Most people in Bhutan are happily oblivious to the Doklam standoff between China and India on their soil in 2017.
If you visit Bhutan, you will realise that the majority of the population is happily oblivious to the face-off between the Chinese PLA and the Indian Army on their soil over a year ago. The few who know about it are quietly resigned to it. Unlike the Indian media frenzy – nowhere near the ferocity in China – concerns about military escalation at Doklam seems to have fizzled.
Overall, India’s stock rose further among the Bhutanese after its intervention at Doklam, even as some younger citizens disapproved of New Delhi’s interference in their internal affairs and even resented Bhutan’s over-dependence on India. This is partly due to the fuzzy understanding of mutual treaty obligations governing India-Bhutan relations where the king’s word is still the last word. Actually, very few Bhutanese are aware there is a treaty at all.
Sometime in June 2017, when the Doklam confrontation was hotting up, then defence minister Arun Jaitley in response to a question at the India Today Conclave, said that India had a security ‘arrangement’ with Bhutan to explain Indian soldiers’ intervention at the stand-off site on Bhutanese soil. That was the first and last time the words ‘security arrangement’ was mentioned.
In April 1949, when delegation-level talks at Delhi were going on to hammer out the India-Bhutan Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru offered to make Bhutan either part of the Indian Union but remain an autonomous state; or to have an alliance with India making it responsible for Bhutan’s defence, external affairs and communications. The Bhutanese strongly resisted saying that they were not a protectorate. Eventually, communications and defence were omitted from the draft treaty, which was finalised on 8 August 1949 at Darjeeling. Article 2 of this treaty says that there will be “no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan” for it agreeing to be “guided by the advice of the Indian government in its external relations”. There is no mention of defence elsewhere, although it is mentioned that both nations would consult each other closely in foreign and defence affairs. It is also recorded that in 1958 Nehru stated in Parliament that an attack on Bhutan will be considered an attack on India to which the Bhutanese Prime Minister objected.
On 8 February 2007, India and Bhutan renegotiated the 1949 Treaty of Friendship months before the first democratic elections were held in December2007/March 2008 in Bhutan. A new Article 2 relates to “cooperating closely on issues relating to national security” including “neither country allowing use of its territory for activities harmful to national security and interest of the other”. The clause on Bhutan agreeing to be guided in external relations by India was removed. Still, that India is responsible for the defence of Bhutan and Indian Army’s operational plans include defence of Bhutan as a contingency plan is true, but is not backed by any MoU.
Bhutan has succeeded in maintaining a substantial measure of sovereign autonomy by initially keeping defence and later external relations out of the ambit of treaty arrangements. The reference by Jaitley to ‘we have an arrangement with Bhutan’ on defence is culled out of Article 2 of the new Treaty.
Following the India-China war in 1962, Bhutan requested for assistance in raising and training Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) and later, Royal Bhutan Guards and still later, Royal Bhutan Commandos. For this, the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) was set up in Ha in 1963, which continues to this day. The Indian Army does joint battalion-level training with the 20,000 strong RBA and is responsible for its upkeep, maintenance and budget. There is no ministry of defence in Bhutan and the chief operations officer (COO) of the RBA is de facto defence minister with King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (K5) overseeing the defence of the country and the commandant IMTRAT acting as an informal advisor.
Thimphu’s reliance and dependence on New Delhi for its developmental assistance and capacity building coupled with the low profile presence of military trainers have provided India considerable influence in Bhutan. Contrary to Indian media reports, the anti-India sentiment in Bhutan is not all pervasive.
Bhutan is very sensitive about its non-relations with China, more so after Doklam. In their conversations with Beijing, Thimphu is loath to discussing its defence and security relations with New Delhi. It probably tells China that the Indian Army has a role limited to training of the RBA, nothing less, nothing more. In 2018, after 24 rounds of border talks – three more than India’s with China – younger Bhutanese want their border dispute with China settled, unaware that it is entwined with the India-China border dispute. The Doklam plateau is the bone of contention
Seventeen months on, Doklam remains a blur on the Bhutanese radar. Following disengagement of combatants on 28 August 2017, the PLA and Indian Army colonels meet daily at the face-off site exchanging pleasantries and any discrepancies in military dispositions.
The disengagement from Doklam is not the end of the episode, but merely a post-Wuhan intermission. Some facts stand out: a) the perceived loophole in the 1949 treaty on defence is plugged by Article 2 of the 2007 treaty; b) there is no formal defence arrangement between Bhutan and India and; c) Doklam has reinforced India’s image and stature in Bhutan; d) The King (K5) is the ultimate arbiter of his country’s defence and foreign relations.
(The author is founder-member, Defence Planning Staff, Ministry of Defence and columnist on security issues. He has recently returned from a trip to Bhutan)