Sino-Indian relations through the Tibet prism

Published : Sep 02, 2000 00:00 IST

SUBRAMANIAN SWAMYIndia's China Persp ective

THE time has come for Indian foreign policy to be redesigned and restructured on a comprehensive, substantive basis, consistent with India's growing economic power and to maximise the geo-strategic advantage, through transparent initiatives and by exerci sing fresh options that foster national security. By national security I mean peace on the borders, control of internal insurgency, and mutually beneficial understanding with key countries of the world. All the three components are interconnected. The Na ga-Mizo-Manipur problem, for example, became easier to manage during the 1978-84 period because of the initiatives taken then to improve relations with China. It is an immutable fact today that the internal insurgency problems in Kashmir will become easi er to manage when India ensures peace on the Pakistan border. Pakistan may deny that it fosters insurgencies, but it is undeniable that India's hostility with other countries makes it possible for insurgents to have safe supply routes and easily find pla ces for rest and recuperation.

It is the central theme of this study that the fulcrum of a redesigned Indian foreign policy is Sino-Indian relations. The strategic importance of engaging China in a constructive, if not cooperative, relationship has however not dawned on Indian leaders in government for a number of reasons, mostly miscalculations and misperceptions. Now is the time to remove these cobwebs and see the importance to India of China, and see it with clarity.

The question before the nation is not whether or not it can dare to annoy China. The crucial query instead is: what should be India's policy towards China - friendship or an adversarial relationship? Since 1978 when the Janata Party government initiated the process of normalisation, there has emerged a growing - and now an overwhelming - consensus in the country that India should befriend China irrespective of what had happened in the past. More important, there are sound strategic reasons for this: fir st, it is the unanimous opinion of India's defence chiefs that defending the country against a joint China-Pakistan attack is nearly impossible for the armed forces at the present level of equipment and manpower, a reality that will remain so in the fore seeable future. Therefore India should strive, for its security's sake, to separate China and Pakistan, however onerous and difficult the task may be.

Second, given China's geo-strategic location, it could cause India enormous problems in Kashmir, the Uttar Pradesh border, Sikkim and Assam. Furthermore, in combination with Pakistan, such problems will have a multiplier effect for India. Indira Gandhi u nderstood this strategic fact, especially in the context of the then All-Assam Students Union (AASU) agitation in Assam. I was in fact specifically requested by Indira Gandhi in 1981 to discover the Chinese position on this agitation by raising the issue with Chairman Deng Xiaoping. And now it is an established truth that China consistently discouraged any attempt by extremist Assam agitators to go to China illegally across the border to internationalise the issue. India thus gained tremendously by this cooperative non-interference by China.

Leaving aside for the moment other possible positive gains from a friendship with China such as those in the United Nations, in bilateral trade and so on, these two immutable strategic facts make it imperative that any Indian government strive for a Sino -Indian rapprochement. This basic strategic understanding and sense of history has, unfortunately, eluded China baiters in India, most of whom unfortunately are in office today.

The bare fact is that Sino-Indian relations today are not warm and cooperative. The question is, why? Is it rivalry, the border dispute, or something else?

IN my view, China would not regard the border dispute as an obstacle to a warm strategic partnership with India. China has borders with 14 nations, and except for India it has resolved its disputes with all, including Russia. India has borders with six c ountries, and excluding Bhutan it has disputes with all five. Therefore, on the question of border dispute, it is India that has much to be defensive about, not China.

Nor is rivalry the reason, since there are hardly any international issues on which India and China have irresolvable fundamental conflicts of interest. Therefore, it is that 'something else' that irritates and disrupts India's relations with China from time to time. That something else is India's Hindu ambivalence and lack of transparency in dealings with China on Tibet, and in China's case its 'middle kingdom' pride in not bluntly articulating with India its concerns on Tibet.

It is essential in India's strategic interest to befriend China, and pay the price for it. That means, according to my understanding of the situation, squarely resolving the contradictions between India's legitimate concerns in Tibet and its commitment e nshrined in the 1954 treaty recognising Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. If its commitment is made transparent, consistent and demonstrable, the main hurdle in its relations with China will go. Then expressing its concerns to China on Tibet in bilateral m eetings would not only not be misunderstood, but China would be obliged to accommodate these concerns willingly.

