“the Great Game …which grew out of intense Anglo-Russian rivalry in Asia during the 19th century…The shadowy contest began in earnest in the 1830s …Whether there was really a threat to India is a question which still exercises historians…At the same time that the Tsarist armies were driving eastwards towards the Pacific and southwards towards India, the British were pressing northwards into the Himalayan and Karakoram regions in search of India’s ‘natural frontiers’.” Robert Shaw in his book Visits to High Tartary, 1871.
“Gradually the Penlop (chieftain) of Tongsa had established himself as the effective ruler of Bhutan and had been recognised as Maharaja by the Government of India, to whom he conceded control of foreign relations of Bhutan… In 1914 I had visited the then Maharaja… The Maharaja of Sikkim insisted on providing a litter and bearers who carried me (Sic. from Gangtok) in great comfort eight thousand feet uphill… to Nathu La, and five thousand feet to where the route to Bhutan (Sic. Doklam plateau) crosses the Chhumbi valley. Here the Bhutenese carriers took on the task and carried me uphill and downhill to Ha, Raja Dorji’s headquarters… he was the Maharaja’s chief link with the outer world and the Government of India” Sir BJ Gould in his book, The Jewel in the Lotus, 1957
“In the heydays of the British Empire, Sikkim had for all political and diplomatic purposes been absorbed as a Protectorate of India but Bhutan which was and remained inaccessible to the World except on horse (pony) or Yak-back was accepted as an independent buffer State.”
When India awoke to its “tryst with destiny” at the midnight stroke of mid August 1947, she had inherited two trijunctions on her international boundaries; one on its extreme North Western tip and the second on the farthest North Eastern tip. The NW trijunction (NWT) was loaded with the intrigues of the Colonial era’s fabled “the Great Game”, visualising hoards of Russian military pouring in to the Subcontinent via the tri-junction of the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan with the Kashgarh Khanate (present day Tajikistan) and India. The NE trijunction, in contrast, was a mere geographical entity, sans any intrigues yet, where melded the boundaries of Tibet, Burma (Myanmar) and India. And for the record, yes there was a mini third tri-junction (almost inconsequential till October, 1962) mid way the afore-stated two, where India, Tibet and Bhutan met in what is today the West Kameng District of Arunachal Pradesh.
Now, commencing in 1952 when legions of the PLA marched into Tibet with intent of de facto usurpation and amalgamation of the centuries old Buddhist country in to mainland China writ large through wholesale atrocities inflicted on cultural and human rights, India had to ipso facto contend with a fourth tri-junction, namely over the Doka La ridge where henceforth would intersect the boundaries of China, Bhutan and India. However, around the mid 1960s, once Pakistan had clandestinely ceded to China the Shaksgam Valley of India (a narrow wedge between the Siachen Glacier and the International boundary) the NWT at the Wakhan Corridor passed outside Indian jurisdiction. The world at large and indeed India, at the time, had no sense of the Chinese long term machinations of their blue print for the Karakoram Highway and its alignment over the then Indian held, Khunjerab Pass! The apologists of China need to take note, please.
Almost 150 years ago, the Government of India had in the “search of India’s natural frontiers” entered into a protocol, recognising Bhutan as a sovereign Country with the proviso that its foreign relations with other nation states will be conducted in consultation with India. India on its part gave carte blanche guarantee of non interference in Bhutan’s domestic governance, economy et al. This arrangement remained unchanged except for one minor change mutually accepted by both countries, in 1910. That was the year when the Chinese first attempted to change their status quo, vis-à- vis Tibet. Possibly, the Chinese were unsettled by the British Military intervention in Tibet, led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Younghusband with an Army Brigade sized force camping under the shadow of the Pota La, in 1904. Although the Younghusband mission vacated Lhasa in about two months but it extracted several concessions for India, the most significant being a permanent presence of four “Trade Agencies”, one each at Gartok, Shigatse, Gyantse and Lhasa. Each was headed by a Captain of the Indian Army and one Platoon of regular Indian Army was positioned at each mart, for perimeter defence. As an aside, the Platoon Commander at Gyantse was Lieutenant Claude Auchinleck who forty years later (1942) would inflict a crushing defeat on Rommel at Marakesh (Libya) but that wily “Desert Fox” regained balance almost at once and drove Auchinleck back to Cairo. Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck would return to India and remain C-in-C in India, till 1946. And on retirement, would build a house at the Marakesh Battle site, to live out his life and ultimately be buried in the compound of that mansion!
