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Keynote Address: Reflections on Ethnicity and Nation Building; By Dr. V. Suryanarayan

C3S Paper No. 0043/2016

Text of Keynote address delivered by Dr. V. Suryanarayan,  at a Joint Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam and the Chennai Centre for China Studies conference on “Public Policy and Governance in China and India”, held   at Kottayam, Kerala, India, on March 22, 2016.

I feel deeply honoured and, at the same time, humbled by the request made by my friend Prof. K M Seethi to deliver the keynote address in this significant seminar. I am not a Sinologist and, therefore, am deeply conscious of my limitations in speaking about China. I know I am collecting pebbles in the sea shore, before me is the vast ocean of knowledge.

In almost every corner of the world, in almost every aspect of our life, generalizations do not offer solutions to complex questions. These are times of great uncertainty; change will be our constant, perhaps, only companion.

In the brief concept paper that I had prepared for the seminar I have defined political system as a “mechanism for the identification and posing of problems and the making and administering of decisions in the realm of public affairs”. The official machinery through which these problems are studied and decisions administered is the government. But government is only one part of the political system which includes, in addition to government, such diverse factors as historical traditions, geographic and resource endowments, social and economic organization, ideologies, value systems, armed forces, political parties and leadership structure.

A successful and effective political system maintains a harmonious balance between stability and change. Change is the inevitable consequence of human progress and this should take place within the framework of efficient and stable political institutions. If it does not happen the political system crumbles, with new groups trying to gain power through violent means or trying to break the existing political structure to carve out a new state.

During recent years, China has made rapid strides in economic development and has become the major factory of the world. It has become a super power and is challenging the supremacy of the United States in different parts of the world. The success story of China has made many important leaders around the world to deliberately turn a Nelson’s eye to the convulsions, upheavals and blood baths that took place at frequent intervals in that country. The Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and the massacre at Tiananmen Square resulted in the loss of millions of lives and gross violation of human rights.

In the late 1950’s the Chinese leaders wanted to increase agricultural production in a big way and initiated the Great Leap Forward with much fanfare. Communes were started in different parts of China. But even the committed communists found it difficult to go against the law of nature and simple habits of tradition-bound farmers. From 1959 to 1962 China experienced one of the worst man-made famines in human history. As Henry Kissinger has put it, Mao called on the Chinese people to move mountains, but this time the mountains did not move. According to Prof. Amartya Sen 30 million people died during this man made famine. Prof. Amartya Sen rightly points out that in an open democratic society such a man-made famine would not have taken place.

The Cultural Revolution brought greater ruin. The Cultural Revolution was intended to purify the Chinese Communist Party of counter revolutionary tendencies and set it on the right path of revolutionary ardour. But the end result was ideological frenzy, vicious factional struggles and almost a near civil war. The universities were closed down and the Red Guards eliminated all those who practiced bourgeois values. Years later, Deng Xiaoping confessed that the Cultural Revolution nearly destroyed the CCP as a political organization and brought untold misery and suffering to the Chinese people.

The Tiananmen Square incident is an illustration that in a world of shrinking geographical boundaries and widening intellectual horizons, no country, however powerful it may be, can remain uninfluenced by the sweeping changes taking place across the world. The students, imbued with lofty ideals, who led the revolt thought that they were the harbingers of a new dawn. The student protest had its origins in seeking redressal to specific grievances. But when they occupied the Tiananmen Square, a peaceful protest, it was a challenge to the Government, which was becoming increasingly helpless and impotent.  Finally the Government cracked down on the protestors with a heavy hand. For Deng Xiaoping order and stability were more important than the lives of the innocents. The international community, especially the United States, remained a mute witness.

In his Memoirs, the Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew, who was a great friend of Deng Xiaoping and played a key role in the transition of China from a centralized economy to an export oriented economy, does not touch upon  the dark side of China’s post independent history. For Lee Kuan Yew and for leaders in China ends justify the means. In the Indian situation, on the other hand, the Indian nationalist leaders, especially Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, repeatedly used to reiterate that means are as important as the ends. And, as a result, Indian development in the post-independent era had been slow, but steady and what is more, except for the brief aberration during the emergency, 1975-1977 and occasional communal riots and caste conflicts, democratic institutions had been retained and fostered. What is more, India’s historical experience is witness to the fact that for hundreds of years there had been interaction and assimilation of various cultures. Therefore, it is not possible for an Indian to maintain that people belonging to one religious denomination or one ethnic group alone can remain in India. Diversity is our strength. Freedom and tolerance, democracy and development go together. What is more, from ancient times, Indian leaders maintained that whatever we wanted, we desired for the whole world. We used to look at the whole world as one family. These ideas are inherent in Indian thinking and traditions.

