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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 19, April 25, 2009

Tibet and Indian Diplomacy

Sunday 26 April 2009, by Nikhil Chakravartty


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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