THE People’s Republic of China and the Indian Union have ended their stand-off at Dokalam/Donglang. Both the governments had interests in making sure that happened. New Delhi wanted a face-saving exit to a situation that was increasingly untenable. New Delhi hopes to manage the possible negative fallout of a climb-down by using a domestic media management blitz, including claims about a rise in Delhi’s geopolitical status post ‘disengagement’. The shelf life of such Indo-China impasses is short with low dividends because China is not a ‘Muslim country’, which limits its ‘emotive’ appeal in the present-day Indian nationalist discourse. With the high-prestige BRICS leadership summit coming up in China, Beijing wanted to end the impasse too, technically without yielding anything.
Almost a mute, or probably deliberately muted, bystander on whose name this whole fiasco happened, Bhutan has welcomed ‘the disengagement by the two sides at the face-off site in the Doklam area’. When Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesperson referred to the withdrawing Indian troops as ‘trespassing personnel’, they were also questioning the locus standi of New Delhi in the Doklam/Donglang dispute in the first place.
If one follows the Indian domestic media, the territorial dispute might appear to be an Indo-Chinese one. It is not. It is a Bhutan-Chinese border dispute. By carrying out a media narrative where it was almost made irrelevant that this is fundamentally China-Bhutan issue, New Delhi may have hoodwinked domestic citizens and given them a sense of ‘our backyard’ but surely this will not go down well in Bhutan which is not and never was the 30th state of the Indian Union but a sovereign nation with full UN membership. Although dependent on and subservient to New Delhi significantly, changing geo-politics is making sure that this relationship changes.
There was a time when Bhutan was much more subservient to New Delhi. At that time, New Delhi did not even hesitate to cartographically include Bhutan, including the Doklam/Donglang plateau, as well as swathes of land which is now officially Chinese territory. This was 1957. In 1963, even after the Indo-Chinese war in which the Indian Union suffered a humiliating defeat, the Indian Post Office printed a second series of such stamps which showed both Bhutan and Sikkim as being part of the Indian Union entity. This was patently false. Bhutan, of course, was never part of the Indian Union. At that time, Sikkim was not either.
It was through the 1960s and 1970s through a series of Nepali expatriate leadership orchestrated protests in Sikkim that the Indian Union was able to grab Sikkim, a move that was denounced internationally at the time and even as late as 1978 by then prime minister Morarji Desai who called it ‘wrong’ and ‘not a desirable step’. Thus, New Delhi does not exactly have a glorious past on this matter in this specific part of the world. Till today, Bhutan does not maintain any direct diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, the only other entity with which it shares an international border today. Few serious observers would believe that this state of things is by Bhutan’s own accord and not by New Delhi’s pressure and effective control of Bhutan’s foreign relations.
However, this situation is becoming increasingly dynamic and that means that Bhutan, a sovereign nation, is exercising its inherent sovereign rights. Bhutan has opted out of the New Delhi-sponsored BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) motor vehicles agreement, thus sending out a signal that it refuses a tighter hug from New Delhi than the one it shares at present and is willing to stand up to it, in limited ways or even draw closer to China. A few years ago, this was unthinkable.
In Dhaka and Kathmandu too, by exerting huge pressure on the incumbent governments to agree to New Delhi’s want list, it has now made Beijing a serious player in both Nepal and Bangladesh. New Delhi’s clout has limits and that limit has been showing more clearly since 2014, with New Delhi’s surging unpopularity in the domestic politics of Nepal and Bangladesh. But much of Indian media dare not say it like it is. By not critically questioning New Delhi’s decision to boycott the One Belt One Road infrastructure mega-project by citing concerns about a cartographic claim (ironic given New Delhi’s own cartographic mischief cited above) on part of Kashmir where the Indian flag has never ever flown and playing the easy and self-destructive game of playing to the urban-chest thumping class, the media in the Indian Union have done a disservice to the public.
This is particularly interesting because this is territory the Indian Union claims as its own and not behalf of Bhutan and China has built many roads there and there has not been any ‘stand-off’. Media opinion in Kashmir has pointed out this obvious double standard. It has not informed them adequately of the huge costs of being left out of the Asian economic mainstream at a time when the east is rising and the west is sinking, slowly but surely. Opting out from OBOR, New Delhi has seriously sabotaged the possibilities of economic growth and development of West Bengal and other eastern and north-eastern states but even the Indian pink papers chose to toe a line of subservience to South Block and not to economics.
In the Doklan/Donglang issue, by not taking New Delhi to task for carrying out a ‘forward’ policy by using Bhutan’s name with an adversary for which it is not a match in any serious sense, the media have again put the so-called ‘national’ interest before public interest. The army, the MEA, the ITBP — none of these are sovereign. It is the people who are sovereign and it is their interests that are supreme. It is their interests that ought to drive the New Delhi-Beijing relationship as is apparent in China’s massive investments in Gujarat, Narendra Modi’s visits to China both as Gujarat chief minister and then as Indian Union prime minister, and cooperation in international multilateral bodies such as the WTO against western farm subsidies.
Garga Chatterjee, an Indian brain scientist at MIT, writes columns from Kolkata for newspapers in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion