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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

India needs to change its Tibet policy

March 28, 2008

Rajiv Sikri
March 27, 2008

Recent events in Tibet have put an uncomfortable spotlight on China.
Although the Tibetan uprising appears to have been put down for the
moment, the Tibet story is not over. Troubles could erupt again. The
world and the people of China realise that China's Tibet policy has been
a failure. A group of eminent Chinese writers and intellectuals have
shown the courage to publicly question the Beijing regime's Tibet policy.

The psychological impact of developments in Tibet could be debilitating
for China in the long term. It could inspire other disaffected ethnic
groups in China like the Uighurs to try to coalesce with Tibetan groups,
both within China and abroad. The more repression there is within China,
the less credible is China's claim of 'peaceful rise'. Tibet may well
hold the key both to China's internal stability and Hu Jintao's
political longevity. No wonder Beijing is hysterical and considers Tibet
a 'life-and-death' question.

The settlement of the India-China border and the status of Tibet are
interlinked issues. Unless there is all-round agreement that Tibet is a
part of China, there is only an India-Tibet boundary, not an India-China
boundary. By the crude and aggressive reiteration of its claim to
Arunachal Pradesh, China has already ruled out any early settlement of
the boundary question with India; recent events in Tibet would only
reconfirm Chinese thinking not to settle the border with India unless it
has Tibet firmly under its control. Therefore, India should deal with
China with this perspective clearly in mind.

Although it has already extracted significant concessions from India on
Tibet, China remains uncertain and anxious about India's Tibet policy.
The Dalai Lama's periodic statements, including recently, that India's
policy on Tibet is over-cautious reinforce China's suspicions and fears.
The failure of six rounds of talks between the representatives of the
Dalai Lama and the Chinese government seem to indicate that the Chinese
leaders have made up their minds that a satisfactory solution to Tibet,
from China's point of view, is unlikely while the present Dalai Lama is
still alive.

China's mistrust of the Dalai Lama has only intensified after the recent
troubles. Yet, contrary to what the Chinese government may be thinking,
a post-Dalai Lama situation may become more radicalised, unpredictable
and violent.

In India's relations with China, Tibet is a key issue that requires
skilful handling by India. India has recently taken some welcome
tentative steps to review its Tibet policy. The first move was made in
January when the statement issued at the end of Indian prime minister's
visit to China did not carry any reference to Tibet. It is not clear
whether this was a deliberate policy move, or a one-off measure. The
widespread disturbances in Tibet in March provide an opportunity for
India to continue with its subtle policy shift. India's official
statement on March 15, was a step in the right direction. Firstly,
clearly refuting official Chinese propaganda, it stated that "innocent
people" had died in Lhasa. Secondly, by expressing its "hope that all
those involved will work to improve the situation and remove the causes
of such trouble in Tibet? through dialogue and non-violent means," New
Delhi has conveyed its message to Beijing that there is merit in the
demands of Tibetans, that the onus is on Beijing to find a solution, and
that such a solution requires dialogue, not use of force.

In describing the Dalai Lama as a man of non-violence, Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh has clearly conveyed that India does not endorse the
harsh and vituperative official Chinese denunciations of the Dalai Lama.
China's recent offensive and patronising approach and behaviour about
India's stand on Tibet, including summoning the Indian Ambassador in the
middle of the night, required an appropriate riposte. It is good that
India has put off Commerce Minister Kamal Nath's visit to China. At the
same time, India has sought to reassure China that India considers Tibet
as "an autonomous region of China." One hopes that in the coming months
the government gives its Tibet policy a clearer strategic direction.

While formulating its policy on Tibet, India has to keep in mind that it
is uniquely placed vis-?-vis Tibet, and therefore must have a unique
policy that conforms to its national interests, irrespective of what the
rest of the world says or does. No other country has as important stakes
in peace and stability in Tibet as India does. A Tibet in ferment makes
India's Himalayan frontiers unstable and insecure. As a democratic
country that is hosting such a large number of Tibetans, India has a
legitimate interest in what happens in Tibet. Since developments in
Tibet have direct consequences for India, Tibet cannot be, as the Left
parties in India make out, just an internal matter of China.

If there is a severe crackdown on the Tibetans, it is likely to lead to
an increased Chinese military presence in regions close to India's
borders, which would have implications for India's own defence planning.
It will also inevitably trigger off a fresh influx into India of Tibetan
refugees, whom India would find it difficult to turn away on practical
and humanitarian grounds.

In subsequent official statements and/or through authoritative but
deniable unofficial channels, India could emphasise that while it firmly
upholds the principles of supporting the territorial integrity of duly
constituted states and non-interference in other states' internal
affairs, its own experience shows that the peace and stability of
multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural societies requires
dialogue and accommodation within a democratic framework.

Ethnic and separatist problems require political solutions that give
every citizen the confidence of being an equal stakeholder in the state.
India expects that China would put in place policies that would
stabilize Tibet and give the Tibetan Diaspora in India the confidence
that they can return to their homeland.

India needs to take full advantage of an important nuance, perhaps
unintended, in India's acceptance of Tibet as a part of China: India has
merely conceded that the "territory of the Tibetan Autonomous Region is
a part of the People's Republic of China;" it has not accepted that
Tibet (whose borders historically and in the minds of the Tibetans
extend beyond the Tibetan Autonomous Region) was always a part of China.
As a matter of fact, Tibet was quite independent of Chinese rule and had
all the attributes of a sovereign state between 1913 and 1950.

Traditionally, thousands of Indian pilgrims have made pilgrimages to
Mount Kailash and Mansarovar lakes in Tibet without needing any
permission from the Chinese authorities. If China can lay claim to
Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh on the grounds of its cultural, historical
and spiritual links with Tibet, the case for India's claim to
Kailash-Mansarovar region on similar reasoning is probably more
substantive. Secondly, if at any time in the future the People's
Republic of China were to give way to another entity India could well
argue that it is not obliged to recognize Tibet as a part of any new
political entity of China. Of course, this is a hypothetical scenario,
but the Chinese would not miss such nuances and subtleties.

India needs to take a leaf out of China's book in the matter of
observance of solemn bilateral commitments. Just as China, contrary to
the agreements with India in 2003 and 2005, has re-opened very
aggressively its claim to Arunachal Pradesh, has still not fully
accepted Sikkim as a part of India, and does not want an early
settlement of the boundary question, India too should subtly reopen the
whole question of the legitimacy of China's claim to Tibet, which is the
basic foundation for China to make any territorial claim on India.

There could be many ways in which India could introduce some nuances in
its traditional policy. For example, India could state that it considers
Tibet, as an autonomous region, to be a part of the territory of the
People's Republic of China -- the implication being that it is only if
Tibet is a truly autonomous region that India recognises it as a part of

Ironically, China, in welcoming the Indian approach during the recent
uprising, has given legitimacy to India's unofficial policy shift. The
Chinese should be made aware that subtle shifts in India's Tibet policy
will continue, and that India will remove the ambiguities in its Tibet
policy only under the following conditions: firstly, if the situation on
the ground permits it (very unlikely if China persists with its present
repressive policies); secondly, if there is a definitive settlement of
the boundary issue; and, finally, only as a quid pro quo for China
recognising all of Jammu & Kashmir as an integral part of India.

It is time for India to get out of its defensive mindset and timid
approach in dealing with China. There are vital national security
interests at stake. Relations with China must be handled from a
strategic, not a legalistic, perspective. The approach India follows
should be multi-dimensional. India does want better relations with
China, but it must also evolve a calculated and calibrated policy to put
China under some pressure to safeguard its interests and concerns.
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