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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Partisan’s parrot: Or how not to do ethnography like Carole McGranahan

This review by Luna LH* finds that Carole McGranahan’s book on marginalisation of Chushigangdruk in exile Tibetan discourse is of a piece with the noxious politics of resentment and exceptionalism abetted by its partisans.

Testimony as alternative history: Fact or figment 

Claiming that there has been a tacit marginalisation of Chushigangdruk (CGD, the volunteer force of predominantly Kham soldiers formed in Lhasa in 1958) in exile Tibetan political discourse, Carole McGranahan argues that it constitutes what she calls an ‘arrested history’ —denuding public memory of a historical past for present expediency.1 For McGranahan this is not a mere aberration of omission, there has been a strategic effacement of the historic resistance force as the Dalai Lama pivoted to a conciliatory approach towards the Chinese. But the very premise of the book is disproved by the fact that CGD is not a hushed episode of our past. Far from it, most laypeople have an over-inflated view of the organisation’s contribution. (Just look at the number of book reviews on CGD on this website alone). CGD is not only a household name among Tibetans, its founder Andrug Gonpo Tashi was officially decorated with highest military honour as dzasak by the Tibetan government and his biography released by the Dalai Lama’s office.

Popular authors often overplay this trope of secrecy of CGD ops to lure lay enthusiasts interested in Tibetan affairs or CIA’s geopolitical shenanigans. For an academic work to make such a claim is not even flogging a dead horse but one that was never alive. Even her concept of ‘arrested history’ is just a variation on usual trite platitudes about history being a constructed narrative, all fluffed up with a flurry of quotations from NeoNietzschean philosophers. As someone who actually grapples with Derrida and his post-metaphysical idea of ‘deferral’ as a recursive abyss of meaning, I’m almost physically disgusted by McGranahan equating his infinitesimally subtle concept with the sidelining of an organisation for political expediency. Her grossly irrelevant interpretations not only devalue the ideas of these philosophers, it also hampers the flow of her actual narrative. Readers are better advised to turn to paperbacks like Buddha’s warriors, Orphans of the cold war that actually give good straightforward journalistic accounts of the guerrilla outfit.

There may be some interesting grounds to parse here on the ideological fallout from the policy pivot toward peaceful conciliation. But none of the veterans in her book actually express any significant resentment or ideological opposition except the usual resigned detachment typical of any Tibetan elder. There is only one spontaneous instance of opposition in the book — when she overhears two old Khampa men in a restaurant instigating a newly-arrived young man against the Tibetan government’s neglect of CGD. Why did she not use men of this type as her respondents instead of overlaying mostly benign testimonies with preconceived biases she imbibed from elsewhere.

Folk testimony as alternative history is a legitimate field of study, but McGranahan’s book desecrates the cardinal rule of ethnography as she overlays a preconceived narrative on the subject matter. And as the CGD ecosystem is the fount of this biased narrative, this essay is a critique of the author and by extension of this noxious politics of resentment and exceptionalism. Nobody is denying that in the power tussles of the early exile years, there were some missteps in aiming to homogenise a fractious Tibetan polity, but not malicious marginalisation that should warrant the kind of resentment and even separatism harboured by this faction for decades. This unceasing wave of obstructive politics through the years even exasperates a commoner like me to ask ‘what betides them, what will satisfy them’. But then looking at global phenomena like the Trumpers lamenting the marginalisation of white majority in America, one realises the easy lure of resentment politics—resentment is the puerile language of political opposition when it has no ideological validity.

A government doesn’t genuflect to a guerrilla force

To recount what the government actually did for the CGD, it was the Lhasa government and citizenry who pooled in resources to support the refugee soldiers and later negotiated assistance from CIA to arm them. Despite all this if you say that CGD, armed with indigenous and foreign support, was not well-cared for, spare a thought for the nameless self-organised martyrs among the 100,000 killed, tortured and imprisoned across Tibet, the best of whom were armed with nothing but medieval matchlock muskets.

Even if we take her argument at face value, what does she suggest the government should’ve done? When the US government cannot fend for veterans of its standing armies who are in actual wars that drag on for years, how does she put such a heavy onus on a refugee administration that too for a volunteer militia that never saw a full-scale battle and engaged in a few raids at best? Tibetans hold a romanticised view of the resistance as a Spartan war when in reality CGD as a guerrilla outfit succeeded in some raids on military stations or passing convoys but faced overwhelming reprisal like that at the Lhokha station where thousands with their families and livestock lay encamped on open ground like sitting ducks to be decimated by Chinese aerial bombing.

