Originally Published 2011-07-22 00:00:00 Published on Jul 22, 2011
The Indian leadership has been able to earn a lot of goodwill by sheltering the Dalai Lama and his people, but after his life, the 90,000-strong community will become a political and economic burden.
Democracy in Refuge: A Tibet without the Dalai Lama
For over a century now, Tibet has been at the centre of a latent, and sometimes violent, geopolitical conflict. Originally part of a buffer zone which the British nurtured against Russian imperial designs on Central and South Asia, Tibet frequently figured as a deadlock in India-China relations since the 1950s. The political, economic and social conditions inside Tibet under Chinese occupation and outside, for millions of ethnic Tibetans in exile, have undergone many changes over the years.

The Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) has witnessed extensive industrial activity and has become a plateau of great strategic value to the Chinese, overlooking the plains of India. The Chinese government celebrates 60 years of the 17-point agreement with the 14th Dalai Lama which gave it control over Tibet with provisions for autonomy of the latter. Autonomy however remains elusive as Chinese policies have subtly modified the demographic and political landscape of Tibet. Tibetans in exile all over the world swear allegiance to the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso who is the spiritual and was until recently the political head of the Tibetan Government-in-exile headquartered at Dharamshala (India) and of the movement for a free Tibet. He has decided to step down reviving cautious interest in implications for India, China and Tibet. Has he opened new doors for a political settlement?

China's unwinking gaze: Historical basis

While China has shifted from the Maoist lines of governance to help its economy match up to any competent capitalist system, it has only grown fiercely unforgiving and insecure towards the political aspirations of minorities such as the Tibetans and the ethnic Uighur Muslims. The presence of a well-networked non-violent Tibetan freedom movement enjoying international popularity and its head, the Dalai Lama, galvanizing the cause from his sanctuary in India is a persisting irritant for China. The People's Republic (PRC) sees itself as the last bastion of the communist ideology and has proven that it will adapt but will not be seen as compromising.

The problems for China, however, are much more grounded in hard facts than its leaders would like to believe. Historically, the Dalai Lamas had arisen to political and religious importance with the backing and respect of the powerful Mongol warlords. Between the 17th and 20th centuries, Tibet had passed under the Qing Empire's subordination but the empire itself had weakened due to colonial conquests and Tibet retained its independence. The British, now desperate to prevent the Russians from finding strategic routes into South Asia, its warm water ports and especially British India, began secretly mapping Tibet. But Tibet's self-imposed isolation led the British to conclude treaties with the Chinese giving them 'suzerainty' over Tibet and reaching an agreement to keep Russia outi.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty, the 13th Dalai Lama declared Tibet independent in 1913. In the Shimla Accord of 1914, Great Britain and Tibet reached an agreement over British India's international boundary with Tibet which became the McMahon Line. Britain also had an agreement with China regarding 'Inner Tibet' (provinces with Tibetan populations given to China) and recognized its suzerainty over 'Outer Tibet' (consisting of the present TAR and neighbouring areas). However, China left the bilateral negotiations with Tibet and never entered into a treaty defining Tibet's boundaries with China . While the Republic of China faced a long drawn civil war over the decades between 1912 and 1950, Tibet enjoyed de facto independence and bilateral relations with British India.

The PRC has claimed since 1951 that all the treaties signed earlier were unequal in terms and unfair to China. It has also gone to war with India in 1962 occupying Aksai Chin in Ladakh and claiming Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet. Its refusal to engage in sustained bilateral negotiations with India and failure to produce historic records showing Chinese sovereignty over Tibet have only made its stance more stubborn and difficult for India to accommodate.

Emerging perspectives in exile

Against the backdrop of British colonial diplomacy and India-China conflict, the Tibetans in exile have been trying to create a democratic setup. The Dalai Lama himself pushing for reforms in the traditional system realized that representing over a million refugees following him willingly into exile would be a mammoth task. Over the decades, his travels across the world and winning the confidence of prominent leaders helped the Tibetan exiles organize themselves into various civil society groups, become a self-sustained community and create a modern and educated societal structure. While the Dalai Lama conceded a hard-line stance demanding independence from China, by calling for greater autonomy (Strasbourg, 1988), he has not interfered with the groups still pushing for total independence.

In many following developments, the Dalai Lama has given the democratically elected Govt.-in-exile a greater role and expressed his wish to give Tibetans a modern system based on liberal values. While he has effectively created a stateless democratic realm, the PRC has grown increasingly authoritarian. The schism is evidently widening with each passing year for the two sides to think of a political settlement. The Dalai Lama understands that in the absence of a state of their own and any effective international effort, the future of the exiles will depend on the image that he and his government build.

He has repeatedly stated that a religious head cannot long be a political head in a modern democracy, signalling that he wants to leave no stone unturned in cementing his liberal vision for Tibet. His latest decision to step down after the election of Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay will further strengthen the new leadership in future negotiations with the PRC. The modernization of the exiled community will be final with a young leader educated in top Western institutions enjoying majority support and representing changing aspirations.

Although the Tibetan Parliament has made repeated requests for reconsidering his decision, the Dalai Lama seems unwavering in his moveiii . China has long claimed that it liberated Tibet from the feudal rule of the lamas and criticized the Dalai Lama for plotting to divide Chinaiv . By adopting the 'Middle Way' approach for greater autonomy and relinquishing political power, the Dalai Lama is making actions speak louder than words.

