In conversation with Amar Nath Ram, former Indian ambassador to Bhutan, about the background of the Doklam crisis, the China factor and New Delhi’s ties with Thimpu.
New Delhi: Bhutan, armed with the meticulous record-keeping of movements of its graziers, had raised its claims on Doklam at all rounds of talks with China, says a former Indian diplomat, who had also represented Bhutan at the United Nations.
It is now over two months since a Chinese People’s Liberation Army road construction team entered Dolam plateau in Bhutan’s Doklam region and were stopped. While they were first confronted by a team from the Royal Bhutanese Army, they were later met by an Indian military team, which came over from Sikkim. Since June 18, Indian and Chinese troops have been in a face-off at close proximity at a clearing on the Dolam plateau.
While the confrontation is taking place on territory claimed by Bhutan, the Bhutanese government has remained silent since issuing a statement on June 29.
The Wire spoke to Amar Nath Ram, a former Indian Foreign Service officer of the 1962 batch, who first went to Thimpu in 1968 to open India’s first resident mission in Bhutan. Thereafter, from 1971 to 1973, he officially represented Bhutan as its deputy permanent representative in New York when the Himalayan kingdom joined the United Nations. This was an unusual deputation for an Indian diplomat to represent a foreign country, which ended with him being awarded with one of Bhutan’s highest decorations, the Royal Order of Bhutan or ‘Druk Thuksey’. Thereafter, Ram headed the northern division desk at the external affairs ministry from 1979 to 1981. A few years later, he returned as India’s ambassador to Bhutan, serving from 1983 to 1985.
In a free-range discussion, he addressed questions about the background of the Doklam crisis and India’s relations with Bhutan.
How do you assess the current critical developments on Doklam?
One has to see this in perspective. The perspective being that Bhutan’s closest neighbour historically has been Tibet. And in fact, the kingdom of Bhutan was established by [Tibetan Buddhist lama] Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, some 500 years ago. He came and consolidated and united Bhutan. Bhutan has had a long history of dealing with ups and downs in her relations with Tibet. Mostly downs, because there have been several conflicts, several wars, to which the Bhutanese have responded with alacrity. In fact, they had very little relation on the southern side you know, the Dooars, where the relationship – comparatively speaking – was rather peaceful.
Thus, the present issue of the border, not just of Doklam, but the entire Tibet-Bhutan border stems from the fact that traditionally the border was not demarcated, but understood by the sway that each side held in certain areas.
The Bhutanese, certainly, have held traditional sway over certain areas of Doklam, Sinchulumpa, the whole area, Zuri ridge and further north, going right up to the eastern tri-junction.
The Chinese, whereas, came into Tibet only in the 1950s, and the biggest shock that the Bhutanese ever received in their long existence as an independent nation was the occupation of Tibet with China. Their last Bhutanese representative in Lhasa left only after the takeover by the Chinese. The Bhutanese were very, very upset when the Chinese took over Tibet. Consequently, a sense of insecurity crept into their own attitude towards their northern neighbour, now Tibet occupied by China.
When we talk about Doklam or any other border area, skirmish, standoff or conflict, or shall we say, misunderstanding, it has to be seen in the context of the grave suspicion that the Bhutanese have historically had of the Tibetans and Chinese occupation of Tibet.
As far as Doklam itself is concerned, Bhutanese graziers have been going into these pastures for many centuries without any break. The Bhutanese have historically kept a tab on the movement of their graziers into these Doklam areas. Therefore, when someone says that Bhutan is being pressurised into accepting a certain position on Doklam, that is absolutely incorrect, because the Bhutanese have held sway over that territory, their graziers have gone into that territory for hundreds of years.
As far as India and Bhutan are concerned in the context of Doklam, we have certainly a harmonised position. We had agreed way back in the 1970s where the tri-junction would lie and consequently Doklam fell within the understood borders of Bhutan with Tibet. The Chinese also used to send their own graziers into these territory, but did not call into question the Bhutanese traditional rights over this entire territory. An inference one can draw is that the Chinese interest in Doklam now is not driven by any particular dispute with Bhutan, but by its anxiety to come as close to the ‘chicken’s neck’ in India in order to neutralise our strategic advantage because we are holding the heights there.