There’s a photograph of the author meeting Gyalo Thondup in the book. If her ostensible subject is the dynamics of the government versus a guerrilla force, Thondup could’ve offered a more panoramic view of the overall situation. But she has not even included one statement from him! Instead, when referring to Thondup she uses the phrase ‘his rise to political power’ (which could be easily read as nepotistic power grabbing). She doesn’t even mention once that it was Gyalo Thondup who mediated the CIA assistance for CGD, and later spearheaded the formation of the Special Frontier Force in the Indian Army to absorb remnants of the force after it was dismantled in Nepal. Also, if some of the veterans she met are poor, it also has to do with individual capability. Even now the army is mostly an option for academically challenged children from poorer families.

Selective amnesia of a partisan historian

McGranahan also mentions a rift between the Dalai Lama and CGD, but she doesn’t explain the actual incidents that precipitated this. CGD led by Lithang Athar signed an agreement with Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, ceding sovereignty over to Taiwan-based Kuomintang without consulting the Tibetan government. Any other government would’ve effectively banned such a non-state organisation for treading on its sovereign authority and jeopardising its whole mission. But she underplays nay conceals the whole fiasco, euphemistically terming it as CGD’s ‘dealings with MTAC’. Unaware of this real background, any rank outsider reading her book would be misled into thinking that the Dalai Lama was disproportionate in his censure of CGD at the time.

Another point of friction was the ouster of Bawa Yeshi from CGD leadership in Mustang, Nepal. Growing indiscipline under Bawa Yeshi was creating unease with Mustang locals and he was to be replaced by the younger Gyato Wangdu (nephew of the founder Andrug Gonpo Tashi). Yeshi begrudging the near universal support for Wangdu actually defected with a handful of his loyalists and took up Nepalese citizenship. Predictably, our analyst doesn’t elaborate on the reasons behind Yeshi’s ouster or his subsequent defection, but does not miss the chance to insinuate that Gyalo Thondup’s meddling caused the rift. Contrary to McGranahan’s insidious claims, in reality Bawa Yeshi himself showed much better discernment, expressing genuine atonement and seeking pardon from the Dalai Lama in his later years.2

McGranahan’s selective amnesia also glosses over atrocities committed by some errant CGD soldiers on other Tibetans. Women were molested, wealthy robbed, and men beaten and murdered in Utsang. The riotous behaviour of CGD was a hot topic in the post-exodus period even memorialised in song by some quick-witted old wives. McGranahan doesn’t even unpack this allegation but instead jumps to a pre-emptive defense claiming that some Tibetans bribed by Chinese committed misdeeds to smear the CGD.

Seems like this ridiculous argument was begat by Jamyang Norbu, resident dissident and honorary CGD warrior (both titles self-endowed). In his piece unilaterally acquitting CGD, Norbu pins all such misdeeds on ‘counterfeit Khampas’ bribed by Chinese. Well, were the Chinese ‘dropping silver taels’ in Nepal because some of these misdeeds happened in Mustang too? Is Norbu unaware of the embarrassing fiasco when protesting Mustang locals publicly disowned dozens of illegitimate children borne to their women from CGD soldiers? Given the rising anger of Mustang locals against incidents of violence and robbery, CGD itself doled out brutal corporal punishment to discipline some of the main miscreants. Norbu even falsifies one such instance of public punishment, saying the men caught were not CGD soldiers, whereas the truth is that the two men were true-blue CGD recruits from Dege, and when all the Dege factions came heavy on Bawa Yeshi for being too stringent, the two were let off with a humiliating public whipping.

Banditry was rife in Eastern Tibet, even a seasonal occupation for some in the wilder nomadic areas. There will be very few elders from these regions who haven’t witnessed or been embroiled in a violent feud in their youth. It’s just sanctimonious hypocrisy to pretend as if it was unthinkable that some of them didn’t pillage and rape when even trained soldiers of national armies run amok in times of war and unrest. In his Quixotic quest as a lone contrarian rebel, Norbu likes to rail at his strawman of ‘unthinking Tibetan mainstream public’. But utterly oblivious to the viciously parochial politics of a fringe faction, he panders to them as a petty pamphleteer spreading their blatant lies in the guise of amateur history or writing scurrilous screeds against Gyalo Thondup and Samdhong Rinpoche. McGranahan being a serious ethnographer should’ve at least interviewed some old Toepa ladies who would’ve told her a tale or two about how they were brutalised by some of these men. The most bizarre one I know is of a wealthy Utsang man from Saga-dzong in Shigaze prefecture (who later lived in Dhorpatan, Nepal) imprisoned in a makeshift pit dungeon in Mustang for seven years by CGD.