For this to happen, Indians must get themselves debriefed and their minds purged of the British duplicity on Tibet, which was to keep Tibet's status nebulous in everyone's mind by concocting a feudal concept of 'suzerainty'. This made Tibet neither indep endent nor a part of China; that meant being in a trishanku state. This purging of the imperialist perfidy is the responsibility of the Indian government. It cannot be done by any other institution in Indian society.

However, the present government has been hamstrung by the pro-independent Tibet and Taiwan lobbies within the government. As recently as December 17, 1998, Defence Minister George Fernandes penned a Foreword to a Penguin edition of deceased journalist D. R. Mankekar's book, The Guilty Men of 1962. In it, Fernandes tried to promote his commitment to the anti-Chinese, pro-Tibetan independence lobby and called the book, a "masterpiece" which "should have been made compulsory reading in every high sch ool and college in India and in all the national languages". Fernandes added: "The well-fostered myth that the danger to India's security comes from Pakistan has now been exploded, and a new realism of India's threat perception has begun to take root in its place." That new 'realism', of course, was to perceive China as a danger to India. But recent events expose the vapidity of the Defence Minister's perception.

The Dalai Lama's entourage has invested His Holiness' treasure chest of gold and jewels in the United States, and in property deals in India. The Dalai Lama's advisers have also supported certain Indian politicians at the time of elections. The Dalai Lam a has also permitted Tibetan doctors to prescribe herbal treatment for a top Bharatiya Janata Party leader. These politicians are today therefore privately obliged and hell-bent on disrupting Sino-Indian relations. They do not allow these relations to de velop to the point where the locus standi of the Dalai Lama and his presence in India could become untenable. The crux of my thesis, thus, is that Sino-Indian relations can never become a close, friendly and warm partnership unless India's blin d spot on Tibet is removed, and China is reassured. I advocate therefore that India has to digest and internalise the view that the shortest political route to Lhasa is via Beijing, and not across the Himalayas. The Dalai Lama, therefore, is welcome to stay in India as a spiritual leader, but not as the head of a 'government-in-exile'. If the Dalai Lama's advisers get derailed by the conferring of a Nobel Peace Prize or by fawning Hollywood actors, then it is better that the Dalai Lama does his poli tics stationed in Beverley Hills, California, and not from Indian soil. India has no special responsibility to host the Dalai Lama. In two thousand years of Sino-Indian history, can the Bureau of the Dalai Lama give a single example where Tibet stood up for India? Lhasa had even laid claims to Tawang when India was weak.

Thus, the status of Tibet, and India's perception of it, has been one of the destabilising factors in Sino-Indian relations. Publicly, the Indian government regards Tibet as an integral part of China. But in popular parlance and in many of its actions, i t does not behave as if Tibet is a part of China. For example, the Indian government raised in the 1980s a highly paid special service unit, a 8,000-strong commando group of Tibetans, who woke up every morning in the special camps with cries of "Long liv e the Dalai Lama. We shall liberate Tibet". This commando group is still under the active supervision of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Cabinet Secretariat. If India regards Tibet as part of China, then why is there a need to maintain such a special group? Why not instead a regular Army unit with contingency plans? The government has never answered this query of mine.

The treatment extended to the Dalai Lama also reveals this ambivalence in India's attitude towards Tibet. The government says that India has only extended asylum to the Dalai Lama, because his life would be in danger if he returns to Tibet. But the Burea u of the Dalai Lama is quite active in New Delhi propagating the thesis that Tibet is an independent country. If the Indian government sincerely believes that Tibet is a part of China, then the activities of the Bureau of the Dalai Lama should be conside red no less repugnant than the activities of the 'Khalistan government' and of Jagjit Singh Chauhan in the United Kingdom.

If India's intentions on the Tibetan question are honourable, then it is necessary for transparent diplomacy that these intentions be understood as such. Alternatively, if India considers Tibet to be an independent country and wants to liberate it, then an entirely different course is called for in its diplomacy and military strategy. Today India is getting the worst of both positions. It accepts Tibet as a part of China, and yet it allows the seeds of doubt to germinate in the mind of its giant neighbo ur about its intentions. Sino-Indian relations thus suffer.

