India's Tibet
By Lhasang Tsering, March 2000

issue : AT n°1 - 2006
author : Lhasang Tsering
file : Diplomacy
other language: French

In my years of travelling around the world talking about Tibet; it has been my experience that, more often than not, the audience generally consist of people who are interested in Tibet and already know a great deal about Tibet. Many, in fact, turn out to be old friends and experts on Tibet. So a lot of the time it is like "preaching to the converted". Therefore, repeating basic facts about Tibet appears to be unnecessary and a waste of time. Nevertheless, one cannot help wondering how many in any particular audience or how many of your readers are truly aware: that never before 23 May 1951 - when a conquered and defeated Tibetan government was forced to sign an unequal "treaty" - the so-called "17 Point Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" - had Tibet ever surrendered its independence. Therefore, China's claim that "Tibet has always been a part of China" has no basis, whatsoever, in fact.

That Tibetan language - both spoken and written - have no relation whatsoever with Chinese.

That Tibet has its own National flag and National Anthem. that while it is true various Chinese dynasties had on several occasions interfered in Tibetan affairs, it is equally true that various Tibetan kings and rulers had invaded China or otherwise exercised influence in Chinese affairs. On one occasion in 763 AD Tibetan troops even occupied Chang'an - the then Chinese capital - deposed the Chinese Emperor who was not friendly towards the Tibetans and appointed the son of another branch of the royal family as Emperor.

That the traditional boundary between Tibet and China was demarcated by the Peace Treaty of 821 when it was decided that the two countries shall never interfere in each other's affairs; believing that "Chinese shall be happy in the land of China and Tibetans shall be happy in the land of Tibet." The text of this Treaty - containing these ancient words of wisdom - were carved on three stone pillars - one pillar each for the two capitals of Lhasa and Chang'an and the third pillar for the border, which was placed at a placed called Gugu Meru. The third stone pillar has so far not been found. But the texts of the other two stone pillars have been compared by independent western and Tibetan scholars and have been found to match.

That long before the Mongols established the Yuan Dynasty in China in 1279; the Tibetans established a tribute relationship with the Mongols in 1207 and thus averted a military invasion by Gengis Khan. The ties of the Mongols with Tibet not only pre-dated their conquest of China - it was an entirely separate relationship. The Mongols never considered Tibet a Province of China. As such China's revised claim that "Tibet has been a part of China since the Mongol rule over China" has no substance.

That Tibet was recognised as an independent country during the Second World War, most importantly by China, USA and Great Britain. This is evident from the fact that the US government had to send a mission to Lhasa in 1943 to request the Government of Tibet to permit the Allies to send military aid through Tibet to help China in its war with Japan. Needless to say, this would not have been necessary if, as the Chinese claim today, Tibet "has always been an integral part of China". As an independent country dedicated to the principles of peace, Tibet granted permission to the Allies to send only humanitarian assistance to China but no weapons of war. In retrospect, one cannot help feeling that Tibet is being punished today for its principled commitment to peace and for remaining neutral during the War.

More evidence can be listed to prove that Tibet was an independent country before the Communist Chinese invasion in 1949. However, for anyone willing to accept reason - the above facts should be sufficient. First Things First:

I have sub-titled this article "A Case for Policy Review" and not "The Case for a Policy Review". I have chosen this awkward construction for a reason. Generally, when we talk about the need for a policy review on the issue of Tibet it is understood to mean a review of India's policy on Tibet. Or, in other contexts, the policy of the United Nations or the United States - among others. I am of the view that, first and foremost, it is the Tibetan people - especially the Tibetan Government-in-Exile - who must review the so-called "Middle-Way" policy. This is the policy that must be changed - urgently - before we can call on other countries to review their policy on Tibet.

For the past twenty years or more, we have been confusing our own people and also our friends by first talking about "settling for autonomy" and then of seeking "association with China" and now of working for "genuine autonomy within China". Of course, no one has yet to tell us who will define "association", or "autonomy" or "genuine". Under the circumstances one can only assume that it will be the Chinese, since they hold all the cards. In any case, as things stand now, there is no reason to believe that the Chinese even need to bother about defining these terms.

