Time for a new stance on Tibet


August 26, 2013 10:37 pm

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By Seema Sirohi

[The Times of India/May 19, 2013]

The recent Chinese incursion into India, the long stand-off, the fear and fury surrounding the brazen episode and the eventual resolution once again raises an old question : What about Tibet? 

India’s security is directly linked to Tibet, as Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of Tibet’s government-in-exile, told a Washington audience last week and he is right. “When China says that Tibet is one of the core issues, all the more (reason) that India should say, Tibet is a core issue for India as well,” said the eloquent bearer of Tibetans’ political hopes. He gently urged India to do “more” while profusely thanking it for its hospitality over the years. 

Sangay must resurrect from the ashes of India’s Tibet policy whatever signs of life he can because he can’t stop fighting. As he once said the Tibetans are “genetically disposed to dealing with China” having done it for 2,000 years. But for Indians, China is relatively new, especially the new China, one that is flexing its considerable muscle all around, scaring its near and far neighbors into various combinations of confabulations.

“Tibetans have every reason to believe that China wants Tibet but not the Tibetan people,” says Sangay. Otherwise, why wouldn’t China apply the Hong Kong and Macao model of “one country, two systems” and give Tibetans the power to make decisions about being Tibetans, retain their culture and language. But what they get are Chinese crackdowns, most recently in 2008. China even tried to affect Sangay’s election by leaning on Nepal to prevent ballots of Tibetan exiles to be delivered to India for counting. 

Contrast that with India holding regular local and state elections in Arunachal, Mizoram, Manipur and Jammu & Kashmir despite the much-hated Armed Forces Special Powers Act. India’s moral case over contested areas is stronger today because the people have a voice. 

India has reason to help Tibetans reach an acceptable solution with China. Sangay was indirectly asking India to use the leverage of the 1,20,000 Tibetan refugees on Indian soil to argue for real autonomy for Tibet, and start adding distance between itself and China. Recreate the buffer in a different form. But official India has anxiety about hosting the Dalai Lama and his flock. It lets China determine the nature and extent of its interaction with the spiritual leader, creating ludicrous protocol dilemmas. It puts Tibetan protestors behind bars so they don’t mar the view of Chinese visitors. The Chinese Olympic flame gets more respect from Indian police than Tibetans exercising their right to peaceful protest. In a democracy.  Some urge India to play the “Tibet card” but Tibetans are not cards, they are a people with a long history who have systematically been suppressed by China. What sadder index of pain than the 117 Tibetan self-immolations to protest Chinese rule? 

Should India reconfigure its diplomacy to suit these trying times? It abandoned its rights over Tibet and accepted Chinese sovereignty in a fit of post-colonial solidarity without any quid pro quo. Then it agreed to a “one China” policy without getting a real “one India” policy in return. The end result is India’s constant defensive posture, broken occasionally by a bit of diplomatic aggression in drafting of statements. 

Can India “reclaim” the Tibet issue, even if notionally? China has never shied from using the Tibet card against India, it refers to Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet and claims 90,000 square kilometers . Simultaneously, it denies Indian claims in Aksai Chin as it did last year by showing the area as its territory in new e-passports . India retaliated by issuing visas with a counter map. In 2010, Xinhua knocked off 1,600 kilometers off the border ahead of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to India, forcing the Indian ambassador to assert the length of the border as 3,488 kilometers. These cartographic wars should be a side-show not the mainstay of Indian policy. 

Tibet is at the core of the border dispute with China. A real solution would require China to urgently address Tibetan demands for autonomy . Nine rounds of talks between 2002-2010 ended in stalemate with the Dalai Lama’s envoys resigning in frustration. The Chinese had begun threatening they may take away minority status of the Tibetans, thereby removing the basis for granting autonomy. 

China has kicked the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” out of the door while altering demographic reality on the ground. Tensions are on the boil as Chinese take the top jobs while the government relentlessly exploits Tibet’s natural wealth. Reportedly, Tibetan nomads are being forced off their traditional lands and photographs of the Dalai Lama are routinely spat upon. Years of singleminded social engineering and cultural suppression have brought the age of self-immolation. 

There are a hundred reasons for tweaking India’s diplomatic routine China has shown zero sensitivity to India’s core interests, it has broken pledges on border negotiations, it has steadfastly opposed the “rise” of India in various international clubs, it has single-handedly made Pakistan a nuclear power and repeatedly saved its terrorist back in the United Nations. 

This is not an argument to turn up the heat needlessly because of India’s very real limitations on the ground. But nor is it an endorsement of the institutional diffidence sometimes on display and extreme fear of hurting Chinese sensitivities. A new balance between the two might help. 

The writer is a Washington DC-based analyst