TIBET: A CASE FOR QUIET DIPLOMACY

Print edition : May 08, 2009

September 7, 1959: The Dalai Lama offering Jawaharlal Nehru a traditional Tibetan white sash when he visited the Prime Minister in New Delhi.-AFP

SO close, yet so far. That is how one feels on a close reading of the Dalai Lamas interview to Ananth Krishnan in The Hindu (April 1, 2009). He said: We are not asking for separation. We are happy to be part of China. We just want dignity and respect. True enough, that is not all that he said. He made, besides, some points in the debate between him and China, a debate that is sterile and rancorous, reflecting distrust on both sides. But the crucial fundamental that he accepted provides ground strong enough on which a settlement can be built provided that there is, on both sides, a will to settle. The time has surely come to move forward and put the past behind.

Involved are three distinct but related issues political, constitutional and administrative. China has very legitimate concerns on its national unity. The Dalai Lama has very legitimate concerns on Tibets constitutional autonomy and on certain administrative measures.

The Dalai Lama can take a diplomatic initiative that will instil confidence politically. He can explicitly accept the Constitution of the Peoples Republic of China as the basis for negotiations, its Section VI on the organs of Self-Government of National Autonomous Areas.

Article 115 says: The organs of self-government of autonomous regions, prefectures and counties exercise the functions and powers of local organs of state as specified in Section V of Chapter Three of the Constitution. At the same time, they exercise the power of autonomy within the limits of their authority as prescribed by the Constitution, the law of regional national autonomy and other laws, and implement the laws and policies of the state in the light of the existing local situation (emphasis added throughout).

The Constitution was adopted on December 4, 1982, replacing the earlier one of 1950. The law of regional national autonomy envisaged by Article 115 can be negotiated anew. The Constitution gives financial autonomy (Article 117) and powers in respect of economic development (Article 118).

Article 119 says: The organs of self-government of the national autonomous areas independently administer educational, scientific, cultural, public health and physical culture affairs in their respective areas, protect and cull through the cultural heritage of the nationalities and work for the development and flourishing of their cultures.

Under Article 120, organs of the national autonomous areas can also organise local public security forces to maintain law and order. Article 121 adds: In performing their functions, the organs of self-government of the national autonomous areas, in accordance with the autonomy regulations of the respective areas, employ the spoken and written language or languages in common use in the locality. Article 122 provides for financial and other assistance to the minority nationalities.

The Dalai Lamas principal concern is preservation of Tibets culture, religion and autonomy enough to enable its local government to fulfil that task. New legislation, even constitutional amendment, should not be ruled out to achieve these objectives once the Constitution and with it Chinas unity are put beyond all doubt.

Negotiations between Beijing and Dharamsala, begun since 1978, have followed a tortuous course unflattering to both sides. Dawa Norbu, one of the most distinguished of Tibetan scholars, who taught at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and is, sadly, no more, traced their course in an article of scrupulous scholarship. While critical of Beijing, he pinpointed a good few mistakes and lapses by Dharamsala in an erudite article entitled Chinas Dialogue with the Dalai Lama 1978-80; Prenegotiation Stage or Dead End? (Pacific Affairs; Fall 1991; pages 351-372).

The Dalai Lamas aides published in 1996 a collection of the correspondence exchanged from 1981 to 1993 (Dharamsala and Beijing: Initiatives and Correspondence). The Chinese Embassys news bulletin, News from China, regularly publishes Chinas version of the talks. There is need for a full, independent and comprehensive record of the negotiations from 1978 to 2009, by a non-governmental academic institution.

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama might with advantage consult the record of his talks with Jawaharlal Nehru when they first met after he left Tibet, 50 years ago. Extracts from the record are being published here for the first time. The Prime Ministers sympathies with his guests plight were evident. The soundness of the advice he gave the Dalai Lama has been vindicated in the half century that has elapsed.