During his long spell of incarceration, Nelson Mandela, influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, realized that unless South Africans develop respect for diversity his country would be engulfed in fratricidal conflict. The rainbow nation that he wanted to build in South Africa was based on tolerance and good will. The choice before his people was not between bread and freedom; they want both bread and freedom. As Nelson Mandela put it, “Few people on earth have experienced intolerance as we have; this has steeled our vigilance toward democracy and tolerance. Even in the darkest days of apartheid and the most tragic moments of our turbulent transition, South Africans of all colours and creeds have, with great personal courage, shown respect for differences. A central goal of South Africa’s foreign policy, like its domestic politics, will be to promote institutions and forces, which, through democracy seek to make the world safe for diversity. This is our vision for the twenty first century”. I cannot resist the temptation of quoting another beautiful passage from Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. To quote: “ It was during those long and lonely years in prison that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity”.

Ethnicity and Nation Building

The Pakistani political leader Abdul Wali Khan (son of Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan) was asked few years ago by a journalist: “Are you a Pakistani, a Muslim or a Pathan?” Wali Khan replied that he combined all the three characteristics. The journalist persisted and asked Wali Khan what his primary identity was. Wali Khan responded: “I am a Pakistani for thirty years, a Muslim for 1400 years and a Pathan for 5000 years”. The multiple identities of South Asians, an intrinsic feature of the socio-political profile of the region, have made the task of nation building a fascinating and exciting exercise. But before I analyse the problems of ethno-nationalism and nation building, few preliminary observations are in order.

Political scientists unfortunately use the terms nation and state as synonymous and this semantic confusion has done incalculable harm in understanding the politics of developing countries. Louis Halle, for example, maintained that a “prime fact about the world is that it is largely composed of nation states”. The statement is not true. The world consists of states, not nation states. A survey of world’s 132 states in 1971 found that only 12 (9 percent) could justifiably be characterised as nation states in the sense of the boundaries of the “territorial juridical entity being co-terminous or approximately co-terminous with the distribution of a particular national group”. The comment made by Massimo d’ Azeglu, with special reference to Italy after unification, holds true of most of the states which came into existence after the Second World War: “We have made Italy, now we must make Italians”.

The rise of ethno-nationalism and intensification of ethnic conflicts in different parts of the world raises an interesting theoretical question, which many Marxian social scientists have so far not only ignored, but considered as taboo. They subscribed to the view that the process of industrialisation and modernization would dissolve ethnic identities and create new identities based on class considerations. However, recent developments belie this claim.  The political assertion of various nationalities in former Soviet Union, the revolutionary changes that have taken place in Eastern Europe and Central Europe, the demands of the Blacks in the United States, the Irish conflict in UK, the developments in Fiji, problems relating to ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asian countries – all these are not only illustrations of the pervasiveness of ethnicity, but also underlines the possibilities of more ethnic conflicts in the days to come. An important point should be kept in mind. Whether harmony or conflict governs inter-ethnic relationship in a multi-cultural society hinges, to a large extent, upon whether the political system provides for tolerance of each others’ beliefs and value systems. In those countries where the dominant theme is “ethnicisation of politics and politicization of ethnic communities” the chances of escalation of ethnic conflicts are greater.

I would like to submit two propositions, which can be considered as yardstick for the success of nation building in multi-ethnic societies. First, the political system should provide sufficient space for minorities so that they can preserve, promote and foster their distinct identities while being part of a united country. Second, a federal polity, with entrenched provisions of sharing power between the centre and the states, can lead to the softening of secessionist demands and pave the way for eventual integration.

