2021 marked the 70th year of Tibetan ‘liberation’ as the CCP would insist on calling it, while in reality, it stands to be annexation. The Republic of China gained control over Tibet and later signed a ‘Seventeen Point Agreement’ which affirmed Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Naturally, Tibet succumbed to Chinese pressure. 70 years later, this ‘liberation’ may have caused more harm than good. On the other hand, the 14th Dalai Lama who currently lives in India, celebrated his 86th birthday, receiving wishes from the Indian Prime Minister. Why does the Dalai Lama live in India? What does that have to do with Tibet? What is India’s role in this? Let us find out.
On 27th May 2021, Penpa Tsering took oath as the president of the Tibetan government in exile from Dharmashala. The Buddhist spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama has been living in Dharmashala since 1959 when he fled from Tibet. However, the Dalai Lama has refused to get politically involved in the elections of the Tibetan government in exile. The Sino-Tibetan conflict dates back to the 1950s when China invaded the Tibet Autonomous Region. The People’s Liberation Army of China often meted out violence at the ethnic groups of Tibet which led to a mass fleeing of local Tibetans from Tibet. China does not recognize the Tibet government in exile based in Dharmashala. China even denied allegations of any violence against Tibetans after their control ever since.
Now interestingly, India recognizes Tibet to be a part of China but at the same time gives asylum to the Tibetans who fled the region and settled in Dharmashala since 1959. The Dalai Lama resided in Lhasa which is the capital city of Tibet before he fled to India. Mao Zedong, the communist leader of the PRC, envisioned making a ‘right palm of China’ policy which declared Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, and Arunachal Pradesh as the ‘five fingers’ of China. Similarly, he believed that Tibet was rightfully a part of China. Tibetans in exile are evidently critical of China’s invasion of Tiber as they think it was an attack on their sovereignty. On 23rd May 1951, Tibet was visibly coerced by the Chinese government to sign an agreement which from the outside guaranteed religious and political autonomy, non-interference in the activities of the Dalai Lama while on the inside was just another trick of the Chinese to have pervasive control. In 1959, the Dalai Lama left Tibet to reside in Arunachal Pradesh.
India’s policy towards Tibet has been fairly inconsistent, to say the least. It does not recognize the roughly 94000 Tibetans in exile as citizens but also not as refugees. India recognizes them as foreigners. On being made to succumb to the CCP in the 1950s, Indian leaders had expressed their support for the autonomous region. “It was a nation which wanted to live its own life and it sought to have been allowed to live its own life. A good government is no substitute for self-government,” said Acharya Kriplani. However, India could not do much in practice to help the Tibetan government from the CCP and their violence. In the year 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee recognized Tibet as a part of China. This move has been severely criticized by numerous scholars on foreign policy and is often called a “single biggest security blunder”. Former Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran has been vocally critical of the use of Tibet by India only when it favors the latter. During the 2020 Sino-Indian conflict, the Special Frontier Force (SSF) which comprises recruits from the Tibetan community was used. “This waving of the Tibet card, which serves only to irritate and annoy, puts paid to any such engagement on a sensitive issue, with serious implications for the future. It undermines the immense goodwill and gratitude that New Delhi has all along enjoyed with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in India and abroad. The community is disturbed by the manner in which the Indian government plays hot and cold towards it and has become anxious about its future,” said the former foreign secretary. Tibetans in exile have now been allowed to issue passports but since India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it does not have a strong domestic law to safeguard these groups.
With Narendra Modi wishing the Dalai Lama publicly on his 86th birthday, we might observe a sign of change in the coming future towards the Tibetan issue. To contain the Chinese attempts on the borders, India should render support to the Tibetan government in exile and acknowledge the same publicly. The Dalai Lama has often alarmed the Tibetans to be wary of India’s growing support towards China. India should endeavor to regain this lost trust in the Dalai Lama and not just use Tibet when it pleases the former. According to Seshadri Chari, a foreign policy expert and member of the BJP, China still endeavors to fulfill Mao’s ‘Five fingers of its right palm’ policy and India should not let that happen. Indian Policy towards the Tibetan issue must undergo a careful change in direction and hopefully, the Prime Minister’s wish is the starting point.
-By Advait Nisal