Doklam Dispute: Part I

A Brief History

05 Sep, 2017    ·   5353

Amb (Retd) VP Haran, in the first of this two-part series, explores the historical context of the border dispute

It is with a sigh of relief and satisfaction that Bhutan and India received the news on 28 August that following diplomatic efforts, India and China have agreed to disengage at Doklam, where their troops had been at a standoff since 16 June. Unlike the previous standoffs which were along India-China border, this one was on Bhutanese soil. Doklam, which means rocky path (it is indeed so at least on the southern side of Torsa Nala), does not have permanent residents. There are a few visitors between late April and early September, mostly from the Bhutanese side. Their graziers visit mainly southern Doklam, between Jampheri ridge, the highest ridge to the South of Chumbi valley and Torsa Nala, and go to the northern side of the Nala occasionally. Doklam is deserted during rest of the year since the terrain and weather are harsh. Haa District, of which Doklam is a part, was transferred by Sikkim to Bhutan in 1780 following the attack by Bhutan.

Chinese claim on the plateau rests on the 1890 Convention between Great Britain and the Qing dynasty represented by its Resident in Tibet. Article 1 of the Convention states that the boundary of Sikkim and Tibet will be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into Teesta on the Sikkim side, from the waters flowing into Mochu (known as Amochu in Bhutan) on the Tibetan side. This implies that the boundary is based on the highest watershed principle, the internationally accepted principle for border demarcation in mountainous areas. It adds that the boundary line starts at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutanese frontier and follows the above crest till it meets Nepali territory. For an important document that defines the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet, it could have been more precise. It is not so because this area had not been surveyed till then and the geography of the place was unclear in 1890.

None of the 3 countries whose borders were being decided by this Convention were party to the Convention nor were they involved in the negotiations. Bhutan was kept out of the picture on the wrong premise that the Convention was about the Sikkim-Tibet boundary. The Chogyal of Sikkim was not on good terms with the UK, which had imprisoned him and his wife four years before the Convention. In the late 1880s, the UK also successfully evicted Tibetans from parts of Sikkim that Tibetans had occupied a few years earlier, and as the victorious power did not think it necessary to involve the Tibetans in the negotiations. China was only too happy to go with this decision. It is no surprise that Tibet refused to accept the Convention.

Tibet’s refusal to accept the 1890 Convention is clear from the preambular paragraphs of both the 1893 Protocol to the 1890 Convention and the 1906 Convention between Great Britain and the Qing dynasty. Tibet’s refusal led to the 1903-4 expedition to Tibet by Col Younghusband when Tibet was forced to accept the 1890 convention. The Colonel was accompanied on this mission by His Highness Ugyen Wangchuck of Bhutan, then Trongsa Penlop, who, in 1907 was elected as the first hereditary monarch of Bhutan. He played a crucial role in bringing the Tibetans around for which he received well-deserved recognition from the British. As for Bhutan, it was never consulted on where its border with Tibet and Sikkim lay in this sector. Given this background, it is not surprising that Bhutan has serious reservations on accepting the Convention as the basis for determining the tri-junction.

There was a lack of clarity on the location of Mount Gipmochi (also known as Gyamochen) mentioned in the Convention and consequently, the boundary in this sector. 19th century British travel maps show the boundary alignment as Batang la-Merug la-Sinche la and onto Amochu river, which would make Batang la the tri-junction, as contended by Bhutan and India. This is in accordance with the internationally accepted highest watershed principle of boundary demarcation. In some of these maps, Gipmochi is shown to the north east of its actual location. Both Sinche la (14,531 feet) and Merug la (15,266 feet) are higher than Gipmochi (14,523 feet). This alignment would mean that Doklam is part of Bhutan. The same boundary alignment between Bhutan and China is shown in several maps published abroad including in recent times, although a few early 20th century maps showed Gipmochi as the tri-junction. A British map showed Gipmochi deep inside Bhutan. These prove the point that there was a lack of information on the geography of the place in 1890.

When there is a lack of clarity on where the boundary is, the solution may lie in tapping the knowledge and understanding of people in the area. The people who have a clear view of where Bhutan's territory ends and China's begins are the yak herders of the area (and also smugglers). The pastures in Doklam plateau have traditionally been the ground of Bhutanese graziers. China claimed in the 1960s that even if Bhutanese graziers were bringing their yak to Doklam they were paying a fee to Tibet for it - but there is no evidence to support this. There is one instance of a family from Bhutan being given grazing rights on payment of a highly concessional fee, but this was in the eastern part of Chumbi valley and not Doklam. It is clear that Doklam is Bhutanese territory and China’s claim on Doklam is thus tenuous.