Tibetans living as refugees in India and elsewhere have a democratic system to govern community affairs outside their motherland. While spiritual leader Dalai Lama heads the government-in-exile from the headquarters in Mcleodganj near Dharamshala, it is 69-year-old Samdhong Rinpoche, who as prime minister heads the administration of the Tibetan Diaspora.
According to the Dalai Lama, Professor Rinpoche 'knows more about the Tibet issue' than he does. Rinpoche is considered reincarnation of the Samdhong lineage of Buddha. On matters related to diplomacy and politics of Tibet and China's control over it, Rinpoche's views are the most important after that of the Dalai Lama.
A renowned scholar of Sanskrit and Hindi, Rinpoche is fluent in English and heads a movement to preserve ancient Indian sciences and literature preserved in the Tibetan language but lost in the original. More than 100 precious Tibetan books have been translated in which the ancient Indian wisdom was buried or lost many centuries back. In 1959, when Tibetans took refugee in India, they brought many of those books with them.
Professor Rinpoche's mission to give back something to India when he was heading the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath near Varanasi has earned him respect amongst scholars in India. He was elected twice for the highest post in the exile government, garnering around 90 per cent votes of Tibetans. He is a popular monk; a simple man known for his sthitpragnya (unmoved by happiness or sorrow) attitude.
In an exclusive interview to rediff.com's Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt, Professor Rinpoche talked about the dynamics of the Tibet issue and about China and India's stand on his motherland.
Tell us something about yourself. What do you remember about Tibet?
I was born in a village in the south-east of Tibet, now called Tibet Autonomous Region, just behind Burma (now Myanmar). I spent 20 years in Tibet. At the age of 12, I left my village to join a monastery in Lhasa. It is not easy to describe what Tibet meant to us then.
Our life was governed by local traditions based on Buddhism. We were very happy people. We were self-sufficient. We had good food to eat and good clothes to wear. The best part of my life was in Drepung Monastery in Lhasa. I studied Buddhism till 1959. When I was a child, I liked monks. One of my uncles was a monk and lived in a native monastery. He insisted that I should live with him.
When I was four-and-a-half, he insisted I should be allowed to go with him. My family thought that next day, I would return home. My father came to pick me up. I refused. Since small children were not allowed inside a monastery, special permission was taken for me.
Few months later, I was recognised as the fifth Smadhong and then I went to another monastery. I never ever thought that one day we would be in India like this. Of course, we had a dream to visit India once in our lifetime to make a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya and Sarnath. We never thought that we would flee to India.
Today, the protests in Lhasa is making news around the world. Was it a surprise to you?
Yes, absolutely. We were surprised.
The Chinese government thinks that the government-in-exile helped them in Lhasa.
There is no sense in their charge. Few months ago, one of my friends, Gagan Gill, visited Lhasa. After coming back, she told me people are so frustrated and discontent that they would speak out anytime.
What is the political message that you are getting from Tibet?
They have been under a very repressive regime for nearly 60 years. They are economically marginalised; politically absolutely marginalised. They have a no role to play in the current society. They are deprived of their culture and language. Most dear to their heart is His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The Chinese authorities even prohibit keeping the Dalai Lama's picture. It hurts them the most. Since May 2006 there has been a huge campaign going on against the Dalai Lama. It is considered a political crime to keep his picture. Monasteries have been asked to change their education system. The resentment was building up and there was no outlet.
Tibetans have welcomed development and prosperity that came with airports and railways provided by the Chinese. Obviously, with Chinese money came Chinese military, police and other things. When development comes, culture gets affected. You can't welcome one and reject the side effect. How can you pick and choose?
That is true but money and trade is not the totality of life. Humanity needs money. Humanity needs facilities. But humanity needs satisfaction, peace of mind and self-respect. The development of Tibet is not dependent on China. If Tibetans would have been separate from China, Tibet would have developed by much more than what Chinese have done now. That is because we have so many resources. See the huge development of Bhutan and Nepal in last 49 years. If Tibet had remained free, by now it would have been another Singapore.
The authorities of People's Republic of China are taking all the resources of Tibet away. Nothing is being given back. More than 100 gold mines are active and exploited by Chinese authorities. Copper, aluminium and uranium is taken out of Tibet. The PRC was able to pay back a huge loan taken from the USSR due to finds of high quality uranium deposits.
