…

  • Thakur S Powdyel, former Minister of Education.