The talks were held at Mussoorie (Uttarakhand) on April 24, 1959, and lasted four hours, from 15.20 to 19.20 hours, at one stretch without a break. In the first half, Nehru listened carefully to the Dalai Lamas account of the recent and immediate past and the Tibetans fears and concerns for the future. Given the background, it is understandable that the Dalai Lama held that they must gain complete independence and attain the real peace which can only be held by the practice of religion. He emphasised that the Tibetans were no longer so conservative and wanted reforms to be carried out but according to their own peoples wishes.

From this point, the record, for access to which the writer is indebted to the Nehru Memorial and Museum Library in New Delhi, proceeds: Interrupting D.L., P.M. said emphatically: Let us be relevant. I agree with all this conception of a new world, etc. I myself would like to see a new India, but these are only wishes and one does not know whether I would actually live to see it. We have to see the situation as it is and understand realities. We understand about religion. If religion is really strong and dynamic it should be able to face up to a situation like this and if it is not able to do so, then there is something radically wrong with it. There are only two choices; either an armed struggle in which case the party with the bigger arms wins. The example of the students and their nationalist feeling is no doubt a good one and it goes to prove that you cannot convert a whole nation into anything unless they are themselves convinced that it would conform to their interests.

P.M. continued: If one has to fight for anything one should choose ones weapons carefully weapons which are to ones own advantage and not to that of the enemy. Violence is alright if one can be equal or superior to the enemy in arms. One must also know how to use violence in the case. I am not criticising but only analysing the futures of the situation in Tibet. Spiritual efforts and physical force are two different things. In an actual physical conflict the physical force that can be brought to play and its results will have to be taken into account. Something to this effect I had spoken to the D.L. at the time I met him during the Buddha Jayanthi celebrations. Speaking practically and not philosophically, Tibet became an economically and socially backward country. Such a country is physically weak and a poor country which cannot easily resist the force of a powerful country. To say Now give us a chance to become a strong country ignores the actual position. We cannot go on on that basis. In all such cases, the effort of the people themselves is required to improve their position. Take Indias own case. We had a background of relative backwardness ourselves and how hard the Indian people had to struggle before they actually achieved Independence.

Nehru pointed out that the choice is between recourse to arms or standing up to the Chinese in frank talks in direct manner. As regards help from India, undoubtedly there is a good deal of sympathy for Tibet in this country. Undoubtedly, we do not want the Tibetan religion to be suppressed or submerged by the Chinese or by communism. But exactly what do they want us to do? We cannot go to war with China or Tibet and even that would not help Tibet? What else do they expect us to do? Tibetans expect the achieving of independence in the long run. Let us face facts. One cannot bring heaven to the people in India even if I wish it. The whole world cannot bring freedom to Tibet unless the whole fabric of the Chinese state is destroyed. U.S.A., U.K., and others or anybody else cannot do this at present. D.L. should realise that in the present context Tibets independence would mean the complete break-up of the Chinese state and it is not possible to envisage it as likely to happen. To defeat China is not easy. Only a world war, an atomic war can perhaps be the precursor of such a possibility. Can one start a world war? Can India start a world war? Let us talk of the present and not of the future and be more realistic.

D.L.: Help is required for the present juncture. Since 20th March, the Chinese have been killing indiscriminately and burning large numbers of people. Cant this be stopped? How can I stop it? How can I stop anything from happening inside Tibet? There are killings by machine-gunning from the air. If there can be only a solution to this. He added: We do not have a speck of a desire to fight the Chinese violently for our independence. It was the Chinese who said that the Tibetans started the fight but this is completely untrue.

Nehru: It does not matter who started the fight and there is no good complaining. Only old women complain! Physically it is not possible to fight on behalf of Tibet. Even such a suggestion will harm them and their cause. Sympathy at present for Tibet cannot be converted into help by any country. D.L. should be under no illusion and, therefore, should fashion his policy with reference to actuality. Gen. Chiang Kai-sheks name is in mud and an association with him would only tend to make the cause much more hopeless and likely to end in complete failure. U.S.A., U.K. can do nothing. Therefore, at the present moment if the D.L. reads newspapers he will find the anger of the Chinese against India. See for example the Panchen Lamas statement. We have gone to the limit of our efforts. It is true not much has been done. Today we cannot even privately advise Chinese, because of this suspicion. The so-called help being given to you would close all the doors to such help. D.L. would remember that P.M. had spoken about Hungary. The troubles there aroused tremendous feelings and sympathy, for hundreds of Hungarians were shot down but they could still not do anything except to help the refugees. Therefore, we have to consider all these things.