China is surviving on Tibet's water, timber and what not! Nothing is coming back. Although, they have given huge statistics of cost of railways and all that, but this infrastructure is for themselves and not for Tibetans, who are absolutely marginalised.
The beggars on the streets of Lhasa are all Tibetans not Han. It reflects the fact that Tibetans have not benefited by progress.
You have been living here since 49 years. You were given a refugee status with the condition that you will not indulge in any political activity. Why do we see so many political activities in Dharamshala?
You might be seeing it for the first time, but we are doing all kinds of politics.
Nobody has stopped us from doing politics. We are doing everything that Indians are doing. Only thing we are refraining from is that we should not use Indian soil for indulging in anti-China activities. We are not doing anything anti-China.
Asking for freedom for Tibet is considered by Chinese as the anti-China activity.
Asking for freedom is not an anti-China act. It's a pro-China activity. We are trying to have more freedom for the Chinese people. We are trying to have more respect for human rights and we want them to have more respect for different cultures. How does it become anti-China activity? We are not seeking separation. We are not seeking independence. We are only seeking freedom. And, freedom is a birthright of every human being.
Is it true that elderly Tibetans living in Dharamshala are not in sync with younger generation? Younger Tibetans disagree with the Dalai Lama's "middle path" approach as they want a free Tibet.
I don't think so. The 'middle path' also seeks freedom. Independent Tibet and free Tibet are two different things. We live in a democratic society. Everybody can have different political ideas, but that does not mean that we have serious differences.
In India too, you have political parties with different views. It does not mean that India does not have unity. If you have met young Tibetans who think that Dalai Lama is soft, it is perfectly alright. It is okay for them to have their views in a democratic society.
But here a leader is being questioned by the followers.
That is real democracy. If leaders are not questioned then how can you serve under democracy? The basic fact is that the 'middle path' approach was not decided by a single person or only by His Holiness.
It was decided through process of referendum in 1997, wherein 64 per cent people favoured the 'middle path'.
The Tibetan Parliament, which represents the whole of Tibet, has twice unanimously adopted the resolution supporting the 'middle path' approach. It is official and a majority agreement. If majority of the people want otherwise, they will have the right to change it. However, right now the majority have agreed to the 'middle path'.
India is in a difficult situation. India and China's relations are growing, but they are vulnerable due to the border issue. China's power in South Asia is growing. Then there are dynamics added to it due to America and Pakistan. The scenario is balanced precariously. When you get politically hyperactive in Dharamshala, don't you think you are harming India's interest?
I don't think so. India is not at all vulnerable. India is more powerful than China if she really realises her own strengths. The problem is India still suffers from the psychological defeat of 1962. India is unable to come out of it. That year is far behind. Now, China is much less powerful than India.
How? Just have a look at China's GDP.
Gross Domestic Production is not a reality. It is merely a figure cooked up in Beijing. If you go to the northern part of China, go to villages, you will know more about China. You have visited Shanghai and Beijing, but not my village in Tibet; not the remote areas of China.
How does that make India more powerful?
Why do you think India is so weak? When you say China has better focus than India in other words it means that it is the totalitarian regime. In India, diversity ensures that it remains a free and democratic country. Of course, Western people, who are only concerned with economic development, invest in China and not in India because India is a free country; India has a free press; India has democracy; India has an independent judiciary.
Therefore, they cannot do whatever they want to, but in China they can by meeting just one powerful party member. You have visited China but not met the real people, who are poor and suffering. No Tibetan is willing to take Chinese money, but they have no option. Chinese money is thrust on them. Development is thrust on them. People have not participated in the development of Tibet.
I asked you about India's position on the issue. Many people think Tibetan refugees should keep quiet and silently go on living here. When you raise the political pitch on Indian soil, it creates tension in the region.
I have never heard such a comment from anyone here. I and His Holiness Dalai Lama have made it clear several times that if India thinks that Tibet issue is a hindrance or an irritant for the normalisation of Sino-Indian relations, India must sacrifice the Tibet issue and ask His Holiness to shift somewhere else.
Let Tibetan refugees migrate to West or send them back to Tibet. In such case, can you guarantee that Sino-India relations will be perfectly okay? If that is so, then we are ready to obey. We are ready to go away from India.