But here, the Bhutanese and Indian position have been so similar over the years. Although we must have discussed it many times, I don’t think that at any point of time – certainly not to my knowledge – did the Bhutanese ever tell us that our understanding of the boundary in this area is different from their understanding. On the contrary, the Royal Bhutan Army patrols with some of our own people and have been visiting these areas for decades now, and consequently, it is very well understood where the traditional boundary lay.
Having said all this, let me add one more point. That the Bhutanese had more than 20 rounds of negotiations with the Chinese on the boundary question and the Chinese had offered them a fairly generous deal at one point of time, but not in the Chumbi Valley. The Chumbi Valley is the area where Doklam is located.
The Bhutanese rejected so-called generous offers from China, because they do believe that their boundary lies where it does.
Now, one final point is that India also had extra-territorial interests and influence in the Chumbi Valley, particularly along the trade routes coming from Lhasa to Yadong to Kalimpong. We had permanent presence there historically for hundreds of years. Thus, both Bhutanese and the Indians have extra-territorial interests. But, we still have never put them on the table in order to say that your view on the Chumbi Valley may be your own, but we also have our own interests.
This is an important point as it is not a territorial issue, in that, those days there was no territorial demarcation. The borders were fluid at that time. The Bhutanese, and Indians to some extent, held sway over certain parts of the Chumbi Valley, which have now has gone to China.
What was the basis for India and Bhutan reaching an understanding over the border and tri-junction in the 1970s?
The Bhutanese, contrary to popular understanding, are great archivists. They keep their records very prim and proper.
The dzongda (district magistrate or collector) under the penlop (provincial governor) of those days used to compile registers or records that were constantly fed to the government in Thimpu, and Paro before that, for their archival records.
Consequently, the Bhutanese know exactly where and since when their graziers are going into these pasture lands. They did have records that was very complete and passed on from one official to another who assumed the post of Dzongda. So they do have a long institutional memory for things that there were done in the past. They have all the treaties, all the traditional evidences needed to sustain their case on the boundary question.
I think this system evolved because their outside involvement was limited to Tibet in the north and India in the south, meaning they could concentrate on this kind of strong archival record basis.
They were following a policy of self-imposed isolation until Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to Bhutan in 1958 and consequently, they opened up to the south. And the reason that they opened op to the south, rather than the north, which is their traditional area of interest, is because of the occupation of Tibet by China at that point of time.
Did the Bhutanese lodge protests with China over the entry of Tibetan graziers during your days of association with Bhutan?
They were very upset. They used to lodge a protest with the Chinese every time, and at least would take it up with the Chinese during their boundary talks. So there was no question that the Bhutanese have maintained a steadfast, sustained position on the Doklam, which belongs to the larger area of Sinchulumpa, which I mentioned to you is the watershed there.
The very fact that the Bhutanese refused a ‘generous’ offer from China shows that they believe that their boundary in the Doklam sector also need to be accepted and respected by the Chinese. That’s why the Bhutanese have been very, very determined in projecting their point of view to the Chinese.
Recently, a senior Chinese foreign ministry official claimed that Bhutan had admitted that Doklam was Chinese territory. Is that likely?
No, that is absolutely misleading. Of course, I can’t speak for Bhutan any more, though I served the royal government at one point of time. I don’t think the Bhutanese ever accepted Doklam as being a part of China. On the contrary, they raised it every time there has been a boundary negotiation with China.
There is a view among several experts that China wants to use the Doklam crisis to wean Bhutan away from India. What’s your take on this?
Possible. It is entirely possible. But I think the overarching theme here is that the Chinese are certainly concerned that they are at a disadvantage, strategically speaking, in this sector. The Royal Bhutan Army and Indian Army further south are occupying the heights – accordingly, they want to enter an area where they can intimidate India and Bhutan at will. The Chicken’s Neck [Siliguri Corridor] is also strategically so important, both for India and for Bhutan – and China, in a different context.
