Little Bhutan in Tibet

China quite amazingly is able to deny even the most undeniable facts. Geng Shuang , spokesperson of the Ministry of…

Little Bhutan in Tibet

Representational Image (Photo: AFP)

China quite amazingly is able to deny even the most undeniable facts. Geng Shuang , spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was recently asked by an Indian correspondent about the details of the meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi on the sideline of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg. Geng replied: “According to my information, the two leaders did not hold any bilateral meetings.”

When asked by another correspondent, “Are you saying this did not happen?”, he replied: “The two leaders of China and India did not hold any meetings on the sidelines of any meeting in Hamburg.”

He thrice repeated his contention.


This was an event which took place only a few days earlier, with a photograph tweeted all over the world. One can imagine the scenario when something occurred several decades or centuries earlier; historical events can never be in China’s disfavour.

Moving to the Doklam plateau, the same spokesman quoted a letter written by Nehru on 26 September 1959 in which he would have acknowledged the 1890 Convention between Great Britain and China. The fact that this agreement was never implemented simply because the main stakeholders ~ Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim ~ were not signatories or even represented, has been forgotten. Here too Geng has selective memory.

The same para (No. 17) of Nehru’s quoted letter speaks about the Tibet-Bhutan border, the object of the present standoff. The Indian Prime Minister tells the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai: “It is not clear to us what exactly is the implication of your statement that the boundaries of Sikkim and Bhutan do not fall within the scope of the present discussion. In fact, Chinese maps show sizeable areas of Bhutan as part of Tibet.”

This relates in particular to the Doklam plateau. Nehru continues: “Under treaty relationships with Bhutan, the Government of India are the only competent authority to take up with other Governments matters concerning Bhutan’s external relations. The rectification of errors in Chinese maps regarding the boundary of Bhutan with Tibet is therefore a matter which has to be discussed along with the boundary of India.”

Not only was the boundary line never rectified, but China has recently tried to change the status quo. A year later (1960), the Prime Ministers of India and China agreed to participate in a conference with ‘Officials’ of the two sides to sort out the boundary issue. China conveniently refused to discuss the TibetSikkim and the Tibet-Bhutan borders.

The Indian officials nevertheless filed a separate statement about Bhutan; at that time, the main issue was the eastern part of Bhutan, adjacent to Kameng Frontier Division (today’s Tawang district). The report of the officials stated: “As far as India and Bhutan are concerned the valid boundary in this sector is known and recognised.”

But more interestingly, the report mentions several Bhutanese enclaves in Tibet. It notes: “Chinese officials have illegally dispossessed the designated authorities of the Government of Bhutan in the following eight villages situated in western Tibet over which Bhutan has been exercising administrative jurisdiction for more than 300 years: Khangri, Tarchen, Tsekhor, Diraphu, Dzung Tuphu, Jangehe, Chakip and Kocha.” Minsar, the Indian enclave in Tibet is better known, but these villages too did not belong to Tibet, they were part of Bhutan’s territory.

The report continues: “Bhutan has for centuries appointed the officers who governed these villages, collected taxes from them and administered justice. Tibetan authorities consistently recognised that these villages belonged to the Bhutan Government. The villages were not subject to Tibetan officers and laws; nor did they pay any Tibetan taxes. There has thus been a violation of Bhutan’s legitimate authority over these villages.”

On August 19 and 20, 1959, at the request of Bhutan, official notes were sent by Delhi to Beijing, in which the Chinese Government was requested “to restore the rightful authority of the Bhutan Government over their enclaves.”

The scholar, John Bray, who is the president of the International Association of Ladakh Studies, wrote a fascinating research paper on the ‘Bhutanese enclaves’ in Tibet. He explained that until the 1950s “both Ladakh and Bhutan governed small enclaves of territory in Western Tibet. Ladakh’s enclave consisted of the village of Minsar, near lake Manasarovar, and its surrounding land, while Bhutan governed the Darchen Labrang and several smaller monasteries and villages near Mount Kailash. Bhutan continued to raise revenue there for some 300 years.”.

For centuries, the inhabitants of Minsar, although surrounded by Tibetan territories, paid their taxes to the kingdom of Ladakh. During in the 19th century, when Ladakh was incorporated into Maharaja Gulab Singh’s State, Minsar de facto became a part of the Jammu & Kashmir State.

In October 1947, after Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession, Minsar became Indian territory. This lasted till the mid-1950s. Bray remarked: “Both sets of enclaves share a common origin in that they date back to the period when the Kings of Ladakh controlled the whole of Western Tibet. The link with Bhutan arises because of the Ladakhi royal family’s association with the Drukpa Kagyupa sect.”

This school of Buddhism, different from the Dalai Lama’s Gelukpa, has been influential in Ladakh and Bhutan for centuries. Regarding Minsar, the Indian principality in Tibet, the rights to this small town were inherited from the peace treaty between Ladakh and Tibet signed in Tingmosgang in 1684. Apart from the confirmation of the delimitation of the border between Western Tibet and Ladakh, the treaty affirmed: “The king of Ladakh reserves to himself the village of Minsar in Ngari-khor-sum (Western Tibet)”. For centuries, Minsar has been a home for Ladakhi and Kashmiri traders and pilgrims visiting the holy mountain.

In 1953, when Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to sign his Panchsheel Agreement with China, he decided to abandon all Indian ‘colonial’ rights inherited from the British. Though he knew that the small principality was part of the Indian territory, he felt uneasy about this Indian ‘possession’ near Mt. Kailash in Tibet. Nehru was aware that Minsar had been providing revenue to maintain the temples around the sacred mountain and the holy Manasarovar lake, but believed that India should unilaterally renounce her rights as a gesture of goodwill towards Communist China.

He instructed the diplomats negotiating the Panchsheel accord in Beijing: “Regarding the village of Minsar in Western Tibet, which has belonged to the Kashmir State, it is clear that we shall have to give it up, if this question is raised. We need not raise it. If it is raised, we should say that we recognize the strength of the Chinese contention and we are prepared to consider it and recommend it.”

Eventually, Minsar was not discussed in 1954 during the talks for the Tibet (also known as Panchsheel) Agreement and, the Bhutanese enclaves could not be brought up during the IndiaChina talks in 1960, as China refused to deal with Sikkim and Bhutan. This means that the fate of these enclaves has never been negotiated or settled. It remains so today. On 31 December 1953, while opening the ‘Tibet talks’ (without the participation of the Dalai Lama’s government), Premier Zhou Enlai affirmed: “All outstanding problems between China and other countries could be solved on the basis of mutual respect for territorial integrity, non-aggression and non-interference in internal affairs so as to enable peaceful co-existence. I know Prime Minister Nehru’s Government and the people of India also feel the same way. On basis of this principle all outstanding questions between us which are ripe for settlement can be resolved smoothly.”

Are the forgotten Bhutanese enclaves ‘ripe for settlement’ now? Mr Geng has probably forgotten their existence.