Tibet: A ‘problem’ that India glossed over

Rajesh Singh

The 1950s presented many occasions to New Delhi to push for a Tibet free from Chinese control. But Prime Minister Nehru failed to rise to the occasion. As a consequence, China is now ‘up to our gates’
Spiritual leader Dalai Lama recently said that “Tibet’s problem is also India’s problem”. It’s a reminder which New Delhi would not solicit and would not want at a stage when it is warming up to China. It would not wish to antagonise Beijing by even mildly acknowledging the T issue – not after having taken the position that Tibet is part of China. Even the Dalai Lama has begun advocating greater autonomy and religious freedom to the people of Tibet within China’s sovereignty, which is in contrast to his earlier belligerence that nothing short of independence of Tibet would suffice. What is the problem that the Dalai Lama now refers to?
Perhaps he wants India to subtly pressure the Chinese into granting more freedom to Tibetans. Perhaps he wishes to draw New Delhi’s attention to the fact that, as long as thousands of Tibetans continue to live in India as refugees, and as long as hundreds of them turn out religiously to protest on the streets every time India hosts a Chinese President or Premier, it cannot consider the Tibet matter as closed. But does the Nobel laureate believe that Beijing, which does not hesitate to crack down on its own people (Tiananmen episode), or violently suppress agitations by monks (many of whom have self-immolated for the cause of free Tibet), will heed India’s advice?
Moreover, New Delhi lives in morbid fear over the prospect that the Chinese, who are all-weather friends of Pakistan, will turn around and raise the Kashmir issue as a retort to India’s concerns over Tibet. There may be no comparison between the Kashmir and the Tibet conflicts, but when it comes to sabre-rattling and rabble-rousing, historical niceties do not matter. However, while India has refrained from speaking about Tibet except as it being a part of China, Beijing has not reciprocated by categorically stating that Jammu & Kashmir is an inalienable part of India. Indeed, it has had reservations about this, which is why it issues stapled visas to residents of that State (just as it does for the people of Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims as its own). China is extremely sensitive when it comes to what it considers its territory – not just that which exists in contiguity with its borders but also far into the seas – but uncaring when it absorbs disputed land (Aksai Chin). Let alone disputed territory, Beijing is cagey even on settled issues such as Sikkim. Not once has it officially acknowledged Sikkim to be part of India, though it de facto does so.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not raise the Aksai Chin issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the latter’s recent visit to India. Maybe this was not the right occasion, given that the two countries are struggling to build a measure of mutual confidence through trade and cultural partnerships. Also, the persistent intrusions by Chinese troops into Indian regions have been plateful enough for New Delhi to serve more demands on Beijing for now. At some stage, though, Aksai Chin can and should figure. It is not ancient history that cannot be reversed.
The same cannot be said of Tibet. There was a time and occasion in the 50s and the 60s when its contemporary history could have been given a decisive turn – by India and the West. Then, perhaps, the Dalai Lama would not have had to flee his native place, and thousands of Tibetans would not be living as refugees in India for decades, with no hope of seeing their homeland. The tall leaders and rulers of that time in the US, in England and in this country, had individually and collectively demonstrated shocking apathy to the plight of Tibetans and allowed China to first gain a firm hold on the region, then quell dissent with brutal force, and finally convince the world (often using their economic might) that Tibet had all along been its own and that the dissidents were petty-trouble-makers who should be left to be dealt with by the state machinery. For various reasons, everyone including India obliged.
This does not mean we must forget just how careless and even callous New Delhi had been along with the West, primarily the US, to Tibet’s woes. Tibet: An Unfinished Story, by Lezlee Brown Halper and Stefan Halper, provides an excellent account of those crucial moments which the free world failed to seize. As for India, its toeing China’s line over Tibet in the 50s did not prevent Beijing from delivering the ‘brother’ a humiliating military defeat in 1962.
The die had been cast against Tibet’s independence as far back as 1952, when, as the book points out, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to the head of the Indian Mission in Lhasa: “Our policy is to recognise that Tibet is under Chinese suzerainty… (We) do not wish to interfere in internal policies of Tibet and we can certainly be no parties to any secret or other activities against the Chinese.” It is clear, again from what the book notes, that India was cosying up to China, even at the cost of Tibet, because it was enraged with the growing US-Pakistan linkage. The authors quote then Indian Ambassador to Beijing N Raghavan as telling Chinese leader Chou En-lai that, “as the United States is working hard to push aside the Sino-Indian relationship, Prime Minister Nehru hopes that negotiations between China and India on the Tibetan problem can succeed soon.”
There are many other instances where Nehru made compromises which went against his global image of a leader who spoke fearlessly for the oppressed. He was never really for a free Tibet, and it showed up in his observations. In the fall of 1950, the book reveals, a Tibetan delegation met Nehru and sought his help to secure independence for its people. The authors write: “Nehru, for his part, was disappointed in the Tibetans… He had hoped that the Tibetans and the PRC would peacefully settle their differences.” In other words, Nehru had hoped that Tibet would meekly concede to be part of China. And, although he felt “outraged” over the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese Army, he did nothing about it.
As always, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel saw through the strategic game (different from the Tibetan aspirations) that Nehru, blinded by his trust in the Chinese, had failed to spot or understand. In November 1950, Sardar Patel wrote to the Prime Minister that the “Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful means.” He added that India must take steps to secure its border trade routes from India to Tibet, since eventually China would extend its frontiers “almost up to our gates”. Nehru did not, subsequent regimes did not – and the Chinese are up to our gates.
Not just this, Sardar Patel had in a letter to senior diplomat GS Bajpai in the same month, noted, “The Chinese advance into Tibet upsets all our security calculations… For the first time, a serious danger is now developing on the North and North-East side.”
But neither security concerns nor Tibetan aspirations proved enough for Nehru to grasp the reality. As the authors of the book write, “Nehru’s vulnerabilities” led to a situation where “China absorbed Tibet, crushing its monasteries, traditions, and culture.”

editorial articleIndia glossed overRajesh Singh
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