Tibet crisis: Why India needs to sit up and take notice

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After weeks of "restraint" and insistence that Tibet was China's internal problem, India was put off this week, just a wee bit. China summoned the Indian ambassador at 2 a m to hand over details of protests that exiled Tibetans were allegedly planning in India. India immediately called off a high-level commerce-related visit to China. The government has denied that the middle-of-the-night call had anything to do with it and blamed it on a scheduling problem. India will also go ahead with its plans for a pomp-and-show inauguration of its first tourism office in Beijing in July.

India has remained remarkably tight-lipped and low-key about Tibet, insisting that Tibet was an integral part of China and that India would not allow any "anti-China" activities on its soil. When the protests began, it stopped (that's okay, legally speaking) Tibetan protesters from crossing the border into China. The strongest reaction from India so far has come from the external affairs ministry, which called the situation in Tibet 'distressing'. The Dalai Lama has remained calm about it, saying he found India's position over-cautious, but understandable.

So, why should we care about India's stand on Tibet? Because at the end of the day, the two countries that will be most affected by Tibet's fate are India and China.
The story of India, China and Tibet is complicated, nuanced and beyond the scope of a blog post. But here's an attempt at providing some perspective on why India can or should be a important player, and why it has been pussyfooting on this issue.

Geopolitics: Tibet, or 'The Roof of the World', is sandwiched between India's northern and eastern border on the one side and China's southwestern border on the other, with smaller countries like Nepal and Bhutan in between. It is the highest region in the world and of strategic importance to whoever controls it. India has accepted -- as have so many other countries -- China's sovereignty over Tibet, and so has Dalai Lama, except that he wants it to be autonomously governed for the most part.

Now, we are talking about a fundamental difference in world-view, not only between China and Tibet, but also between China and India. While China is an autocratic regime that gives little leeway for cultural or religious expression (to quote a recent Newsweek article: 'China's leaders used to think exposure to modern ideas would cure Tibetans of their devotion to the Dalai Lama and other "outmoded superstitions."' ), India is a multi-religious democracy.

Realpolitik: There's an increasing rift between the Dalai Lama with his autonomy and peace approach, and the younger generation or Tibetans who are getting restless and radical, demanding complete independence from China. The Dalai Lama lives in India and runs a "government" from there, elections and all. Tibetans have found sympathy, education and a life in India. The Indian government has little to worry about a relatively peaceful community in exile.

But with Tibetans in China beginning to loose their cool, India needs to take notice. When it comes to fighting for a common cause, it's only natural that Tibetans on both sides of the border will unite. And the cracks are beginning to show: Tibetans have held demonstrations in the country. They have requested Bollywood's much loved hero, Aamir Khan, and other personalities to not carry the Olympic torch when it arrives in India (although the government has assured China of its safe passage). The momentum is building up.

What happens after the Dalai Lama? Who will step into his shoes and make sure that his followers remain peaceful in India?

Culture -- The Child of Indian Civilization:
Buddhism was born in India. While the religion is disappearing in the sub-continent, its principles are not. Dharm, karm and moksh are as much a part of Hindu life as they are of Buddhists. And religion continues to guide most of Indian life. Claude Arpi -- a French-born dentist who now lives in India and has written extensively on the politics of the region -- quotes the fourteenth Dalai Lama in his book, The Fate of Tibet, as saying about India:

 

For us, it has always been the Holy Land. It was the birthplace of the founder of the Buddhist culture and the source of wisdom brought to our mountains hundreds of years ago by Indian saints and seers. The religions and societies of Tibet and India have developed in different lines. but Tibet was still a child of Indian civilization.

On a recent trip to Japan, I was surprised (and a little ashamed that I didn't know more than I did about Buddhism) to learn that Buddhism was seen as an extension -- or the next step forward -- of Hinduism. One account suggested that Brahma, the Preserver, urged the Buddha to spread the knowledge that he had gained through his Enlightenment, to purge the world of its suffering. That should explain why so many Indians are sympathetic to Tibet's demand for religious freedom.

Indo-China relations and history: To put it mildly, the two countries share a confused relationship and don't trust each other for the most part. The mistrust can be traced back to the 1962 war that India lost and the public knows very little about. The genesis was a border dispute that continues to date. China alleges India lied to her citizens about the war, portraying China as the aggressor. The only two in-depth and authoritative accounts of the war are from a British journalist and a French writer, both of who have laid the blame of the debacle on poor Indian leadership at the time, but are on the opposite sides of the fence on who the bad guy is -- one critical of India's agenda and the other of China's.

