by SD Pradhan

In the backdrop of US President signing into law the measures to support the Tibetans to choose the next Dalai Lama and recognising their political rights, the Chinese embassy spokesperson in New Delhi Ji Rong issued on the 30th December 2020 a blunt statement not only against the US Tibetan Policy and Support Act 2020, but also advising the Indian media to take “an objective and fair stance” on the “highly sensitive nature” of Tibet-related issues and China’s territorial integrity “instead of advocating playing ‘Tibet card’ to meddle in China’s internal affairs and further damage the bilateral relations.” An article in the official mouth-piece of the Chinese Communist Party- the Global Times- expressed its apprehensions over the possible change in India’s policy as recommended by an Indian strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney, who cogently argued in his article that India should at least stop endorsing China’s stance on Tibet. These reflect the Chinese nervousness over the possibility of India’s changed approach on Tibet where its vulnerabilities are increasing with the growing Tibetan movement to assert their rights.

India’s strategic community both in the government and outside is convinced over the need for changing India’s approach towards China, particularly over Tibet since April 2020. A survey of articles in the media and webinars after April 2020 clearly reveals this trend. On the 9th December 2020, Jaishankar India’s External Affairs Minister in an online interaction with Australia’s Lowy Institute had summed up four important dimensions of India’s current thinking on its relations with China. First, the bilateral relationship between India and China has been significantly damaged this year (2020). Second, China has no intention of withdrawing as it has brought tens of thousands of soldiers right up to the LAC in Ladakh that has ‘profoundly disturbed the relationship’. Third, the peace and tranquillity at the border is central for improvement in the relationship. Fourth, since the 15th June incident, sentiments in India have completely changed towards China and it is unrealistic to think of repairing ties during the standoff. There are also surveys which suggest that anti-China sentiments have significantly grown in the year 2020 not only in India but globally. In view of the above, it is natural for China to get worried over the possible change in India’s Tibet policy, which remains its Achilles’ heel.

India’s relations with China are intrinsically linked with the fate of Tibet. While many security analysts point out that it was a grave strategic mistake on the part of India to have accepted Tibet as an autonomous region of China in the hope for peace, the present attempts by Chinese authorities to crush Tibetans with a strong hand and use of force against India fully justify a change in India’s approach towards Tibet.

Last year in August, China at the Seventh Central Symposium on Tibet Works highly objectionable and deplorable decisions were taken to destroy the Tibetan culture and religion and crush dissidence with a heavy hand. President Xi had listed three steps for achieving the above objectives. First, the Sinicization of the Buddhist culture; second, imposition of CCP’s political and ideological education in Tibetan schools by turning them into re-education camps; third, strengthening of the border defence and frontier security of Tibet to ensure that there is no link of the Tibetans with outside world. Xi while projecting the need for building a “new modern socialist Tibet’, stated that the above steps were needed to “ensure national security and enduring peace and stability”. Xi desires complete subjugation of Tibetans in the year 2021 when CCP completes its 100 years.

The fact is that Tibetan are routinely harassed and are being pushed out of Lhasa where now Tibetan are virtually in minority. Several Tibetan committed suicides in the past because of torture and repression of all aspects of Tibetan life. They are being sent to re-education camps for brainwashing. Extensive high-tech surveillance is maintained over the Tibetans. Alongside, China is trying to ensure its own nominee to be selected as the successor of the current Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso.

The US Act is the product of the Chinese atrocities on Tibetans. This Act makes it official the US policy that decisions regarding the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama are exclusively within the authority of the current Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist leaders and the Tibetan people; that US would establish a Consulate in Lhasa; and that the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) is the legitimate institution reflecting the aspirations of the Tibetan diaspora around the world.

Welcoming this historic legislation, CTA President Lobsang Sangay stated that it sent a powerful message of hope and justice to the Tibetans inside Tibet and bolsters US support for the protection of Tibetan people’s religious freedom, human rights, environmental rights and exile Tibetan democracy like never before. This reflects the perception of Tibetans, who had been fighting for their rights since 1950. Sangay aptly attributed the landmark legislation to the tireless efforts of the Dalai Lama, courage and resilience of six million Tibetans inside Tibet and the collective efforts of Tibetans and friends around the world.

India is now not bound by the agreement of 2003 as that was based on the understanding that “Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other.” By taking unilateral action to use force in the Eastern Ladakh to change the LAC, the agreement stands nullified. In addition, by taking up the issue of removal of Article 370- a purely internal matter, China has taken an adversarial approach that is against all agreements signed with that country.

Now India has to adopt a coherent approach towards Tibet, which is strategically important for our security. All our border issues are with Tibet and not between India and China. Its natural resources and environment have to be protected in India’s interest. The crass environmental degradation of water resources in Tibet through dams and diversions is causing grave concerns for the lower riparian countries including India.

Moreover, humanitarian dimension also demands India to take firm steps to save Tibetans from the Chinese atrocities. So far India’s policy towards Tibet has been not to offend China. Is it the right policy? A country that is grabbing our territory, killing our soldiers, violating all agreements between the two countries and interfering in our internal matters does not deserve such a treatment. China’s policy towards India is unfriendly. It is doing its best to create problems for India. It is not accepting J&K and Aruanchal Pradesh as Indian territories. It can also adopt the same approach towards Sikkim and that would not make any difference. It is also supporting some factions of the North East insurgents. China cannot do anything more. A full-scale war would be too risky for China with a nuclear weapon state and China knows this. In view of this, we have to discard the deferential approach towards China.

Pragmatism demands that our Tibet policy should be reviewed immediately and take steps to ensure that the Tibetans gain their self-rule. This should be India’s foreign policy mission: Tibet should not be treated merely as a card against China. This approach should be based on the recognition of the CTA as the legitimate institution representing the Tibetan aspirations. India should, in a well-calibrated, manner enhance the Tibet factor in its relations with China to the level of political and diplomatic instrument. To pursue this path, India needs to have its own version of the TPSA of the US. International cooperation would be imperative and our diplomacy needs to be energised to help CTA to project its problems at the international forums and garner support of the International Community for the Tibetans.