16 Jan 2013
Tibet – Is It a Closed Chapter of History?
Is Tibet a closed chapter of history? Many who take a short term view of history and mistake the present for perpetuity think so. For them, what exists is final. History in its march has, however, always proved the status quoists wrong - from the expansion and subsequent disintegration of the Roman empire to the balkanisation of the USSR. The old Tibetan saying that “The clouds of summer float by but the sky stays where it is forever,” underlines the oriental wisdom that anything that has changed in the past will change in the future as well. The long term strategic view of history often gets obfuscated in the dissonance of the immediate – the marching troops, political melodrama, shrill of the media and silence of the expediency. Muted but unmistakable changes in Tibet are discernible that makes revisiting the issue in the contemporary context relevant.
There was an air of melancholy in Dalai Lama’s lamentation that, “When Tibet was free, we took our freedom for granted. Our physical isolation lulled us into a sense of complacency”. In former times, Tibetans were a war–like nation whose influence spread far and wide. With the advent of Buddhism our military prowess declined”. But more than the melancholy, it was reiteration of the harsh reality of human experience that goodness, unless fortified by strength to assert it, is meaningless and verdict of the world is always in favour of the strong and not the right.
The developments that took place from the invasion of Tibet’s eastern province of Kham by the Chinese army in 1949 to its total subjugation in 1959 and leading to the exodus of over one hundred thousand Tibetans led by the Dalai Lama is a sordid chapter of history. It was all the more so as it came close on the heels of post-war UN Charter that asserted that the world was determined to uphold, “The dignity and worth of the human persons, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained.” It appeared that the world was ushering into a new era – but it was not. The tragedy was not only what the Chinese army did but more so what rest of the world failed to do.
For centuries, these distinct people inhabiting the roof top of the world had a common civilisation, a unique priest-patron governmental system, flag, currency and sovereign rights to enter treaties. There is a long and continuous recorded history of Tibet from the time of King Songtsen Gompo from Sixth Century AD till date underlining its separate identity. However, as true of most ancient states, Tibet too had its ups and downs during its long history and there were times when its freedom in varying degrees was over-cast under some Chinese empires. It is, however, also true that there had been periods when strong Tibetan regimes exercised control over Chinese territories. One of the landmark treaties was signed between Tibetans and the Chinese as early as 821 AD evident by the text on the stone pillar close to Jokhang temple in Lhasa which states that “Great Tibet” and “Great China” would “act towards each other with respect, friendship and equality.” As an independent nation, Tibet entered into treaties with Bushair (1681), Laddakh (1683 and 1842), Nepal (1856), Mongolia (1913) etc. Signing of the Shimla treaty in 1914 with the British where it delineated its frontier with India is a historic landmark.
In recent history, Tibet enjoyed all the characteristics of a sovereign nation following expulsion of the Chinese forces from the Tibetan territory by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1911. All pre-1950 maps, globes and atlases show Tibet as an independent nation. There was an independently functioning government in Tibet when on the dawn of October 6, 1950, 52nd, 53rd and 54th divisions of the 18th Army of the Chinese military attacked the Tibetan frontier, guarded by 3,500 soldiers and by 2,000 Khampa militiamen. Though heavily outnumbered, Tibetean forces fought to the last man on the banks of Drichu river and at the river crossing near Markham in the South.
The fact that Tibet was an independent country that was invaded by China was upheld by the Legal Enquiry Committee of the International Commission of Jurists. It asserted in its report that, “Tibet demonstrated from 1913 to 1950 the conditions of statehood as generally accepted under international law. In 1950, there was a people and a territory, and a government that functioned in that territory, conducting its own domestic affairs free from any outside authority. From 1913-1950, foreign relations of Tibet were conducted exclusively by the Government of Tibet, and countries with whom Tibet had foreign relations are shown by official documents to have treated Tibet as an independent State.” Historical realities are hard to wish away and like the buried seeds assert themselves when the time is ripe.
The relevance of the Tibet issue is, however, not only political. Much beyond politics there lies a threatened civilisation, cultural heritage, spiritual order and way of life nurtured over the centuries. The struggle in Tibet more than political is for its cultural and spiritual survival. In the march of history the identities rooted in these enduring human attainments prove to be indissoluble; often unfolding the future in most unpredictable ways.
As often misconstrued, civilisational identity of Tibet is not limited to the geographical confines of the Chinese drawn Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). It extends far beyond and includes areas inhabited by the people who identify themselves as ‘Bodpas’ and consider the Dalai Lama as their temporal and spiritual head. Often referred as ‘historical’ or ‘cultural’ Tibet, besides TAR, includes provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan; together accounting for roughly one fourth of what constitutes present day China. These areas with an average altitude of 3,000 meters are topographically clearly distinguishable with non-Tibetan low lands and are marked by a sparse density of population, ethnically different from people of mainland China.