In India, we are refugees, in London or in Washington, we will be refugees. It will make no difference to us because we are not living on our own soil. We can be refugees anywhere.
But, I don't think any Indian leader is thinking in this direction. If they are thinking in this direction, they should not have any hesitation in telling us. His Holiness and the Tibetan leadership never wants to cause any inconvenience to the Indian people or to the Indian government.
Secondly think about this: Unless you solve the Tibet issue how you will resolve your border issue? How will you grow your relationship with China? All these things will have to be thought out keeping in mind a long term solution and strategies. Therefore, many Indians think that free Tibet is India's real defence. This is not a hypocrite thinking.
Do you believe so?
It is not a question if I believe or not. Since time immemorial till 1951, did India spend a penny to secure its border? Was a single military man was ever deployed on the Tibet border? And, now, how much are you spending hourly to defend the Indo-Tibet border? How much problems are you facing on this border? What is the Sino-India border issue? This needs to be analysed.
As long as Tibet was a free and sovereign country, there was no border issue. In 1914, the Simla agreement was signed between Tibetan government and British government of India. The border issue was completely resolved. It was resolved in the manner that the Indian government of that time wanted. Tibet had agreed to it.
We had a trade agreement to be renewed after every 10 years as it was done by Tibet and India in 1924, 1934 and 1944. There was no trade issue. Then came 1954 when the trade agreement was duly renewed in Beijing instead of Lhasa. Then five very beautiful sentences called Pansheel were prefaced to it.
Panchsheel is not an agreement. Panchsheel is a renewed agreement of trade with Tibet and a new preface was put on this. It was decided that it will be renewed after every eight years and not ten years. The eight years were to be completed in 1962. The 1962 war was planned long back in 1950s. They had calculated that in 1962, they will be able to plan an aggression. All this was pre-planned and people know about it.
In some sections, it is perceived that the Dalai Lama himself diluted his demand for Tibet and agreed for autonomy. Second, on the issue of Tawang, political lines are quite blurred.
His Holiness' struggle is giving concrete results. The issue of Tibet has not disappeared from the world scenario. World-over people are supporting the cause of Tibet because of its right direction and commitment to non-violence.
Therefore, majority of people are looking at His Holiness as a great moral force and a spiritual leader. Tibet cause is a just cause and not a power struggle. It is neither a political struggle nor a battle against the system. It is the struggle between truth and falsehood; justice and injustice.
This is established in the world and this is the consistent policy of His Holiness of 'middle path' approach.
Coming to the question on Twang, who told you that His Holiness is not clear on the issue? His Holiness was the first person to say that McMahon Line is the border and we have treaty obligation to respect it. Most recently, he made a statement in Tripura and Kolkata. I have also said that we were party to the agreement on the Mcmahon line. Then how can we back off?
We have continued the legitimate government of the Dalai Lama, which is now 367 years old. That government has agreed to McMahon line and Tawang and other issues were agreed on basis of the watershed principles. The watershed principle said that whatever water comes to this side belongs to India. It was very clear demarcation. So, Indian people, at least people like you, should not show ignorance of actual position of Tawang.
Why should there be any tension on the Tawang issue between India and China? India should stand up and say that you (China) have no business to talk about it. Tawang belongs to India. Why is this issue lingering on?
If Chinese say that because the sixth Dalai Lama was born in Tawang, it belongs to Tibet then if one Dalai Lama was born in Mongolia can I say Mongolia is a part of Tibet?
When you look back, do you feel Tibetans had a good time in India?
Absolutely! All our children received a good education. Our monks and nuns have a good monastic life. Everyone has a good livelihood and enjoys freedom. All of us have tasted democracy in exile. We have complete freedom in our refugee status.
The attention of the world is on Olympics 2008. How important is the event for you? Has the turning point come for Tibet?
Year 2008 is the same for us. What's the difference? The Olympics are held every four years. This is not the first and last time the Olympics are being held. It was held during Adolf Hitler's rule too.
How long will the protests in Lhasa continue?
It will depend on the China's behaviour and their handling of the situation. The uprising will continue if their repressive policy goes on. If they deal with them with compassion and have a dialogue to find a permanent solution in accordance with people's aspirations, there will be no problem.