Potala palace, The Dalai Lama's former residence, in Lhasa, Tibet.-

Nehru then referred to the requests for interviews with the D.L.: The case of [Heinrich] Harrer [author of Seven Years in Tibet], who is known to D.L. and who wants to see D.L. While there was no objection in principle, the suggestion that he might be invited to Austria or to U.S.A., etc., would make the D.L. look like a piece of merchandise. This is an insulting way of dealing with His Holiness and it is clear that these attempts were merely efforts to try to make as much money out of him as is possible. In America, there is no real sympathy for Tibet. Chiang Kai-shek has no sympathy. They all want to exploit Tibet in their cold war with the Soviet Union.

Nehru continued: As a practical question, what can we do about it? We are anxious to help but our capacity to help is very limited and the moment we try to extend it, it would stop even that capacity. War was not possible. Cursing the Chinese was no alternative. It would only stop every possibility of a peaceful settlement. P.M. himself intended to keep very quiet except when necessary in speaking in Parliament. His own advice would be to let the present excitement go down so that talks would be possible. The Chinese say India wants to grab Tibet and with this suspicion they suspect everything we say. P.M. was trying in these few moments to explain some basic facts to the D.L. He asked for the D.L.s reactions to what he had already said.

D.L.: The Prime Minister has been kind enough to express the views of India. D.L. agreed India should be in the middle and try to help Tibet through China. At the present juncture the attempt should be to develop good relations between India and China so as to find a solution to Tibet. They cannot expect any military help from India knowing fully well the experience of Korea in the event of a conflict developing on the basis of a cold war.

P.M.: At the moment, our relations with China are bad. We have to recover the lost ground. By threats to China or condemnation of China we do not recover such ground. On the other hand, we do not show any fear of China or surrender to Chinas strength. We have yet to maintain good relations with China, a middle but difficult course. Does D.L. agree with this?

D.L.: Yes.

P.M.: The mere fact of D.L. living in India has some consequences to India, to Tibet, to China and to the rest of the world. In China it is immediately one of irritation and suspicion. D.L. being in India, keeps alive the question of Tibet in the mind of the world. Tibet, as it were, cannot close up without news. It becomes a difficult thing to manage. The tendency of the Chinese authorities would be to crush Tibet as soon as possible. Nobody can help. I cannot understand how the Khampas can resist overwhelming Chinese force? One should, therefore, not close the doors of settlement; otherwise, it becomes a fight to the death.

P.M. continued: I am glad that the D.L. issued a statement before coming here and not after reaching Mussoorie. This statement is also suspected by the Chinese. In the main it covers all points. P.M. then advised no more long statements. The only kind of statements, if at all necessary, could relate about peace and ending of fighting in Tibet. An indication that despite all her sufferings Tibet had no quarrel with the Chinese may be helpful. P.M. deprecated the taking up of an attitude like We must have independence or nothing else. This would not help, nor would the cursing of China help. Stress on peace and stopping of fighting and killing will help in keeping the subject in the right place and level. P.M. then enquired whether D.L. thought this approach was all right.

D.L.: Judging the situation in Tibet, this is correct.

P.M.: Both the Tibetan situation and D.L.s presence in India also warrant the adoption of such an attitude. For a month or six weeks there need not be any statements.

The Dalai Lama said he had certainly no intention of embarrassing India, since he did not want Indias relations with any other country to be at all adversely affected. To this Nehru responded: It also comes in the way a settlement. Also, he strongly advised to Dalai Lama not to have too many dealings with the press.

