Learning from History: Why India defends Bhutan

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Image Credit: The Doklam Plateau: Google, CNES/AIRBUS, DigitalGlobe
Bhutan is the location of a tense face-off between nuclear-armed neighbours. Why does India defend Bhutan against China?

Throughout history, Bhutan has resolutely charted its own destiny in South Asia. This, despite the country’s location at the intersection of great powers

Bhutan had a love-hate-love relationship with Tibet. They owe their cultural roots to Tibet; the first Shabdung (1594-1651) hailed from Southern Tibet and is considered Bhutan’s first ruler. Buddhism spread from Tibet to Bhutan. But from the seventeenth century, the landlocked nation had to fend off numerous invasions from Tibetan chieftains.

It’s these invasions that led Bhutan to build its iconic ‘Dzongs’ across the country; fortresses that were ostensibly defensive, serving administrative and religious functions.

In 1627, to help the Bhutanese fend off the invaders, a group of Portuguese missionaries (who were the first Europeans to visit Bhutan) offered the then ruler, Ngawang Namgyal, guns, gunpowder and a telescope. It was a timely offer of modern technology. However, Bhutan looked at the offer of foreign military aid with suspicion and turned down the offer.

Namgyal unified the provinces that later became Bhutan – fending off invasions from Tibet as well as from the Mongols. Since then, Bhutan has maintained a culture of independence.

This was not without hiccups. Bhutan controlled territories in the Duars, hilly regions that are part of Bengal and Assam. From 1828, Bhutan was involved in a series of conflicts with the East Indian Company. In 1841, the British annexed the Duar regions, agreeing to pay Bhutan an annual compensation of Rs. 10,000. In 1862, Bhutan raided Sikkim, prompting the British to call off the deal. Two years later, the Duar War was fought between Bhutan and British India.

At the onset of the war, the Bhutanese king, the Deba Raja, promised to unleash the fury of 12 gods on the British. The war began with a decisive Bhutanese victory, forcing the British to evacuate and regroup. In 1865, the revenge offensive saw Bhutan lose all of its territories in Bengal and Assam.

The peace Treaty of Sinchula was signed in 1865. Based on a principle of non-interference in Bhutan’s internal affairs, this served as the basis for later relations between India and Bhutan. In 1910, this was updated as the Treaty of Punakha. British-India would stay out of Bhutan, on the condition that it controls the Bhutan’s foreign relations.

From 1949, independent India inherited this control over Bhutanese foreign relations. It wasn’t long before this was put to the test. The very next year (1950), China invaded Tibet. Tibet’s borders became China’s borders. And Bhutan realised that its continued independence hinged on India.

Bhutan’s tryst with India

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Image:PublicResources.org/ Creative Commons

Under the first Treaty of Friendship between India and Bhutan, the Government of Bhutan agreed “to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.”

Bhutan realised what this meant only after the Tibetan uprising in 1959. The country faced an influx of refugees from Tibet, and closed its borders. But the threat of a Chinese invasion loomed over the region. Speaking in the Indian Parliament, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru stated:

…Any aggression against Bhutan, and Sikkim, would be considered an act of aggression against India.

The same year, the king of Bhutan visited India and sought a “written guarantee of Indian support in the event of a Chinese attack on Bhutan.” This statement was soon put to the test. In 1960, Chinese leadership issued the following statement:

Bhutanese, Sikkimese and Ladakhis form a united family in Tibet. They have always been subject to Tibet and to the great motherland of China. They must once again be united and taught the communist doctrine.

In 1962, India and China went to war with disastrous consequences for India. Bhutan stayed out of the conflict but played a small part in nursing wounded Indian soldiers. However, the landlocked country soon lodged a protest against Indian soldiers straying into Bhutanese territory. According to Neville Maxwell, Bhutan rejected India’s offer to station troops in Bhutan. The Royal Government of Bhutan also pointed out that the 1949 agreement was meant for guiding foreign policy and not a defence treaty.

India’s stance on Bhutan reflected Nehru’s 1958 wish that Bhutan remains independent, “…taking the path of progress according to your will.” India remained responsible for Bhutan – the country was heavily involved in training the Royal Bhutanese Army, and the Indian Air Force’s Eastern Air Command was entrusted with Bhutan’s air defence.

