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Monday, September 25, 2023

The Tibet Factor in India-China Relations


The Tibetan Saga for National Liberation
by Pranjali Bandhu
Odyssey, 2007 [Distributed by Studera Press, Delhi]
pp. 263 (inclusive of maps, chronology, index)
ISBN 81-900615-2-6
Price: RS. 495

Tibetans, presently numbering over 130,000, are one among the many refugee populations in India. Though they have already been living here around half a century, they are yet only partially integrated. Second and third generation Tibetans, born and brought up in exile, study in Tibetan/Indian schools, colleges and institutions of higher education, and are in the employment market. Though a few among them have opted for Indian citizenship, the community by and large remains loyal to the Dalai Lama headed government-in-exile in Dharamsala, and still nurtures the hope of returning to a free and autonomous, if not independent, Tibet.

While economic relations between India and China continue to grow, the border issue remains contentious; and the Tibet factor in this relationship needs re-examination in clear perspective. The existence of a Tibetan government-in-exile in India, the institutionalization of a significant settled refugee population, active ‘Free Tibet’ campaigning—all these represent thorns between the two governments, eluding any easy rapprochement. The nature of India-China trade relations is also not entirely satisfactory from India’s point of view. Trade with China has surpassed that with Japan but there is a considerable imbalance involved with Indian imports far exceeding exports to China. Moreover, imports from China are manufactured value-added products, and have a large component of electrical and electronic goods, whereas Indian exports are largely primary products, having a large component of iron ore.

The Tibet issue is closely linked to the border issue, which despite several sessions of talks in the last many decades has remained intractable with tensions periodically coming up at various points on the long border. Actually, the border issue is one mainly concerning what is called Greater Tibet. According to China, Tibet is an inalienable and non negotiable part of China and hence the outer areas of Greater Tibet ought to be in Chinese Tibet, where the Tibetans constitute an occupied and truncated minority nationality in a China politically structured as a centralized monolith. The question of Tibet has become an international issue and a volatile one at that. The confrontation that came up in Doklam (Dong Lang in Chinese) where the Chinese were building a road as a part of their mammoth Belt and Road Initiative to expand trade, found Indian and Chinese armies glaring at each other. The stand-off clearly showed that the unresolved border issue has the potential to become a live wire on third party initiatives. India’s dependency on the US has only deepened with time and the American policy can provoke armed conflict as a means to contain a burgeoning China. It is to this end that an axis of Japan-India-US has been put in place.

In fact, India’s granting of asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959 was done with the concurrence and support of the US government. Nevertheless, the Indian government has from the time of Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet accepted Chinese suzerainty and sovereignty over Tibet. It has endorsed the ‘one China’ principle and has never publicly upheld Tibetan independence after its occupation by the Chinese. It is, however, pertinent to keep in mind that the border issue – delineating and demarcating the border between India and China – actually involves Tibet on the Chinese side. This is a fact that is being completely overlooked and sidelined at present, both at the political level and by the mainstream media because Tibet is accepted to be an inalienable part of motherland China.

Can the right of Tibetans to determine their border with India be proclaimed without India simultaneously conceding the same rights to the nationalities inhabiting the Indian side of the border, namely, the Kashmiris, the Ladakhis, the Sikkimese, the Arunachalis (including many tribal groups), the Nepalis, the Lepchas and so on. This would involve acknowledging the right to self-determination up to the right to secession of the various peoples, which neither the Indian nor the Chinese government is prepared to do. It would mean that the Indian government would have to openly acknowledge its annexation of Sikkim; it would have to own up that a wide swathe of territory from Ladakh to Myanmar including Tawang was actually politically and culturally Tibetan or stood under Tibetan influence, and it was first the British and then Nehru, who followed a forward policy in this region. The Tawang tract and other bordering areas that had been ceded by the Tibetan government in 1914 to the British (forming part of the so-called McMahon Line) were occupied by the Indian government in 1951 and incorporated into the Indian administration. This was done despite the fact that in 1947 the Tibetan government had formally asked India to return these border territories and had even included Sikkim and Darjeeling district in their claim (Darjeeling had been annexed from Sikkim, a dependency of Tibet, by the British). Now that Tibet is forcibly incorporated as a province [albeit part of it as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)] into China, the central Chinese government is laying claim to such ‘Tibetan’ territories. In fact, it does not officially recognize Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India. In the Northwest region, it has occupied 43,180 sq km of the strategic and mineral rich Aksai Chin, besides 5180 sq km of Kashmir, ceded by the Pakistan government in its 1963 boundary agreement with China. Aksai Chin is an ancient trade route and the Chinese need it for forming a link between Tibet and Sinkiang (Eastern Turkistan) that was also similarly annexed by them in 1949.

