After being overwhelmed by the People’s Liberation Army in 1950, the Tibetans have broken out in open revolt thrice —in 1959, 1989 and now in 2008. Considering the herculean efforts that have been made by China to control the Tibetans, this is remarkable, and ought to serve as a warning of sorts to Beijing. The Chinese have played a cynical game in Tibet. They claimed that they entered it to liberate its people from serfdom and to protect its special status, but in fact they split Tibet into several provinces and what we call Tibet today comprises just half its traditional territory. Despite professing atheism, the Chinese have blatantly interfered in the religious practices of Tibet, including taking decisions on who is an incarnate lama.
No country in the world supports an independent Tibet. Yet, among the people in democratic countries, Chinese sovereignty over Tibet is only reluctantly conceded. Most Indians, barring the Communists, believe that Tibet is a colonial possession of China, held down by the force of the People’s Liberation Army. The reality is, of course, partly true though more complex.
Though the Lama rulers of Tibet accepted Chinese authority over their country, they were not vassals in the sense that Korea and Vietnam were. Indeed, the Tibetans emphasise that neither the 5th Dalai Lama in 1652 nor the 13th in 1908 performed the ceremony of kowtow when they met the Chinese emperor. On the other hand, it is clear that the Tibetans accepted what the British called “suzerainty” , a loose kind of Chinese overlordship with considerable autonomy. But between 1911 and 1951, Tibet was completely independent.
When the Communists took control of China in October 1949, one of the first items on their agenda was to assert Chinese control over Tibet. As in the case of the erstwhile Soviet Union, Mao Zedong’s declaration that there would be self-determination for the minorities in the People’s Republic turned out to be a cynical exercise in deception. The Chinese Communist Party insisted that the territorial limits of China were the same as those of the Qing dynasty that was overthrown in 1911. It is not as though the Tibetans welcomed the Chinese as liberators. Despite the enormous difference between the Chinese and Tibetan forces, the latter resisted the Chinese onslaught and only after some 30 major and minor battles did the Tibetans sue for peace. A 17-point agreement was signed that allowed for Tibet “national regional autonomy” and helped retain its political and cultural structures. However, the increasing pressure by the Chinese, as well as perhaps some American instigation, led to a revolt that brought the “one country two systems” effort to an end. In 1965 the Tibet Autonomous Region(TAR) was constituted, but two years later, Tibetan culture and autonomy were devastated by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Since the late 1970s the Chinese have sought to promote the economic development of Tibet and opened it up to the outside world. This has been manifested by the growth of tourism, as well as the infrastructure in terms of a new railway and several new highways and other development projects.
The ongoing Tibetan uprising is, or ought to be, a matter of great concern to India. Just a glance at the map will show why this large region, with which we share a 4,056-km border, is of such strategic importance for our country. Many of our principal rivers rise there, and since 1951 this historically undefended area of India has come under the administrative control and military occupation of China.
This development was resisted by India from the very outset. Advised by the British, India did not contest China’s decision to “liberate” Tibet. It deluded itself that it was merely recognising Chinese “suzerainty” , even while upholding its autonomy. However, when “suzerainty” turned out to be nothing but old-fashioned “sovereignty”, and that too, of the colonial variety, New Delhi could do little. In 1954, it tamely signed away all its special diplomatic privileges to the “Tibet Autonomous Region of China”. This was but the beginning of a phase that led to a humiliating defeat of the Indian army at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army in 1962 on the borderlands of Tibet.
So, today, India has had to reconcile itself to the situation in Tibet. Indeed, at almost every turn it has had to go out of its way to reassure China that it recognises its sovereignty over Tibet. This is how the last joint declaration during the visit of Prime Minister Vajpayee to China in June 2003 reads: “The Indian side recognises that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China and reiterates that it does not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India.
The Chinese side expresses its appreciation for the Indian position and reiterates that it is firmly opposed to any attempt and action aimed at splitting China and bringing about ‘independence of Tibet’.”
And this is how the April 2005 Joint Statement during the visit of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao reads: “The Indian side reiterated that it recognised the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China and that it did not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India.”
All this is presumably seen by Beijing as expiation by India for its initial insistence that the Chinese respect Tibetan autonomy under their “suzerainty”, and for giving shelter to the Dalai Lama.
The Chinese are now playing a waiting game in Tibet, hoping that the passing of the 14th Dalai Lama, currently 73, will enable them to put in place a puppet. This is the procedure they have followed in the case of the Panchen Lama, the second great Lama of Tibet. The two Lamas are supposed to help determine each other’s reincarnation. When the previous Panchen Lama, who was a Chinese prisoner, passed away, the search committee headed by Chadrel Rimpoche found Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as his reincarnation and this was announced by the Dalai Lama. But the Chinese imprisoned Chadrel and got another search committee to come up with another name. No one is sure where Nyima is, and the substitute Panchen Lama has been installed in his place. It is this crass interference in Tibetan cultural and religious traditions that raise questions about China’s motives in Tibet.
Yet if the experience of the world is anything to go by, Chinese actions will not help in curbing Tibetans’s desire to assert their cultural and religious identity. This is the lesson from the current uprising that has spread not just across TAR, but Gansu, Sichuan and other areas that are part of traditional Tibet.
India cannot turn the clock back on Tibet and undo the policy track it adopted in 1950. But what it can, and should do, is to insist that China not use the cover of national sovereignty to deny Tibetans their human rights, which most importantly include the right to practise and uphold their culture. At the same time, New Delhi must make it clear to the Tibetans and the world community, that such a goal cannot be achieved through militancy. In fact militant confrontation only aids the Chinese to split the Dalai Lama from the younger generation of Tibetans. The Dalai Lama has taken a most reasonable position on negotiations with China and publicly opposed a boycott of the Olympics. Tibetan rights will not be obtained by humiliating Beijing, but by persuading it that in today’s world, great nations are identified by the rights enjoyed by their minorities. No matter what the CPC theorists may be telling the old men in Zhongnanhai, there simply will never be anything called “democracy with Chinese characteristics.”
This article appeared in Mail Today March 26, 2008