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Prisoners of the Left

July 3, 2008

By Prakash Nanda
SIFY (India)
June 27, 2008

History is often a confused heap of facts and that is why history's
lessons are no more enlightening than the wisdom of those who
interpret them. Since we Indians have been virtually forced, since
our independence, to inculcate the Left-dominated historical thought
process, it is indeed refreshing to read Claude Arpi's "Tibet: The
Lost Frontier" (Lancer Publishers) to get a proper perspective on how
India, Tibet and China have been interacting for centuries. Students,
analysts and practitioners of diplomacy and strategic affairs will
find this book simply brilliant.

The Chinese say that Tibet became a part of the Chinese empire when
the great Mongol Genghis Khan annexed Tibet (most parts of it) in the
early 13th century. It is a strange logic, because taken to its
logical conclusion, one could argue that China is a part of Mongolia
and does not deserve to exist as an independent nation. Secondly, why
are the Chinese not claiming a quarter of Europe, Russia and the
whole of West Asia (Middle East) and Central Asia since these also
constituted the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan?

The problem with the Chinese version of history is where to draw the
line. After all, it is also a fact that the pre-Mongol history of
Tibet was militarily glorious. In the eighth century, the Tibetan
empire was expanding at such a pace that at one time the then Chinese
emperor had to flee his capital and a Tibetan nominee was put on the
Chinese throne! Peace was restored in the year 821 with the
conclusion of a Treaty, which laid down clearly the boundaries
between China and Tibet. It read: "Tibet and China shall abide by the
frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the East is the
country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the
country of Great Tibet…."

Therefore, Arpi is right when he argues that Tibet and China always
had a relation based on force and power. With the advent of Buddhism
in Tibet, the Tibetan military power obviously declined. But its
spiritual power was recognised, with many Chinese rulers treating the
Dalai Lama as their "guru". And as "dakshina", they stood as the
guarantor (militarily) - Arpi describes this as the Priest-Patron
relationship - of Tibet's territorial integrity against possible
invasions. It may be noted here that at various points of time,
Gorkha rulers of Nepal and Dogra kings of Kashmir had occupied
Tibetan territories through military conquest. But ultimately, the
Chinese factor in Tibet neutralized these gains by the Gorkhas and
Dogras. And that is what constituted the so-called Chinese
"suzerainty", distinct from "sovereignty" over Tibet.

Of course, the contours of this Chinese "suzerainty" over Tibet were
never free from controversies, but the fact remained that in internal
administrations of Tibet and the conduct of its foreign policy, the
Chinese exercised no role. Up to 1949, Tibet was an independent
country in more senses than one with a distinct civilization having
rich culture, language, religion, polity and identity. But the advent
of British power in the Indian sub-continent altered the nature of
this relationship.

The British policy towards Tibet was shaped by "the Great Game" and
the need to prevent Russia from posing a threat to India. The British
government needed a strong presence in Tibet, but at the same time,
in pursuing the Great Game, it needed China's support and approval.
It was against this backdrop that British-India called for the
tripartite Simla conference in October 1913, which was attended by
representatives from British India (Henry McMahon), Republican China
(Chen Yifan) and Tibet (Lonchen Shatra). The goal was to settle the
boundary between British India and Tibet on the one hand and between
Tibet and China on the other. The result was the Simla Agreement of
1914, which the Chinese representative initialled but only under
British pressure. The Agreement divided Tibet into Inner and Outer
Tibet. China was given sovereignty over Inner Tibet but only suzerain
control over Outer Tibet. And the boundary between India and Tibet
was demarcated, with the British Raj retaining trading and
extra-territorial rights in Outer Tibet.

Independent India inherited this arrangement, which boiled down to
sustaining Tibet as a buffer zone with de facto independent status
under Chinese suzerainty.

In retrospect, it seems that had the Tibetan government formally
ratified the Simla Agreement before 1949, the history of Tibet would
have been different and the Chinese annexation could have been
avoided. But it was not to be. The Tibetan rulers not only resented
the British division of their country into "Inner" and "Outer" at
Simla; they also demanded, before any formal ratification, the return
of territories of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Tawang by India. Arpi, of
course, is a little soft on the then Tibetan leadership (which did
not include the present Dalai Lama) by saying that it was a "little
immature in foreign policy matters", but certainly the leaders of
independent India in 1947 and 1948 must not have liked all this.

