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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Indian Views on Tibet: On History's Plateau

June 1, 2008

by Inder Malhotra
May 30, 2008

(This article appeared in Indian Express on 24 March 2008.The writer
is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed in this
column are those of the writer, not necessarily those of the Central
Tibetan Administration)

Despite China?s earlier assurance to British Prime Minister Gordon
Brown, there no longer seems any possibility of Beijing entering into
negotiations any time soon with the Dalai Lama for a peaceful
settlement of the Tibet issue that, as recent rioting and violent
protests show, remains a tinderbox. Beijing?s brutal suppression of
the protests may have doused the situation but it does not
necessarily solve even China?s immediate problem of ensuring the
smooth conduct of the Olympics, on which it has invested not just $3
billion but also its entire prestige as a superpower in waiting,
leave alone the long-term goal of ensuring peace in the discontented
minority province.

It is therefore both astonishing and shocking that Beijing should
have denounced, indeed maligned, the Dalai Lama in most intemperate
language. It continues to accuse him of being the "mastermind" of the
violent upheaval while the reality is that his adherence to
non-violence is sincere and unshakeable. He went so far as to declare
that he would resign if the agitation "spun out of control". Not for
nothing did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh call him the "embodiment of peace."

Repeatedly and unambiguously the Dalai Lama has stated that he wants
"genuine autonomy" for Tibet, not independence. But Chinese leaders
go on calling him a separatist. One of them has even described him as
a "wolf in a monk?s clothing".

Obviously, it is not mere arrogance of power that is motivating
Beijing. It has good reasons to believe that its power - military,
economic and soft - is having its effect. The Dalai Lama's angry
followers in India, still planning a march to the China border, have
apparently been encouraged by the Speaker of the US House of
Representatives, Nancy Pelosi?s meeting with the Dalai Lama and her
appeal to the "world conscience" over Tibet. But what is all this
worth, when President George W. Bush?s spokesperson reaffirms that he
would attend the Olympics at Beijing? In any case, the economic and
political stakes of the United States and the West in China are too
complex to allow for the kind of boycott that was enforced at the
time of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 because of the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan. Moreover, many - not in China alone - are asking whether
China's action in Tibet is different from that of the US in Iraq.

All things considered, this country?s reaction to the developments in
Tibet has been unexceptionable. Like most other countries, it
expressed its "distress" and - as it has done in the case of other
chronic and painful conflicts such as the one in Palestine -appealed
to both sides to solve the problem through peaceful dialogue. Come to
think of it, the statement of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
is mild by comparison. Yet the UPA government has drawn criticism -
especially from the principal opposition party, the BJP, as well as
others - that in relation to China's "unacceptable repression " in
Tibet it has been "weak-kneed" and "chicken hearted". Even before the
eruption in Lhasa, the government here was being charged with being
"slurred" and "stilted" in replying to China?s aggressively asserted
claims on Arunachal Pradesh, particularly the Tawang tract. This is a
result partly of the inflamed polarisation of the Indian polity and
partly of the complexity and delicacy of the country?s Tibet policy,
right from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, that has often been under
fire, not always without reason.

Historically, Tibet had only a tributary relationship with the
Chinese empire that never directly ruled it. On the other hand, not a
single country had ever recognised Tibet to be sovereign. Ironically,
it was Britain, then ruling India, which pushed Tibet into the
Chinese orbit out of fear of Russia?s imperial designs. After the
Younghusband Expedition to Lhasa (1904), British India on the one
hand and Tibet and China on the other signed the Shimla Convention of
1914 that delineated the MacMahon Line.

After Indian independence and the Chinese Revolution, which were
roughly simultaneous, things were bound to change - and change they
did. India?s initial reaction to the march of the People?s Liberation
Army into Lhasa was sharp. China responded even more acrimoniously
and refused to countenance any "interference" in its internal
affairs. No country in the world contested China?s claim. The British
who had started the whole thing were the first to wash their hands of
Tibet. They were worrying about Hong Kong! In the circumstances,
India accepted the inevitable but insisted that Tibet?s autonomy be
protected. The Chinese readily concurred and even signed an agreement
with the young Dalai Lama in 1953, which they cynically reneged on.

In accepting the Chinese assurance on Tibetan autonomy, Nehru
rejected the advice of Sardar Patel and Rajagopalachari (then Union
minister without portfolio) for a "clean break" with China, and
ignored a "vague hint" by the American ambassador, Loy Henderson,
that the State Department would be "glad to help, if asked". Those
who continue to curse Nehru for "not resisting" the Chinese
occupation of Tibet are talking nonsense. India did not have the
power to do so, and was itself under heavy pressure at the UN over
Kashmir where an uneasy cease-fire was in its early stages.

Nehru?s cardinal mistake, of course, was the 1954 agreement on the
Tibet region of China, accepting Chinese sovereignty over "autonomous
Tibet" without any quid pro quo in terms of Chinese acceptance of
this country's "long-settled", "long-established" border. This story
of Nehru falling between the two stools of trusting and distrusting
China and the Chinese successfully fooling the Indian side is much
too complex and convoluted. In this, the role of then Indian
ambassador to China, K.M. Panikkar, was not just disastrous but diabolical.

Almost all countries have accepted Tibet to be part of China. Under
the circumstances, everyone has to walk a tightrope balancing one?s
support to the cause of Tibetan autonomy and one?s relationship with China.

The Tibetan uprising of 1959, the Dalai Lama's flight and the grant
of asylum to him in this country inevitably worsened India-China
relations. The brief but brutal 1962 war followed. The rest, as they
say, is history.

(This article appeared in Indian Express on 24 March 2008. The writer
is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed in this
column are those of the writer, not necessarily those of the Central
Tibetan Administration)
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