The act of self-immolation by the Tibetan protestor Jamphel Yeshi on March 26 in New Delhi against the visit of the Chinese President Hu Jintao has hit the international headlines. In contrast, the suicide by drowning of Dhendup Phunstok, a fellow Tibetan, on April 2 has been relatively underplayed. The 26 year-old youth was living in Kolkatta, where he was the Coordinator of the “Students for Free Tibet.” When his body was flushed out of the Ganga , he was found wearing a “FREE TIBET” T-shirt.
What both Yeshi and Phunstok were agitating against was the consolidation of Beijing’s control over Tibet and the increasing helplessness of the international community to stop that. They could not live with the facts that in an effort to instill Chinese values, Beijing-controlled authorities have in recent years stepped up what is called “patriotic education” in schools and monasteries, forcing Tibetans to renounce the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, and to study communist theory. In fact, 33 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009 as part of a resistance movement. Here, the tactic has been unique in the sense that the suicides, though public and fiery, do not harm bystanders or property. The purpose seems to be moving ordinary Tibetans, both inside Tibet and outside in exile. Equally significant to note is that these protestors or “martyrs” have been mostly young—24 of them under 30—and better educated.
How is India affected by all this? After all, there are nearly 200,000 Tibetan refugees in India. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s highest spiritual and political leader, has been living in exile in India since 1959 as an “honoured guest” of India. He has been provided “asylum” to carry on his “spiritual” activities in the country. Although his “government-in-exile” in Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh state is permitted, he and his followers are not allowed to indulge in political activities. In fact, recently, I came across the text of the talk that Lhasang Tsering, a prominent Tibetan-activist, had delivered way back on 17 March 2000 in Bombay as part of the week-long ‘Festival of Tibet 2000’ organised by the Friends of Tibet (INDIA) and Tibetan Youth Congress. The title of his talk was ‘India’s Tibet: A Case for Policy Review’.
Tsering, who is a strong advocate of Tibetan independence (and in this he differs with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, who is talking of genuine autonomy within, not separation from, Communist China), says that he would prefer Tibet becoming “India’s Tibet” to being “China’s Tibet”. Let me quote from his Bombay-speech : “I have often wondered why India doesn’t stake its claim on Tibet. Between China—which seeks to exterminate the Tibetan people and to wipe out Tibetan religion and culture; and India—which gave Tibet the Buddha Dharma and has helped to save Tibetan religion and culture—there is no doubt; India has the greater claim. It is like the story of young Prince Siddhartha who saves the swan his cousin Prince Devadatta has shot. The claim of the latter rests on the grounds of having shot the swan. On the other hand, Prince Siddhartha—the future Buddha—stakes his claim on the grounds of having saved the life of the wounded swan. The King rightly awards the swan to Prince Siddhartha. In today’s world of realpolitik and spineless world leaders, we could hardly hope for such a decisive verdict. Nevertheless; even if only as a diplomatic exercise, why doesn’t India file a case in the International Court of Justice and also raise the issue in the United Nations to stake its claims over Tibet ? In the first place India gave Buddhism to Tibet—the life-force of Tibetan life and culture. Today India has rendered crucial assistance and helped to save Tibetan religion and culture. If Tibet must belong to either of its giant neighbours, then surely, it should be to India—which has helped to save Tibet; and not China—which seeks to destroy Tibet.”
I am not going into the merits or otherwise of Tsering’s thesis, but readers may note that in the January 9, 2010 issue of this magazine I had argued that “Dalai Lama Is India’s Boon, Not Bane”. My article then was in response to a weekly magazine’s suggestion that the Dalai Lama and his supporters should be asked to leave India. In my opinion, by continuing to shelter the Dalai Lama and his followers, India stands to gain more. First, his presence adds to India’s standing in the global community as a democratic country, given the Dalai Lama’s innumerable powerful supporters around the world. It strengthens India’s credentials for offering political asylum to democratic leaders escaping and fighting oppressive authoritarian regimes.
The nearly 200,000 Tibetan refugees in India are not a burden on the country, unlike the more than 20 million illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and thousands of refugees from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. In fact, economically, the Tibetan refugees are self sufficient due to their many entrepreneurial activities. Unlike other refugees, they have not created a law-and-order problem in the country and none have aspired for Indian citizenship, making it clear that they would return to their land if China guaranteed them genuine autonomy and stopped suppressing their culture and way of life.
Besides, India cannot just sever its historical and cultural ties with Tibet to please the Chinese. India is bound with Tibet, as two of the holiest Hindu shrines, Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar, are located there. Tibet is also the source of four great rivers that flow into India. The Dalai Lama has periodically pointed out that the Tibetans are descendants of Rupati, king of a south Indian kingdom who escaped to Tibet with his subjects after the epic Mahabharata War. As for the king of Tibet, it is believed that around 150 BC a prince of the Magadha Kingdom (present-day Bihar state) escaped to Tibet after being exiled from his kingdom. Tibetans named him Nyatri Tsenpo and made him their king, and so began the Tibetan royal lineage. A closer look at geography, ancestry and royal dynasties reveals close ties between India and Tibet.
The Chinese say that Tibet became a part of the Chinese empire when the great Mongol Genghis Khan annexed Tibet (most parts of it) in the early 13th century. It is a strange logic, because taken to its logical conclusion, one could argue that China is a part of Mongolia and does not deserve to exist as an independent nation. Secondly, why are the Chinese not claiming a quarter of Europe, Russia and the whole of West Asia (Middle East) and Central Asia since these also constituted the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan?
The problem with the Chinese version of history is where to draw the line. After all, it is also a fact that the pre-Mongol history of Tibet was militarily glorious. In the eighth century, the Tibetan empire was expanding at such a pace that at one time the then Chinese emperor had to flee his capital and a Tibetan nominee was put on the Chinese throne! Peace was restored in the year 821 with the conclusion of a Treaty, which laid down clearly the boundaries between China and Tibet. It read: “Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the East is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet….” And when one talks of recent history, the fact remains that whether it was Britain until 1947 or the former Soviet Union until 1990, the widely-held view was that Tibet belonged to “India’s sphere of influence.” Viewed thus, the presence of the Dalai Lama and his innumerable assertions supporting India on the boundary disputes strengthens India’s claims of territorial rights during negotiations with China.
Let us remember one fundamental fact. Had Tibet remained under Chinese suzerainty, as was the case throughout history, and not under its sovereignty as has been case since the 1950s, the Sino-Indian border dispute would have been resolved long ago in India’s favour. But because the Dalai Lama openly recognizes the McMahon line as the border between India and Tibet, India’s claim to the region still stands.
What all this underscores is that Tibet is an important factor as far as Sino-Indian relations are concerned. I do not suggest that India should pursue an aggressive stance on Tibet while negotiating with China. My point is that as India cannot wish the Dalai Lama and Tibetans living on our soil and their feelings over what is happening inside Tibet away, we have got a vested interest to see that there are stability and tranquility in Tibet. Sino-Tibetan tensions are not good for the health of Sino-Indian relations, closely interlinked as these are.
By Prakash Nanda