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Background: The Sino-Indian border dispute,
Sikkim and the Karmapa issue


IIIIIIIII Date: 06.08.2003

From June 22 until June 27, 2003 the Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee visited China. An agreement between the governments of India and the People’s Republic of China was signed. Several releases, commentaries and other press articles suggested that a new period in the mutual relationship between the two countries had begun.

Map of the region

Some of us observe the development with high interest, for it could have direct and indirect impacts on the Karmapa issue. As you may know, the main exile seat of the previous Gyalwa Karmapa, Rumtek Monastery, is located in Sikkim, which was an independent kingdom until it was incorporated to India in 1975. Supporters of Urgyen Trinley have in the past often claimed the place for their candidate. They said that - may it be credible or not - the controversial status of Sikkim and its borders to China (= Tibet) were the main reasons that the Indian government would not allow Urgyen Trinley to take Karmapa’s seat in Rumtek. Before PM Vajpayee started his visit to Beijing there was some speculation that China - in exchange for other concessions - would now officially recognize Sikkim as an integral part of India. Since decades there exists a heavy dispute on the borders in the Himalaya region between the two Asian Great Powers.

So what were the results of the visit with concern to the Sino-Indian border dispute and Sikkim? May the youngest development have impacts on the Karmapa issue? What about the history of the decades-long lasting argument between India and China on Himalaya territories?

First of all: Despite the agreements on friendly relations and closer cooperation concerning economy, culture, military matters, diplomacy - the status of Sikkim remains disputed; India and China did not fix their borders this time. The only important decision concerning Sikkim was the agreement to open a trading route via the Nathu-La pass between India and Tibet. India officially confirmed that it considers Tibet to be a part of China and that it would “not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India”.

India’s border with Tibet / China is about 4000 kilometres long. Due to the geographical conditions in the Himalayas it was not fixed until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1914, some months after Tibet had declared its independence, there had been a meeting in Simla (India) with representatives from Tibet, British India (at that time part of the British Colonial Empire) and China. Here the so called “McMahon Line” was agreed as the border line between Tibet and India. It is this border which still is drawn in most of our maps. China first signed the agreement but withdraw its O.K. afterwards, due to a dispute with Tibet about its Eastern border to China at that time.

After India had gained independence from Great Britain in 1947 and the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet in 1950, however, the McMahon Line was not respected by the Chinese anymore. Still in the 1950ies China took possession of “Aksai Chin”, a neglected remote area between Western Tibet and Ladakh - which politically belonged to Jammu and Kashmir at that time - and built a street there between Tibet and the region of Sinkiang. In 1962 China invaded India in the “North Eastern Frontier Region” (NEFA, Indian State Arunachal Pradesh) east of Bhutan. India was shocked. Although later the Chinese withdraw their troops from there Beijing has never stopped claiming the area as its territory. Since that time, the borders between India and China remained de facto closed; the border trade with the Tibetan hinterland - once an important factor for the regional economy of Sikkim and North Bengal - ceased.

The high peaks of the Himalayas form a natural barrier between the Indian sub-continent and the Tibetan plateau. But there is one exception: The Chumbi Valley in between Sikkim and Bhutan reaches like a tongue far to the south; the mountains are lower here. The area around Sikkim had therefore always been considered by India as to be strategically extremely vulnerable. The Indian horror vision for a long time was that the Chinese would invade here (where it is only a few dozen kilometres to the border of Bangladesh) and cut it off from the whole Eastern part of the country. When India after some political unrest in Sikkim annexed the small kingdom in 1975 it also wanted to prevent that Chinese would intrude here. China had made claims on Sikkim for its historical close ties to Tibet.

After many years of military confrontation and geographical isolation of Sikkim the prospect of mutual economic development has meanwhile become too tempting: India will now open the Sikkimese-Tibetan border at the Nathu-La pass and revive an old trading route. There will be border markets on both sides of the Nathu-La. The Sikkimese Chief Minister Pawan Chamling already expressed his joy about this part of the Sino-Indian agreement, hoping that the road will help to develop the economy of his state. Chinese politicians, however, made clear that clear the opening of the pass should not be seen as a Chinese recognition of Sikkim being a part of India.

Since PM Vajpayee visited China the latest developments of the relationship between the two Asian Great Powers have been subject of many articles and commentaries in the Indian press. There were critical remarks about the Indian diplomacy: The Prime Minister made two major concessions to China - the formal acceptance of the Chinese claims on Tibet and the opening of the Nathu-La for trade - while Beijing on the other hand did not officially recognize Sikkim as a part of India. Many journalists in India have not forgotten that Urgyen Trinley stood under Chinese surveillance for more than six-and-a-half years. The “Hindustan Times” for instance warned the government in New Delhi to “allow the Chinese-sponsored Karmapa Lama [i.e. candidate Urgyen Trinley] to be installed at the Rumtek monastery”: The Indian public opinion would considered it as another concession towards the Chinese.

( See: >> That sinking déja vu. Commentary of Brahma Chellaney, “Hindustan Times”, July 15, 2003.)

Under these circumstances it is not to expect that the Indian government will give in to the loud but doubtful claims of Urgyen Trinley’s supporters to let him go to Sikkim. All in all it does not look as if the agreement between India and China will have major impacts on the Karmapa issue. With less political pressure upon judiciary, may the court which has to judge about the possession of Rumtek come to a decision soon!

Best regards,
Michael den Hoet, historian from Hamburg (Germany)

I’ve added a few links to articles that may be interesting to read but which are less relevant to the Karmapa issue itself.

The >> text on the Indo-Chinese Agreement can be found in full length in the online edition of "The Tribune".

About the reaction of the Sikkimese government concerning the agreement on the opening of the trading route through Sikkim:

>> Article 1
>> Article 2
>> Article 3

On the Chinese position on the status of Sikkim after the agreement:
>> Article 1
>> Article 2
>> Article 3


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