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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 16

China in Tibet

Monday 7 April 2008, by G.S. Bhargava


Why is China in jitters over the unrest in Tibet marking the 49th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s forced escape from Lhasa? The Buddhist spiritual leader had to flee his homeland as much to save his life as to preserve the autonomy of his hoary land of birth. The idea behind the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, following hostilities, in which an estimated two thousand Tibetans perished, was that India would stand by Tibet. But the starry-eyed leadership of Nehru succumbed to China’s designs following quibbling about China’s suzerainty over Tibet without undermining the latter’s sovereignty as an autonomous region. Overruling Sardar Patel’s advice, he hurriedly withdrew the Indian communications establishment in Lhasa on the misguided assumption that it was an ‘imperialist legacy!’

Not many years later China repudiated the so-called McMahon Line boundary as the handiwork of British imperialism reducing Tibet into a Chinese colony. In contrast, Pakistan insisted that the ‘Durand Line’ should remain its frontier with Afghanistan. Both the McMahon and Durand lines were named after the then Foreign Secretaries of the British Indian Government. The McMahon Line emanated from the 1914 boundary treaty between the British (India) Government and Tibet. Several countries, including Russia and France, recognised it. It was the international practice even in the prevailing jungle of international politics that bilateral agreements with or between colonial powers passed down to successor or independent states should be automatically recognised (uti possidectis juris).

The Durand Line (1893) was the upshot of the military deadlock from the Afghan wars between the British India Government and the then Afghanistan ruler. It represented the boundary between Afghanistan and northwestern India—later Pakistan. The Nehru Government kept quiet when Afghanistan unilaterally disowned it in 1949.That was despite India ‘s support to the admission of Pakistan to the United Nations as a successor to the erstwhile British imperial state, while Afghanistan cast its negative vote. Field Marshal Ayub Khan in 1961 questioned India’s ‘ morality’ in condoning Kabul’s action thus objectively egging the Pushto-speaking areas of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to secede.

Reverting to China’s trepidation at the unrest in Tibet, it is by no means an attack of guilty conscience because when it comes to the crunch Communist China is a replica of the Leninist establishment of Russia of the early 20th century. Having consolidated their position in China, the Communists set out to expand their empire. While European imperialism was in retreat following the Second World War and the defeat of fascism, a new kind of colonialism came into existence in China. The Chinese infiltrated the provincial administration in Kham province and the Tibetan Army’s eastern command at Amdo to ‘capture’ the Dalai Lama—reportedly to kidnap him to China as a captive. It was in such a situation that the Dalai Lama, with the members of his Cabinet and over a 100,000 followers, crossed over to India in March 1959. As many as 300 dwellings collapsed when the Dalai Lama’s summer palace in Lhasa was razed.

EVEN if Nehru missed a historic opportunity to preserve Tibet’s cultural autonomy and keep India-China relations on a realpolitic footing, by letting the Dalai Lama settle ultimately at Dharamshala, he enabled his followers to pursue their studies. Over the years, more and more Tibetans have been escaping into India. Meanwhile, China suffered a severe public relations setback when the celebrated film-maker and director, Steven Spielberg, quit as ‘artistic adviser’ for the Games calling them genocide Olympics because of Beijing’s military backing to the Sudan on the Darfur issue (2004).

To put India in the wrong and bend the already spineless government further to its will, China made much of an incident in which Tibetan protestors entered its embassy in New Delhi. (By the way, during the ‘Cultural Revolution‘ in China in 1966 when the Indian embassy in Beijing was under siege the irrepressible Manohar Lal Sondhi—a Member of Parliament — took a donkey procession with pictures of Mao and Chou into the foreground of the Chinese embassy in New Delhi. There was much commotion, no doubt, but China had to swallow the snub ultimately.)

China has been trying to blame the Dalai Lama for the mounting protests in India and elsewhere against the repression in Tibet. But the record reads different. There were more than six rounds of abortive talks spread over five years between the representatives of the Dalai Lama and Chinese officials from September 2002 and February 2006. The venues were Beijing and Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, but China would not condescend to even concede there was formal or official contact with the representatives of the Dalai Lama. The Buddhist spiritual leader is a ‘non-person’ for the Chinese!

In fact, the Dalai Lama has gone out of his way to reiterate in an interview with Pranoy Roy of NDTV that he wanted the Beijing Olympics to go unhampered. Ignoring the visceral hatred of Tibetans for the Han Chinese he recalled his visit to Taiwan as an instance of accommodation with the Chinese.

He had also met Mao and Chou in Beijing in 1954 and Deng Xiaoping subsequently. He had called on Pope John Paul, the Second, at the Vatican in 1981 and 1982. The UN General Assembly passed resolutions in support of Tibetan autonomy in 1959, 1961 and 1965.

But the present ruling dispensation in New Delhi lacks the moral courage to let the Vice-President, Hamid Ansari, keep an appointment with the Dalai Lama, although it was arranged years ago. In contrast, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, had a cordial meeting with the Dalai Lama. The US President, George Bush, telephoned his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, to plead for peaceful negotiations with the Dalai Lama. The British Premier, Gordon Brown, similarly, spoke to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao.

In contrast to the pusillanimity of the Manmohan Singh Government, Baichung Bhutia, the Indian football captain, declined the invitation of the President of the Indian Olympic Association, Suresh Kalmadi, to join the Olympic march. That Aamir Khan would join the jamboree on behalf of Coca Cola is a reflection of a different culture.

In short, while the Dalai Lama would not be a party to any disruption of the Beijing Olympics he cannot also gloss over the repression and oppression of his fellow Tibetans.

The author, a veteran journalist, is a former Principal Information Officer (PIO) of the Government of India’s Press Information Bureau (PIB).

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