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After Doklam, it’s time for a new beginning

The writer is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court. The views expressed here are personal.
Published : Sep 4, 2017, 12:39 am IST
Updated : Sep 4, 2017, 12:39 am IST

It was not then a bilateral but a quadrilateral issue, imvolving the British, Tibetans, Chinese and Indians.

It’s important to remember that the fundamental point around which the Sino-Indian bilateral issue revolves is not political, ideological, economic or commerce. (Photo: Representational/PTI)
 It’s important to remember that the fundamental point around which the Sino-Indian bilateral issue revolves is not political, ideological, economic or commerce. (Photo: Representational/PTI)

Doklam defused”. “Dragon gives in to Doklam diplomacy”. “Doklam standoff ends” — screamed the Indian media headlines on August 29. So  does one now go by the euphoric, ecstatic rejoicing by a few, and assume that all is sugar and honey between Delhi and Beijing; and hereinafter the two Asian neighbours live happily to eternity?

That all “border disputes” would vanish into the vortex of history? All papers, documents, the agreed minutes of various bilateral/multilateral talks, meetings, treaties, understanding and conference would infuse a new lease of life? The unresolved point, however, still stands where it stood — Doklam was not a bilateral Sino-Indian “issue” before June 2017; if anything it was a bilateral issue between Thimphu and Beijing. But its sudden transformation into a trilateral Sino-Bhutanese-Indian issue has enlarged the old canvas of Sino-Indian (bilateral) border dispute. Thus, Doklam offers an unexpected new opportunity to both China and India to make a fresh approach in their next bilateral border dialogue. They could revisit all past diplomatic or “extra-diplomatic” activities that started in the 20th century.  

It’s important to remember that the fundamental point around which the Sino-Indian bilateral issue revolves is not political, ideological, economic or commerce. It is entirely the question of territory or land – boundary delineation and demarcation. Thus, going beyond “post-Doklam”, it is essential to probe what led to Doklam — wherein lies the crux of the territorial/land dispute in the Himalayans. Like the Himalayan ranges, the issues linked to the geography thereof constitute problems which are complex and knotty; with dramatis personae, which may not be akin to the black and white bilateral diplomacy of small nations of Europe or those of Greek city states with few a hundred sq. km. area with a few thousand inhabitants.

While the Himalayan terrain delineation, delimitation or division today appears to concern only China and India, it was not so before 1947. It was not then a bilateral but a quadrilateral issue, imvolving the British, Tibetans, Chinese and Indians. From 1947 to 1949, when it should have been a bilateral matter, it was China that unilaterally and illegally forced itself upon the Pakistan Army to convert Jammu and Kashmir from an India-Pakistan bilateral matter into a trilateral one, involving China, by entering J&K’s Gilgit-Baltistan region, illegally occupied by Pakistan. Having done so, there’s no way China can now come out of the impasse created by its own past actions and claim Doklam as a bilateral issue.

The bottomline of the present dispute is that both China and India are, and were, not the creators of the border imbroglio. If China thus claims that the McMahon Line is unacceptable to Beijing as it was signed by Tibet and not China, then the Chinese must accept that the 1890 “treaty” which Beijing refers to, pertaining to Doklam, following the same logic, can’t be acceptable to India as it was signed by the British and not by India or Indians. The British certainly were not legitimate rulers of the people of India. They were illegitimate rulers. If the Chinese logic claims that Tibet couldn’t have signed for Beijing at the Simla Conference in 1914, India too can counter-argue that the illegal British occupiers could not have done it on behalf of India. Again, as China does not accept any treaty signed during their “inglorious” days till 1949, the same formula would apply equally to the contemporary Indian claim, even though belated, that they too weren’t at the high table of several treaties signed prior to 1947 by the British, which went against the interest of Indians then, and the Republic of India now.

There certainly can’t be two different formulas to settle border disputes. One, for Chinese glory, honour, convenience and advantage; and another for India’s humiliation, disgrace, inconvenience and territory loss. As a test case, see what Neville Maxwell says in India’s China War. Maxwell, a London Times reporter, writes on the basis of so-called “top secret” reports leaked to him by a few treacherous Indians who were never caught or punished. Understandably, Maxwell produces “magnum opus”, based solely on Indian documents, and this one-sourced “history” becomes the “authentic” version for the world. (He had no access to any Chinese papers, nor does he know Chinese.) Welcome to this “brave new world”!  Thus the 1914 Simla Conference is referred to as “diplomatic hugger-mugger”. Why? Because there were two participants (London and Lhasa) — which was meant to be a tripartite conference (including Beijing) —  openly signing a secret declaration; with one text of a draft convention initialled by all three parties (Lhasa, London, Beijing); another initialled by two (Lhasa, London), and a map initialled by all three (Lhasa, London, Beijing). Note. The fourth party, India, is just not there. The irony here, of course, is that Beijing was present in two out of three places, yet it blames the British. It has never been said by anyone, till date, that Simla should have been quadrilateral, with an Indian presence too. If the British were unacceptable to China in 1914, then British were more than unacceptable to India, and much more than before, even today. India thus should not accept any treaty, conference or convention signed by the British during their forced rule over India. Hence any, or every past bilateral or trilateral matter, which did not have at least the token presence of an Indian, must be annulled at once on the sole ground of their illegitimate status. Thus British-made treaties with non-South Asian countries, beyond the Himalayas, which create friction and pose a threat, should be deemed ultra vires of India’s sovereign international status and position.

It is therefore time to start afresh. If India could start afresh with the November 8, 2016 demonetisation, there’s no reason not to experiment with a fresh bilateral with China, where Beijing should also reciprocate with all sincerity. For the sake of an “Asian century”, China must discard its present perceived anti-India policy and start afresh. The United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945; today the two are the closest of allies. The British, French, Americans and the Soviets were at war with Germany in the 1940s; today Germany is an  intrinsic part of the Western alliance, and Moscow too is not its enemy. Doklam has given Beijing and New Delhi a chance to resolve thir territorial dispute out of the box. They should grab it, and look ahead, on the basis of the mutual humiliation they have faced at the hands of the West.

Tags: demonetisation, doklam, sino-indian border, mcmahon line