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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Tibet question: What kind of India are we?

April 1, 2012

The BRICS summit in Delhi on 29 March has been touted as a big event. It is a coming of age of a new coalition of powers, each of whom can alter the world stage on its own. The mind boggles to see what they can do as a united force.

As the history of BRICS as a new muscular power is being written, there will be one strange footnote, a tiny piece of protest that acts as a question mark.

Ahead of Premier Hu Jintao’s visit to Delhi, the local police cracked down on protesting Tibetans in the name of security especially after a Tibetan protester set himself on fire. Delhi is doing all it can to prevent any embarrassment to the mighty Chinese premier.

In an age of superpowers, when armies and economics spell success, Tibet is an anomaly. Years ago, Stalin, referring to the Pope in the Vatican asked, “How many battalions does the Pope have?” Watching the Dalai Lama however the same question sounds silly. The Dalai Lama, like Mother Teresa, does not need an army. He is a moral force who has added to the spiritual power of India. The harshness of nations states is such that no one except Tibet can say the meek shall inherit the earth.

If India abandons Tibet, it abandons itself. AFP

The general attitude to Tibet reinforces the cynicism we feel about power. A society without battalions is seen as a society outside history. But the Dalai Lama is a reminder that India is a civilisation and not just a nation state expressed as a brute fact of territory, sovereignty and citizenship. The way we define Tibet and treat Tibetans will be one of the tuning forks of our civilisation. To abandon Tibet is to abandon ourselves to the Chinese way.

Tibet is a strange mnemonic. Its activists, especially its youth immolating themselves, raise the symbolism of the vulnerable body against the might of the body politic. A body immolating itself is a frightening spectacle. It cannot be banalized by referring to other bodies immolating themselves. Each act is unique, each is a message to an indifferent world.

There is an irritation about Tibet as its very presence is an embarrassment. The Dalai Lama is refused invitations by nations who do not wish to incur China’s disapproval. Even South Africa after apartheid is forced to turn him down. Hollywood might swoon over it but the US regime prefers China.

Demographically, Tibet is a miniscule society while China is a billion-plus market. China has veto at the UN and Tibet lacks a presence, let alone membership. Yet China finds Tibet the most irritating counter to its search for success. It choreographs a stunning Olympics and finds itself confronting the Tibetan ballet of suffering. It knows it can win the Olympic medals of war but because of Tibet, it cannot aspire to medals of peace.

Yet despite all this there is a sense that Tibet is doomed, that its freedom is a small price to pay for Chinese alliances and Chinese hegemony. Sadly, there is a sense in which India is dying to be a superpower like China. The two great moral moments of India as a nation state were when it gave refuge to the Tibetan refugees after the Lhoka uprising (1959) and to a million Bengalis after the genocide in Bangladesh, a hospitality that does not usually go with the pragmatism of a nation state.

The Indian government today is on shaky moral ground. It sees China as a more powerful entity and Tibet as a handicap. It seeks a globalisation of power rather than a globalisation of ethics. India sees its goodness as a deficiency. When it does that, security dominates human rights, power shrugs off decency and protesting Tibetans become a law and order problem. Tibetan areas like Majnu Ka Teela get cordoned off and Tibetan students going to college are escorted by policemen.

But India cannot abandon Tibet because Tibet spells the Indian difference in the way Mohandas Gandhi and Mother Teresa did. By offering it refuge and hospitality, India stands up to China and therefore stands up for itself.

If India abandons Tibet, it abandons itself.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.

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