Time for India to change its policy on Tibet

Norbu Tsering

Norbu Tsering

By Norbu Tsering

TORONTO, Canada, 26 June 2020

However much India has tried to mend its relations with China in the last 70 years by repeating its policy of Tibet being a part of China whenever China expects it to, the only response from China has been more muscle-flexing on the borders and instigation of India’s other neighbours to turn hostile — Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. India’s engagements with Communist China in the last 71 years made one point clear: Trust China at your own risk.

PrIme Minister Modi’s desperate measures to earn China’s friendship, even banning his ministers and officials from attending Tibetan ceremonies commemorating 60 years of exile in India, seem to have achieved very little. Instead of appreciating India’s goodwill, China has rebuffed it with so much disdain that it has humiliated India by killing 20 Indian soldiers in violent fisticuffs. The more you try to appease a bully, the more ruthlessly powerful it thinks it is.

At this time, when the whole world is looking at China with suspicion and contempt (almost), it is opportune for India to think seriously about revising its Tibet policy. Jawaharlal Nehru’s hope of making China a trustworthy friend by accommodating China’s interests in India’s foreign policy strategy only helped to make China more defiant and arrogant. This policy of appeasing China has continued to this day for over 70 years. China has done no reciprocal favour to India of any kind.

Now that India is emerging as a leading country in terms of economic growth, political clout, and military power, it should start having confidence in its strengths. It is not 1960s India, as proud Indians say. This is true. India has come a long way from those early days of independence. China can’t afford the condescending attitude it had towards India of those days. China can’t be sure of having the upper hand over India in case of a military clash.

So long as China controls Tibet and so long as India does not have an advantageous military superiority over China, there will always be saber-rattling by China. At a time when the world is realizing the threat that a powerful China is posing to the world and the need to contain China, India, if it has confidence in its clout in the comity of nations, is presented with an opportune time to revise its Tibet policy.

Even though not officially accepted by India as a legitimate government in exile, India has supported Tibet in the last 60 years by allowing the Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala to function like one. India’s help and support to the Tibetan exile community in creating a little Tibet in India is the most important factor in keeping Tibet alive. Allowing His Holiness the Dalai Lama to travel all over the world has brought the tragedy of Tibet to the doorsteps of the people of the world. India yet feels uncomfortable to recognize Tibet as an independent country with its legitimate government in exile in India. Whatever India’s policy, China regards India hosting the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees as a hostile act. China shows its displeasure by teasing India with unprovoked border intrusions time and again.

China is laying claims on Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh because it has usurped Tibet. The only way for India to create a situation where it will have no security threat from its northern border is by having an independent Tibet on the other side of the Himalayas, as it used to be before 1951. When India under Jawaharlal Nehru signed with China the “Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India” in April 1954, independent India for the first time recognized Tibet as a part of China since the signing of “The Agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” in May 1951 between Tibet and China.

Very significantly one of the PanchSheels in that agreement between India and China is non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. India had its own constraints in those early years of independence helping Tibet preserve its sovereignty. Nehru was seeing no way to free Tibet from China’s clutch. Even the United States of America and Great Britain were wary of considering Tibet’s plea for help. Nehru actually told the Dalai Lama that no country would go to war with China for Tibet, and that appealing to the UNO would also be fruitless. That was a true statesman’s reading of the very weak situation in which Tibet was finding itself.

Now, it is a different India. It is emerging as a leading Asian country capable of standing up to China. The Communist Party leaders of China cannot be sure of coming out victorious from a war with India. Moreover, the people of Taiwan, Hong Kong, East Turkistan and Tibet are unhappy with China’s bullish overlordship. Its own Han population is waiting for a chance to free themselves from the suffocating grip the CPC has on their freedom. And the spread of the coronavirus pandemic from China because of the callousness on the part of China’s leaders has resulted in so much disappointment with China all over the world. There is brewing in the world a feeling of repugnance for the arrogance of CPC leaders. China must be feeling cornered from all quarters. May be this is the right time for India to revise its Tibet Policy.

