India's faltering Tibet policy
Some 60 years ago, India's first envoy to China, K.M. Panikkar, suggested to the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to make efforts to establish Tibet as an independent country.
|Tibetan protestors scuffle with police after they defied security and stormed into the cultural center of the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi on Friday. AP
China was then in the midst of civil war. When Nehru made the suggestion, China lost no time in taking over Tibet militarily. Still Nehru felt that India, while recognising China's suzerainty over Tibet, had the right to express the interest in the maintenance of Tibetan autonomy. But he wrote to his Finance Minister John Matthai at that time: "The result of all this is that we may have the Chinese or Tibetan Communists right up on our Assam, Bhutan and Sikkim border."
How prophetic he has turned out to be!
I wish Nehru had pursued the matter at that time, at least to ensure autonomy to Tibet. But he was pacified when China said that it would solve the problem "by peaceful and friendly means." In the official reply, New Delhi used by mistake words such as "Chinese sovereignty" instead of "suzerainty." India realised its mistake and asked its ambassador Panikkar to rectify it. He never did, pro-China as he was.
Even if India had not used the word "sovereignty," the Chinese attitude would have been no different. China considered Tibet as an integral part of its territory and "resolved the problem with "a military occupation". That remains China's policy even today. It neither wants any discussion on the subject, nor any rapprochement.
Therefore, the manner in which Beijing has crushed the various uprisings should not come as a surprise.
China knows of no other way. Any dissent is a challenge to its authority and it has to be suppressed with force. Not long ago, it shot hundreds of students dead at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. They were not questioning the regime but were trying to establish the right of dissent in a state which was cast in the authoritarian mould.
The uprising at Lhasa and the protests at Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives are an evidence to show how the occupation of Tibet for more than five decades has not snuffed out the flame of liberty burning from within the heart of its people. It proves once again that Beijing with all its military strength has not been able to weaken the cultural and ethnic pull that the Tibetans have, while living in China or elsewhere.
Military methods can suppress a nation for the time being but can never kill the urge to speak out.
Freedom is the birthright of people all over the world.
What Nehru said at the time of China's takeover of Tibet still holds good: peaceful and friendly means.
It is still not too late for China to make up with the Tibetans provided it is willing to recognise their entity. The Dalai Lama, criticised by Beijing for the recent protests, is the best friend of China because even now, when scores of people have been killed at Lhasa and in other parts of Tibet, he has not given a call for the boycott of the Olympic Games at Beijing this August.
He has, in fact, denounced violence and has given an ultimatum to his followers to give it up if they want him to stay as their leader. The Dalai Lama has made it once again clear that the Tibetans do not want separation but autonomy. Beijing can continue to have control over foreign affairs and defence.
New Delhi would probably give its right arm if the Kashmiris were to accept the formula the Dalai Lama had adumbrated for Tibet -- that is autonomy within the country. But Beijing is different in its thinking. It believes in holding all the power and not sharing them with the provinces. How can it treat Tibet differently when it considers it an integral part of the country?
The Dalai Lama has chided India correctly for being over cautious. Even during Nehru's period when China occupied Indian territories, New Delhi was quiet or, at best, polite in protests. It was understandable then because India did not want to distract its attention from the nascent progress it was making after emerging from the 150 years of slavery. But what stops it now in at least ventilating its unhappiness?
Words like "feeling distressed" do not mean much. Nor do they give comfort to the Tibetans who burn candles all night at Dharamsala and sit under the sky to protest against the brutal suppression of their brethren in Lhasa and elsewhere.
Buddhism which the Tibetans follow is part of the rich culture that India possesses. The Nalanda University near Patna, once a centre Buddhism, is being revived to reestablish link with the religion that was born in India. Still New Delhi is too afraid to say anything which may even indirectly annoy China.
Herding the protesters in police vans and removing them physically was not a palatable scene to watch on television. New Delhi may feel satisfied that Beijing has patted on its back for stopping the Tibetans from their long march to Lhasa. But the government has let down freedom loving people.
Lack of moral support to the Tibetans is not the only example of India faltering when it comes to speaking out.
On the individual level, the government has behaved worse than a coward in the case of Taslima Nasreen. Here is a Bangladeshi writer who took refuge in India because she considered it a country where she would not be harassed for her creative writing, however critical. Although she withdrew from her book, Lajja, the passages which were considered objectionable and sought apologies, the government of India confined her to a room which had windows and doors, but no outside contact. Her poignant remark was: India was not the secular and democratic country she had cherished.
She has decided to leave India. So did the Dalai Lama at one time because of New Delhi's attitude. But he stayed back because India is the nearest to Tibet, the place to which he hopes to return one day. He and the Tibetans living in India and hoping to have a rapprochement with Beijing is a test for Indian values and the independent stand a country like ours should take. Let us not fail again and again.
* The writer is a veteran Indian journalist and diplomat who also served as a member of Rajya Sabha, India's upper house.