ON THE WEB, 19 June 2012
The cycle of self-immolations protesting China’s policies frames the difficulty of finding a solution.
Last week, a Tibetan herder set himself on fire in China’s Qinghai Province to protest government policies in the region. On 27 May, even the presence of the paramilitary, the police, snipers and surveillance cameras could not prevent two Tibetan men from immolating themselves in front of the sacred Jokhang temple in protest against the Chinese rule in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. This marks the nationwide spread of self-immolation by Tibetans calling for freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama. At least 37 Tibetans have immolated themselves since 2009. Do Indians care?
In 1959, when the Dalai Lama was forced into exile and tens of thousands of Tibetans followed him, India granted them asylum. Jawaharlal Nehru, aware that the asylum would antagonise China and likely destroy his vision of Sino-Indian cooperation, went ahead with it anyway. While Indian public and parliamentary opinion was sympathetic to Tibetans’ suffering, the main factor behind the decision was Nehru’s sense of morality and responsibility. Nehru was clear that the recognition of Tibet as part of China in the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement did not imply being blind to the human tragedy there.
Half-a-century on, more than one lakh Tibetans reside in India. Their dream of returning to their homeland is unrealised. Tibet has witnessed all forms of resistance to Chinese rule but in the last few decades, protests have been mostly non-violent. Moral, political and geopolitical considerations and the dominance of the Dalai Lama has ensured Tibetan commitment to non-violence and experimentation with forms of civil disobedience, including the Lhakar movement. However, the Chinese refusal to negotiate sincerely, combined with their focus on discrediting the Dalai Lama and the repressive rule in Tibet, have contributed to a new radicalisation amongst Tibetans.
During the BRICS summit in New Delhi in March, a young Tibetan man immolated himself at Jantar Mantar and died. This brought the reality of self-immolations closer to exiled Tibetans, Indians and the international media. How is the Indian government reacting to this new tragic-heroic turn? Mostly with silence and ignorance. The contrast with 1959 could not be greater. There is hardly any public and parliamentary pressure on the government to persuade the Chinese government to negotiate with the Dalai Lama. On the other hand, during the summit, the Delhi Police went about treating “Tibetan-looking” individuals in the capital with suspicion, and restricted the freedom of movement and expression of hundreds of Tibetans. There was no outrage in India at this racial policing, even though many victims were Indians from the Northeast.
While providing refuge to Tibetans and helping them rebuild their lives and preserve their culture, some actors within the Indian state also seem to be working hard to remove the Tibet issue from public debate and scrutiny. What explains the censoring of the word “Tibet” from a “Free Tibet” flag in a song from the movie Rockstar? Since when is Tibet a sensitive word in India? What explains India’s discriminatory silence about the role of the Special Frontier Force, also known as Establishment 22, where Tibetans have sacrificed their lives and limbs for a country that is not their own without much public recognition? SFF has been used in East Pakistan, Kargil and is now in Siachen defending India, and yet most are unaware that several of these fighting men are not Indians but Tibetans. The treatment of the Karmapa in early 2011, a religious figure second in importance only to the Dalai Lama, is another example of growing inhospitality. It is only recently that the Himachal Pradesh government has withdrawn the charges against the Karmapa.
India should not forget that Chinese-controlled Tibet is its neighbour. The current Indian leadership’s ignorance of Tibetans goes against principles of natural justice and humanity, and ignores historic Indo-Tibetan relations.
About the author
Dibyesh Anand is an Associate Professor at London's Westminster University, an expert on majority-minority relations in China and India, and the author of Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination.