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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Tibet and Indian Diplomacy

April 27, 2009

Nikhil Chakravartty
Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 19 (India)
April 26, 2009

In the hurly-burly of day-to-day politics, Tibet
has receded quite a distance in our horizon. Even
when we talk about the political environment in
our neighbourhood, Tibet rarely figures in it.

In the discussions with the Chinese, whether in
official or non-official capacity, at the
governmental or political level, we have
practically ceased to raise the question of Tibet
and the Tibetan people. But the Chinese always
make it a point to impress upon us the benefit of
Chinese rule for the Tibetan people and almost
inevitably remind us—sometimes explicitly,
sometimes implicitly—that India recognises Tibet
as being a part of the Chinese People’s Republic.

What is intriguing is that even in the early
fifties when India-China relations were raised to
a state of euphoria, Tibet invariably figured in
the talks between the leaders of the two
countries, and India’s special position with
regard to Tibet was conceded by the Chinese side,
so much so that the Indian Prime Minister’s
interest and concern about the Dalai Lama and his
relations with the Panchen Lama did not evoke the
Chinese criticism that this amounted to
interference in the internal affairs of China.
But the entire situation changed in the late
fifties, when with the simultaneous launching by
China of a persecution drive against the Dalai
Lama forcing him to escape with his entourage to
India in the summer of 1959, came the first armed
clashes by the Chinese border guards with Indian
frontier patrols culminating in the blitz
invasion of the Chinese Army into the Indian territory in October 1962.

The irony of it all has been that what is known
as the India-China border talks in the last
thirty years and more, really related to the
frontier-line between India and Tibet, while the
Dalai Lama, who alone is acknowledged by the
Tibetan people as their leader, both spiritual
and temporal, has been forced into exile in this
country throughout these three
decades-and-a-half. If one were to go by past
precedents—which the Chinese are fond of quoting
to substantiate any claims in the international
context—then the Tibetan side should have a place
in any India-China border talks.

The Dalai Lama’s dramatic arrival in India
alongwith nearly a hundred thousand of his
following was an event whose full historic
significance was perhaps not fully perceived at
the time by most political observers. It was not
just a leader of a country being forced to become
a refugee in another country. The entire mystique
of the Tibetan politics suddenly came out into
the open before the entire world. What is indeed
noteworthy is that in the totally new
surroundings, the Dalai Lama and his following
coming out of the cloistered retreat of Lhasa,
adjusted themselves with remarkable felicity,
transmitting effectively their message, both
spiritual and political, to diverse sections of
the world public. In all these years, the Dalai
Lama has grown as a world figure, impressing one
by his serenity and wisdom. And he has installed
into his loyal following a sense of dignity and
purpose—no feeling of depression, no air of a
lost cause. Instead, an amazing reservoir of
silent confidence, reflecting the sheer majesty
of their native land—by no means a lost horizon.

Looking back, one has to concede that after the
first flush of excitement on the Dalai Lama’s
appearance on the world stage, there came a phase
of low tide in the international interest in
Tibet, almost synchronising with the focus
shifting to Deng Xiaoping’s modernisation
programme in China. In the last three years the
pendulum has swung again, particularly after the
Tiananmen massacre, and there has come over a
marked resurgence of interest in Tibet as could
be perceived during the Dalai Lama’s recent tour
abroad. With the end of the Cold War, the concern
for human rights has become a major plank in the
consciousness of the world public and this is
reflected in the policy posture of many
governments. The issue of human rights figured
prominently in Clinton’s election campaign and
has become a key item in the new Administration’s policy programme.

This was demonstrated in ample measure during the
Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Washington, where
his meeting with President Clinton proved to be
more than a formality. And the British Prime
Minister on his part moved beyond his old
reticence while meeting the Tibetan leader. It
needs to be noted that a conference of
international law specialists held in London in
January this year upheld the Tibetan people’s
right to self-determination. World attention to
the violation of human rights in Tibet has been
intensified and has become widespread. Apart from
such bodies as the Amnesty International and the
Asia Watch, among others, this issue has been
taken up by the International Commission of Jurists and France Libertes.

Viewed in the background of renewed world-wide
interest and concern about Tibet, one cannot but
notice the absence of any corresponding campaign
in our country in defence of human rights in
Tibet as we have had for South Africa, Nepal or
for that matter Burma matter Burma, despite the
fact that the Dalai Lama and his entire
government-in-exile are located in Dharamsala.
The reason for this is perhaps a misplaced fear
that any campaign for human rights in Tibet might
damage the prospect of restoring normalcy in our
relations with China. It may be noted that the
Dalai Lama himself has been saying unreservedly
that he welcomes the progressive development of
China’s economy and standing in the world, and
along with it, he wants the extension of
democracy and well-being to the people of Tibet.

Briefly, the points of concern about China’s
policy in Tibet may be noted here. First in this
list is the large-scale colonisation of the Han
population in Tibet. The official Chinese figure
is that there are four to five million Chinese in
the whole of Tibet, of which there are only
90,000 in what is specified as the Autonomous
Region of Tibet, whose population numbers just
three million. It is estimated that the total
Chinese population in Tibet today is well over
seven million. If this planned population
transfer continues, it could soon bring about a
demographic transformation by which the Tibetans
would be reduced to a minority in their own country.

