Sikkim standoff: Ajit Doval will need to settle a complex geographical dispute to solve the crisis

New Delhi: The Border Roads Organisation (BRO), the Indian military's outfit which builds roads in border areas, has a project called 'Dantak', which builds roads and develops tele-communication networks in Bhutan, according to the BRO website. Today, as the Indian and Chinese armies complete a month of being locked in a standoff on a grassy knoll off the Dantak-maintained pass at 13,800 feet called Chele La, used mostly by graziers, New Delhi is expecting that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval's proposed visit to China on 26 July would result in a neutralisation of the tension at the "turning point". It is almost the exact place where Indian and Chinese soldiers are confronting each other with their guns stood-down, facing ground-wards, and fortunately not aimed barrel-to-barrel.

Doval has a certain kind of political consensus, cutting across party lines, to resolve the dispute. The Indian foreign office said that "there are diplomatic options available" to resolve the standoff. On Friday, Union home minister Rajnath Singh hosted an all-party meeting and even the Opposition leaders told him that the government had their backing. This was a moment of rare consensus at a time when the Centre and the Opposition do not even see eye-to-eye on most domestic issues.

File image of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval with China's State Councillor, Yang Jiechi. PTI

File image of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval with China's State Councillor, Yang Jiechi. PTI

Part of the reason for the consensus is a history of the Doka La dispute between China and Bhutan that the Congress, by virtue of having been in power for the longest time, has institutional memory of. In 2006-2007, the then UPA government had ordered the relocation of a full division from Reasi in Jammu to North Bengal.

(The division was originally in North Bengal but had been deployed to the western front earlier in 2002 during the India-Pakistan face-off called 'Operation Parakram' following the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001.)

The Chele La pass is on a ridgeline that runs between North East Bhutan's Haa and Paro Valleys. Haa has a nearly brigade-sized presence of the Indian Army’s Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) in Bhutan. Apart from that, the Haa Dzong (district) also has a base area for the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) at Gunitsawa that services, mostly through mule tracks, three forward positions at Gyatsa, Soi Thangthangkha and Lingshi. Together, they are famous among trekkers on the "snow trail" who are going to the peak named Chomolohari. Chomolahari is often referred in local lore as "the bride of the Kanchenjungha".

The Bhutanese forward positions not only skirt three sides around the Doka La plateau but they also adjoin the Yatung (also known as Yadong) region of China's (Tibetan) Chumbi Valley. India and Bhutan say the 'trijunction' between the three countries passes through Batang La, north of Doka La at Mount Gipmochi. The rough aerial distance between these two points north of Doka La and south of Doka La is roughly eight kilometres.

Doka La itself – not to be confused with the Doka La plateau in Bhutan – has often been identified by the Indian Army's East Sikkim (or Nathu La) brigade as the last Indian post before the Chumbi Valley.

A resolution of the dispute by Doval, if and when he meets Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi on the sidelines of the BRICS NSAs' meeting in Beijing later this month, would involve a settlement of this eight-kilometre distance across a ridgeline through which China has been building tracks into the Doka La plateau and around from the old trading town of Yatung. Doval and Yang are also the special representatives of their countries for talks on border disputes.

Indeed, even till the 1950s, there used to be a flourishing trade between Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim (the state was at that time an independent Chogyaldom) and Yatung. In 2006, during an afternoon of blinding drizzle at 14,400 feet at Nathu La, that trade was somewhat revived in the midst of a tall-and-short game between the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the Chinese Border Guard. Two soldiers of either side tried to be 'one taller than the other' – the Indian wearing a fanned long turban with another holding an umbrella over the starched fan and the Chinese standing on a stool to match the Indian Jat's height – even as a once-conflicted South Asian border was thrown marginally open.

Eleven years later, that slight opening is at risk after the Chinese refused to allow Indian pilgrims to Mansarovar to cross over to Tibet for their parikrama of the holy mountain following the Doka La standoff since last month.

In New Delhi on Friday, even as the government and the Opposition practically empowered Doval to find a diplomatic way out of the standoff, the Chinese issued yet another warning. As about 300-400 soldiers from both the countries stand within handshaking or punching distance from each other on the disputed Bhutanese knoll of pastureland, the official state news agency of China Xinhuaissued the latest warning. It said that a diplomatic resolution was not possible unless India withdraws its troops from Doka La. It emphasised that New Delhi was "turning a deaf ear" that would worsen the situation.

"China has made it clear that there is no room for negotiations on this incident and India must withdraw its border-crossing troops from Doka La. For China, the borderline is the bottom-line," Xinhua said in its commentary. Xinhua called the Indian troops "tresspassers", a highly unusual term as compared to the ones used in recent standoffs in 2013 and 2014 in Ladakh. This may be because the troops are placed not in the territory claimed by India and China but in a territory claimed by a third country, Bhutan. Bhutan is also locked in a dispute with China over its borders for more than 20 years.

All along the frontier north of Bengal, the Indian Army's holding formation, the 33 Corps headquartered in Sukma, is in a state of high "operational alert". The Eastern Command and the 33 corps have always emphasised that this part of the country is one of the most strategically vulnerable spots because the Chumbi Valley is only a few kilometres from the Siliguri Corridor that joins the North East with the rest of India. Should Chinese troops move further south of Batang La, that is north of Doka La, to Mount Gipmochi, in Doka La's south, they could bring the corridor within long range artillery shelling distance. As things stand now, the Chinese are within range of Indian and Bhutanese troops from their West (in Sikkim) and from their East (in Bhutan).

There are suspicions in the security establishment that Chinese troops could provoke a situation elsewhere along the frontier where they may perceive their positions to be firmer.

The longest standoff since the 1962 war was at Sumdorong Chhu, in Arunachal's Kameng Division, in 1986-1987. Then army chief, the late General K Sundarji initiated 'Operation Checkerboard', airlifting a brigade of troops to the region to reinforce Indian positions. The standoff petered off after months but there is still confusion on whether India ceded a pocket of the territory across Chhu (rivulet).

This time, militarily, India will be loathed if it stands back – unless Doval and his Chinese counterpart can agree to a mutual pullback of troops to pre-16 June positions – because the Indian troops are on a higher ground. Indian troops took the position after the Chinese, earlier last month, destroyed two old bunkers in a valley near Chele La, the pass on the ridgeline that is maintained by Dantak. The bunkers were said to be more than a decade old and unmanned except in delicate situations.

In the interim, the Indian Army is continuing with routine changes of command. The Fort William (Calcutta)-headquartered Eastern Army Commander, Lt General Praveen Bakshi, who was in December superseded by General Bipin Rawat to become the army chief, is scheduled to retire from service by the end of the current month. The entire frontier region from North Bengal through Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh to the southern tip of India's North East bordering Myanmar is the area of responsibility of the eastern army commander.

The General Officer Commanding the 33 Corps, under whose immediate charge is the Doka La (Sikkim and Bhutan) region, Lt General SK Jha, is likely to be replaced in August. His replacement would be Lt General PM Bali, currently the Director General (Perspective Planning) at Army Headquarters, New Delhi. Jha is tipped to take over as commandant of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun.

In Fort William, Calcutta, Lt General Praveen Bakshi could be replaced by Lt General Abhay Krishna. The appointments are yet to be officially announced.


Published Date: Jul 15, 2017 01:43 pm | Updated Date: Jul 15, 2017 02:02 pm

Also See