The stand-off at Doklam is a turning point in India-China border relations through the defeat of PLA’s coercive strategy.
Flanked by Nepal and Bhutan and facing China, Sikkim is geostrategically India’s most important state. The recognition of Sikkim by China in 2005 – even as the border is delineated, not demarcated – was a positive step.
The famous Black Cat division (17 Mountain Division) was raised a third time in 1960 and after 1962 became the custodian of Sikkim’s defence in 1964. Before Doklam, the Division had a serious brush with PLA in September and October 1967 at Nathu La and Cho la and gave it a bloody nose winning several gallantry awards.
Also known as the Watershed Warriors, the Division was instrumental in dismantling the institution of Chogyal and the Namgyal monarchy after which Sikkim merged with the union of India in 1975. But 17 Mountain Division’s most notable achievement is not blinking during the world’s longest 72-day face-off between PLA and the Black Cats also called Sentinels of Sikkim in Operation Juniper from 18 June to 28 August 2017.
Precisely 50 years after the bloody skirmishes with PLA at Nathu la and Cho la, the stand-off at Doklam is a turning point in India-China border relations through the defeat of PLA’s coercive strategy. The episode is well known in India and internationally of China’s failure to present a fait accompli to Bhutan and India at Doklam in the geo-strategic Chumbi valley where Beijing has been planning to build a railway line from Lhasa to Yatung.
Nearly two years after the stand-off, hitherto unreported facts of grit and resolve of 9 JaK LI at Doka la post on the India-China border in Sikkim are available. When soldiers of 9 JaK Li trespassed into Bhutanese territory at Doklam allegedly violating Chinese territory they did so as part of legitimate treaty obligations with Bhutan which otherwise would have adversely affected India’s security concerns in the Chumbi valley.
Contrary to earlier reports 4/8 Gorkha Rifles (which is part of 27 Mountain Division in the same region based at Kalimpong) never confronted PLA at Doklam. That 4/8 Gorkha Rifles was at Doklam had fuelled serious concerns in Nepal, forcing its then foreign minister KB Mahara into saying that Nepal will maintain a neutral position during the India-China standoff. Nepal’s media had asked how could Kathmandu be neutral when its nationals (4/8 GR) were in a state of confrontation with the Chinese PLA? The factual position is that 4/8 GR was deployed along the second line of defence at Nathang behind Doklam. And as previously thought, was never in a lockdown with PLA at Doklam.
It can now be told that the first person to walk onto Doklam from the Doka la post was commander of 63 Mountain Brigade, Brig Gambhir Singh, who was awarded a UYSM. He went unarmed and alone warning the PLA that the actions it was planning were violative of standstill agreements between India and China of 2012, China and Bhutan of 1988 and 1998 and security-related treaty obligations between India and Bhutan of 2007. It was only after firmly explaining the implications of PLA’s intended road construction activities that Indian soldiers were rushed on to Doklam to assist the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) in preventing them from doing so.
9JaK Li had one company at Doklam blocking PLA at the construction site. The rest of the battalion was deployed along the international border just in case PLA retaliated by entering Sikkim. Contrary to reports of the time, neither India nor PLA formed a human chain but confronted each other shoulder to shoulder and eyeball to eyeball. Each unarmed Indian soldier would do a 12-hour shift with troops being rotated.
There were no hostile incidents attempted by either side and troops behaved in a civilised manner. This routine was followed for 72 days when disengagement was ordered simultaneously by both sides to break the impasse.
The Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, led by Shashi Tharoor has commended the government for its strong and affirmative handling of the Doklam confrontation. It has, however, added that the PLA has built an impressive military infrastructure in North Doklam which will give it a strategic edge in the Chumbi valley where it was previously disadvantaged. The committee’s report has called the area north of the face-off site as North Doklam. It is reliably learnt that members of the Tharoor-led committee visited 33 Corps in Sukna and its Black Cat division in Gangtok but was not allowed to visit Doka la post due to a blanket ban on all visits there including by local forestry officials. Others say the parliamentary team was not allowed because it was headed by a member of the opposition Congress party.
Doklam has given a sudden impetus to infrastructural development in the region with long-delayed projects being sanctioned expeditiously. Now a black top road has replaced the track to Doka la post. The Sikkim allowance of Rs 3000 has been increased by a princely sum of Rs 41 and Gangtok declared semi-field area.
President Trump believed till recently that Sikkim’s two neighbours which were never colonised - Nepal and Bhutan – (he pronounced them as Nipples and Buttons) are part of India. That should settle the Doklam issue for good. Even otherwise, Doklam has tested in the affirmative, Article 2 of the India Bhutan Treaty of 2007 which corrected the missing defence and security clause in the 1949 Friendship treaty. Black Cats have reason to celebrate the victory of Operation Juniper at Doklam where every morning at 9 am, senior Indian and Chinese officers shake hands.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)
Ashok Mehta was Major General from the Indian Gorkha Regiment who fought in all wars after 1947. He has been a columnist since 1991 and author of books and monographs on Nepal, Iraq, Sri Lanka and issues of defence and national security