The above facts are known and documented, though little highlighted by vested interests. A publication, which using available documentation and research, throws much light on the Tibetan issue is The Tibetan Saga for National Liberation by Pranjali Bandhu. It is a must-read for those interested in South and East Asian politics as it provides an excellent documentary background to deciphering the Tibet issue and the persisting demand for independence inside and outside Tibet. It demolishes on all counts the mendacious Chinese claims to Tibet and its propaganda that it has brought development to the area.

Starting with history, it clearly establishes – false historiographical Chinese claims notwithstanding – the existence of Tibet as a state independent of mainland China for a couple of thousand years. It delineates in detail the historical evolution of the Tibetan nation and its relationship to the interventionist and dominating Chinese nation up to the eve of its outright annexation in 1949/1950 by a Chinese government under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese Communist Party’s approach to the national/ethnic question in China in general and to Tibet in particular from the time of its growing ascendancy in China is taken up for analysis and so also the events leading up to the famed 1959 uprising in Lhasa and the subsequent fleeing of the 14th Dalai Lama.

Now that China is fully integrated into the world capitalist system and has developed into an imperialist power it is communist in name only. Tibet as a Chinese province has also become a part of the globalized economy and is feeling its repercussions. If indeed a path for Tibet’s liberation has to be chalked out it has to be done in this context. Allies have to be found among other oppressed peoples, particularly in its surrounding areas and in China itself, rather than being focused on appealing primarily to imperialist governments for support. In brief, this reviewer believes that a Tibetan national liberation movement must be anti-imperialist in its thrust as otherwise it would only be exchanging one dependency for another.

The Chinese establishment of control over the territories of not only Tibet, but also of Sinkiang (East Turkestan) and Inner Mongolia clearly had, in addition to strategic considerations, an economic rationale of exploiting their vast mineral resources for industrialization in mainland China, particularly in its eastern and southern coastal regions, in a typically colonialist fashion. But the rapacious destruction of a self-reliant nomadic pastoral economy through imposed democratic reforms is camouflaged under a developmentalist jargon. The Chinese having taken upon themselves the Han man’s burden of a transformation of Tibet claim that under their rule unprecedented high growth rates and material prosperity have come. The book traces the ‘development’ trajectory of Tibet under Han Chinese aegis and concludes that the kind of ‘growth’ that has taken place has fuelled marginalization and class polarization within the TAR. It has benefited largely a migrant Chinese population, the Tibetan elite and middle class, while rural areas, populated largely by Tibetans, suffer from inadequate incomes, lack infrastructure, basic amenities and education and health provisions. The highly controversial Lhasa-Golmud railway has contributed to the inflow of migrants and tourists and of the outflow of wealth due to resource extraction apart from its dubious environmental impact. The degradation of Tibet, its people and environment, is multifarious. The aspects of religious, cultural and linguistic oppression, the ‘bastardization’ of a people, the environmental devastation are recorded as being the results of a market-driven Chinese economy that no longer has any relationship to the ideas and ideals of communism.