TWO basic questions need to be answered if India is to have a clear-cut Tibet policy. First, was Tibet an independent country at any point in history? Second, can Tibet be a viable independent country at some point in the not-very-distant future? While t he first question belongs to the realm of historical research, it is the second question which is to be answered before forming a national security policy. Here, I shall seek to answer both questions.

The latter question, however, was asked and answered in 1950 by the then Congress government, and again the same question was asked and answered by the Janata Party government in 1977-78. On both occasions, the two governments found the answer in the neg ative: Tibet could not be sustained as an independent country.

On November 18, 1950, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to his colleague, Sardar Patel: "We cannot save Tibet, as we should have liked to do, and our very attempt to save it might well bring greater trouble to it. It would be unfair to Tibet for us t o bring this trouble upon her without having the capacity to help her effectively. It may be possible, however, that we might be able to help Tibet to retain a large measure of her autonomy."

Then Nehru added the following, the significance of which is relevant even today: "It must be remembered that neither the U.K., nor the USA, nor indeed any other power is particularly interested in Tibet or in the future of that country. What they are in terested in is, embarrassing China."

In the period 1977-78, the Janata Party government also reconsidered the question of Tibet in the light of the support given to Tibetan independence by two Janata Party Ministers, Raj Narain and George Fernandes. And after a thorough analysis of the ques tion, Foreign Minister A.B. Vajpayee (who used to support vociferously Tibetan independence) stated in the Lok Sabha on behalf of the Morarji Desai-led government (on March 8, 1979): "We regard Tibet as a region of China. We would be happy if the Dalai L ama and the Tibetans go back (to Tibet) if they think that conditions are suitable to them."

In other words, the Janata Party government concluded that Tibet was to be regarded as a part of China and that India's implicit endeavour was that conditions become ripe so that the Dalai Lama himself felt that it was safe to return to Lhasa. New Delhi would neither ask the Dalai Lama to leave, nor ask him to stay: The decision was the Dalai Lama's.

While the Indian government position is categoric in nature, with no room for a second interpretation, there is, nevertheless, enough indication that Indian politicians in private have taken a stand inconsistent with the stated government position. For e xample, as the Janata Party government's Minister-in-waiting for Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin in 1979, just four days after the Foreign Minister's reiteration on the floor of Parliament, George Fernandes argued with the visiting Soviet leader tha t the USSR should declare its support for an independent Tibet. (RAW's transcript of the conversation between Minister-in-waiting George Fernandes and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin is excerpted in the author's book, India's China Perspective.)

The discussion between Kosygin and Fernandes also shows that when Indira Gandhi was in power prior to 1977, she had privately told the Russians one thing and Parliament another thing (namely that Tibet is a part of China).

In March 1983, while speaking on the foreign affairs debate, I pointedly asked the question: Does the government of India regard Tibet as a part of China or not? The then Foreign Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, in his reply, stated on March 31, 1983 that t he Congress(I) government did indeed regard Tibet as a part of China. This declaration however did not square with other developments. In March 1983, 70 Congress(I) Members of Parliament signed a memorandum and sent it to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ask ing her to give a Tibetan rebel delegation 'observer' status at the Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement. Would the Congress(I) MPs have dared to sign such a memorandum without some guidance from above?

SOME Indians are sentimental about the status of Tibet in China. There is the undercurrent of pan-Hinduism that is responsible for this sentiment. But do such people realise the national security consequence of such a sentiment? If India promotes Tibetan independence, cannot China promote Kashmiri, Assamese, Naga and Punjabi secession? Have not Tibetan governments from 1890 to 1950 laid claim to Sikkim, Bhutan and the whole of Arunachal Pradesh? Can India accept these consequential claims of an independ ent Tibet?

The second question before India is that if it supports the independence of Tibet, can India sustain it? Today China's Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has an area of 1.3 million square kilometres, one-third the size of India. It has a population of under 2 .5 million Tibetans. Can 1.3 million sq km of the most hazardous territory be taken over by separatist Tibetans without external assistance? And whose external assistance? The U.S.? Russia? India? None of these. Even at the height of the 1959 Tibetan reb ellion, the U.S. State Department spokesman said: "The United States never regarded Tibet as an independent state." The U.S. is now in a strategic relationship with China. Thus it will never support Tibetan independence. The Soviet Union, at the height o f its China phobia (when Kosygin visited India in 1979), did not go beyond saying to Minister-in-waiting Fernandes that Tibet was "in the exclusive sphere of India", and Russia is today busy negotiating a strategic relationship with China. Recently, Russ ian President Vladmir Putin travelled to Beijing to discuss a compact with China.