Funnily she defends indiscipline in CGD at an organisational level, but has no qualms in smearing a lone individual called Amdo Kesang from Pokhara. The poor guy supposedly gave shelter to many Amdo volunteer soldiers after Mustang CGD was dismantled. But instead of appreciating how an individual had the wherewithal to do this, she calls him a troublemaker without explaining why. This ‘anthropologist’ has put a libellous slur on an ordinary person into a scholarly book published by a university press. Talk about a lack of sense of proportion and propriety!

A real case of ‘arresting history’

This biased regurgitation takes a more insidious shade with her downplaying of CGD recruits from other regions. Following present-day CGD partisans, she doesn’t even name Amdo Jinpa Gyatso, a cosignatory of the CGD letter and commander of the Amdo faction, who was not an armchair general but led many skirmishes in his hometown of Ngawa Dzoge and was later martyred in Damshung northeast of Lhasa. In fact, she seems to be at pains to expunge their name altogether. Citing a survey by some other writer, she notes that only one man of the 27 soldiers interviewed was from Amdo, but that he too was a Gyelrongwa (so not really). What kind of an ethnographer uses a measly survey of two dozen participants to even imply such a deduction? It’s beyond dispute that CGD was overwhelmingly a Khampa organisation. We don’t need validation of having been a part of CGD as if it were the only hallmark of patriotic resistance. But McGranahan’s insistence on this input seems more like a sleight of hand of diminishing non-Khampas.

After nearly two years’ banishment in the wilderness as ‘class-enemy’ guerrilla rebels (labelled thitu by CCP), those of my forebears who dodged imprisonment or death, finally escaped to Lhasa just to find themselves smack bang in the midst of the  hellish shelling of the Norbulingka. An Amdo contingent, few hundreds strong, posted on the East gate of Norbulingka (the deadliest side directly facing the Chakpori hill), was decimated, when they foolishly tried to scale Chakpori only to be shot down like flies in a hail of shelling from the Red Army garrison stationed on the hilltop. Bora Amchok nomads disbelieving the Dalai Lama’s escape were ready to gun down the merchants from south Amdo when they asked them to desert. They stubbornly stood their ground in the shelling of Norbulingka when everyone had fled and were never seen again.

Who profits from parochial politics

After booting out other factions, CGD have given themselves the mandate to turn a historical militia force into a provincial organisation — appointing executives who’ve not even seen an hour of combat or admitting new arrivals whose ancestors had nothing whatsoever to do with CGD. (Who knows some of them could possibly be offsprings of proletarian collaborators, called u-tang in CCP parlance). Instead of letting a historical militia be a national relic of the past, these upstarts use the CGD legacy as a garb to sanitise their parochial politics. Anyway, whose interests are they protecting and from whom? These delusions of domination or being dominated only afflict the paranoid obsessed with power. Where’s the need for such parochial politics when the Tibetan government largesse is administered across constituencies that are completely mixed with no possibility of discriminating against a particular demographic.

So devious is their hypocrisy that these inheritors of the MTAC deal, who signed over their sovereignty to Taiwan Kuomintang, are now cynically appropriating the Rangzen banner to undermine the state ideology of Umeylam and abetting obstreperous politics of the most petty kind via their vote-as-a-bloc proxies in the Tibetan parliament. Gowo Phendey let this mask of hideous hypocrisy slip when he raucously denounced Umeylam in one parliamentary session, but then another time goaded those who dared call Bawa Phunwang a traitor to castigate the sikyong too. A self-touted arch-Rangzenpa unwittingly defending an arch-collaborator. What a Freudian slip!

The iceberg under the tip of a biased narrative

What this book does is fan false stories of Khampas as benevolent saviours who rallied to save Lhasa. Prod any CGD partisan and this sole-saviour narrative will unfailingly tumble out at the end. This skewed view is based on delusory chest-thumping rather than a logical dissection of the resistance. To understand the resistance one must analyse the logistical aspects of the invasion. The straight path to Lhasa from the Chinese hinterland goes through southern Kham as the crow flies. That’s why the Chinese pushed through on this route, first leading to the Dartsedo conflict at the border then a veritable blitzkrieg through Southern Kham targetting all its significant mileposts like Lithang and Draggo, to push through to Lhasa. Being on the warpath of the Red Army marauding their way into Tibet, there was a subsequent wave of thousands of Kham refugees, including entire families, into Utsang, where the resident elite then organised a militia with the help of Lhasan government. (The only interesting bit in the whole book is about the regional and kinship networks at play in the resistance – how Lithangpas dominated in CGD due to the founder being one himself.)

