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A Tibetan adhesive for India-China relations?

Li Keqiang is the Premier of the People's Republic of China and party secretary of the State Council. Photo: File
Mumbai: - On May 19, 2013, Li Keqiang, the newly elected Premier (Prime Minister) of China landed in New Delhi, India, to hold talks with the Indian leadership.

India was Li’s first visit abroad as the Premier, and it came in the backdrop of a tense intrusion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China into Indian Territory. Although the standoff at the border was resolved and the Chinese troops withdrew before his visit, it took more than a fortnight and several flag meetings between the two nations for it to happen.

This wasn't the first time that such an incident has taken place on the border, and many Indians believe that this won’t be the last. This pessimism is justified. After all, we have fought a war with the Chinese and have faced a humiliating defeat.

This incident brought back into public discourse, the importance of Tibetan independence for India’s security. Often a less-talked about subject among the Indian masses, the geostrategic location of Tibet is finally gaining some space in general public discussion. Like it rightly deserves.

At present, India, shares an approximately 3000-kilometer border with China. It stretches from Jammu & Kashmir in the North to Arunachal Pradesh in the North-East. Most of this stretch was originally India’s border with Tibet.

Following the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s and the 14th Dalai Lama’s escape to India in 1959, this land border with a peaceful non-violent nation effectively became a tense region, with a constant threat of intrusion. The tension finally erupted into a full-fledged war between the two nations in 1962, and totally normalcy has eluded the region ever since.

More often than not, India whole-heartedly allows the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugee diaspora in the country to lead as normal a life as constitutionally possible – to the extent of allowing the functioning of a government in exile – and not bending over backwards to Chinese pressure to ban ‘anti-China activities.’ In fact, several ethnic Tibetans are part of an elite still-a-secret regiment of the Indian army. However, despite the hunky dory appearance, once in a while, the heat of the Dragon’s fire-breath can be felt quite apparently.

More often than not, this happens when a high-level visitor arrives from China. The Tibetan diaspora leaves no stone unturned to hold protests and demonstrations demanding independence for Tibet and at the least, more freedom of expression and retraction of repression in the Tibetan Plateau by the Chinese government. These protestors are often lathi-charged, detained, and taken far away from the meeting venues and the hotels where the delegates put up.

Last year, among many ‘preparatory measures,’ for the then Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit for the BRICS Summit, a well-known Tibetan activist and writer, Tenzin Tsundue, was abruptly whisked away from a conference by the New Delhi police.

This year, during Li’s visit, New Delhi was unofficially, yet quite apparently, shut down for Tibetans. All Tibetans were holed up in their homes by the cops, barring a few who had to appear for their exams.

This act irked not just Tibet supporters in India, but those not particularly interested in Tibet as well. The reason was simple. India was trying to make the Chinese Premier feel comfortable despite his army just having withdrawn from our territory after trespassing and refusing to budge for over a fortnight. Although the Line of Actual Control is yet another issue over which India and China have not agreed over, the 'incident' in Daulat Beg Oldi had charged the nationalism among Indians, and made us look at our neighbour with a lens of suspicion.

The incident was followed by a hurried trip to Beijing by the Indian External Affairs Minister for the preparation of Premier Li’s visit to New Delhi – something many of us never understood why; in fact many saw it as an act of cowardice. Everyone had the same statement to make; “If anything, we should have summoned their people, instead of the other way round,” people said.

The Indian government has its limitations too. Although New Delhi is among the biggest arms importers in the world today, it is not ready for a state of war with China, and neither does it want another war with a neighbour. It chooses to use diplomacy over armed conflict, and does it rightly so.

What it hasn’t done in this case with China, is that it hasn’t leveraged the presence of the 14th Dalai Lama, the 17th Karmapa (a title claimed by Ogyen Trinley Dorjee and Trinley Thaye Dorjee), and a sizable Tibetan refugee population in the country.

The Indian government may be somewhat right in its stance of non-interference in the internal matters of another nation, and also acknowledge the value of the Tibetan diaspora in the country, but so far, it hasn’t used the T-word in a sure-footed manner.

“Tibet’s independence, India’s security,” – a slogan which has been chanted out by several generations of Tibetan Children’s Village students during their rallies have finally gotten a platform; and a mike. Our leaders could do well to give a realistic indication to their Chinese counterparts of how much government machinery it takes to control Tibet supporters during their visits. It needs to be communicated that the younger generation of Tibetans, especially the ones outside their homeland, connected to their peaceful roots by a delicate thread, are getting restive, and the future generations won’t be as tolerant and oriented towards non-violence as the earlier ones – making containing them a tough task. India, as a democracy, definitely does not deserve having to commit condemnable acts such as restricting residents’ freedom of expression to avoid new threats on the border. If the Dragon continues to disregard Indian sovereignty, the Bengal Tiger won’t continue holding its people from expressing their opinion.  We may be justified in doing so, but this will also, however, become a vicious cycle – which will see no end.

How, then, can this conundrum be broken?

As seen by many analysts, one Dalai Lama is enough to retain non-violence as a key factor in the socio-political life of Tibetans, and other Buddhists in the border regions. Blatantly put, the 14th Dalai Lama will not be around forever, and given the current trajectory of events, a post-Dalai Lama period will be an uncertain time. It would hence be prudent to make Tibet- one of the several bones of contention between the two nations – an instrument of peace.

 

It is in both countries’ interest that the Buddhist and culturally non-violent border stretching from Jammu & Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh becomes a zone of peace. Withdrawing the PLA troops from the border and granting greater and genuine autonomy to Tibet – although, realistically speaking, a long shot at the moment – would be key to reducing tensions on the border to a great extent. Reduction of anti-Dalai Lama Propaganda and lifting restrictions on Tibetans inside Tibet by the Chinese authorities would be good start to a process which will only prove to be beneficial for all three parties in the coming years.