Genesis of a border standoff: When China attacked Indira Gandhi in 1966 for supporting Bhutan

Updated on Jul 03, 2017 10:23 AM IST

The genesis of the current stand-off between India and China dates back to the sixties when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi came out in support of Bhutan

Chinese army officers oversee preparations as they stand between pictures of the Patola Palace and the Chinese flag, on the Chinese side of the international border at Nathula Pass, in Sikkim, on July 5, 2006.(AP File Photo)
Chinese army officers oversee preparations as they stand between pictures of the Patola Palace and the Chinese flag, on the Chinese side of the international border at Nathula Pass, in Sikkim, on July 5, 2006.(AP File Photo)
Hindustan Times, Beijing | BySutirtho Patranobis

Five decades ago, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi came under attack from Beijing for committing to protect Bhutan against intruding Chinese troops in the Doklam plateau --the scene of the current standoff.

In 1966, Beijing lashed out at Gandhi for supporting Bhutan and accusing China of intruding into Bhutan; the Communist country was particularly angry because she did it at a press conference in New Delhi on October 7.

Quoting from official papers exchanged by the two governments in 1967, Hindustan Times reported last week that months of allegations and counters between India and China had preceded the violence that broke out in the Sikkim sector that year.

A set of new official papers accessed by HT now show that accusations of territorial intrusions between China and India started a year before in the Doklam (Donglang) area, which was disputed between China and Bhutan even then.

Bhutan, like now, had asked for India’s help to counter the intrusions and New Delhi had agreed.

China wasn’t happy.

“The Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi openly asserted at the press conference on October 7 (1966) that India was committed to protect Bhutan. It is thus quite clear that in slanderously charging China with ‘intrusions’ into Bhutan, the Indian government not only wants to create a new pretext for opposing China and sow discord between China and Bhutan but also is vainly attempting to realise its sinister design of tightening its control over Bhutan under the guise of ‘protection’. But these despicable schemes will not succeed,” official news agency Hsinhua (now Xinhua) said in a report the same month.

This time, China has accused Indian border troops of trespassing into Chinese territory on June 18 and asked New Delhi to withdraw its troops from the Donglang area as a precondition for a “meaningful dialogue” to resolve the issue.

Union minister, Arun Jaitley, told a news channel that the statement from Bhutan makes it clear that the land in question belongs to them.

“Bhutan government had issued a statement yesterday (June 29) in which it made it clear that the land in question belonged to Bhutan. It is located near India’s land. There is an arrangement between India and Bhutan for giving security,” Jaitley said.

The Chinese government has dismissed India’s version of events in a manner recalling its response back in 1966.

“In its note to the Chinese government dated September 30, the Indian government concocted stories about ‘intrusions’ into Bhutanese territory by Chinese herdsmen and patrols and claiming to be acting on behalf of Bhutan, lodged a so-called protest with the Chinese government,” the report from 1966 added.

“Following that, with much fanfare Indian government set its propaganda machine in motion raising a hue and cry about ‘Chinese intrusions into Bhutan’ and the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi came out in person to conduct the campaign against China,” the official news agency wrote.

The argument and the language used to argue by the Chinese was similar to what the ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) and ministry of defence (MOD) have used last week – clearly there is a template.

“The Dongnan (Donglang) grassland (referred to as ‘Doklam pasture’ by the Indian side) where the Indian government alleged that Chinese ‘intrusions’ had taken place is located in the vicinity of the tri-junction of the boundaries of China, Bhutan and Sikkim and has always been under Chinese jurisdiction and Chinese herdsmen have grazed there for generations,” the report said.

Like this time, China was seemingly soft on Bhutan in 1966 – the language was literally the same.

“It is true that the China-Bhutan boundary has never been formally delimited and if the Bhutanese sides understanding is not quite the same as that of the Chinese side as regards the alignment of the boundary between the two countries at certain specific points, a fair and reasonable solution can very well be found through consultations on an equal footing between the two sides on the basis of mutual understanding and mutual accommodation.”

Bhutan too had issued a statement in October that year; the statement said China had been informed about intrusion by his troops and Chinese herdsmen.

“Local attempts were made to inform the graziers and the Chinese troops that they had strayed into Bhutanese territory but these have not been heeded,” the statement said.

“In view of the succession of violations of the frontier, Bhutan government urged the Government of India to represent to the Chinese government so that Chinese nationals and troops refrained from entry into Bhutan in future,” the statement said.

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