When speaking of "autonomy" we need to take into consideration the fact that, as far as the Chinese are concerned, Tibetans are already supposed to have "autonomy". The truncated half of Tibet - the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region which today the rest of the world knows as "Tibet" - as also other areas of Tibetan territory; have been labelled "autonomous" one thing or another by the Chinese. So the Chinese may well wonder what this offer of accepting "autonomy" is all about when "autonomy" is exactly what they think the Tibetans already have. It is true the so-called autonomy the Tibetans are supposed to enjoy under Chinese rule is only in name. But what reason do we have to believe that the "genuine autonomy" of the future - if ever there is to be one - will be any different ?

On the question of "autonomy" another important factor to be born in mind is that the people inside Tibet are sick and tired of "autonomy" with Chinese characteristics and they want no more of it - never. I believe the only hope for the Tibetan people and the survival of our religion, our culture and our land is the restoration of Tibetan independence. My reasons are simple and straightforward.

1. In the first place, I hold that the few Tibetans in exile do not have the mandate to change the goal. When we left Tibet - we did so with the sole purpose of continuing the struggle for independence. We also do not have the right to foreclose the options of future generations of Tibetans.

2. Secondly, I believe China's strategic, political and economic reasons for invading Tibet are far too important and that they will never willingly relinquish their hold on Tibet. They will certainly not be talked out of leaving Tibet and returning Tibet to the Tibetan people in whatever shape or form.

3. It is all very well for us to call for negotiations with China, and I believe the various proposals put forward by His Holiness the Dalai-Lama to the Chinese - in particular the "Five-Point Peace Proposal" - are all well-intended. The problem is that the Communist dictatorship in China will not respond favourably to any of these proposals. For them compromise is a sign of weakness and they will continue to expect and demand further concessions.

4. What is more, at present China has no need to negotiate with the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. In all these years no one has yet to answer this one simple question: Why should the Chinese talk to us ? Tibet is firmly under their control. No government in the world has the courage to question this. We are not a threat to their position in Tibet. Why then should the Chinese surrender to us any part of their complete, unquestioned and unchallenged control over Tibet ?

5. But even if the impossible should happen and, for some temporary expedience, China should enter into an agreement with us - what reason do we have to believe that China will abide by the terms of such an agreement ? None, whatsoever. Our bitter and bloody experience has been that China will not abide by the terms of any agreement once the purpose for which the agreement was signed has been served. This is exactly what China did with the so-called "17-Point Agreement".

The reality is that China is playing for time and we are playing into their hands. Therefore, before we call on India to review its policy on Tibet and before we can expect India and the world to support us - I believe it is absolutely necessary for us Tibetans to make up our minds as to what it is we want.

Having said this, I hasten to add, if I am wrong on the dismal picture I have painted above - no man will be happier than I. As a matter of fact, in weaker moments, I hope and wish that I am wrong. That the Chinese will one day - and it better be soon - wake up to the fact that they have committed untold atrocities in Tibet; that in the very first place they have no right to be in Tibet and that the Tibetan people don't want them there; and apologise and leave Tibet. But then the harsh reality of our tragic past and the harsher reality of the ever deteriorating situation in Tibet together remind me that the Chinese are not going to leave Tibet. That we are not facing a multiple choice problem. Indeed, that we are faced with a struggle for survival - a struggle for life and death where there are no choices. This is the brutal reality that the Tibetan people and the Tibetan Government must accept. The Chinese are not offering us any choices. It is not a question of getting the "right" proposal with the "correct" wording into place. China does not need the Tibetan people. China only needs Tibet.

