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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 14

Tibet : Growing Prospects of Reconciliation

Saturday 22 March 2008, by Nikhil Chakravartty


The Dalai Lama’s recent visit to the USA has, as expected, touched off angry reaction in Beijing, supplementing the discomforting uneasiness the Chinese officialdom had had to face with the demonstration of Tibetan women raising the question of human rights at the NGO Forum held side by side with the UN Conference on Women.

The usual Chinese charge has been that the Dalai Lama was indulging in political activity, since he had approached President Clinton at a time when China is not in the best of terms with the US. At the same time, a significant passage in The New York Times report says that the Dalai Lama had urged the Clinton Administration to press Beijing to start negotiations with him on the question of granting “genuine self-rule” to Tibet. He made it clear that he was not persisting on his demand for full independence for Tibet.

This is an important shift in the Dalai Lama’s position in public, though it was known for sometime that he had expressed similar views with many friends and concerned persons from different countries. Not only that. It is known that his emissaries have been meeting the Chinese Government representatives from time to time pressing for genuine self-rule. His brother is deeply involved in these negotiations. Sometime ago he had undertaken even a trip to Beijing and met the high-ups in the Chinese Government. From the Dalai Lama’s sources it is understood that the expectations were that the Chinese authorities would offer some indications about the nature of self-rule they would be prepared to grant Tibet, but in the actual encounters the Chinese confined themselves to repeating the charges of political activity against China, which the Dalai Lama’s side denied.

The importance of the latest pronouncement is that here for the first time in public the Dalai Lama has specifically asked for “genuine self-rule” which is very different from independence. With his mature political understanding it is obvious that the Dalai Lama wants to show this olive branch for an early settlement. No doubt, this is an important development based on a realistic assessment of the situation on the ground.

What is the official Chinese position with regard to this point? Although the Dalai Lama’s US visit invited polemical attacks upon him from Beijing, there is no rejection of this specific point asking for self-rule as such. This, of course, could mean that the Chinese Government might be thinking over the issue without making up its mind. Alternatively, this may mean the possibility of a positive response on the subject.

In this context, it is worth recalling that three years ago when President Venkataraman paid a state visit to China in May 1992, he had a fairly long discussion with the Chinese Premier, Li Peng. What transpired was not officially published; but a summary of it appeared in Venkatraman’s book, My Presidential Years, which is relevant to the present issue:

As regards Tibet, the Prime Minister said: “The position taken by Indian Government constitutes a major support to China.” However, he expressed regret that the Dalai Lama has been engaging in political activities. Li Peng said: “Western countries have tried to use the issue of human rights, religion and independence of Tibet to apply pressure on China. The activities conducted by Dalai Lama had exceeded the scope of religious activities. Even so we respect him as a religious leader and are willing to talk to him abut anything except the issue of the so-called independence of Tibet.” (emphasis RV)

There is then a near-convergence of the stands on the two sides and, as Venkataraman has recently said, this opens up possibilities of a negotiated settlement of the Tibet problem. By all accounts, the time is ripe for some move along a positive direction in Tibet. In a statement last week, he has said:

Obviously no party can be expected to approach each other directly. It is up to the international community to pave the way for a dialogue.

Whether the US takes such an initiative is its own concern. The Prime Minister of India has now the unique opportunity of taking up the initiative. The latest meeting o the India-China Joint Working Group made some promising headway, and as part of this new trend Quo Shi, the top-ranking VIP in the Chinese official hierarchy, is expected in New Delhi in December.

Quo Shi’s visit will certainly not be confined only to discuss the India-China border problem. In the overall discussion, there is every likelihood of Tibet being taken up. That could possibly be a good occasion for the Prime Minister of India to bring to the notice of the Chinese side the close proximity to which the Chinese official position and the Dalai Lama’s stand have come. Here comes the opening for the Prime Minister of India playing a very important role for forging peace in this part of the world.

In the past there was conspicuous reticence on the part of New Delhi to raise anything on Tibet with the Chinese side. It was not that sympathy was lacking for the Dalai Lama and the thousands of his countrymen who have been living in India in exile for over three decades-and-a-half. As the Dalai Lama’s establishment acknowledges, the government and the public of this country hold them in high esteem and have never been lacking in hospitality towards them. At the same time the understanding that has throughout been adhered to is that while the Dalai Lama has always been treated as a respected leader of faith loyal to the service of his own people, he would not participate in any political activity—a point of understanding arrived at between him and the Government of India when he arrived in this country after fleeing from Lhasa.

In this background it is to be noted that to offer the good offices between Dharamsala and Beijing, it can by no means be construed as violative of the 1959 understanding. When it is clear from the public pronouncements of the Dalai Lama and the official observations of the Chinese Prime Minister that their two points of view have come very close to each other, it is the responsibility of all right-thinking friends of China to strive for a peaceful settlement of the divergences while upholding the honour of both sides. There is no gainsaying the fact that at a time when China is keen on breaking out of its old shell into the wide world around, any settlement of the Tibet question would be an achievement for Beijing in the long run.

It also needs to be noted that India has always held a special position vis-à-vis Tibet which, although undefined, has always been respected. In the heydays of the Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai in the fifties, Jawaharlal Nehru, with the consent of the Chinese Government, if not at its prodding, tried his hand in bringing about a reconciliation between the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. Although this did not last, the point to note is that the Chinese Government at that time not only did not object to Nehru’s good offices, but actually appreciated it. Forty years later, it is now Narasimha Rao’s opportunity to play the historic role of bringing about reconciliation between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, and thereby help to remove Tibet from the arena of cantankerous dispute. It is for our Prime Minister to venture out into this sphere of positive diplomacy.

(Mainstream, October 7, 1995)

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