Monday, April 18, 2016
India has always been in a lose-lose situation vis a vis Tibet. And China always in a win-win situation. Which means that, in realpolitik terms, the Tibetan refugees of today will remain refugees for ever and Tibetan Buddhism will never again have a home of its own. The plight of the displaced Tibetans has attracted world attention because of the international respect the present Dalai Lama has won with his humanity and championship of peace. But after him?
India has always been handicapped by a cultural inability to understand the intricacies of Tibetan politics and mores. On the other hand, China's perception of Tibet as part of its geography and history has remained constant during the era of the emperors, the interregnum of Chiang Kaishek's nationalism and the triumphalist communism of Mao Zedong.
In 1956 when the Dalai Lama visited Bombay, Delhi directed Governor M.C.Chagla to serve the guest strict vegetarian fare. Chagla arranged a grand thali-style dinner at the state banquet. The next morning the ADC conveyed a message to the Governor that the Dalai Lama would like to have kidney and sausages for breakfast. "So much for Delhi's knowledge about the culinary habits and tastes of important visitors", noted Chagla in his autobiography Roses in December.
Delhi's knowledge of diplomatic delicacies was no better. In October 1950, as Tibet's attempt to strike a deal with the new communist rulers of China came to nothing, China invaded Tibet and paused at Chamdo. India had two options. It chose the first, apparently at the behest of the then foreign policy boss Girja Shankar Bajpai, and sent a strongly worded protest note to Peking. The Chinese replied by calling India a "running dog of Anglo-American imperialism". Thereupon India adopted its second option, proposed by K.M.Panikkar, ambassador to China. The position now was that India should make a gesture of friendship towards the new communist country by not opposing the occupation of Tibet. (The official Indian note mentioned that India recognised the sovereignty of China over Tibet. It turned out that the word intended was suzerainty, but sovereignty crept into the message wrongly because of oversight at the Cypher Bureau in Delhi. The External Affairs Ministry tried to correct the mistake with another message to China, but was dissuaded from doing so on the ground that such a major correction would cause serious misunderstandings besides damaging India's reputation).
Facing imminent conquest, Tibet appealed to all the big nations of the world and to the UN for help. Nobody showed any interest. And nobody was to blame but Tibet itself. K.N.Raghavan, author of the latest book on Tibet (Vanishing Shangri La: History of Tibet and Dalai Lama in 20th century) says: "Tibet's inaccessibility, solitude and its unfriendly response to even the friendliest of overtures all combined to ensure that it would not receive any support from other nations during its hour of need".
Raghavan is not in unfamiliar territory. Author of the definitive Dividing Lines: Contours of India China Conflict, he has an extraordinary eye for detail and a gift to put complex issues in simple terms. He shows how the Dalai Lama began his rule with "a period of honeymoon" with China. He even visited China as an honoured guest in 1954, was ardently cultivated by Mao and appointed a Vice President of the Steering Committee of the People's Republic of China. But relations soured in a few years. When rumours spread of Chinese plans to arrest the Dalai Lama, Tibetans rose in anger against the Chinese. Amid chaos in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama and party managed to leave the capital in disguise and, sick and tired, entered India on March 31, 1959. Raghavan argues convincingly that China had allowed the escape in order to avoid the adverse world reactions his capture would have invited. With the Dalai Lama out of the scene, China "brought the entire might of the PLA to crush the incipient rebellion" by the Tibetans.
With a comprehensive and scholarly analysis of China's policies in Tibet after the Dalai Lama left, the soft power Tibetan exiles have been exerting on western intelligentsia and the Middle Way Approach conceived by the Dalai Lama, Raghavan provides an exhaustive overview of Tibet in its transformatory age -- an account that is both inspirational and sad. The resilience shown by the Tibetans wins our admiration but their homelessness leaves us feeling sorry for them.
The Dalai Lama, Nobel Prize and all, carried the helpless diaspora on his brave shoulders. But after him?