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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

India & the Tibet card

November 24, 2008

Times of India
November 23, 2008

DHARAMSHALA -- If a picture tells a thousand stories, McLeodganj must
be a place held fast by mystery. A brooding mountain towers over it,
a tepid sun dangles behind the cedars, shepherds cross hills covered
with powdery snow and Western tourists with matted hair and 'Om'
shawls roam around. None of these tell us anything about McLeodganj,
where a storm has been brewing the whole week, a storm that could lay
waste the bustling little town. The Tibetans in exile want to go home.

As they debated how best to go about it all last week, there were not
many indications of which way the wind was blowing - independence or
autonomy. And then the Dalai Lama, who stayed away from the conclave,
spoke at a gathering of Indians. His message was short but to the
point: India is the guru and Tibet is its chela; now the master
should help the disciple because it's in trouble. It was an emotional
appeal, not a cry for political help.

Tibet has always been an emotional issue for India. After the Dalai
Lama fled here in 1959 and the Chinese premier Chou En-lai bombarded
Nehru with angry letters, the Indian leader's response was emotional.
"The decision to give asylum to the Tibetans was a sentimental move,
not political," Nehru wrote to his Chinese counterpart, walking the
diplomatic tightrope.

Emotions are running high again. Last week, the Chinese rejected all
Tibetan demands during the latest round of talks; then asked India to
dissolve the Tibetan government-in-exile and forbid the Tibetan
conclave. Beijing had put New Delhi on the spot once again.

India has been in a fix over Tibet for half a century. Should it -
dare it - use Tibet as a trump card against China, a competitor and
old adversary? The questions become increasingly urgent with the
Tibetan movement trying to renew itself and the Dalai Lama looking to
India for help. But New Delhi says there is no real dilemma. "Our
relations with China have improved and bilateral trade is booming.
Why should we spoil it by raising an issue which everyone else has
given up?" a ministry of external affairs official, speaking on
condition of anonymity. He adds, "Why should we take up the issue of
Tibetan independence when the Dalai Lama himself has been demanding
autonomy under the Chinese?"

Last month, Britain dealt the Tibetans a deadly blow by announcing
unconditional recognition of China's absolute authority over Tibet.
Britain is the only Western power ever to have had official dealings
and written agreements with Tibet. Till now, the Tibetan hand was
greatly strengthened by the British position, which promised to
recognize China's "special position" in Tibet only after it was
granted significant autonomy. But the British have abandoned this
position and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has dismissed the old
policy as an "anachronism" based on an "outdated concept".

The British move set alarm bells ringing in Dharamshala, with Tibetan
officials fearing that India too may toughen its stand against them.
There might be good reason for this, admits Srikanth Kondapalli,
professor of East Asian studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
"Since 1962, the MEA has seen Tibet as a liability as they think that
India's decision to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama led to China's
attack on us," he says. But India has also played the Tibet card, at
least twice in recent times. Kondapalli points out that "in 1987 and
2003, when China began supplying arms to the Royal Nepalese Army,
India did play the Tibet card. In 2003, foreign secretary Shyam
Sharan went to Dharamshala to meet the Dalai Lama. It was a message
to China: Don't interfere in our backyard."

But most Indian experts don't see Tibet as a card India can - or
should - use against China, saying that India-China relations have
gone beyond Tibet. "Tibet is not a card politically and
strategically. But, we have an obligation to the Tibetan people and
their culture," says K Subrahmanyam, strategic affairs analyst,
adding that India should not come under pressure from China on the
issue of granting asylum to the Tibetans because "as a democratic
country, we have accepted refugees from almost all our neighbouring countries."

Alka Acharya, professor of international politics at JNU and member
of the National Security Board, says India and China should tackle
the issue in a mature manner more consistent with their growing
economic stature. "I don't like the term 'card' because that means we
are playing a game and we have chances. Here we have real people
involved - a culture is at stake. We have to handle it carefully."

Like almost every other Indian expert, Acharya says New Delhi's
political options are limited. She decodes the Dalai Lama's use of
the term "guru-chela" in relation to India as an attempt to stress
cultural ties, not politics. "India and China have to recognize that
the Tibetan issue is a genuine problem of autonomy and cultural
rights, and they have to work together to find a solution. Possibly
in the future, China may see a role for India in finding a solution," she says.

Right now, there is no indication that could happen. But some Tibetan
officials insist that this is exactly what should happen. "Both India
and China are growing, but Tibetans are getting ruined. If India can
open a bus service to Pakistan and to the Kashmiri areas under
Pakistani occupation, why can't India and China make similar moves on
Tibet as a step towards finding a solution," says a Tibetan official
working abroad.

"At the moment, the world seems to have abandoned us. If India does
the same, we are doomed. India is our only hope," he concludes.

That may be stirring stuff but a combination of factors - history and
India's current engagement with China, including $60bn in trade -
suggest that India would prefer to see Tibet stay within the realm of
emotions.

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