When the Sikyong (Prime Minister) of the Central Tibet Administration, Lobsang Sangay, was invited to attend the inaugural ceremony of incoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, many thought that New Delhi planned to re-charge its Tibet card.
Two years later, that initial signal has not quite yielded any new policy. There has been no dramatic meeting between the Dalai Lama and Modi, who has otherwise sought to promote India’s role as the home of Buddhism and who had met the Tibetan religious leader as chief minister of Gujarat.
A meeting between the Dalai Lama and BJP president Amit Shah was cancelled at the last minute last May for fears that it would upset Beijing on the eve of Modi’s visit to China.
Last year also saw another strange episode when the government of India took a last moment decision in April to deny permission to some participants to attend a conference of anti-Chinese activists in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibet Administration. Among the intended participants was Germany-based Dolkun Isa, an Uighur leader originally from China’s Xinjiang autonomous region, whose visa was cancelled. Though some participants of the conference were permitted to enter India and did hold a meeting, the government claimed that no conference had taken place.
More recently, last October, the government of India approved a proposed visit of the Dalai Lama to the monastery town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh to attend a religious festival in early 2017. The announcement came around the same time that US Ambassador Richard Verma visited the northeastern state and the town, the first visit by a US envoy. Both these events had drawn the usual protests from Beijing, which considers the state to be disputed territory.
In December, the Dalai Lama met President Pranab Mukherjee in Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on the sidelines of a summit titled ‘Laureates and leaders for Children Summit’ organised by the Kailash Satyarthi Foundation. While the summit was clearly non-political, it was the first meeting between a serving Indian president and the Dalai Lama in decades.
Almost a week after the event, China expressed its “strong dissatisfaction” at the meeting, but India insisted that the event was non-political and that the Dalai Lama was “a respected and revered spiritual leader”.
If the Modi government is playing its Tibet card it does not appear to be doing so particularly strongly. After all, it was the Manmohan Singh government that first permitted the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang in 2009, exactly 50 years after he had passed through the town on his way from Lhasa in Tibet to exile in India. It was again the Manmohan Singh government that had, since 2010, taken the decision that India would no longer reiterate in joint statements, as it had done till 2005, that Tibet Autonomous Region was a part of China.
A brief history
When it comes to the Dalai Lama, Tibet and Tawang, things are not that simple. Tibet neighbours India and has had historic links with it. It was through Tawang that the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet following the Chinese crackdown in 1959. He was followed by tens of thousands of refugees. India says that it has given refuge to a spiritual leader who is revered in India as well, and that the Tibetans are not permitted to conduct political activity in the country. The Chinese, however, maintain that the Dalai Lama “is a political refugee” who is engaged in activities to split China in the name of religion. Needless to say, this goes against the Dalai Lama’s oft stated position that what he seeks is autonomy for his country, within Chinese sovereignty.
India’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh rests on a tripartite agreement that the British anchored in 1914 between themselves, Tibet and China. While the Tibetans agreed to the McMahon Line, which India says is the border, the Chinese initialled the document but did not sign it.
India’s handling of Tibet has been somewhat contrary. In 1949, Jawaharlal Nehru contemplated aiding the Tibetan rebellion, but the Indian Army quite categorically told him that it was in no position to take on the People’s Liberation Army were there to be a direct clash between India and China. Subsequently, India took up the British fiction that Tibet was a suzerain or an autonomous unit within China.
In the Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai period of the 1950s, the issue was brushed under the carpet. Indeed, Tibetan refugees and residents were told that they should not undertake political activity.
In the mid-1950s, revolts broke out in the eastern parts of Tibet proximate to China. In 1956, Dalai Lama came on a visit to India and expressed a desire to stay on, but was pressured by Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to return. This was the period in which India surrendered its extra-territorial rights in Tibet and recognised that it was a part of China, albeit autonomous. Nehru kept reassuring the Tibetans that he would use his good offices to persuade the Chinese to reduce their forces in Tibet and to deal with them in a better way.
