China and India are the world’s two fastest expanding economies, and the recent visit (November 2006) to New Delhi of Chinese President Hu Jintao was meant to consolidate relations between the two countries. But an important issue was brushed aside by them. The Tibet problem. And India made sure that even the customary protest by Tibetan exiles was kept out of Hu’s sight.
A key Tibetan, Tenzin Tsundue, who lives in India’s Dharamshala -- the Himalayan headquarters of the Tibetan Government in exile, headed by the Dalai Lama – was not allowed to travel outside the town. He has been a vociferous supporter of the Free Tibet Movement.
During the 2002 visit to Bombay or Mumbai (the new name) of the then Chinese Prime Minister, Zhu Rongi, Tsundue scaled 14 floors of the luxury hotel where the dignitary was staying and unfurled banners that screamed, “Free Tibet”.
Last year in Bangalore, Wen Jiabao, Zhu’s successor, saw pamphlets flying outside the building where he was meeting Indian scientists. Tsundue had done better than the Hollywood Superman by climbing a 200-foot tower next to the building to throw pamphlets that challenged Beijing to silence Tibetans.
But, Tsundue got his target wrong. This time, India silenced him. The Indian authorities invoked a penal provision to ban him from moving out of Dharamshala, where about 100,000 Tibetan refugees live.
Now let me tell you who Tsundue really is. He is a well-known writer, and the manner in which he has been “gagged” speaks volumes of New Delhi’s desperation to present a politically correct picture to Beijing.
And what is almost shocking is the fact that just before Hu arrived in New Delhi, Beijing made a statement saying that India’s north-eastern State of Arunachal Pradesh was a part of China. Beijing wanted the whole State back.
New Delhi’s Tibet policy has moved so much since 1959, when the Dalai Lama and a few of his followers escaped from Tibet after Chinese occupation, and reached Indian borders. New Delhi welcomed them, offered them a place in Dharamshala and allowed the Dalai Lama to form his Government in exile. What is more, he and his fellow Tibetans, whose numbers have swelled enormously since 1959, were given space to pursue, promote and propagate their culture at a time when China was systematically destroying everything that remotely resembled Tibetan on the plateau. It was a well-conceived, cold-blooded annihilation of a unique way of life.
In 2003, India changed its stance from calling Tibet “an autonomous region of China” to “recognising that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of China”. The Tibet Autonomous Region is certainly not Tibet, which was historically much bigger. And, well, the Region is not autonomous.
India’s gradual shift in its Tibet policy is part of New Delhi’s attempt at getting closer to China. The relationship between the two had never been easy, at least not since 1962, when a border war led to China’s decisive victory. For India, it was not only a humiliating defeat, but also a cause of deep disappointment. India’s then Prime Minister, the first after Independence in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, had nursed the fond hope of a firm brotherhood between the two nations, and he was shattered when China attacked India with its superior forces.
Since then, India and China have been suspicious of each other. For New Delhi, its shameful defeat in 1962, the yet unresolved border dispute and China’s firm friendship with Pakistan have been uncomfortable reminders of China’s betrayal. For Beijing, India’s allowances to the Dalai Lama – who has attained celebrity status with his Nobel Peace Prize and other international honours – have been a prickly thorn in its global image. Plus, more and more Chinese are getting into Tibetan Buddhism!
All this is not say that India and China need not forge better understanding and work towards strengthening bilateral economic cooperation in a world today where commerce provides the key to political harmony. But India is certainly in a strong position, and it does not have to appease China on the Tibet policy.
And, after all, what does the Dalai Lama himself want? He is not asking for independence, which many Tibetans feel is their birthright. He is seeking a “middle path” or genuine autonomy, particularly cultural and religious autonomy.
The Dalai Lama is 71, and he is not going to live forever, and for China he is the best bet, because he alone has the charisma, devotion and power over the Tibetans. No other Tibetan has this. No future leader is likely to have this.
The Dalai Lama’s “middle path” is a historic opportunity for Beijing to grab. This way, it may just about placate the Tibetan minority. And the outside world, India in particular, has a role to play. It is about time that New Delhi stepped in to set a wrong right. This may not be possible in a major sort of way, but India can look at the whole Tibetan question keeping in view the humanitarian angle. The least that New Delhi could have done now was not to have smothered peaceful protest, especially since it would have come from an authority such as Tsundue.
(Posted on this website on December 1 2006)