You mentioned earlier that Chinese occupation of Tibet was a big shock for Bhutan. Wasn’t Sikkim’s integration into India also a concern for Bhutan? The reason I ask is because ‘Sikkimisation’ is a term often used to explain why Bhutan should remain on their guard against India.
The integration of Sikkim did not cause any ripples. Although, I must confess to you that the Bhutanese royal family did have some connections in the Kalimpong area. The royal grandmother lived in Kalimpong area for a while. But, they did not have any misgivings about India’s actions as they saw it as a series of follies committed by the Chogyal himself. Let me put it this way, even if there was any misgivings it has not manifested itself in any measurable manner by the Bhutanese to us.
So, the Bhutanese government did not raise any concerns with India about Sikkim?
No. On the integration of Sikkim, there were no questions [from Bhutan], but we explained our own side, our own part as we have a tradition of close consultation with Bhutan. So, we did explain to them the reasons why Sikkim got integrated with India. It was a local movement. It was not as if India sent forces into Sikkim. It was the people of Sikkim who decided to merge with India.
No Bhutanese have spoken to me of being wary of India. See, had there been any such doubts in their minds about India’s designs on their territory, they would have manifested that before they entered in a deep, close irrevocable relationship with India.
The fact that they went down this path, not just with one king but four successive kings, and now with the democratically elected government and prime minister pursuing the same path, it demonstrates that there is no doubt in the Bhutanese mind about India’s intention, which are considered to be purely friendly.
There have recently been some voices on Bhutan’s social media expressing frustration at India’s ‘tight embrace’.
I don’t know about these social media posts, but the reason that the India-Bhutan friendship is so close and the clasp is so deep is because we have given them complete liberty in order to achieve their aspiration.
It was India that sponsored Bhutan’s membership at the UN and I went as their representative to the UN in New York many years ago. That itself shows a certain degree of conviction that India’s very enlightened policy that Bhutanese aspirations should be met by them.
We are there as a friend and a support to the extent we can help them, financially, economically and technologically, and the Bhutanese in return do not want to hurt our core interests.
They have always maintained that India’s core interest are of paramount interest to this friendship.
On certain issues, they have adopted an independent position. For example, if you remember, on Cambodia, way back in the 1980s, the Bhutanese had adopted a slightly nuanced different position from ours and we did not object to that because this was their sovereign position.
The Bhutanese don’t have certain expressions in their language. The royalty seldom would disagree with you openly. They would send things, messages or indications that this is not the way that things should be. But, in the case of Cambodia or any other issue, I don’t think we have reached that point where the Bhutanese have had to say no to us, because we have shown the sensitivity as long as it is not our core interest, you are free to take a position on any issue you like.
I would say that they don’t feel pressurised. On the contrary each time we have discussions on their projects, on their economic development, it is they who come up with the proposals. They want to hydroelectric project here or cement plant there and we respond.
Returning back to the current Doklam issue, the Bhutanese government has issued only one statement so far. The June 29 statement, which objects to Chinese presence in Dolam, however, does not refer to the Indian army being there. How do you read it?
India is an outside power and consequently our involvement in the recent episode is on the point of view of, one, the tri-junction in which we are concerned, and two, the Bhutanese to the extent they seek our advice and help.
So, a question of India being present there against the will of Bhutan does not arise.
Although, we have a Indian military training team in Thimpu, the training team’s brief is to train the Royal Bhutan Army and generally liaise with them rather than participate in defence or military operations of the kind spoken about. Right now, the Royal Bhutan Army are capable enough to man their own boundary. We are at a point that is south of the tri-junction or at the tri-junction. When do we go into Bhutanese territory, it is always in close cooperation and understanding with them. There have been very occasions that we have gone into Bhutan – for training exercises – and they have all been with permission from them.
There was no need to mention India [in the statement]. To rest all misunderstandings on this, India and Bhutan have harmonised their understandings very, very closely. Of course, there will be continuous consultations between us as the situation evolves, but our position is pretty harmonised.
I personally think that Bhutan have stood their ground, very steadfastly. I would give them a lot of credit, as Bhutan is a small country and for them to withstand the pressure of their powerful neighbour, shows that they believe in their cause.