Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The Dalai Lama is right to plead that history should be left to take care of itself and that what should be a common concern for discussion and final settlement is the future of Tibet as a truly autonomous region of China as broadly agreed

Chinese Jitters Over Tibet

Talk of an Olympic boycott is misplaced but India should urge Beijing to show restraint and open a meaningful dialogue with the Dalai Lama

By B G Verghese

Sahara Times/ New Indian Express, 8 April, 2008

China has been unnerved by developments in Tibet judging by its statements and actions. After years of insistence that at least “Inner Tibet”, comprising the Tibetan-inhabited regions of Kham and Amdo, had been peacefully absorbed into the Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu, it has now admitted that the latest Tibetan uprising has by no means been confined to Lhasa and the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region of Outer Tibet, but has been active and continuing in widely scattered parts of Inner Tibet as well.

In a further admission, Chinese authorities have officially confirmed unrest in northwestern Xinjiang where the Muslim Uighur minority in Khotan has demonstrated against curbs on autonomy and religious freedom. The local Khotan government website has reported that “a small number of elements tried to incite splittism, create disturbances in the marketplace and even trick the masses into an uprising”. This suggests events of more serious proportions than stated. 

These developments confirm that 12 percent growth is not enough and ancient peoples and civilizations do not live by bread alone. At a time when Beijing is preparing to showcase China at the forthcoming Olympic Games as the newly emerging great power of the future, it is particularly sensitive to internal criticism, that it has long ignored, and loss of face abroad. Hence the bluff and bluster in peremptorily demanding that India put down Tibetans protestors and silence the Dalai Lama. The Government of India has prudently sought to avoid legitimate offence to the Chinese as neither petulance nor bravado constitute wise policy. The recent break-in into the outer perimeter of the Chinese Embassy by Tibetan demonstrators, who dodged the security cordon and scaled the wall of the compound some days ago, was unfortunate and has been formally regretted.

Summoning the Indian Ambassador in Beijing at 2am to query and protest what had happened need not be taken too much to heart. The incident recalls what Lenin reportedly told Litvinoff, the Soviet plenipotentiary, who was advised by the Germans to sign the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in 1917 formally attired in a frock coat and top hat. What should he do, queried Litvinoff? Lenin‘s reply was, “If it serves the cause, go in a petticoat”! So the Indian Ambassador, Ms Nirupama Rao, duly presented herself at the Chinese Foreign Office at the appointed hour with her customary aplomb. Nothing was lost and the Chinese could not have won any brownie points in Beijing’s diplomatic community for petty boorishness.

What is more to the point is to review our Tibet policy and fine-tune it. Asking the Dalai Lama not to use Indian soil for political activity cannot mean silencing him on issues of human rights and solemn assurances regarding autonomy in relation to Tibet’s faith, culture, identity and even ecology. The 17-Point Sino-Tibetan Agreement of 1951 set out a charter of autonomy. This may have been signed long ago. But if the Chinese Government wishes to cite history, then history cannot be selectively remembered or forgotten as expedient. Violations of that accord at the time of the establishment of a Preparatory Committee for the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the commencement of reforms in 1955 triggered the Khampa revolt that soon spread.  The Dalai Lama was then in India to participate in the 2500th anniversary celebrations of the advent of the Buddha and was not anxious to return home in view of developments in Tibet. Chou En-lai also in India at that time expressed his concern to Nehru at the turn of events. Reportedly, it was Nehru who persuaded the young Dalai Lama to return to Lhasa on the Chinese premier’s assurances that the 1951 Agreement would be honoured in letter and spirit.  

India had signed away its treaty rights in Tibet in 1954 on the understanding that Tibetan autonomy would be preserved. Given this sequence of events, it owes a moral commitment to speak up for Tibetan autonomy. And this is all the Dalai Lama is asking for. He has repeatedly stated that he does not seek Independence and that he accepts that China will exercise responsibility for Tibet’s external relations and defence. He has personally renounced any claims to governance in an autonomous Tibetan regime and has said time and again that the administration must be entrusted to elected representatives of the people. Now if the Chinese choose wilfully to distort the plain meaning of words then they are solely responsible for creating avoidable confusion. To ask the Dalai Lama to affirm that Tibet has always been part of China is absurd. This is unhistorical and, at this juncture, irrelevant.

The Dalai Lama is right to plead that history should be left to take care of itself and that what should be a common concern for discussion and final settlement is the future of Tibet as a truly autonomous region of China as broadly agreed. As for the charge of “splittism” levelled against the Dalai Lama, this relates to the issue of re-unification of Kham and Amdo with the present TAR. This is a more complex issue and can perhaps be at least partially resolved by conceding the Dalai Lama ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Tibetan Buddhists living in these regions.

As for China taking umbrage at the Indian Prime Minister visiting Arunachal Pradesh, whose elected representatives sit in the Indian Parliament, this should be dismissed out of hand. If Arunachal is part of “Southern Tibet” then it means that the entire Tibet issue remains unsettled and is open for review de novo. Whatever China’s territorial claims, it formally abandoned them, leaving only the boundary to be settled. Settled or populated areas were not to be disturbed and so there is no question of Tawang being in contention. Beijing may huff and puff but it cannot have different versions and different interpretations for different occasions at will.

Talk of an Olympic boycott is misplaced as is caution on speaking on Tibetan autonomy for fear of repercussions in J&K and the Northeast. The first proposition would merely denigrate and politicize the Olympics while leaving the Tibetan issue untouched and still alive after the Games are over. In both J&K and the Northeast, India is engaged in dialogue. Free elections are held and peaceful protest and freedom of expression are not denied.

Finally, India has deep reverence for the Dalai Lama, a great Buddhist sage, while Tibet remains a cherished neighbour, with millions drawn to Kailash and Mansarovar. It has every reasons to desire close and friendly relations with China and it is in that spirit that Delhi should urge Beijing to show restraint and reopen a meaningful dialogue with the Dalai Lama who has said more than once that he is ready for talks.    

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