The record yields important conclusions that are still relevant. (1) The boundary dispute was not affected by the Dalai Lamas flight from Lhasa, or Zhou Enlai would not have made a conciliatory offer to Nehru in April 1960 when they met in New Delhi. The two processes proceeded independently of each other. However, once Sino-Indian relations deteriorated, the Tibet issue became a subject of debate, quite needlessly; (2) Nehru wanted settlement of both the Tibet issue as well as the boundary dispute. He was, however, confused on the latter as the events showed; (3) Nehru did not exploit, and was dead against the West exploiting, the Dalai Lama to score points against China; and (4) Nehrus counsel against the military option was as sound as his sympathy for the Tibetans was sincere.

The record of the parleys since 1978 and of the Dalai Lamas trips abroad shows how right Nehru was. The Dalai Lamas best representative was his elder brother Gyalo Thondup, who speaks Mandarin fluently and whom the Chinese trusted. In Dharamsala, opinion has been divided on familiar lines hawks, doves and noisy jays. He was distrusted by some Tibetans precisely because he was trusted by China. Devoted to his brother, Thondup, one of the most accomplished diplomats one has met, was only being realistic and sensible.

Towards the end of 1978, Li Juisin, director of Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong, invited Thondup to visit China to discuss the Tibet issue, which he did with the Dalai Lamas approval. The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made three points in his meeting with Thondup Tibet is a part of China; the Dalai Lama was free to send delegations to Tibet to investigate the actual conditions there; and 50 Tibetan teachers from India would be permitted to teach in various parts of Tibet (in acceptance of a Tibetan suggestion).

On March 12, 1979, Deng met the Dalai Lamas representatives in Beijing and said: The Dalai Lama is welcome to come back. He can go out again after his return.

The Dalai Lama wrote a letter to Deng Xiaoping on March 23, 1981, in which he said: I agree with, and believe in, the communist ideology which seeks the well-being of human beings in general and the proletariat in particular, and in Lenins policy of equality of nationalities. He had by then sent three fact-finding missions to Tibet.

On July 28, 1981, Hu Yaobang transmitted through Thondup a five-point proposal. It envisaged the Dalai Lamas return but it is suggested that he not go to live in Tibet or hold local posts there. Subject to this, he would enjoy the same political status and living conditions as in 1959. Hu was vice-president of the National Peoples Congress and vice-chairman of the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Committee. The Dalai Lama replied that this made the problem a personal issue.

But he now embarked on a course which was most unwise and which rankles in the minds of Chinas leaders to this day. He addressed the United States Congressional Human Rights Caucus in Washington, D.C., on September 21, 1987, and put forth a Five-Point Peace Plan. The parleys were conducted by the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Its head, Yang Minfu, wrote to Thondup reminding him of its warning to the Dalai Lama to exercise the utmost care. Disturbances had broken out in Lhasa then. Yang wrote, in the past, ultra leftist influences had crept into our Tibet affairs. However, we admitted the past mistakes and took steps to rectify the situation. This elicited a reply on December 17, 1987.

On June 15, 1988, the Dalai Lama put forth The Strasbourg Proposal to the European Parliament. In Indian lingo, internationalisation of the Kashmir dispute is denounced. To China, all this smacked of splittism.

The Dalai Lama proposed Tibets association with China, which would be responsible for Tibets [sic] foreign policy. He proposed talks: A negotiating team...has been selected. On September 23, 1988, the Chinese Embassy conveyed a message to the representative of the Dalai Lama in New Delhi. It recalled that contacts between the two sides have not been interrupted since 1979 and offered direct dialogue with the Dalai Lama any time, at any place subject to three reasonable conditions: no foreigners should be involved; the Kashag government in Dharamsala will not be an interlocutor; and the Strasbourg proposal was unacceptable as implying Tibets independence.