As it is, in order to realise his dream of Asian-unity, Jawaharlal
Nehru was always in favour of appeasing China. And that is why
immediately after Indian independence, he deliberately gave what he
said - "vague" replies on Tibet when the Chinese military was about
to move into Tibet in 1950 (Arpi has beautifully revealed all this by
citing various quotes of Nehru). And for this "vagueness" of Nehru,
the British recognition of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet really
helped initially. But then, when Kashmir became an international
issue, again thanks to the "idealism" of Nehru, and the United
Nations was not of much help in repelling the Pakistani annexation of
Kashmiri territory, Nehru, essentially a man with a weak mindset,
lost all his appetite for standing behind Tibet. He thought of buying
peace with China by recognising and legitimizing Chinese
"sovereignty" over Tibet. In this process, he was helped immensely by
K M Pannikar, the then ambassador to China, who was immensely
brainwashed by Mao tse-Tung over sumptuous dinners. The 1954
Agreement on Tibet between China and India clearly manifested Nehru's

The Agreement was essentially flawed since it did not take into
account the fact that the "independent" Tibet, and we have seen this,
had not settled the boundary issue with India. China was bound to
exploit this. In any case, India has consistently failed to
understand nuances in Chinese diplomatic practice and negotiating
tactics. After all, China has always been India's principal
competitor for power and influence. Historically speaking, China
arrested the spread of Indian culture and influence in what is today
South East Asia. For China, India has always been a part of the
strategic periphery that Beijing has historically sought to weaken,
control or diplomatically manipulate. And after coming under
communism, China has systematically tried to encircle India with
antagonistic or unfriendly regimes. Yet, thanks to the predominance
of the Nehurvian framework in which India's foreign policy had been
cast, there were no systematic endeavours on New Delhi's part to
checkmate the Chinese designs.

There are strong merits in the argument that if the sage advice of
Sardar Vallabhai Patel had been heeded by Nehru when China attempted
to annex Tibet, then history of contemporary Asia could have been
quite different. Patel had suggested "we have to consider what new
situation now faces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet as
we know it, and the expansion of China up to our gates". Continuing
in this prophetic vein, he had noted: "Chinese irredentism and
communist imperialism are different from the imperialism of the
Western powers. The former has a cloak of ideology which makes it 10
times more dangerous. In the guise of ideological expansion lie
concealed racial, national and historical claims… While our western
and north-western threats to security are still as prominent as
before, a new threat has developed from the north and north-east.
Thus, for the first time, after centuries, India's defence has to
concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously. Our defence measures
have so far been based on the calculations of a superiority over Pakistan."

However, Patel did not live long to provide pressure points on the
Nehurvian framework. Tibet was annexed and the Sino-Indian equations
underwent a profound change. Historically, Tibet was a buffer zone
between India and China. Once this buffer zone was eliminated,
relations were bound to be tense. After all, Tibet is not an ordinary
buffer. Arpi reminds us by quoting George Ginsburg: "He who holds
Tibet dominates the Himalayan piedmont; he who dominates the
Himalayan piedmont, threatens the Indian subcontinent; and he who
threatens the Indian subcontinent may well have South-east Asia
within his reach, and all of Asia".

The question thus is how to neutralise the Chinese threats. But then,
as Arpi reminds us, we cannot neutralise the Chinese threats as long
as we are prisoners of Nehruvian and Left-dominated history.

'Why are the Chinese not claiming a quarter of Europe?'

Prakash Nanda is a New Delhi based author and journalist. Books
credited to him include Redicovering Asia: Evolution of India's
Look-East policy; Nuclearisation of Divided Nations: Pakistan, India
and the two Koreas; Rising Indiaand Vajpayee's Foreign Policy. After
stints as the Diplomatic Correspondent of the Times of India and
Strategic Affairs Editor of the Sahara Group of publications, he is
now in the process of launching a new magazine.
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