In its final chapter the book also takes a look at the Tibetan struggle for independence. By all internationally accepted criteria of common historical traditions, ethnic identity, cultural homogeneity, linguistic unity, religious and ideological affinity, territorial connection, common economic life and the most important one of the will to be identified as a people, the Tibetans constitute a nation. The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and the Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan and Qinghai, are occupied territory, where there is systematic discrimination of the indigenous Tibetans, economic exploitation of the region, the use of excessive force to stifle dissent, and deprivation of basic civil and democratic rights. Therefore, under international law the Tibetans constitute an oppressed nationality and have the right to self-determination, which is the right to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their social and cultural development. In international law the right to self-determination is a prerequisite to the enjoyment of all other fundamental human rights.

Resistance to Chinese colonization has been met with armed suppression. It is estimated that at least one million Tibetans have died as a result of the occupation, imprisonment, torture and starvation. In the prisons there is an attempt to remould the outlook of those who believe in Tibetan freedom. Thus Tibetans are de facto prisoners in their own country. The media, including the arts and literature, are conspicuously muzzled and the book presents many details in this regard. Foreign journalists too are kept under tight surveillance. Moreover, it is Beijing’s policy to provide journalists free and comfortable trips to China and Tibet in order to solicit favourable ground-level reports. In this way, a number of positive reports on the Lhasa-Golmud railway appeared in the Indian press, after the line was commissioned in 2006. Similarly, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, with the spotlight on China and its human rights record, we had glowing reports lauding Tibetan development after sponsored trips.

The fact that Chinese-led ‘development’ in ‘minority’ areas like that of the TAR, Sinkiang and Inner Mongolia is leading to a growing alienation of the Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongols was corroborated by a 2007 report of the London-based Minority Rights Group International: “China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions”. The infrastructure and other development, particularly of roads and railways, are leading to resource extraction and greater Han Chinese military and civilian presence in these areas. The result is a general dilution of local cultures and lifestyles increasing the levels of resentment among the local populations.

The Appendix provides a useful overview to the initiated and uninitiated alike of the general trajectory of Communist Party politics from the time it came to power in 1949 up to 2004. As the twists and turns in Chinese policy had ramifications for the approach to Tibet, it is important to have a clear grasp over them. The transition from state capitalism to a ‘free market’ economy and full-scale integration into the global market through WTO accession is traced out. Development in Tibet, as virtually an internal colony of China, is linked to the mainland Chinese economy in this role.

The main point made by the book under review—and which is indicated in its title—is that the issue of Tibet is one of national liberation. Tibet, lacking political, economic, cultural, and religious freedom, is an oppressed nationality in every sense. The tragic irony of its plight is that its colonization has been carried out by a communist power. Hence the issue of Tibet simultaneously throws up sharply the question regarding the nature of Chinese communism and socialism right from its very beginnings. Though the book at hand throws up this question, to deal adequately with it lies outside its scope. Now that China is fully integrated into the world capitalist system and has developed into an imperialist power it is communist in name only. Tibet as a Chinese province has also become a part of the globalized economy and is feeling its repercussions. If indeed a path for Tibet’s liberation has to be chalked out it has to be done in this context. Allies have to be found among other oppressed peoples, particularly in its surrounding areas and in China itself, rather than being focused on appealing primarily to imperialist governments for support. In brief, this reviewer believes that a Tibetan national liberation movement must be anti-imperialist in its thrust as otherwise it would only be exchanging one dependency for another.

While The Tibetan Saga for National Liberation points out the shortcomings of the Dalai Lama led movement for genuine autonomy within China, it fails to elaborate this crucial point. Nevertheless, it is a succinct presentation of the case for Tibetan independence. With a couple of maps, Chronology (7th century to 2006), Index, and Bibliography it is useful reference material for all those interested in understanding national liberation movements in the current era taking Tibet as it does for detailed examination.

T.G. Jacob is an independent researcher and writer. Political economy with an interdisciplinary approach is his area of specialization.  As a freelance journalist he writes on current affairs for Malayalam and English newspapers and journals. He is also a founding member of South Asia Study Centre, based in the Nilgiris, South India. He can be reached at southasiastudycentre@gmail.com


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