India's Policy

On the question of India's policy on Tibet, I wish to make the case that today India has more at stake in the future of Tibet than even the Tibetan people. And, therefore, India should review its Tibet policy regardless of what the Tibetan people decide to do. I hope I do not sound ungrateful or even manipulative and/or provocative in saying this. My reasons for believing that today India has more at stake in the future of Tibet than the Tibetan people are sincere and simple: For one, Tibet will never be free when in the first place freedom is no longer our goal.

Even otherwise, much as we wish Tibet to be free; much as we want and long for Tibet to be free - today we are faced with the real and urgent danger of the Tibetans disappearing as a people and as a distinct culture.

After death there is no pain and certainly no need for freedom or for land - especially for a people who feed their dead to vultures. What use is environmental protection or human rights to the dead ?

On the other hand, India cannot and will not disappear as a nation. However, with the death of Tibet, India will be left with a wound extending from Ladakh in the West to Arunachal in the East - a wound extending through the entire Himalayan range - some 2,500 km - for which there will be no cure. I need not elaborate on the far reaching implications of such a wound which will forever eat into India like a deadly cancer. After all, India has already had a foretaste of this wound for the past four decades. The need to defend India's long and difficult borders with Tibet is a major burden on India's economy and an obstacle to socio-economic development in the country.

For these and other reasons I cannot understand India's policy on Tibet. If it were in India's interest to accept and concede that "Tibet is an autonomous region of China" (this has been India's position on the status of Tibet since Nehru's time) - for the Tibetan people this will not be less painful, but at least it will be comprehensible. After all, foreign policy is not merely the "art of the possible" - foreign policy is made on the grounds of national self-interest - or at least the perception of national self-interest. That such perceptions are often misguided and mistaken is an entirely different issue.

The Way Ahead

We now have two issues before us. One, for the Tibetan people to make a clear decision about our goal and our struggle. The second issue is for the people of India to make a firm and clear decision about India's long-term interest regarding Tibet.

If India decides that it is in India's interest to see Tibet free - then the next step is for us together to decide what we are willing to do for our mutual interest. This is to say that Tibetans should stop passively appealing for help. At the same time India must stop merely pitying the Tibetan people. India must start an active partnership with the Tibetans. In so doing there must be a clear understanding on both sides that in the short-term there will be a heavy price to pay and enormous sacrifices to be made. However, whatever the difficulty, we must never loose sight of two things: that the long-term rewards will be lasting and worthy of any sacrifice; and, more importantly, that the struggle for the independence of Tibet must never be given up because in the end this is a question of right and wrong. Victory is important but it is secondary to the fact that we are fighting an evil for the restoration of Truth, Justice and Freedom.

On the other hand, if as a result of an informed national debate India should decide that it is indeed in India's long-term interest to have China and not Tibet as her northern neighbour - then so be it. I, for one, will return to Tibet. As a boy I made myself one promise. If by dedicating my entire life to the struggle I cannot free my country from the clutches of the Chinese, then at the very least I will die in Tibet. Of course, I will never forget my gratitude to India. The Tibetan people are forever indebted to India for two reasons: in the past for the Dharma and today for Refuge.

The level of ignorance and misunderstanding about Tibet in India was evident during the escape of the 17th Karmapa to India. It was painful for us to read in certain sections of the Indian press; reports and letters suggesting that the Tibetan refugees in India are a liability and a security risk to India. There still seems to be speculation that the presence of the 17th Karmapa is a hindrance to India's relations with China.

The long-term strategic importance of Tibet to India should be evident even to those who wish to sacrifice everything on the alter of "friendship" with China. The presence of His Holiness the Dalai-Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile; and to a lesser extent the rest of the Tibetan refugee community, is at the very least a bargaining factor India can use in its dealings with China. The same is now true of such a prominent figure as the 17th Karmapa. Even at the level of individual Tibetan refugees, it is not known and, therefore, not appreciated that Tibetan blood has been shed along with India's bravest sons in all the wars India has fought ever since Tibetans sought refuge in India. We are fond of talking of unsung heroes. These Tibetans are the true unrecognised and unsung heroes. Yet they continue to fight and to die for India - believing that it is as much in the interest of their beloved Tibet as their host country to continue to serve in the armed forces. These brave men and women - as also their families and loved ones; along with the rest of the Tibetan refugee community - believe that defending India's security is but a small way of expressing their gratitude to India.