But by the time the Red Army encircled Lhasa, it was just the mere final flourish of the iron jaw clamping down on the nerve centre of Tibetan world, thus leaving no room for an Utsang resistance. Gadhen Phodrang restrained the national army fearing that any aggression would be taken as a provocation by the Red Army and instead chose to arm the refugees as a militia so that they could bulk up the Tibetan side while disavowing official complicity. (Listen online to Ven. Beri Jigme Wangyal recount the names and negotiations behind the genesis of CGD as a militia.) Of course, this was a completely miscalculated and effete strategy, a total ostrich move. But nothing whatsoever, whether appeasement or confrontation, could’ve prevented the invasion or even put a dent in the Goliath-like enemy. This is how we need to look at geographic position, military logistics, political strategy instead of self-aggrandising rhetoric and libellous stories fanned by racist partisans.

But to claim that Lhasa, the very crucible of militaristic and civilisational prowess that forged the Tibetan nation, the very Rome that founded the Empire, was to be rescued by straggling clansmen from the periphery is just laughable. In conversations behind closed doors, a CGD partisan punch-drunk on his bellicose jingoism will even claim that they accomplished the Dalai Lama’s escape. But now a branch of CGD has had the audacity to officially publicise this figment of their mythomania. Despite having a whole standing army, the Dalai Lama chose to make his escape in the dead of night with just two retainers. He made the perilous part of journey from Lhasa in total secrecy and was fortuitously met by some CGD soldiers in Lhokha. He could’ve easily made the entire journey to the Indian border alone just like tens of thousands of ordinary Tibetans, including geriatrics and infants, who did so. Undying gratitude for the veterans who were in that party, but just to antagonise the blowhards who misuse their name, I would argue that the Dalai Lama would’ve been safer travelling inconspicuously with just two companions. A posse of armed men huddled around one figure could’ve roused the suspicion of patrolling Chinese soldiers and actually endangered the Dalai Lama.

Recognising resistance beyond CGD

The pan-Tibetan story of resistance of 100,000 tortured, imprisoned and dead is much bigger than that of one refugee militia. Thankfully, there’s academic research now with access to records within Tibet that are beginning to piece together a more holistic picture based on facts and numbers from archival sources rather than biased anecdotes or even our unreliable exile government guesstimates that embarrassingly keep fluctuating from claiming 1million dead to some other arbitrary number.

In quantum, the violence in Eastern Tibet was of similar scale, and military records indicate that the most massacres happened in Qinghai (internal military report of the Red Army, which was also cited by Panchen Rinpoche in his famous speech).3 The first anti-communist faction in a Tibetan region was created by the Mangra chief in 1948, aided by ammunition from Kuomintang. Unrest in Amdo, fomenting for a few years, finally flared in 1958 when the CCP unleashed coercive transformation, but the repression was brutal given the precedent they had faced in Kham.4 The Xunhua (Bhidoe, in Tibetan, home county of the erstwhile Panchen Lama) uprising led by Tibetans and supported by Salar Muslims, considered by historians to be the antecedent of the Lhasa uprising, is the second largest rebellion on the plateau. Tibetan rebels destroyed a Red Army military station, but a most brutal massacre followed where nearly 500 people, mostly Salars, were gunned down and the instigating Tibetan rebels were hunted out from the grassland and executed. The situation in Amdo was more of a trapped insurgency with no outside help or route for escape in face of the final onslaught. The upheaval was so cataclysmic that it is just referred to as ‘58 and remembered as such in many songs by resistance singers/writers there now.

Historical causality has a momentum that sooner or later effloresces into actual reality; it cannot be belied or fabricated by manmade narratives. Why have most of the self-immolations occurred in Amdo? Why did mass protests spread in that region like wildfire? It’s the seed of ‘58 that blossomed into virulent resistance in Amdo. Apart from Lhasa, the massive protests in 2008 were mostly localised to the main Amdo districts of Labrang, Ngawa and Rebkong because that year coincided with the 50th anniversary of the ‘58 upheaval. Our exile-centric perspective with its gap in historical understanding is unable to explain these glaring facts staring us in the face. We haven’t even set an occasion or memorial to pay homage to the nearly 400 people who were killed in the 2008 protests, the most brutal massacre in recent memory. Within our narrative CGD is given pride of place as the sole resistors, and if some CGD people still bemoan being overlooked, then they’re just suffering from persecution delusion of pathological proportions.