In other words, it is only India which is left with the mantle of achieving 'Tibetan independence' and sustaining it. And why should India take on this responsibility? Once Tibet becomes independent with Indian help, can India prevent the U.S. or the Rus sians from establishing a better rapport with the Tibetans than India? Was India able to prevent Bangladesh from getting closer to the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia even though it was it was the Indian army that liberated Bangladesh (ironically, all these three countries had opposed the emergence of Bangladesh)?

In my opinion, it is a futile, wasteful and harmful dream to talk of Tibet's independence. India should accept the reality of Tibet being part of China. I have been a strong critic of Nehru, but after going through the records, and reflecting, I shall ha ve to admit that he was right when he refrained from encouraging Tibetan independence. Where Nehru was wrong was in not obtaining a settlement on the border while negotiating the 1954 India-China Treaty on Tibet. Nehru was also wrong when he yielded to p ressure from the USSR (not the U.S., as popularly thought) in the late 1950s to train Khampas and Tibetans to ambush Chinese military convoys regularly inside Tibet. This sowed the seeds of mistrust between China and India, leading to the useless war of 1962.

ALL this is not to suggest that the Chinese government is blameless in its handling of Tibetan affairs. Several violations of announced policy, including the 17-point agreement, took place - calamitously during the Cultural Revolution.

In 1980, the Communist Party of China's general secretary, Hu Yao Bang, and Deputy Prime Minister Wan Li paid a visit to Tibet. The same year the CPC issued new directives on Tibet and Hu formally acknowledged "error and regret" for the trouble inflicted on Tibetans during earlier periods. Chinese government officials also declared the need to preserve the "autonomy of Tibet", and new policies to that effect were announced.

On December 15, 1982, Beijing Review, the authoritative weekly magazine, published an editorial piece titled "Policy Towards the Dalai Lama". In it, it was said: "The Dalai Lama and his followers are welcome to return to China. Upon their return, the government will make appropriate political and personal arrangements for them."

The question thus remains whether the conditions are ripe for the return of the Dalai Lama. If the Indian government is genuinely committed to its stated policy of regarding Tibet as a part of China, then it should be constantly in search of opportunitie s whereby the Dalai Lama himself feels that the time has come for him to return to Lhasa.

The continued presence of the Dalai Lama in India serves as a festering reminder that all is not well between India and China. Until the question of the Dalai Lama is satisfactorily resolved, relations between India and China cannot be properly called no rmal. And the only satisfactory resolution of the Dalai Lama question is his safe return and survival in Tibet. This is what Beijing Review had said was possible.

THROUGHOUT history at least, Chinese sovereignty or "suzerainty" over Tibet has been accepted as a fact even by governments hostile to China. The course of history has been uneven. There have been occasions when Tibet rebelled, but these have been for sh ort durations. It was only on one occasion, in 1913, when Dr. Sun Yat-Sen had toppled the Ching dynasty monarchy in Beijing, that the 13th Dalai Lama (predecessor to the present Dalai Lama) declared Tibet an independent country. But by 1929, Tibet under the same Dalai Lama once again began to accept Chinese suzerainty. Incidentally, the Chinese always considered 'suzerainty' to mean Chinese sovereignty with Tibetan autonomy.

It was Lord Curzon, the imperial Viceroy of India, who first raised the question of Tibet's independence. He regarded the idea of 'suzerainty' as a "constitutional fiction". Curzon also directed Francis Younghusband to go to Lhasa (1903-04) to investigat e if there was any Russian perfidy in Tibet. As a sequel to Younghusband's military expedition, an Anglo-Tibetan convention was signed in Lhasa in September 1904. The high points of this convention were that Tibet would deal directly with India instead o f through China, and that the Chumbi Valley would be given to India for 75 years.

