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China's Dalai Lama Question- India in the Cleft

As the Dalai Lama prepares for the November 8 visit to Tawang, where the monastery has become one of the various arguments put for the by China for its claim over Arunachal Pradesh, the irate leaders in Beijing continue their strong opposition to the visit. India has made it clear recently from the highest level that Arunachal Pradesh is India’s sovereign territory and does not recognise its disputed nature as claimed by China. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh politely, but firmly, made it clear to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Thailand (October 24) that the Dalai Lama was an “honoured guest” and was free to travel anywhere in India. India’s position on the Dalai Lama has been consistent. The Dalai Lama is considered a spiritual leader and is not allowed to engage in politics. (read anti-China activities). The Tibetan refugees in India have to keep within Indian laws. In peacetime statistics, India hosts the largest number of refugees in the world. There are an estimated 20 million Bangladeshi illegal economic immigrants and there are people from many other countries in India. All have to abide by Indian laws.

The Dalai Lama has now publicly stated that his visit to Tawang was religious and not political. This is hardly going to satisfy China. The Chinese leadership has equated the entire embodiment of the 14th Dalai Lama with sovereignty and territorial integrity.

China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had a sharp vision for the future of the country. He was persecuted by Mao Zedong, expelled three times from the Communist Party, and rehabilitated each time by Mao because each time he was required to retrieve the country from the chaos created by Mao himself. Deng was the father of China’s reform and opening up policy, and “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. He put full integration with Hong Kong at another 50 years, and with Taiwan a hundred years if needed, and the “one country, two systems” for Hong Kong and Macao for the short term. In his vision for the long term future how ideology and politics would evolve was not known. The underlying message was communist China could change to a capitalist China – though capitalism could be defined in different ways. Redefining capitalism has already started. It was Deng Xiaoping who told the Dalai Lama’s delegation in 1982, that anything on Tibet’s future could be discussed except independence. Interpreted, since the Chinese do not exactly spell out in words, the offer was to discuss the extent of Tibetan autonomy within overall China’s sovereignty. This gave wide configurations to the Dalai Lama’s set up to explore, and they did, studying different existing examples around the world.

In hindsight, and without access to any other information, it can only be concluded that Deng Xiaoping hoped for a closure of the Tibet issue between China, and the Dalai Lama and his supporters across the world. The Dalai Lama had already opted for a non-violent path, and for real autonomy, not independence. He made this exposition first to the US Senate in 1987, and in his Strasbourg declaration in 1988.

All indications from Deng Xiaoping’s observation suggest he was aware that in convoluted claim of China’s historical sovereignty over Tibet was legally not tenable, and hence enveloping the 14th Dalai Lama and Tibet on a template of somewhat extended autonomy would fundamentally bring this important buffer state with India, into China’s fold. Deng Xiaoping was no liberal. He was practical and realistic. Tibet, he felt, would be a festering sore otherwise.

At the same time Deng would not allow pro-independence movements by Tibetans in Tibet. He sent his chosen leader of the fourth generation leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), now President Hu Jintao, as Tibet Autonomous Regions (TAR) Party Secretary to ensure that pro-independence sentiments did not get an upper hand. Hu Jintao rose to this task, crushing the demonstrations by Tibetan monks in Lhasa in 1987-88.

Greater autonomy for Tibet was Deng Xiaoping’s settlement formula. Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s strategy on Tibet and many other areas do not obtain any longer. As he started losing grip because of old age, things began to change. After his death, an overhaul of Chinese policies have become noticeable. Deng Xiaoping was no peacenik. But he was a pragmatist with foresight, and actually aware how global politics was moving. His “one, country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan (with much more autonomy for Taiwan than the other two).

Taiwan is a different issue. It is virtually independent and its status is guaranteed by the USA. Even then, there have been recent movements towards a more stable relations between mainland China and Taiwan. Deng Xiaoping formula on Tibet developed further could have worked for the following basic reactions. First Tibet, or Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), a truncated map of the original Greater Tibet is within China, and land locked. The Dalai Lama and his advisers in the Kashag (the Dalai Lama’s Cabinet) and outside are not separatist militants or terrorists as Beijing paints them to be. A land locked region, the Dalai Lama is fully aware and has spoken too, that Tibetans could greatly benefit from China’s development while remaining within overall Chinese sovereignty. Most importantly, the Dalai Lama is not anti-China, he is pro-Tibetan autonomy which will give his people the freedom preserve and keep alive their history, culture, religion, and manage their own development.

Unfortunately, China sees a ghost of separatism or “splittism” in every word the Dalai Lama utters. Their basic position still remains that there is a hidden plan of “independence” in the Dalai Lama’s offer of autonomy. The March 14, 2008 Lhasa riots further convinced the Chinese the Dalai Lama was behind it, something they themselves suspect is not true. The 2008 Beijing Olympics offered the two frustrated minorities, the Tibetans and the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang, an opportunity to protest and demonstrate for their rights. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is faced with a serious dilemma on the Dalai Lama. This has not only to do with issues like sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also the legitimacy of the Communist Party itself.