The other aspect that lends the Tibetan issue a sense of urgency is its human rights dimension. The deeply religious people unable to defend themselves have fallen victim to rapacious expansionism and religious suppression of a power, that subscribes to the Marxian prototype that, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature.” The post 2009 spate of protests and suicides that have rocked Tibet are as much against Sinocisation and cultural degradation as for political freedom. The gruesome trail of self immolations over the years has become more intense, widespread and frequent; the year 2012 alone recording over 82 incidents. Significantly, the incidents were not only confined to Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) but also to ‘historical Tibet; which includes several areas that have now been declared as non-Tibetan provinces of China. For last six decades the people of Tibet have been facing grave violation of human rights, denial of religious freedom and restrictions to pursue their way of life. Ample evidence of gross human rights violations have been placed before the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and other international bodies by the Tibetans living in exile and their supporters. In March 2012, four international NGOs deposed before the UNHRC on gross violation of human rights, abuse of power and denial of religious freedom. Faith in pacifist philosophy of Buddhism, small and scattered population, economic poverty and lack of international support make the hapless population an easy target for the Chinese army to suppress and subjugate. Dubbing Dalai Lama as a conspirator, the Chinese consider these self immolations as part of his crafty mechanisms. The Chinese Embassy in New Delhi in its website reproduced a December 11, 2012, report of People’s Daily insinuating that self-immolations in China's ethnic Tibetan areas was "among the latest tactics that the Dalai clique has taken in recent years to achieve their political purposes". This, however, has failed to obfuscate the harsh reality that the resentment in Tibet against repression and violation of human rights is assuming serious proportions. There is a need for realistic and meaningful initiatives by all stake holders, including the international community to establish peace and normalcy in Tibet. It is unfortunate that the talks between Dalai Lama and the Chinese did not yield any fruitful results. There exists a sort of stalemate which needs to be broken through bold political initiatives.
The problem of over one million Tibetan exiles, living in different parts of the world, is another important dimension of the Tibetan issue. These exiles, most of them living in India, in terms of their legal status, being neither citizens of any country, nor refugees, illegal immigrants or stateless persons are non-existent. Uprooted from their homeland for over half a century their economic and social life is in shambles. The only hope that sustains them is their abiding faith in the Dalai Lama’s leadership, their religious and temporal head, who heads the Tibetan government in exile and takes care of their basic survival needs. This, however, is undergoing a change following the Dalai Lama’s historic step to give up his political power.
The Dalai Lama’s voluntary abdication of his political power in March 2011 and its devolution to an elected democratic leadership is a watershed point. In April 2011, Dr. Lobsang Sangay was elected to the high office of Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister) of the government in exile. This step has long term implications. First, of course, is that hereafter the political and administrative powers which were earlier vested in the Dalai Lama would be exercised by a democratically elected body. Secondly, it brings about a separation of religious authority from the political authority which had been the hallmark of the priest-patron relationship in Tibet for centuries. Lastly, and most importantly, this brings to an end reliance of the movement to the life of an individual. It will prove those wrong who thought that the life of the Tibetan movement, was co-terminus with that of the Dalai Lama. Through this transfer of political power, the Dalai Lama has made every Tibetan- in and out of Tibet - a stake holder in the Tibetan struggle.
From Indian perspective, Tibet has a special security import. India shares nearly a 4,000 km. of border with Tibet, which is now the Sino –Indian border. Despite India’s best efforts and sixteen rounds of talks to settle the border dispute, little progress has been made in this direction. China’s development of military infrastructural in Tibet, assistance to Pakistan in developing strategic weapon systems, new assertions in the Indian Ocean, claiming Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh as ‘Southern Tibet’ etc. have raised security concerns in India. Seen in the backdrop of China’s rise as a major military and economic power and its comprehensive military modernisation programme, that is more aggressive than defensive, serious security concerns have been raised in India. India’s security interests are thus intricately linked to developments in Tibet and need detailed study and analysis.
In recent years, there has been considerable interest among the scholars, human right activists, strategic thinkers and people at large about Tibet. I am happy that Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) is bringing out a publication focussing on different aspects of the Tibet imbroglio. Some noted experts and professionals with long experience have contributed to this work. The articles cover a wide range of issues providing comprehensive perspectives as also an analysis of contemporary developments. I am grateful to Ambassador Prabhat Shukla for his painstaking efforts to bring out this book. I am sure the readers will find the publication useful.