The Dalai Lama with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at Lambeth Palace in London on May 23, 2008. Clearly, the attempts to garner support in the West, far from helping, have only hindered Tibet's cause.-CARL DE SOUZA/REUTERS

On October 25, 1988, however, Tashi Wangdi, the Dalai Lamas representative in Delhi, replied suggesting talks in January 1989 in Geneva. But why did the Tibetans have to include a foreigner as legal adviser to the delegation? He was one Michael C. Van Walt Van Praag, author of The Status of Tibet. Besides, Beijing complained that the delegation was composed of principal members of the Government-in-exile. On both counts, Chinas objection was justified. Also, the proposal was made public before it reached Beijing. A promising opportunity was lost. On March 8, 1989, China imposed martial law in Tibet. Wangdi proposed, on April 19, 1989, talks in Hong Kong to resolve the procedural issues. Once again, it was instantly made public.

Map the distance between the rival positions and the tragedy becomes apparent. I am not demanding independence for Tibet, the Dalai Lama told Newsweek on March 20, 1989. Any issue is open for discussion except the question of Tibetan independence, Beijing said on March 6, 1989. Prime Minister Li Peng said in New Delhi on December 13, 1991: Except independence, which is not negotiable, all other issues are open to negotiations. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao rightly pointed out, on December 20, 1991, that it is not a commonplace statement when he makes it on Indian soil.

In February 1990, this writer confronted Michael C. Van Walt Van Praag at a reception in Geneva and asked him why, if he wished the Dalai Lama well, he allowed his own name to be projected. There was no reply. By 1995, he vanished from Tibets radar. He surfaced later as an adviser to one of the parties in the parleys on the Nagaland issue.

The Strasbourg proposal was withdrawn on September 2, 1991.

A Tibetan delegation that visited China in June 1992 was told: As soon as His Holiness openly gives up the independence of Tibet, we are willing to enter into negotiations even tomorrow. In other formulations, he was asked to give up splittism. Clearly, the attempts to garner support in the West, far from helping, only hindered Tibets cause.

The present round of talks began in September 2002. The Tibetan delegation was led by Lodi G. Gyari. The second and third rounds were held in May and September 2003. Remarkably, the fourth was held on June 30, 2005, in the Chinese Embassy in Berne, Switzerland. The fifth followed in Beijing on February 15, 2006, while the sixth was held in May 2008. On his return to Dharamsala, Gyari said: Despite major differences on important issues, both sides demonstrated a willingness to seek common approaches in addressing the issues at hand. In this regard, each side made some concrete proposals, which can be part of the future agenda. As a result an understanding was reached to continue the formal round of discussions. A date for the seventh round will be finalised soon after mutual consultations.

Three more rounds were held in 2008. The last was in November that year. China sees the demand for genuine autonomy as a euphemism for semi-independence. Acceptance of Chinas Constitution, with a draft law on Tibets autonomy within China, as suggested above, should dispel doubt and distrust.

It should be clear to the Dalai Lama that, just as Nehru had predicted, the West cannot and will not help him; it will only exploit him. It is careful not to offend China. His own public pronouncements do not help either. Why not try old-style diplomacy in quiet earnest, away from the public glare and focussed on specifics, eschewing the hideous jargon of our times? And eschewing trips abroad and interviews to the media, print and electronic?

Once the talks proceed in earnest, issues of history will cease to loom large. It is, in any case, not fair to ask a party to accept ones own historical narrative. Kashmir, Nagas and Manipuris have their own narratives. This writer is indebted to the distinguished journalist M.S. Prabhakara for a copy of the rare book Constitutional & Legal History of Manipur by M. Ibohal Singh (Samuron Lakpa, Mayal Lambi Law College, Samuron, 1986). Anyone who reads it will be struck by the difference in historical perceptions and by the depth of the peoples feelings.

Henry Kissinger makes a similar demand on Palestinians they must not only accept Israels existence but also its narrative on the history of Palestine. Once the issue of Chinas sovereignty over Tibet is accepted by the Dalai Lama, coupled with acceptance of its Constitution, the issues of history will be no obstacle.

And once its concerns for national security are met, Chinas stature in the world will rise higher still if it tackles the Tibet issue in a statesmanlike and conciliatory manner.

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