Nothing happened. Indeed, the Chinese stepped up their repression and sought to arrest the Dalai Lama, but a rebellion broke out and he escaped to India, which welcomed him and gave him asylum. This was the time that the Sino-Indian border dispute came into the open and the tensions began to develop between the two countries leading to war in 1962.
It was some time in the mid-1950s that the Central Intelligence Agency of the US established links with the Dalai Lama’s elder brother Gyalo Thondup and began to train small groups of Tibetans. After the Sino-Indian war, India also got into the act and created a force of Tibetans that could be used in a possible future war with China.
As records show, the Central Intelligence Agency assistance was minor, and its primary gain was intelligence gathered by Americans. But the Chinese response was very heavy, with tens of thousands of Tibetans being killed in the futile resistance. The US assistance ceased on the eve of US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1971. As for India, its actions, even the raising of Establishment 22, the special frontier force, was largely defensive.
Looking back at the events, Thondup wrote in his poignant memoir, The Noodlemaker of Kalimpong, published last year,
“The CIA goal was never independence for Tibet. In fact, I do not think that the Americans ever really even wanted to help. They just wanted to stir up trouble, using Tibetans to create misunderstandings and discord between China and India. Eventually they were successful in that.”
China policy floundering
So what does the Modi government hope to achieve through what it calls its “new” policy on Tibet? As it is, its current China policy is floundering – the border talks are going nowhere and the only goal New Delhi seems to have is to persuade Beijing to accept India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group or allow the proposed ban on Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar in the United Nations to go through.
The danger in the policy of needling China is that India has its own vulnerabilities. In the last couple of years, China has waffled on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir as was indicated by the stapled visa issue, in which Beijing issued stapled, not stamped, visas to Indians from Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh to ostensibly indicate that it questions India’s claims over the two states.
However, as of now Beijing’s official stance remains that it views the status of Jammu and Kashmir as being disputed, subject to a settlement through dialogue between India and Pakistan. This is an unexceptional position adopted by other countries as well. However, if Indian meddling in Tibet did begin to trouble China, it has the option of shifting its stance and coming out openly in support of Pakistan or, worse, recognising a government in exile to pay India back in its own coin.
Clearly, the Tibet card, if one can call it that, has not been a particularly useful one in the past with the Tibetans ending up paying a disproportionate price. Today India’s options are limited since covert operations in Tibet are well past their use by date. Having recognised that Tibet is part of China and having repeatedly stated so in official statements, there is little value in using Tibetan refugees to protest against Chinese rule.
In 2008, hit by economic crisis, perfidious Albion [a pejorative term used to refer to acts of diplomatic duplicity by Britain] decided that Tibet was not a suzerain but sovereign part of China.
Growing Chinese influence
Though China’s harsh response to greater rights for the people in Tibet and Xinjiang appear neurotic and overdone, it remains firmly in control of both regions. Politically, it is China which is pouring money into South Asia – in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Since 2014, the frequency of Chinese submarine sightings in our neighbourhood ports has increased. Indian efforts for a counterpoise through enhancing ties with countries like Vietnam are as anaemic as its allegedly new Tibet policy.
The only hope for change is through developments in China itself where the Communist Party-led authoritarian system is facing challenges of legitimacy. More than agents and armies, what China fears are ideas, and it is more than likely that its present system will be undone by them, just as the Soviet Union was.
As for the Dalai Lama, he is 81 and in good health. But he is not immortal. As long as he is around, the Tibetan cause has a powerful unifying figure and moral authority. But what happens once he is gone?
Those who revere him will lose a beloved leader and the world a moral statesman. India will also lose what it considers an important piece on its diplomatic chessboard. A reincarnation could be found in India, but another one is bound to pop up in China. There is also an alternative endgame where his Holiness could pre-decide his reincarnation, or decide that he will not reincarnate at all. For their part the Chinese, somewhat bizarrely insist that he cannot reincarnate without their permission.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.