Secondly, the growing militarisation of the Tibet
region. Apart from the increase in the stationing
of Chinese garrisons in Tibet, there is the
setting up of a very important nuclear weapons R
& D Centre, known as the Ninth Academy in Tibet
which is responsible for designing China’s
nuclear arsenal, detonation development and
radiochemistry. Several dozens of China’s nuclear
warheads are located in Tibet. Missile bases have
been set up in Tibet. Five years ago, China
carried out in Tibet what was officially
described as “chemical defence manoeuvres in the
high altitude zone to test newly-developed equipment”.

This aspect of China’s policy in Tibet has a
direct bearing on our country’s strategic
concern. There could be no other plausible target
for these nuclear weapons and missiles in Tibet
except India. In this context, the Dalai Lama’s
repeated call for transforming the whole of Tibet
into a weapons-free zone of peace assumes pointed
significance. In his well-known Strasbourg
Proposal in 1988, he recalled Tibet’s “historic
status as a neutral buffer state contributing to
the stability of the entire continent”.

Thirdly, the question of dumping radioactive
nuclear wastes in Tibet. It is not known as to
how much of radioactive waste comes out of the
top secret Ninth Academy of the Chinese defence
establishment in Tibet. It is known that Tibet
has the world’s biggest uranium reserves, and
there are reports of many local Tibetans having
perished after drinking contaminated water in the
proximity of a uranium mine in Amdo. In 1991,
Greenpeace exposed plans to ship toxic sludge
from the USA to China for use as ‘fertiliser’ in
Tibet. And there are other reports of certain
European firms negotiating with the Chinese
authorities for dumping nuclear toxic wastes in Tibet.

The fall-out is a matter of urgent concern for
all those neighbouring countries through which
flow the great rivers of Asia originating from
Tibet: Oxus, Indus, Brahmaputra, Irrawady,
Mekong, apart from the two great rivers of China,
Yangtze and Huang Ho. If these rivers are
polluted, it will be a frightening hazard for
millions of people on the Asian mainland,
particularly for the peoples in South Asia, of
which the two most populated are India and Bangladesh.

In three decades and more there has been serious
environmental destruction of Tibet. There has
been massive deforestation of the rich forest
belts of Tibet. In Amdo province alone, it is
estimated that about 50 million trees have been
felled in the last forty years. Southern Tibet
has been equally denuded of forests. The Tibetans
do not use much timber, most of the wood product
has gone to the other parts of China. This
massive deforestation has led to serious soil
erosion and flood. Today, Brahmaputra and Indus,
Yangtze and Huang Ho are among the five most
heavily-silted rivers in the world.
Desforestation endangers the monsoon balance,
which is of direct concern for us. With the
denuding of the great pastures of Tibet, desertification has begun.

All these are matters of direct concern for many
countries. Without infringing upon the
sovereignty of any Latin American country, the
ecological preservation of the Amazon River basin
inspired a remarkable international initiative.
Similarly, it is time that the preservation of
the unique environmental balance of Tibet became
the concern of the world community, in which the
countries directly affected next door have to
come forward. This is an issue of direct
international concern as important as the
upholding of human rights, since it endangers the
very life and living of billions of people linked
by Nature to Tibet, its flora and fauna.

Even when the Dalai Lama arrived in India in
1959, he underlined that he and his people “do
not cherish any feelings of enmity and hatred
against the great Chinese people” and sought “the
creation of a favourable climate” for
negotiations for a peaceful settlement. There
was, however, no contact between the Dalai Lama’s
establishment and the Chinese Government until
1979. This is understandable because these were
the years of the Cultural Revolution and the rule
of the Gang of Four which proved disastrous for
China. It was only in February 1979 that Gyalo
Thandup, an elder brother of the Dalai Lama,
received an invitation from Deng Xiaoping and
made a private visit to Beijing where he was met
by high Chinese officials. He was also received by Deng Xiaoping himself.

Since then, negotiations have dragged on. In the
course of these tenuous contacts, the Dalai Lama
himself wrote a letter to Deng Xiaoping in March
1981, emphasising the need for “our common wisdom
in a spirit of tolerance and broad-mindedness”.
Although there was no direct response to his
letter, the contacts continued, in the course of
which the Chinese Government said that everything
could be discussed except the question of Tibet’s
complete independence. The Chinese Prime
Minister, Li Peng, repeated this when he came to Delhi in December 1991.

In September 1992, the Tibetan side appointed a
three-member delegation and sought to resume the
talks with the Chinese Government. While awaiting
Beijing’s response, the Dalai Lama has made it
clear that he would like to start negotiations
for the peaceful solution of the Tibet problem
without any preconditions. He, however, threw in
a significant suggestion that China could take
the “one-country-two-systems” approach with
regard to Tibet as it has done about Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Tibet today presents an important issue before
Indian diplomacy. Without in any way changing its
formal stand on Tibet—no matter whatever might
have been the internal controversy over the
wisdom of the stand—New Delhi can certainly raise
all the issues of direct concern, strategic and
environmental, that the situation in Tibet poses
for this country. Meanwhile, there is need for a
broad-based movement in our country for greater
awareness about what is happening in Tibet today,
so that the government may be in a position to
take up with the Chinese Government the concern
and interests of our people with regard to our northern neighbour, Tibet.

(Mainstream, July 24, 1993)
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