The 1949 friendship treaty served Bhutan well enough, but it began to desire greater independence. In 1971, Bhutan entered the United Nations (UN) with India’s support. Since then, Bhutan has tried to chart its own path (albeit a narrow one) in international relations. Notably, in 1979, Bhutan voted with China and not India in supporting Cambodia’s bid for membership in the UN.

In 2007, on becoming a democracy, Bhutan signed a new friendship treaty. The clause nominating India’s ‘guiding hand’ in Bhutan’s foreign relations was removed. However, India remained Bhutan’s guarantor of security and arms imports. And, under the treaty, neither country “shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”

The Border Dispute with China

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Image: The Line between the Trijunction and the Doklam Plateau; Credit: Google, CNES/AIRBUS, DigitalGlobe, Landsat/Copernicus

Bhutan does not maintain diplomatic relations with China. A tricky scenario, when both countries disputed 1,128 square kilometres of territory. But somehow, the two managed to negotiate the figure down to 269 square kilometres of territory, of which the Doklam Plateau in Bhutan’s North West occupies 89 square kilometres.

The Indian state of Sikkim shares borders with Bhutan and China. This is regulated between India and China by the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890. China viewed this convention as India’s acknowledgement of its boundary with Bhutan – but Jawaharlal Nehru disputed this very point in 1959.

Bhutan and China have failed to reach an agreement on their border despite 22 years of annual talks. But this hasn’t stopped China from trying to negotiate. In 1996, China sought to acquire the Doklam Plateau, promising to cede 495 square kilometres to Bhutan in return. But, Bhutan refused. Today, the region is the constituency of its current Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay.

In 1998, Bhutan and China signed the “Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity in the Bhutan-China Border Area” – promising to maintain the status quo within the pre-1959 borders. It is this agreement that Bhutan now considers violated.

Strategic Heights

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Image: View from the Trijunction; Credit: Google, CNES/Airbus, DigitalGlobe, Lansat/Copernicus

The Doklam plateau overlooks the highly strategic Siliguri Corridor, the thin stretch of land that connects India’s seven North-Eastern states with the mainland. Control over the plateau would give China the higher ground in the region, and it would only take a 100-150 kilometre advance by Chinese forces to cut off the North-East from the mainland. The ongoing border stand-off between India and China on Bhutanese territory concerns this very plateau.

Since 1979, China and Bhutan have fought a yak war. First, yak graziers are sent across the border from China to graze in new pastures. Accompanying them will be an armed guard. As defence policy expert Ajay Shukla writes, this turns into a permanent outpost; with the building of temporary shelters, military bunkers and finally a road.

The ultimate message is made clear: this is our territory now.

The current stand-off began on June 16, when Chinese forces started building a class 40 motorable road (capable of carrying vehicles up to 40 tonnes in weight, such as tanks) to the tri-junction between the India, Bhutan and China. Compounding the matter; none of the three countries seem to agree on where exactly the disputed area is. Thus, India claims the tri-junction arises from Batang La, the Bhutanese say it’s at Dhoka La and the Chinese say it’s at Gamochen (at mount Gipmochi, 15 kilometres south of Dhoka La). Gamochen is the southernmost estimate, and it’s the destination China is building a road to.

At first, Bhutanese soldiers asked the Chinese to stop building. When that didn’t work, they turned to India. The situation has since escalated, with 3,000 troops from either side facing off ‘eyeball to eyeball’.

Bhutan maintained an official silence for a while, before siding with India. What resulted was a war of words between Indian and Chinese officials, with the China’s state-sponsored editorials promising to teach India ‘a bitter lesson greater than 1962″.

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, arrived in Hamburg on July 6 for a G-20 conference. There is a chance that the Prime Minister could meet his counterpart, Xi Jinping, and defuse the situation. But China has already refuted the possibility of a bilateral meeting, stating that “the atmosphere is not right.”

How Bhutan responds to this crisis will be a key consideration in its desire for autonomy. China may not desire war, but rather, to drive a wedge between India and Bhutan. It can do this by testing how far India is willing to go in Bhutan’s defence. The choice is not so much between war and peace, as it is between further provocation and submission.

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