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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 13, March 14, 2009

Significance of March 10, 1959 for Tibet

Fiftieth Anniversary of a Revolt and an Exile

Sunday 15 March 2009, by Inder Malhotra


It is now fifty years since the famous Tibetan revolt that forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India where he was readily given political asylum as a result of which Tibet became a far greater strain than before on the already uneasy India-China relations. Three years later followed the traumatic war in the high Himalayas. Even today, Beijing’s paranoid complaints persist despite India’s acceptance of Tibet being an “autonomous” region of China and a complete ban on any political activity on Indian soil by the Dalai Lama or the 100,000 Tibetan refugees. Never have the Chinese admitted their stark failure to pacify Tibet.

The trouble that eventually erupted in Lhasa had, in fact, begun in the land of the Khampas at least three years earlier. Though inhabited by Tibetans, this area had been absorbed into China well before the communist revolution. As it happened, in 1956, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama were in India for the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s parinirvana. They were worried and they told Jawaharlal Nehru that, given the terrible conditions in Tibet, largely because China had reneged on its 1951 agreement with the Dalai Lama on Tibet’s autonomy, they did not want to go back there.

Also present in New Delhi at the same time was China’s Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, Nehru and he had detailed discussions about Tibet and Zhou repeatedly assured Nehru that Beijing would honour Tibet’s autonomy. In view of Zhou’s assurances and Nehru’s advice, the two Lamas returned home only to be dismayed by what was going on, even though Mao Zedong had personally ordered the postponement of land reforms unac-ceptable to Tibetans.

During his stay in India the Dalai Lama had invited Nehru to Lhasa and the Prime Minister had accepted the invitation. But when the time for the visit came in 1958, Beijing scuttled it on the plea that in view of disturbed conditions it was not safe to go there. Nehru went to Bhutan instead—on horseback, in the absence of any other mode of transport.

China’s reasons to keep Nehru away from Tibet were understandable. For, by then rebellion had spread to southern and central Tibet, and the rampant discontent in Lhasa was aggravated by rumours that the Chinese Government was going to invite the Dalai Lama to Beijing (then called Peking) ostensibly to attend a meeting of the National People’s Congress but actually to “hold him hostage”. The invitation never came. But it was an invitation of a different kind that brought matters to a head.


In the first week of March, the Chinese Military Headquarters in Lhasa invited the Dalai Lama to a dramatic performance on March 10. Twentyfour hours before the show, the military authorities sent a message that the Dalai Lama should come alone and no Tibetan troops should cross the military camp’s boundary. This infuriated Lhasa’s inhabi-tants who feared that the Chinese might arrest the Dalai Lama and fly him to Beijing. Since early morning on March 10, therefore, huge crowds shouting anti-Chinese slogans surrounded the Dalai Lama’s residence. Violence began when some “Chinese spies” were seen to be joining the protesters, and escalated over the next few days. Late on the evening of March 17, the Dalai Lama, with some members of his family, advisers and bodyguards slipped out and managed to reach the relative safety of the rebel areas. Khampa soldiers then escorted him on his hazardous journey to India. Later, it became known that in his escape, the Dalai Lama had some help from the CIA. On March 31, he crossed into India at the border near Khinzemane. The next day his request for asylum was formally accepted. Informally, however, those approaching India on his behalf some days earlier had been assured that this would be done. After the Dalai Lama’s departure, the People’s Liberation Army went into action and brutally crushed the revolt. The loss of life was heavy.

In 1954, Zhou had told Nehru that the Indian ambassador had said to him that if ever the Dalai Lama sought asylum, India would have to give it, and the Chinese Government had agreed. But five years later, Beijing protested the Indian decision, calling it an “unfriendly act” because the Tibetan revolt was “instigated and assisted” by American and Kuomintang elements. Beijing also alleged that Kalimpong was the “command centre of the rebellion”, which this country refuted emphatically.

As acerbity in Chinese and Indian exchanges increased, Nehru, under trenchant criticism at home, asked Ajoy Ghosh—the last General Secretary of the United Communist Party of India who somehow kept the fractious party together and whose birth centenary is being observed right now—to inquire from Mao, during his (Ghosh’s) impending visit to Beijing, whether China would want the Dalai Lama to live in Europe rather than India. Mao told Ghosh: “It is better that he (the Dalai Lama) remains in Nehru’s India than go to any European country.” (Ajoy Ghosh told this to Nikhil Chakravartty who graciously shared the information with this writer.)

No account of the momentous events of those days can be complete without a reference to the world media that descended on India like a swarm of locusts, and indulged in antics that left the characters in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop flat on the doormat. Since Tezpur was the last outpost they were allowed in, the vast crowd of pen pushers and camerapersons had nothing to do except to wait for the Dalai Lama’s arrival and enjoy the hospitality of the usually bored tea planters happy to have so many guests amidst them. One day, however, angry cables from their bosses shook them and their idyll.

How come, the cables demanded, that Laurence P. Atkinson (a popular member of the Delhi Press crops representing a few British publications) alone had given a vivid account of the Dalai Lama’s train in the remote Himalayas by the simple expedient of chartering a plane and flying over the mountains? The reality was that the whole area was a strictly enforced “No Flying” zone. “Uncle Atki”, as we called him, had copied his story from a book on the flight to India of a previous Dalai Lama in 1905!

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)

The author is a well-known political collumnist and commentator.

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