But the British government in London rejected Curzon's moves and ordered that an Anglo-Chinese convention be drafted to supersede the Anglo-Tibetan accord. This Curzon resisted by delaying tactics. Finally, London recalled Curzon and sent Lord Minto in h is place. Later an Anglo-Chinese convention was signed on April 27, 1906 in Beijing, under which the Chumbi Valley was returned to Tibet. Further, vide Article 11 of the convention, Chinese 'suzerainty' over Tibet was reaffirmed. To confirm this further, Britain and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian convention in St. Petersburg on August 31, 1907. Article 11 of the convention stated: "In conformity with the admitted principle of suzerainty of China over Tibet, Great Britain and Russia engage not to enter into negotiations with Tibet except through the intermediary of the Chinese government."

In other words, the British government reasserted its consistent stand, formalised in 1906 when the first Anglo-Chinese convention was signed, guaranteeing Chinese 'suzerainty' over Tibet. Thus, the principal parties - China, British India and Russia - h ad accepted Chinese overlordship in Tibet. Even Tibet accepted this, except during the 1913-19 period. 'Suzerainty' essentially meant autonomy of Tibet subject to Chinese directions in defence and foreign affairs.

It is argued sometimes that this 'suzerainty' was forced on Tibet by foreign powers. This argument is advanced by some Tibetans in Delhi. This argument is rather thin because even the institution of the Dalai Lama took root with Chinese political and mil itary patronage. Throughout the history of Tibet, the Dalai Lama sought and obtained the Chinese Emperor's umbrella. Even the Dalai Lama's existence as the unquestioned religious-cum-temporal leader of Tibet was made possible by the intervention of the C hinese Emperor.

The Dalai Lama represents the Yellow Sect of Buddhism in Tibet. Before the institution of Dalai Lama was established, the Red Sect flourished in Tibet. The Red Sect was actually created under the influence of Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rimpoche. T his guru went to Tibet after Shankarakshita returned to India unable to tame the "wild Tibetans". Buddhism arrived in Tibet long before the institution of Dalai Lama came into existence. According to Fa Hsien, the Chinese Buddhist traveller to India in t he 5th century A.D., Buddhism was established in Han China years before Christ. But in Tibet, Buddhism came later, in the 7th century. In China, the Yuan dynasty founded by Kublai Khan in A.D. 1271, promoted Buddhism vigorously. It was Kublai Khan who un ified Tibet under the Sagya sect (Red Sect). The Yuan dynasty ended in the mid-14th century and in its place came the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). This coincided with the rise of the Yellow Sect (Gelugba) of Buddhism founded by Zongkapa.

In 1576, the Ming prince Anda Khan of Mongolia invited the then Gelugba priest to lecture on Buddhism in Qinghai province. He then declared him a 'Rajguru'. In 1578, he conferred the title 'Holder of Vajra Dalai Lama' on this priest. 'Dalai' in Mongolian means 'ocean'. He was also named the third Dalai Lama. The first and second Dalai Lamas were named posthumously; they were the earlier 'head priests'.

IT was the fifth Dalai Lama who formalised Tibet's confederation with ancient China. He sought the intervention of the Qing dynasty (which replaced the Ming dynasty in 1644) for stabilising his position in Tibet. Emperor Shunzhi not only despatched troop s to consolidate the Dalai Lama's power, but also gave him a gold seal denoting Beijing's recognition. In 1720, with the help of the Chinese Emperor Kang XI, the King of Tibet was deposed and the 9th Dalai Lama was made the political head of Tibet as wel l. Since then, all succeeding Dalai Lamas (the present one in India is the 14th) made it the established practice to obtain Beijing's seal of approval to ensure legitimacy as the Dalai Lama. Monarchy came to an end in China in 1911, but the government in Beijing continued to play its role in Lhasa. Thus, when on February 22, 1940, the present Dalai Lama was anointed, a representative of the Chiang Kai-shek government was especially despatched to Lhasa, and he officiated at the inauguration ceremony. Thu s the institution of the Dalai Lama itself has flowered under the Chinese umbrella and patronage.

Indeed, a perusal of historical records can leave no objective person in doubt that throughout the centuries, Tibet behaved as if its future lay in the overall framework of China. Never once in history has Tibet sided with India, even on the legitimacy o f the McMahon Line. Therefore, those who advocate the 'independence of Tibet' do not and cannot argue on the basis of history. Their advocacy can only be to further political mischief or to enrich themselves at the nation's cost. Sino-Indian relations, t herefore, should not be derailed by our misconceptions and misplaced adventurism on Tibet.

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