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The Case for Restraint on Tibet

For more than five decades, India has seen Tibet as part of China. If it were to now believe otherwise, this would be idle posturing. Worse, such a position by the government of India could jeopardise the chances of a settlement of the long-standing India-China dispute.

COMMENTARY

The Case for Restraint on Tibet
accordance with UN resolutions. The Indian government has responded that Kashmir is an internal issue; but it is acutely aware of the need to sidestep such calls. In this Srinath Raghavan regard, we should note that since the early

For more than five decades, India has seen Tibet as part of China. If it were to now believe otherwise, this would be idle posturing. Worse, such a position by the government of India could jeopardise the chances of a settlement of the long-standing India-China dispute.

Srinath Raghavan (sraghavan.jscsc @defence academy.mod.uk) is with the defence studies department, King’s College, University of London, London.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
april 5, 2008

T
he recent events in Tibet have occasioned much speculation and controversy in India. The Indian government responded by curbing a proposed march to Tibet by émigrés. New Delhi also issued a measured statement, reaffirming that Tibet was a region of China and expressing hope that all concerned would resolve the crisis by dialogue. The government’s restraint, however, has ignited a fusillade of denunciation. Senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party have described the violence in Tibet as “genocide”, and have asked the government to raise the matter at the United Nations. Some commentators in the media, too, have disparaged the government for failing to take a robust stand. India, it is suggested, should shed its timidity, and at the very least back the Dalai Lama’s call for Tibetan “autonomy”.

Leaving aside the merits and the drawbacks of the Dalai Lama’s political agenda, there are good pragmatic reasons for India to stick to its present policy. For a start, treating Tibet as an “open question” is likely to boomerang on India. New Delhi has its own share of thorny issues, not least Kashmir. Interestingly, even as critics were demanding a robust policy towards Tibet, the Organisation for Islamic Countries described Kashmir as a burning problem and called for its resolution in 1990s China has opposed the internationalisation of the Kashmir dispute – a position that accords with India’s interests. If India were to intrude on Tibet in any manner, Beijing could easily shift its position on Kashmir. It is unwise to fire a blunderbuss from an exposed picquet.

Furthermore, does the political issue of Tibet (as opposed to the moral one) have any real traction on Indian public opinion or indeed the political parties? Evidently not. Despite the vicissitudes of Sino-Indian relations, no Indian government has ever sought to extend political support to the Dalai Lama. Back in 1954, India concluded a treaty with China, recognising Tibet as “a region of China”. As the then foreign secretary explained, this was “a concession only to realism”. Successive governments have adhered to this stand. The BJP might now strike an activist pose, but as foreign minister in the Janata Party government, Vajpayee stated in Parliament that “We regard Tibet as a region of China”. In 2003, the BJP-led government inked an agreement, affirming Tibet as part of China. This long-standing policy stems from a realistic recognition that India has no leverage on Tibet. It is idle to pretend otherwise.

The most important argument for circumspection relates to the ongoing negotiations on the boundary dispute with China, a problem that has marred Sino-Indian

COMMENTARY

relations for 50 years. From a historical perspective, it is clear that China’s sensitivities on Tibet have cast a baleful shadow on the boundary issue. When Jawaharlal Nehru signed the agreement in 1954, he knew that the Tibetans would be disappointed. Nevertheless, he declined to support separatist movements within Tibet. When the Dalai Lama visited India in late 1956, he sought Nehru’s permission to stay on. Nehru, however, convinced him to return to Tibet and to arrive at an understanding with the Chinese authorities. Nevertheless, China believed that India was conniving at the activities of Tibetan rebels, mainly because of their conspicuous presence in border towns like Kalimpong.

In March 1959, following an uprising in Tibet, the Indian government decided to give refuge to the Dalai Lama. Then, as now, some opposition parties – notably the BJP’s precursor, the Jan Sangh – clamoured for a tougher stance towards China and championed Tibet’s political case. Beijing took a grim view of these developments in India.

Tibet and Border Dispute

In retrospect, it was unfortunate that the latent boundary dispute came to the fore at the same time. In exchanges with China, the Indian government claimed the McMahon Line as the eastern boundary. This Line had been drawn in a tripartite conference between Indian, Chinese and Tibetan representatives in Simla in 1914. China had subsequently repudiated the Line. But in 1959, New Delhi argued that it was valid because Tibet had possessed “treaty-making powers” at the time of the Simla conference. This argument, of course, could be used to bolster Tibet’s case for independence. The confluence of these events in early 1959 led the Chinese mistakenly to believe that India was plotting to detach Tibet from China.

Thus, in May 1959 the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, told ambassadors of communist bloc countries that India sought to make Tibet a “buffer” state: “This is the centre of the China-India dispute”. Later, during discussions with Nehru in April 1960, Zhou observed that there was a link between India’s territorial claims and its position on the Tibetan rebellion. By the summer of 1962, Zhou was explicitly telling the Indian chargé d’affaires that New Delhi was colluding with the CIA in arming Tibetan rebels against China.

Earlier that year India had set in motion the so-called forward policy, whereby small bodies of troops were stationed in areas claimed but unoccupied by China. Beijing linked the forward policy with India’s perceived efforts to make Tibet an independent state. The evidence now emerging from Chinese archives shows that this misperception was a crucial factor in China’s decision to go to war in 1962.

China’s mistrust on this count has only increased with the passage of time. There is, for one thing, the self-styled “Tibetan government-in-exile” based in India. Established in the early 1960s, the government-in-exile has ramified into a sizeable body. The Indian government has not recognised the government-in-exile and has averred that it would not allow the organisation to undertake political activities. But the Chinese are sceptical of India’s disavowals. As premier Wen Jiabao recently stated, Tibet remains a “sensitive” issue in China’s relationship with India.

Hence, as part of any satisfactory solution to the boundary dispute, India will have to reassure China adequately that it has no designs on Tibet. The latest round of boundary negotiations, which began with the appointment of political representatives in 2003, has reached an important stage. India and China are reported to have exchanged proposals for an overall settlement, encompassing all three sectors of the boundary. Beijing’s recent statements, stressing its claims to Tawang, indicate that bargaining has begun in earnest. It is naïve to expect China to drop its claims on Arunachal Pradesh at this stage. Has India forsaken its claims to Aksai Chin? Both sides will only relinquish them when a deal is struck. To be sure, India cannot give up any populated areas; but short of this there is room for compromise. China, too, can accommodate India’s interests in the Ladakh sector.

Reaching such an accord will take time. But it is imperative at this stage not to stoke China’s concerns over Tibet, and so scuttle the negotiations. It bears emphasising that both sides have taken nearly five decades to get to this point. Irresponsible posturing on Tibet will only queer the pitch.

april 5, 2008

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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