India needs to give up the habit of doubting its self-confidence when situations of confrontation with China arise. It was really laughable when Phuntsok Stobdan, who claims himself to be an expert in geopolitics and foreign policy matters of India, was asking the Dalai Lama to say that Ladakh belongs to India. As if this would make China retreat in fear. Such a poor opinion of one’s own country’s ability to assert its jurisdiction over its own territory can only boost the confidence of the enemy. The Dalai Lama is a refugee in India who is supposed to be keeping away from politics, and whose country is being accepted by India as a region of China.

At this time, when the whole of India is uniting to oppose China’s transgressions against it, also at this time when China is being viewed as a threat to the wellbeing of the people of the world, and at this time when India is strong enough to repel China’s aggressions, there is no likelihood of all hell breaking loose if India revises its policy of regarding Tibet a part of China. Recognize the Tibetan Government in exile and send a message out to the world that India — a country that has been a witness to the true history of Tibet for ages — is righting a wrong with regard to its policy towards China’s invasion of Tibet. When appeasement policies have not shown results, being self-confident of one’s own strength and being diplomatically offensive may rein in China. Once this happens, the Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala will regain confidence for freeing Tibet from China and revise its Middle-Way policy of only asking for real autonomous status for Tibet, not independence.

With no encouraging signs of support for Tibetan independence coming from any quarter of the world including India, and faced with the real danger of Tibet culturally disappearing in the sea of a billion Chinese, the Dalai Lama’s government had to take the painful decision of making real autonomous status for Tibet as the goal of the Tibetan people’s struggle. The Dalai Lama hoped that China would consider this proposal of not asking for Tibet’s separation from China. But China is very confident that no other country will ever raise the issue of independence for Tibet, and takes it for granted that India will never have the heart to support Tibetan independence. That is why China has spurned the Dalai Lama’s proposal of the Middle Way. Like meeting after meeting between China and India for coming to an agreement on the border issue dragged on without result, China also invited the Dalai Lama’s envoys for talks ten times without any results. China only bides its time simply to have some unresolved issues with its neighbours so that it will always have some excuse to use force.

It needs to be clear to the BJP government that dealing with China on an unequal footing is understood by China as India accepting its subservience to China. The brutal, inhuman, and very degrading way China took Indian soldiers unawares and assaulted them in the Galwan valley smacks of China’s intention of belittling India. China seems to look at India’s overtures of friendship as a weaker side desperate to appease the stronger side. It is time India rethinks its tendency to play second fiddle to China. If Kashmir is India’s Achilles’ heel, China has bigger Achilles heels — Tibet, East Turkistan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

For the long-term security interests of India and for helping Tibet, the BJP needs to take a very bold political decision. Introduce a bill in the Parliament for declaring Tibet an independent country. Tibet is joined to India with a strong spiritual umbilical cord. Tibet has developed its Buddhist culture, inviting famous Indian Buddhist saints. It has translated from Sanskrit hundreds of religious texts into Tibetan, and where all the important religious texts begin by referring to the Sanskrit title of the text. Tibet is a country that reverentially calls India the land of the Aryas. Tibet is a country that has kept alive the Indian tradition of Buddhist spiritual education that developed in such famous Buddhist universities as Nalanda, Vikramashila, and Taxila. If any country has clear justifiable reasons to support Tibet, it is India. Tibet has a long period of shared cultural history with India. And this is not the place to write in detail how as an independent country Tibet signed treaties with China, British India, Ladakh, Nepal, and Mongolia.

If any country’s security is dependent on the question of whether Tibet is free or not, it is India’s. With China needing to keep a watch on Taiwan, contain the dissatisfaction in Hong Kong with China’s interference in people’s enjoyment of democracy, the suspicion with which many southeast Asian countries look at China and avoid giving a chance to the long-suppressed people of Tibet and East Turkistan to revolt, it cannot afford to be so foolhardy as to confront India militarily in the event of India recognizing Tibet as a separate country. And there is the likelihood of some other countries supporting India’s decision to give recognition to Tibet.

Judging by the way the whole of India loathe China’s deception, bullying, and arrogance, and taking into account the rising feeling of distrust of China internationally and the confidence that India is gaining from its economic and military prowess, nobody would be surprised if the Government of India took a bold decision to make good the mistake of letting Tibet down.

About the author

Norbu Tsering worked at Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Leh, Ladakh, as an English Lecturer and then at TCV School, Ladakh, as the School Principal. He currently lives in Toronto, Canada.

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