His stepping down also ends the four hundred years old dynasty of lamas and removes any role of a regent for senior lamas such as the 17th Karmapa Trinley Dorjev. It can potentially quash Chinese hopes for disputing the search of a new Dalai Lama and gaining any leverage from itvi . It is also believed that the Dalai Lama might have hopes of going to Tibet in his last days which would not be acceptable to the Chinese if he remained a political figure.

Easing India into an uneasy role?

Under Prime Minister Nehru, India had tried to maintain good relations with the newly formed People's Republic of China. Nehru had hopes of an India-China friendship shaping Asia's future and to this effect he made unilateral and unprecedented diplomatic concessions to China by recognizing the One-China theory in reference to Taiwan and agreeing to China's sovereignty over Tibet. China however, failed to keep its promise of giving autonomy to Tibet as provided in the Chinese Constitutionvii. Even the 17-point agreement signed with the Dalai Lama stands repudiated and none of its most critical provisions have ever been implemented by Chinaviii. Above all, China staked claims over thousands of sq. km. of territory in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh and occupies a large part of the former.

The list of India's problems grows longer with China using Aksai Chin to build transport and communication links with Pakistan in the Karakoram region. In 2010, government sources confirmed that Chinese military engineers were working on projects in Pakistan-Administered Kashmirxi. There are also talks about Chinese plans to build transnational railways into West Asia through Pakistan.

China's claims over Arunachal Pradesh and disputing the McMahon Line makes it nonsensical for India to recognize TAR as part of China because the 1914 accord clearly demarcated this division. The Chinese have developed these border regions and built strategic road links and airfields for activation during a conflict. Furthermore, several giant dams are proposed on rivers flowing from Tibet into India, particularly the Brahmaputra, which may actually divert their flow placing lower riparian India at a great disadvantage.

In short, India's stakes in resolution of the Tibetan issues are critical for national interests. However, successive governments have chosen to stay on the sidelines while the Dalai Lama was in leadership. There were signs of appeasing China by keeping a tight control over Tibetan protests. But this has to change after the Dalai Lama steps down. The Tibetan community insists that India has a greater role to play as it has played as a natural sanctuary and a liberal mentor in the past. The new Tibetan PM reminded in his addresses that a Tibet free of Chinese control was a safer bet for India's securityx. In fact, the strategic environment changed drastically for India since Chinese occupation of Tibet, incorporating China's interests into South Asian affairs and breaching the traditional Himalayan perimeter for all practical purposes.

The Indian leadership has been able to earn a lot of goodwill by sheltering the Dalai Lama and his people but after his passing, the 90,000-strong community will become a political and economic burden. The growth and prosperity of the Tibetans in exile is viewed by China as greatly humiliating and India sheltering them is like an open wound. Future bilateral interactions will always be hampered by these feelings.

India must consider pressing the international community and China to fast-track the resolution of the conflict. If China stakes sweeping claims over Tibet, then Tibetans must be treated as Chinese citizens and be accepted back with their rights guaranteed and safeguarded under the constitution. But as with the usual gap in India's insecurity regarding China and the level of preparedness to deal with Chinese threats, the Tibetan issue has been allowed to fester and remains a subject of procrastination. Perhaps, change is in the offing as in recent joint declarations India chose not to reaffirm but leave out its past stand on the status of Tibet in China . It has also succeeded in communicating to China that Kashmir cannot be seen at par with Tibet (issue of stapled Chinese visas for Kashmiris).

China has successfully used its internal conflicts to strike profitable bargains with the world. President Nixon had agreed to withdraw American support to pro-independence Tibetan guerrillas after the Sino-American Détente in 1970s, for opening diplomatic ties with China. New Delhi too perhaps, could look at the flourishing Tibetan society in exile with a new lens and draw international attention to its interests in a political settlement. Meanwhile, the shadow of the Great Game will linger over Tibet. 


i  Convention Between Great Britain and China Respecting Tibet (1906) at http://www.tibetjustice.org/materials/treaties/treaties11.html

ii  Convention Between Great Britain, China, and Tibet, Simla (1914) at http://www.tibetjustice.org/materials/treaties/treaties16.html

iii  "Tibetan Parliament transfers Dalai Lama's powers to elected members" at http://www.indianexpress.com/news/tibetan-parliament-transfers-dalai-lamas-powers-to-elected-members/797052/0

vi  Srikanth Kondapalli's article at http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=29440&article=Political+Democracy+For+Tibetans%3a+China%E2%80%99s+Rising+Dilemma+%E2%80%93+Analysis&t=1&c=4

v  Mary Finnigan's article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/may/26/karmapa-dalai-lama

v  Robert Barnett's article at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/03/21/Why_Doesn%27t_China_Want_To_Let_the_Dalai_Lama_Resign

vi  http://www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/agreement-05192011170332.html

vii  http://isikkim.com/2011-05-chines-occupation-of-tibet-completely-illegal-naresh-mathur241/

viii  http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-05-12/india/29535496_1_military-capabilities-chinese-border-karakoram

ix  http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?271709

x  Sujit Dutta, "Managing and engaging rising China: India's evolving posture", The Washington Quarterly, Volume 34, No. 2 (Spring) 2011.

(Rana Divyank Chaudhary is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)
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