It's high time Indians got the truth. The report needs to be declassified soon for the public to get a better sense of how to place China in the region's politics. While on the one hand India is aggressively pursuing economic relations with China, it has also alleged that China is arming Pakistan, another neighbor India has fought wars with. India has been dealing with terrorism and separatism itself, so engaging a neighbor in a similar debate doesn't appear as good political sense.

It's a delicate balancing act for India, but many Indians are arguing that their government is being too meek. Columnists have been needling India for being weak-kneed about Tibet since the recent protests began about two weeks ago. Sumit Ganguly -- professor of political science at Indiana University --- writes in a Newsweek column:

This humiliating deference undermines India's national interests as a rising Asian power and corrodes its credentials as a liberal democracy. [...] It shows that Indian policymakers have been, to use a term from the cold war era, Finlandized—constrained by a foreign power. Some policy options cannot even be considered for fear of offending China. India, for example, has had little to say about China's penetration of much of Burma and its ongoing quest for military bases in that country. India has also exercised great caution in pursuing any significant commercial ties with Taiwan for fear of incurring the wrath of the mainland. What does it say about India as a democracy if the authorities harass law-abiding Tibetans who are only engaging in peaceful protests? Such actions are fundamentally contrary to the principles of a liberal democracy that enshrines the right of public political dissent.

The Times of India columnist Tarun Vijay says:

That China should be engaged in a friendly manner is a different proposition. But to say we must ensure China remains friendly at any cost is a dangerously self-defeating idea which needs correction. The basic premise should be to keep our interest intact. If we need China as a friend, China needs our friendship too. If we are expected to act cautiously to strengthen friendly ties and increase levels of CBMs (Confidence Building Measures), China too is expected to do the same.


As it stands today, China is in an unforgiving mood, accusing the Dalai Lama of inciting violence, and promising to clamp down on the "rioters". The Beijing Olympics are here, and a bloody uprising in Tibet can be a PR disaster for China. Both the Tibetans and the Chinese are determined to make best of the international attention that the Olympics will attract, and depending on which report you are inclined to believe, a hundred or hundreds have died since the recent uprising began.
While the world watches Tibet, this may be a good time and opportunity for India to talk and negotiate with China.

The exiled Tibetan perspective:
Here's part of an interview that second-in-command Samdhong Rinpoche gave recently to Rediff:

India is in a difficult situation. India and China's relations are growing, but they are vulnerable due to the border issue. China's power in South Asia is growing. Then there are dynamics added to it due to America and Pakistan. The scenario is balanced precariously. When you get politically hyperactive in Dharamshala, don't you think you are harming India's interest?

I don't think so. India is not at all vulnerable. India is more powerful than China if she really realises her own strengths. The problem is India still suffers from the psychological defeat of 1962. India is unable to come out of it. That year is far behind. Now, China is much less powerful than India.

How? Just have a look at China's GDP.

Gross Domestic Production is not a reality. It is merely a figure cooked up in Beijing. If you go to the northern part of China, go to villages, you will know more about China. You have visited Shanghai and Beijing, but not my village in Tibet; not the remote areas of China. How does that make India more powerful? Why do you think India is so weak? When you say China has better focus than India in other words it means that it is the totalitarian regime. In India, diversity ensures that it remains a free and democratic country. Of course, Western people, who are only concerned with economic development, invest in China and not in India because India is a free country; India has a free press; India has democracy; India has an independent judiciary. Therefore, they cannot do whatever they want to, but in China they can by meeting just one powerful party member. You have visited China but not met the real people, who are poor and suffering. No Tibetan is willing to take Chinese money, but they have no option. Chinese money is thrust on them. Development is thrust on them. People have not participated in the development of Tibet.

I asked you about India's position on the issue. Many people think Tibetan refugees should keep quiet and silently go on living here. When you raise the political pitch on Indian soil, it creates tension in the region.

I have never heard such a comment from anyone here. I and His Holiness Dalai Lama have made it clear several times that if India thinks that Tibet issue is a hindrance or an irritant for the normalisation of Sino-Indian relations, India must sacrifice the Tibet issue and ask His Holiness to shift somewhere else. Let Tibetan refugees migrate to West or send them back to Tibet. In such case, can you guarantee that Sino-India relations will be perfectly okay? If that is so, then we are ready to obey. We are ready to go away from India. In India, we are refugees, in London or in Washington, we will be refugees. It will make no difference to us because we are not living on our own soil. We can be refugees anywhere. But, I don't think any Indian leader is thinking in this direction. If they are thinking in this direction, they should not have any hesitation in telling us. His Holiness and the Tibetan leadership never wants to cause any inconvenience to the Indian people or to the Indian government.

More reading and blogs:

Tibet history, briefly

India-China war

The Mixed-up Files

Pundita

Truth Hugger

Maddy's Ramblings

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