As a riposte to the Younghusband mission, the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1910 and the Dalai Lama sought refuge in India, for nearly two years. This had been happening, time and again and the Tibetan Government had an earmarked bungalow in Kalimpong (Shikabpa House, belonging to a noble family from Lhasa) which became the official residence of the Dalai Lamas, in India. Although the Chinese Army incursion posed no threat to Bhutan, but the Indian Government sought to allay their discomfort and it was mutually agreed that the British Agent (plenipotentiary) in Sikkim would also be accredited to Bhutan. In turn, in 1911 the King of Bhutan was conferred the G.C.I.E. and Major FM Bailey, the Political Agent at Gangtok (who in 1913- 14 would, along with Major Henry Morshead traverse the ground and survey the entire alignment which today is the McMahon Line), was dispatched to Bhutan to confer the honour on the King on behalf of the British Government.
The mode of travel to Bhutan in 1911 was a shade worse than what Sir BJ Gould had stated prevalent in 1947 (extract reproduced above) but Bailey was a veteran of the 1904 mission to Lhasa and much else and was accustomed to such hardships but his narrative of the ceremony connected with the G.C.I.E. which took place in the temple at Bumthang (Sic. in Central Bhutan) is worth recounting from his biography “Beyond The Frontiers” by Arthur Swinson, 1971:
“Red brocade carpets and silk had been spread and we were met at the door by his Highness. He sat on a throne with his back to the windows, I, a little lower on his right, and the rest in a line at right-angles. Opposite them were Lamas in robes, I made a short speech in Tibetan (Sic. Bailey was a confidant of the Dalai Lama as he could converse with him in fluent Tibetan without interpreters), then hung the gold chain on his neck and fixed the star and presented a scarf. In return he placed around my neck three scarves, red, green and white.” Despite the decor of the ceremony, the King himself was in robes of a common Bhutanese citizen and barefooted which is inexplicable but is a fact as evident from a photograph from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, London. In fact, Bailey in his full dress uniform looks an incongruous misfit. Bailey was a graduate from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst who had volunteered for the Indian Army and was commissioned in to 32 Sikh(presently, 1 Sikh LI) but had later sought transfer to the Political Department.
By 1957, it had become amply clear that the Chinese were intent on total absorption of Tibet as a part of the PRC and it was feared that the Dalai Lama may even be imprisoned. China’s aggressive intents for territorial, illegal aggrandisement had been fairly well read both by Prime Minister Nehru and the Home Minister, Sardar Patel but the post WW II downsized Indian Army was woefully inadequate to defend both the Western and Northern borders simultaneously. And recognising this reality, India once again moved to assuage the growing anxieties of Bhutan within the framework of the Treaty Protocol to assist Bhutan to defend her sovereignty. And PM Nehru did just that.
By then there was a rough jeepable, narrow track up to Nathu La but for the better part of the ten day to and fro journey to Paro in September 1957, PM Nehru and his party alternated Yakback travel with walking where gradients were comfortable. The route taken was the same as by Major Bailey, that is Nathu La to Yatung in the Chhumbi Valley and then Eastwards over Doka La ridge to enter the Ha Valley and Northwards over another ridge to enter the Paro Valley for parleys with the King of Bhutan. The timing was of essence because a year later the PLA in Tibet would compel the Dalai Lama to flee Tibet by night where he lives in exile to this day.
A similar mission was undertaken yet even in October 1962 when17 Infantry Division was post haste mobilised and positioned around Hashimara and its GOC, Major General KP Candeth was rushed to meet the King at Thimpu with Indian assurances of all possible measures in the event of PLA intruding in to Bhutan. As a Grade 3, General Staff Officer, I accompanied the GOC with maps etc and it took us over twelve hours by jeep/ bulldozers/dumper-trucks (suitably located by Colonel Upadhya, the Officer Commanding the BRO road detachments) over very rough hewn trace-cut alignment of the 150 km road, under construction. But again, the timing was significant that India stood by the Treaty Protocol.
The ongoing “standoff” at the vicinity of the Doka La tri-junction in not any hostile intent on the part of India to provoke any military misadventure with China but simply an assurance to Bhutan of India’s commitment to their mutual treaty obligations, in much the same spirit as PRC stands by North Korea. The Chinese must show magnanimity of a Super Power and desist from sabre rattling at the drop of a hat. And India, in its long term National interest must operationalise its first Mountain Strike Corps to the “fit for war” status the soonest, get the Government to resanction the Second Mountain Strike Corps (as was the initial, rational intention in 2007) and most importantly firm up its nuclear-triad capabilities, beyond doubt of its neighbouring nations.
Commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in July 1956,Lt Gen. Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM, retired on 31 July 1992 after 36 years of distinguished service. A keen sportsman, accomplished writer and noted environmentalist, he is an active promoter of Conservation of Nature, more so within and by the Armed Forces.