Since the 1989 students demonstration in Beijing, a tiny but increasing audible civil society, backed by some retired veteran leaders, are asking questions and protesting the methods of the CCP. Freedom of expression is the core. Issues are also related to religious beliefs, and religions like Buddhism are becoming attractive to the people. Buddhism and meditation practice like the Falung Gong movement are becoming popular not only among sections of the people, but also among the security and military establishments. Therefore, the leadership feels any room to the Dalai Lama and Buddhism would be inviting threat.

The current Chinese leadership is debating whether to settle the Tibet issue during the 14th Dalai Lama’s life time, or keep him at bay with a hard line approach hoping that after his death the movement will fall into disarray. There is also a stream of opinion that the Dalai Lama is the best bet as he was holding back the more radical Tibetan elements. The recent example of sentencing four Tibetans to death for the Lhasa riots, two of whom were executed last week, suggests the hard line is the choice of the moment.

President and Party General Secretary Hu Jintao holds the policies on the Tibetans and Uighurs firmly in his hand. Following the July 05 Uighur riots in Urumqi this year, no firm decision on actions was taken by the leadership till Hu returned from a G-20 meeting in Germany, which he cut short. China is using its economic clout to cut the western support to the Dalai Lama. They made French President Sarkozy eat humble pie. US President Barack Obama decided not to meet the Dalai Lama before his upcoming visit to China in mid-November. These are, however, political games.

The Dalai Lama figures very high for the CCP in the India context. The proximity of the Dalai Lama’s residency in Dharamsala to Tibet is perceived by Beijing not only a card in India’s hand. But even without India’s involvement on the Tibet question the holy leader’s halo shines over Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s position on Tawang and the entire Arunachal Pradesh in territorial terms would challenge some of China’s basic premises on sovereignty over Tibet. Beijing’s vehement opposition to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang (or Arunachal Pradesh as whole) came after he declared in 2007 the legality of the MacMahon Line. The Chinese position is that the Chinese Ambassador in Lhasa only initialled and did not sign the agreement at the 1914 Shimla Agreement which drew the MacMahon Line demarcating the Southern border of Tibet. The question is what authority did the Chinese Ambassador have in the demarcation of the India-Tibet boundary.

China claims the Ambassador was a symbol of China’s sovereignty over Tibet. They are yet to clarify how an Ambassador represents sovereignty. The Shimla Agreement had two parts. One was the demarcation of the India-Tibet border, and the other was to draw the Tibet-China border. The Ambassador had relievance to the latter agreement, but had no locus standi on the former.

The 14th Dalai Lama remains very important to endorse China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh. Equally, his position accepting the legality of the MacMahon Line negates China’s claim on this strategic state of India. China would not have so militantly opposed to the Dalai Lama’s Tawang visit if they did not see it in the larger perspective on the legality of their claim on Tibet.

China’s claim on Tibet is based on manipulating history to which most of the international community was in agreement over these years either explicitly or implicitly. But Beijing is actually aware that if the historical case is re-opened, the first thing that will come to light is that the title of “Dalai” was bestowed upon Gelugpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhists by the Mongol Khans, and not by the Chinese emperor. The Khans brought the Dalai Lamas to Mongolia to introduce the peaceful aspect of Buddhism to counter the paganism which was destroying the country with internecine wars. China, as it was then or as it is now, had no relevance to Tibet’s destiny.

The Chinese would be aware that in India, the Dalai Lama goes far beyond politics. He is intricately enmeshed in the psyche of the Indian people as a religious leader of their own. China appears to have convinced some Indian writers recently to suggest Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru committed the cardinal sin in hosting the 14th Dalai Lama and his followers in 1959 when they escaped from the Chinese army’s Tibet offensive. Therefore, it would be wise to expel him from India for the betterment of Indo-China relations, it is argued by some Indian Sinophiles. The same writers fall into deep coma where Chinese assistance to Indian insurgents and separatists are concerned.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Chinese authorities understand that pouring venom on the Dalai Lama is a frustrating effort. Nobody in the world believe these propaganda, and their acceptance inside China is losing purchase.

The bottom line that emerges is that the 14th Dalai Lama remains the center point on the Tibet question. The Chinese have two options. Either settle the issue during the life time of the 14th Dalai Lama and not interfere with the selection of his reincarnation. Or face the whole question after his demise, something which is unpredictable but could be worse.

China is riding on its economic power. But this power is dependent on its export industry much of which is controlled by foreign interests. This command is not permanent and the balance can change when China’s cheap labour market is milked dry. Therefore, the future of China’s stable countours significantly depends on how they work out with Tenzing Gyatso @Kundun, the 14th Dalai Lama.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New

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