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Home > India > News > Columnists > B Raman

Revolt in Tibet: Implications for India

March 17, 2008

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The Government of India has adopted a two-pronged policy in relation to the outbreak of a revolt in Lhasa in protest against the continued occupation of Tibet by China and the violation of human rights by the Chinese.

India has prevented Tibetan refugees in India from indulging in activities which might result in acts of violence or disruption directed against Chinese nationals and interests in India and in dramatic acts such as their professed intention of crossing the border into Tibet, which could lead to an undesirable escalation of cross-border tensions. At the same time, it has expressed its distress over the situation in Tibet and called for a dialogue so that the Tibetans don't feel the need to take to acts of violence in their desperation. A spokesman of the ministry of external affairs said on March 15: "We would hope that all those involved will work to improve the situation and remove the causes of such trouble in Tibet, which is an autonomous region of China, through dialogue and non-violent means."

This is the right approach -- expressing our moral support to the Tibetans in accordance with our national interests without identifying ourselves with the attempts of anti-China activists in the West, particularly the US, to exploit the continued alienation of the Tibetans and their desperation to create embarrassment for China before and during the Olympic Games. This is done in the hope of achieving their own foreign policy goals in matters such as greater Chinese pressure on North Korea on the nuclear issue and on the military junta in Myanmar for restoration of democracy and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

There are two issues involved here -- the aspirations of the Tibetans, and using the Tibetans to needle China and create difficulties for it in organising the Olympic Games and making a success of it. While supporting the aspirations of the Tibetans in a sophisticated manner, we should not identify ourselves with the attempts of anti-China activists to sabotage the Olympic Games. We should do whatever we can to help China in making a success of the Olympic Games. If India is seen as discreetly helping the efforts of the anti-China activists in their anti-Beijing Olympics [Images], we will hurt the national pride of over a billion Chinese. This is not in our national interest.

Indira Gandhi [Images] disapproved the attempts of the West to exploit the Afghanistan issue to embarrass and humiliate the erstwhile USSR as the host of the 1980 Olympics by organising a boycott of the Moscow [Images] Games. A similar attempt is now on to exploit the Tibetan issue to embarrass and humiliate China as the host of the forthcoming Olympics by organising, if possible, a boycott of the Beijing [Images] Olympics or at least a disruption of it. India should strongly oppose this and should advise the Dalai Lama [Images] too not to let the Tibetans be used by anti-China activists in the US to target the Beijing Olympics. These activists had waged a fierce campaign against the award of the Olympics to Beijing. Having failed in their attempts, they are now trying to sabotage the Games.

Our aim should be not to embarrass and humiliate China, but to persuade it to change its policy on Tibet and enter into a dialogue with the Dalai Lama on mutually agreed terms. India should play the role of a facilitator of such a dialogue. India has done well in expressing openly its distress over the turn of events in Tibet and in expressing its interest in a dialogue and not a street confrontation between the Chinese and the Tibetans. It could consider one more step at this important point in the history of the Tibetan issue -- removing all  informal restrictions on official and social interactions with the Dalai Lama and his advisers.

Though not openly admitted, such informal restrictions exist. We saw it at the end of last year, when the cabinet secretary reportedly advised ministers not to attend a public reception for the Dalai Lama to felicitate him on the award of the Congressional Medal of Honour in the US. Greater interaction between the prime minister and the Dalai Lama in the form of exchange of courtesy calls, meetings for discussions etc should be considered.

Till now, our policy has been to make a clear distinction between the religious and political dimensions of our stand with regard to the Dalai Lama. We have been saying that the courtesies and honour extended to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees is because of his stature as a highly respected Buddhist leader in the land where Buddhism was born, but it has no political significance and does not imply our tacit support for his political views.

We should now make it clear that we consider the Dalai Lama is also an important political figure in the eyes of the Tibetans and hence, his political views have to be considered in determining our policy on Tibet.

Expressing our moral support to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans, without damaging our relations with the Chinese leadership and people -- that should be the objective of our policy. The Tibetan issue has defied a solution for over 50 years. It will be wrong and unwise to think that it can be solved now -- or at least a beginning made in that direction -- by exploiting the Chinese eagerness to make a success of the Beijing Olympics.

There are many landmines in the path of policy-making and implementation. As we fine-tune our policy and push it forward gradually, there could be misperceptions and misinterpretations in China with not only negative impact on our relations, but also with renewed tensions across the border, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh.  We are likely to see a reversion to the period between the 1960s and the 1980s when the Chinese military was in the driving seat of policy-making on Tibet. It was during that period that we saw the military confrontation of 1962 and the subsequent tensions in Sino-Indian relations.

The confidence of the Chinese political leadership that they have pacified Tibet and its people once and for all has been badly shaken. The current revolt shows there has been no emotional integration between the Tibetans and the Han settlers in Tibet. The fear of the masses would once again distort the Chinese military mindset in Tibet. They will not admit that their policies towards the Tibetan people are responsible for the revolt. Instead, they would see with greater conviction than in the past that the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees in India are the source of all their problems in Tibet. The temptation to divert international attention away from Tibet to Arunachal Pradesh and Dharamsala by engaging in military moves in the Arunachal Pradesh area would be strong.

The conventional wisdom holds that the Chinese are so eager to make a success of the Olympics that they would not make any negative moves. This could be so, if the situation in Tibet calms down without any more escalation. But if the revolt further deteriorates and if the Chinese find themselves facing a situation where the choice is between saving their hold on Tibet and saving the Olympics, they would not hesitate to give priority to the suppression of the Tibetans. Their behaviour with relation to Arunachal Pradesh could become unpredictable.

Renewed cross-border military tensions -- even Chinese incursions of a major nature -- in Arunachal Pradesh after the Olympics is a possibility to be factored into in our scenario-buiding and policy-making exercise.

Our presence in Arunachal Pradesh should be further strengthened and the various infrastructure projects recently announced by the prime minister during his visit to the area should be pushed through vigorously.

The writer is additional secretary (retired), cabinet secretariat and, presently, director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail:

B Raman