India's Tibet

Finally, a few words about the topic of this article. So far I have been commenting on the sub-title, which is about policy review, without saying a word about what I mean by calling Tibet - "India's Tibet". There is a Chinese propaganda magazine called "China's Tibet". This is a clear example of how insecure China feels - not only about its hold over Tibet but more fundamentally even about its claims over Tibet. Fifty years after the invasion, forty years after the flight of the Dalai-Lama and the Tibetan Government; with an estimated half-a-million troops in Tibet and not a single foreign government openly questioning China's military and colonial occupation of Tibet - it is indeed instructive that China still feels the need to call Tibet - "China's Tibet". No doubt, in addition to trying to reassure themselves, this is primarily an effort to convince the world that Tibet "belongs" to China. In my view it has precisely the opposite effect.

Be that as it may. 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.

52nd State of USA

Even on the part of the Tibetan people, if we decide that Tibetan independence is not achievable (this is the present position of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile to which I am totally opposed) and that the only option for us is to settle for some form of autonomy - however genuine or false - why then do we not decide to be a part of India ? Under any given situation or conceivable scenario; Tibet will fare far better under India than under China.

Those not willing to take decisions - especially one so unprecedented as this - will no doubt hasten to point out that the situation is too complicated; that this might not be acceptable to the Government of India; and even for a change, that such a decision may not be acceptable to the majority of our people inside Tibet; etc. etc. But we still have other options. We could ask to join the United States and declare Tibet the 52nd State of USA. And I cannot see what objections can be raised to this proposal. It is hardly a secret that almost all Tibetans in exile - from senior Tibetan government officials down to the most lowly and unemployed; from high lamas to young novices - are all clamouring to emigrate to the USA by any means.

If it achieves nothing else, declaring Tibet a part of the USA will give the US President and the State Department the splitting headache they so deserve. But this could become more than a headache. It could throw a real spanner in the works and mean that the US and China will no longer be in a position to ignore Tibet in their bilateral ties. Also, calling the US and the Tibetans "splittists" - China's favourite epithet for the Dalai-Lama and the US President - will finally have some substance.


But as far as I am concerned the fight for Tibetan independence must go on. Whenever the question of our goal - or rather the lack of one - comes up; I am told time and again that every Tibetan wants independence. In that case why isn't independence our goal ? I am not sure about "every" Tibetan wanting independence. But I know that this is true of the vast majority - especially those inside Tibet who continue to suffer and to die in the struggle against Chinese rule. But so long as we remain silent, however big this majority, we are not going to be heard.

I, therefore, call on every single Tibetan who believes in independence and who live in exile to make their feelings known to our Government and to the public at large. I also call on the Tibetan Government to respect the memory of all our patriots who have laid down their lives in the struggle for Tibetan independence and to heed the feelings of the vast majority of our people inside Tibet who continue to face the gravest risks in protesting against Chinese rule. The Tibetan Government-in-Exile has itself stated that already more than one million and two hundred thousand Tibetans - which is fully twenty percent of our entire population - have died as a direct result of China's invasion and occupation of Tibet. How much longer will our Government continue to pretend that it doesn't know what the Tibetan people want ? Can anyone vote more clearly than to vote with their lives ? Or does our Government have evidence to show that these people died to make Tibet a part of China ?

I have also been told just as often by friends and supporters of Tibet that they agree with my analysis that China is merely playing for time; that we can expect nothing from China and that they also believe that the only way forward for the Tibetan people is to struggle for independence. I have no way of knowing how many say this out of conviction and how many do so not to hurt my feelings. I appeal to all our friends who believe in independence to please make your feelings and your reasons known to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. It is quite possible that the opinions of our friends may carry more weight with our government than the wishes and the lives of the Tibetan people.