Mistress of moot points

But our analyst is so gullibly susceptible to her interlocutors that she quotes one of them saying ‘Kham is the most populous and prosperous region’. Prosperous by what measure? Granted that some of the largest merchants in Lhasa from Kham, with access to the natural resources of the hinterland, began to rival the old Lhasan aristocracy in wealth. But there was no dearth of actual migrants or even pilgrims from the harsher regions of Kham choosing to stay on in Utsang due to plentiful grains whereas there was no migration happening vice versa eastward. Since we have economic surveys, we can easily dismantle this delusion with real data.5 Yushu prefecture is the poorest in the whole of Tibet (GDP per capita at around 12,979 RMB). With harsh climactic conditions, it is still below similar regions of Nagchu, Golog and Ngari that rank above it in that order. Urbanised Chamdo (RMB 36,574 in 2021) is poorer than its counterparts of Lhasa (RMB 86,750 in 2019) and Shigatse in TAR. With a similar mixed grassland-alpine geography and agri-nomadic populace, neighbouring Ngawa (RMB 49,668 in 2020) is richer than the Kham heartland of Garze (RMB 36,993 in 2020). Deqen (RMB 68,711 in 2020) is rich owing to its tourism and fertile land but behind a similarly geographically-endowed Nyingtri in TAR. So migration trends in the past and economic data in the present (for all Kham prefectures in contrast to comparable non-Kham counterparts) puts paid to this assumption. Regardless, what kind of an ethnographer quotes such inconsequential factoids instead of plugging the gaping loopholes in her narration of the actual topic at hand. Nonsensical and non-sequitur!

Continuing this sport of one-upmanship, but now into the intra-Khampa realm, she quotes one subject who says, ‘Tehors are the real Khampas’. Ironic that a principality that only emerged a few centuries ago and traces its lineage to a Mongolian prince should say this. Historically, provincial designations rigidified only in the last few centuries in line with jurisdictions carved up under Manchu-Mongol commanderies. This is mere conjecture but perhaps formation of a pan-Eastern Tibetan Khampa identity also historically coincided with the ascendancy of the Dege kingdom as it became the wellspring of cultural diffusion into eastern frontier. Historians see Amdo identity as being coterminous with Gelugpa ascendancy revitalising the region with a religious renaissance.

Not only is the whole premise of her book based on the persecution delusion of some motivated malcontents, she also regurgitates such irrelevant vapid tidbits of deluded Khampa supremacists. God forbid if she writes a history on the origins of Tibet, for she would perhaps be gullible enough to tell us that we were born of an ogress and a monkey. Compare this to the anthropologist Toni Huber who says, ‘There was no discrete Amdo and no need to invent one’.

Arrested development of a slacker-scholar

This would’ve been admirable project if she had taken on the more humble role of an interlocutor or a ghost writer of their life stories, and then donated the proceeds to the veterans she mentions so compassionately. Among the scant reviews of her book, one with the most likes on Goodreads pans the exploitative nature of the book. Instead, this book ensured McGranahan a career in the thickets of social science academia where any bird brandishing a somewhat exotic feather is admitted into the flock. Oh pity the anthropology of Clifford Geertz and Margaret Mead who parsed through banal discourses to pierce through to the philosophical meaning sustaining a whole culture. But here we have an ethnographer duped by her subjects into parroting their unfounded persecution and superiority complexes.

I can imagine McGranahan as a young hippie going native, sitting cross-legged and sipping butter tea with the veterans, smug in her benevolence and humility. Taken in by the more nefarious unnamed sources of her ‘ethnography’, she imbibes all of their biases losing all sense of objectivity. Then fancying herself a crusader of this hoax cause of marginalised history, McGranahan buries herself in the university library for the next decade in a mishmash of buzzword theories and writes a thesis elevating her sketchy narrative with an academic sounding pseudo-concept.

‘Arrested history’? No. More like arrested development of a slacker on the path to shoddy scholardom. And if my takedown here sounds like character assassination of the author, well then, consider it payback for poor ol’ Amdo Kesang.


1 Carole McGranahan. Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

2 Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, From the Margins of Exile: Democracy and Dissent within the Tibetan Diaspora, PhD dissertation, UCSC, 2018.

3 Tsering Dawa, ‘Colonisation in Tibet and its threat to Tibetans’ survival’, China Spring, vol. 173, pp. 63-88, February 1998.

4 Benno Weiner. The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020.

5 CEIC. https://www.ceicdata.com/en/china/gross-domestic-product-per-capita-prefecture-level-region/cn-gdp-per-capita-qinghai-yushu

*  The author writes under a pseudonym

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Tibetan Review.


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