As I travel up from eastern India’s Bagdogra airport to Gangtok and then to Indian army’s Nathang base near the fraught Doklam area, I count at least six military convoys heading in the direction of Sikkim’s border with China.
At Nathang, a few kilometres from Doklam in the now-famous “tri-junction” of Tibet, Bhutan’s Doklam plateau and Sikkim’s Chumbi valley, the theatre of the o ngoing stand-off between Indian and Chinese forces , the build-up is even more palpable, even though vehicles carrying artillery pieces and light tanks slither through the night to avoid public attention.
New bunkers are being built, the ground is being mined to pre-empt Chinese attack, machine-gun nests are being placed at strategic points, and soldiers are performing battle drills at least twice a day. But restraint is still the buzzword.
“We are under clear orders not to exacerbate the tensions, so we won’t provoke a scuffle, certainly not a firefight, but we are ready for a suitable response if the Chinese get aggressive,” says a young captain of India’s famous “Black Cats” division at Nathang. The cheerful-looking captain, in his late 20s, can’t be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media. The media isn’t even supposed to be here. The Indian Army isn’t embedding reporters as yet.
Nathang serves as a base to reinforce India’s forward outpost of Lalten in the tri-junction. Lalten is located in higher ground that gives the Indians a clear view of the Chinese movements in Tibet’s Yadong zone that is part of the Chumbi Valley between Indian and Bhutanese hill territory. This part of the Chumbi Valley, at a height of 3,000 metres (9,800 ft) is likened to a broad dagger aimed at the so-called “Chicken’s Neck”, a narrow corridor that connects Indian mainland to its remote Northeast.
India is paranoid about the Chicken’s Neck for its potential vulnerability. But this is also where the Indian army has terrain and tactical advantages of higher ground and a clear vantage point in the event of a border clash. “It’s important for us to stop the Chinese here because if we fail, they will roll on to the Chicken’s Neck and can cut off our northeast,” says the captain.
At Lalten, says a lieutenant colonel, the Chinese troops crossed into Indian-held ground in June and smashed two bunkers built by the Black Cats. “We restrained our troops with some difficulty, we ensured nobody fired but we finally pushed back the Chinese physically.”
The captain says the Indian army is determined to stop construction of the C40 road (capable of carrying a 40-tonne load) that the Chinese have been trying to build through Bhutan’s Doklam plateau from Yadong to connect to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) forward post opposite Lalten.
Under its treaty obligations to Bhutan, India must come to the Buddhist kingdom’s aid in times of military need, and the Chinese efforts to build the road in this undemarcated region was seen as such a provocation. Bhutan joined India in boycotting May’s Belt and Road Summit in Beijing, which is said to have provoked China. Indian analysts believe the Chinese decided to start building the C40 road through Doklam after the summit to test India’s special relations with Bhutan.
“They are trying to show Bhutan who calls the shots in the Himalayas. So we have to ensure we are capable of defending Bhutan’s territorial integrity,” says Maj-Gen Gaganjit Singh, who commanded a division in India’s Northeast before retiring as the deputy chief of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). “We have to prove we can defend Bhutan and we are determined not to lose the current terrain and tactical advantage we have in Chumbi Valley.”
Chumbi Valley is among the few areas in India’s Sikkim state – adjoining the theatre of conflict – in the 3,500km-long disputed border between India and China.
After jettisoning its traditional, defensive “just-hold-the-border” strategy, India has spent the last four years raising a mountain strike corps of about 80,000 for a new limited offensive doctrine in the event of a war.
“That worries the Chinese PLA, now that we have better infrastructure and a much better strategic airlift capability, with many advance landing grounds in the Himalayas for the newly inducted giant US-built transport aircrafts to operate from,” says Maj-General Apurba Bardalai, who has commanded the Indian Military Training Team in Bhutan and brigade formations in India’s northeast. “With every passing day, we are closing the gap with the Chinese in terms of capabilities.”
And that is exactly what may be fueling the hostilities. “Failing to build the road will undermine the PLA’s domination strategy in the disputed Himalayan border. It will pour water over Chinese attempts to draw Bhutan into its fold by undermining its special relations with India,” says Subir Dutta, a former Intelligence Bureau officer specialising in China.
India has called for resolving the issue through dialogue, but China insists the Indian army must pull back first. “But the moment we vacate our forward posts, the Chinese will build the road through Bhutanese territory. We can’t allow that,” says a brigadier at the Black Cats headquarters.
With so much at stake on both sides, a resolution is unlikely anytime soon. At least that’s what the Black Cats think. “We would love peace to return. We want normal relations with the Chinese in maintaining tranquillity on the border. But we are digging in for a long haul because there’s no let-up in the aggression on the other side,” says the brigadier, who also cannot be identified.
India’s got itself into a fine mess in Doklam, it’s time to get out and let China and Bhutan work it out
As I am speaking with the brigadier in a tent, the buzz of activity seems to be picking up outside. Soldiers constructing bunkers and building other fortifications try to complete their assignment, racing against time as the sun sets on a cloudy day. “Speed up guys,” barks an officer supervising the construction.
“We don’t want war, but we are prepared for it and this is not 1962. Diplomacy should work and normal relations should be restored, but we are not going to be cowed down by threats,” the brigadier says.
China conducted military exercises in Tibet just after the Doklam stand-off began and its official media has threatened teaching a lesson to the Indian army if it doesn’t pull back from Bhutanese territory.
“But those are routine exercises, so we are not perturbed,” says the brigadier. “We are not leaving Bhutan to its fate, come what may.”
Bhutanese graziers at Jigme Kesar nature reserve just behind the Doklam plateau, however, don’t seem to mind being left alone. “We don’t want war between two large armies like India and China. That won’t be good for Bhutan,” says grazier Pema Namgyal.
Fellow graziers nodded furiously in agreement.