The mutually agreed withdrawal of forces at Dokalam on Bhutan’s border is a step in the right direction. To raise it in the high-level discussions with Japan is even better. Japan is the only country which has said that it will assist India in a crisis here. The government’s stand here has received unanimous political acceptance, which is good because international relations should normally be based on national consensus. However, the political leadership of different parties seem to have missed an important perspective on this issue. The National Security Adviser reportedly told his Chinese counterparts that India has security obligations to Bhutan. This is as far as what we can state in international law, but in the practice of international diplomacy, India’s concerns on Bhutan are more substantial. We are tied with this beautiful Himalayan kingdom by many centuries of historical relations. These are of religion, culture, shared societal experience and shared memories. These societal perspectives can never be easily documented, yet have a standing in international law. They are in fact more substantial than diplomatic practice emerging from treaties. Once, on a state visit to Mongolia, in Ulan Bator, at our ambassador’s reception, the American ambassador told me no one can compete with the Indians in diplomacy here. To my puzzled query, he said your ambassador here is a living God to one out of every ten Mongols. In fact the Ladakhi leader Lama was our ambassador there, and was the head of the Buddhist sect that is most popular in Mongolia. Our relations with Bhutan fall in that category. The Chinese know this brand of ties for it is there for them in Hong Kong and Macau and, of course, claimed in Tibet, although without the Han influence.
China has, while getting India to agree to a diplomatic mutual withdrawal, attempted to dent that larger perception, between us and Bhutan. It has created a role for itself on the border with India. This is a more substantive issue and needs to be handled diplomatically in many different ways. It was interesting that apart from Japan, other ‘friendly’ countries which “stood up” as our spokesmen were not quite alert of the Indian position by asking for peaceful negotiations on the stand-off. This cannot be the complete Indian position. The recognition that Bhutan and India had, and have, special ties of history, culture and ways of approaching the world has to be at the heart of Indian diplomacy. It is not for nothing that the Brits had seen Afghanistan and Baluchistan as the frontiers of India’s security in the West and Tibet in the North and the countries of the Mekong Valley as security frontiers in the East, since Myanmar was a part of British India. That perspective—correcting for the changes since—is still important, and Bhutan is right there. But the important circle around India is a question at the heart of strength in an uncertain world. The Mekong, Singapore and the East Indies is the security frontier. Friendly countries on the outer rim in so-called concentric circles of influence is a larger way of looking at the problem. Such circles of influence can be with African and West Asian perspectives in the West, for the South East Asian perspective and then going on to Europe in the West and the Pacific in the other direction.
The current problem of looking inwards in search of imagined ‘enemies’ within, and, in fact, criminal godmen, assorted criminals, politicians with murder charges, etc, are taking away the sheen from the great values that the Republic was founded with. India is now seen to be ceremonially acknowledged by major powers since its trade potential and economic punch is high. But it is not being kept in any major search for solution to global problems in a manner that it was even three to five years ago.
It is, in a way, tragic that the average citizen can only go in desperation to an independent judiciary and civil servants of the old steel frame who are holding fort against saboteurs of the nation. These fine women and men, had they not been trapped here, could have spread India’s frontiers in thought and influence rather than simply fight the cancers within. One can only hope that we will find the path to get India aligned with rising ambitions as it moves into the 75th year of its modern existence.