Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why Tibet Matters

Considering its size and proximity to our northern border, India is woefully ignorant about Tibet. Some commentators have made passing references to our historic links without enumerating what they are; worse, many have passed judgment on the status of Tibet without the faintest clue of its recent history or its implications for India’s future.

There is a general feeling that our ‘honoured guest,’ the Dalai Lama ought to feel grateful and express his gratitude to India for sheltering him by refraining from ‘political activities.’ The Dalai Lama is acutely aware of Indian sensitivities and has always publicly acknowledged India’s support. While there is reason to feel proud that India extended support when it was still a fledgling democracy— decades before the Tibet cause became fashionable in the west— we are yet to acknowledge our debt to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans.

The first is a civilizational debt. Watching maroon-robed monks chanting in monasteries across India, one may be lulled into believing that Buddhism has always flourished in the land of its birth. Few will recall the sacking of Nalanda, the destruction of thousands of birch-bark books or the fact that Buddhism itself disappeared from Indian soil after the 13th century. Indeed, until the 19th c when archeologists and explorers began piecing together the puzzle, the world was unaware of India’s intellectual and cultural contribution to Central Asia, China, Japan, Tibet, and South-east Asia. Ask an educated Indian whether the names Shantideva, Atisha, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Dharmakirti, Chandrakirti, or Vasubandhu mean anything to them and chances are you’ll draw a blank. Ask a Tibetan teenager and you’re likely to hear the history of the Indian Buddhist masters and the journey of their teachings to Tibet from 7th-11th c. AD.

When the Dalai Lama teaches from the works of the Vikramshila or Nalanda masters, he always prefaces his teachings with, ‘these are Indian treasures. We have only been its guardians in Tibet for a thousand years, and now that the teachings have faded in India we have brought them back intact. This is the gift we return to India.’ It is no small gift.

Nalanda, once the greatest centre of Buddhist learning from the 5th to 12th centuries, and host to many Chinese scholars, including Faxian and Xuanzang, today lives in spirit not amongst its archaeological remains in Bihar, but in the Tibetan colleges of Sera, Drepung and Ganden. These colleges, relocated in Karnataka after the Tibetan exodus of 1959, are modeled on the Nalanda tradition, transmitting India’s ancient treasures to meritorious students, many of whom are poor Indian Buddhists from the Himalayan belt.

The second debt is a strategic one and vital to India’s future. It is disconcerting to watch the Government of India at pains to ‘reiterate’ that they have ‘always’ considered Tibet an integral part of China and the Communists insist that the ‘disturbances’ within Tibet is China’s ‘internal matter.’

The fact of the matter is that the ‘always’ is only five years old. Far from always accepting Tibet’s subjugation, despite its desire for closeness with the People’s Republic of China, India challenged China’s invasion of Tibet in no uncertain terms. In his letter of Nov. 1950, Nehru informed the Chief Ministers, ‘When news came to us that the Chinese Government had formally announced military operations against Tibet, we were surprised and distressed. Immediately we sent a note of protest [to Chou En Lai on 26/10/50] and requested the Chinese Government not to proceed with these operations and wait for the Tibetan delegates…To use coercion and armed force, when a way to peaceful settlement is open, is always wrong. To do so against a country like Tibet, which is obviously not in a position to offer much resistance and which could not injure China, seemed to us to add to the wrongness of this behaviour’ (emphasis added).

India unilaterally ‘recognized’ the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region,’ describing it as ‘ a territory of China,’ for the first time in over 50 years when Prime Minister Vajpayee visited China in 2003. Before this India’s terminology in official documents was deliberately left ambiguous. The 1954 trade agreement between India and China named Tibet as a geographic location, ‘the Tibet region of China.’ In 1988, the Rajiv Gandhi government brought it closer to China’s position, but still kept it vague enough with, ‘Tibet is an autonomous region of China.’ The 2003 declaration toes the Chinese line word-for-word.

What are the implications of saying Tibet is an integral part of China?
First, leaving aside the fact that it distorts Tibet’s long history of independence, the declaration is in contravention of the treaty obligations between British India and Tibet, which we have inherited under the Indian Independence Act of 1947. Two treaties directly affect our territorial integrity: the 1904 Convention Between Great Britain and Tibet, which recognizes the boundary between Tibet and Sikkim and British India’s rights over Sikkim as a British Protectorate, and the Anglo-Tibet Treaty of 1914 signed in Simla, where British India recognized Tibet as an independent nation under the suzerainty (as opposed to sovereignty) of China. In return, Tibet was to respect the Mc Mahon Line, the eastern boundary between Tibet and Assam, now Arunachal. Until the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the agreement held and the border was peaceful enough to be left unguarded.

China refuses to accept Sikkim and Arunachal as parts of India, even claiming the latter as part of China. But China has no locus standi as a third country when India has negotiated the two treaties with Tibet defining its relationship to Sikkim and Arunchal. A sovereign state is one that negotiates and sign treaties with other states. Tibet did so with British India, Nepal and Mongolia. Once a state exists it cannot simply be wished away simply because another nation has invaded and illegally occupied it.

That the world does not wish to challenge China’s illegal occupation of Tibet thus rendering it a de facto (not de jure) part of China is another matter. However, it is pertinent to ask why the Government of India is so solicitous of China’s national interests at the expense of our own. If China refuses to ratify the border agreement because it does not recognize the treaties signed by India and Tibet, why must India recognize the 17-point 1951 agreement that China thrust upon Tibet under gunpoint, and which the Dalai Lama repudiated? China possesses no other legal documents to prove its claims over Tibet.

We have learned few lessons while dealing with China. India unilaterally surrendered its influence in Tibet in 1954 by removing its military personnel stationed in the Tibetan trading towns of Yatung and Gyantse, giving up Indian rest houses and land, and handing over Tibet’s communications to China including the postal, telegraph and public telephone services operated by the Government of India. The trade agreement with the Chinese had a validity of eight years. It is no coincidence that its expiry coincided with the 1962 war. If those who parrot the ‘Tibet is an integral part of China’ line paused to think, they would realize that they are unwittingly conceding China’s claim over 83,743 sq km of Arunachal territory, which it will not hesitate to exercise should its interests so dictate.

The Dalai Lama’s ‘middle way’ position has been clear since the mid-‘80s: autonomy and not independence. It begs the question why, if China can pursue a ‘one country, two systems’ policy in the Han-majority areas of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, is it so hysterically opposed to Tibetan proposals? The clue lies in a 1999 article published in Beijing by a prominent Chinese intellectual who opposed Tibetan autonomy at the time. Wang Lixion points out the fact that an independent or autonomous Tibet under the influence of the Dalai Lama, ‘would naturally orient it towards India,’ taking 2.5 million or 26% of China’s land mass away from China’s sphere of influence into India’s. To lose this vast swathe of land, he says, would be to ‘expose our fatal underbelly.’ It should be understood that it is not on its merits or demerits that the Dalai Lama’s proposals are being rejected, but because of India.

While one is not advocating India’s lebensraum or hostilities with China, one should be aware that future global rivalries will be less about energy and more about water. India is already facing acute water shortages, as is China. These will only grow as our respective populations increase and global warming stresses existing water supplies. China anticipates this problem and has already begun work on dams on the headwaters of the Sutlej and Brahmaputra. While the ‘thirsty’ provinces of Xingjian and Gansu will undoubtedly benefit by China’s plans to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra, India needs to wake up well before the havoc spreads and our rivers begin drying up.

It is time we recognized that Tibet and India’s destinies are entwined. We surrendered our responsibilities and its fruits in 1954. There is no need to go down that road again, now or in the future.

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