China’s Advantages

China has innumerable advantages when one analyses the inter-related concepts of ethnicity and nation building. Hans constitute the overwhelming majority of China’s population, numbering 91.5 per cent; they are knit together by common ethnicity and culture. The balance 8.5 per cent of the population consists of 56 ethnic groups, who live in the country’s periphery. Among the major ethnic groups mention must be made of Tibetans, Uighurs, Manchus, Zuang, Miao, Tujra, Yi and Mongols. These ethnic groups are concentrated in Southwest China, Northwest China and Northeast China.

Unlike India where diversity is the hall mark, in China the ruling classes believed in homogenization. It should be pointed out that historically China is a cultural term, not a political term. China meant the Han people whose major cultural traits were belief in Mandate from Heaven, institution of Mandarinate, Chinese script and Confucian values. Those living outside China were considered to be barbarians. Until the beginning of the 20th century Chinese considered the people living in Europe and America as barbarians. The foreigners were depicted with the character denoting barbarians. When China expanded, along with it Chinese culture spread sinicising the barbarians.

The origin of Chinese civilization can be traced to the Yellow River valley. Gradually China expanded, which means the barbarians living outside China were conquered and sinicised; they were made to accept Chinese culture. The belief that those living outside China are barbarians persisted till the opium wars. There was nothing much that China could learn from the barbarians. Unlike the tumultuous history of Europe, which has seen the rise and fall of civilizations, China presents a picture of astonishing cultural continuity. In many ways it was a self contained civilization. In the mid 1960’s Andre Marloux, the French political philosopher, went to China and interviewed Mao tse Tung. In the course of the conversation, Marloux asked Mao, “What is the impact of French Revolution on China?” Mao pondered for couple of minutes and later replied, “It is too early to tell”. China, as Prof. Lucian Pye has pointed out, “is a civilization pretending to be a nation-state”.

The Chinese, unlike the Europeans or the Americans, do not consider the past to be a burden, but as a treasure to be cherished and preserved.  As Prof. Wang Gung Wu has pointed out, “what is quintessentially Chinese is the remarkable sense of continuity that seems to have made the civilization increasingly distinctive over the centuries”.  They knew how to sinicise the concepts which came from other countries. Buddhism, an Indian religion, spread from China to Japan, Korea and Vietnam in forms in which it had been given a Chinese impress. China transformed Buddhism into something Chinese and the Chinese, in turn, transmitted the religion to other East Asian countries. And, these countries, in turn, transformed Buddhism in conformity with their local genius to suit their own needs and beliefs. In more recent times it must be mentioned that during the revolutionary period the Chinese communist leaders sinicised Marxism-Leninism to suit Chinese needs and aspirations.   Despite the humiliation suffered by the Chinese at the hands of the Europeans, Chinese leaders had profound faith that their county would stand up and occupy a great position in the comity of nations commensurate to its size, population and historical greatness. In an essay in 1919,  Mao had declared: “I venture to make a singular assertion. One day, the reform of the Chinese people will be more profound than that of any other people, and the society of the Chinese people will be more radiant than that of any other people. The great union of the Chinese people will be achieved earlier than that of any other place or people”.

The Revolution in October 1949 was a momentous event in Chinese history. However, it must be stated that in many ways there was a remarkable continuation of Chinese history. As Prof. Wang Gung Wu has highlighted that the new communist party was a “replacement of the old emperor-state” and that Mao Zedong effectively restored the idea of a charismatic founder-emperor and behaved, and he was treated very much like the emperor with almost no limits on his power”.

What about the non-Han ethnic groups, who surround Han China? In the early phase of history relations with them was called tributary relations, where the ruling elite was expected to accept Chinese sovereignty, pay regular tributes and kowtow before the Chinese emperor. In return, they were allowed to trade with China and also retain their distinct culture.  In the early phase of his political career Dr. Sun Yat Sen brushed aside the non-Han ethnic groups as insignificant entities. However, when the revolution took place in 1911 Dr. Sun Yat Sen had to face the grim reality.  The ethnic minorities constituted only 8.5 per cent of the total population, but they occupied over half the territory of China. Sun Yat Sen soon backtracked and declared that China consisted of five nationalities – Hans, Manchu, Mongols, Tibetans and Hui. By implication it meant that China was a multi-national state. At the same time, the government maintained there was only one race in China – the Hans. The Government argued that all ethnic groups shared the same historical origins. Chiang Kai-shek adopted a strong assimilationist line, suppressing the ethnic minorities and forcing them to adopt the Han culture.

The emergence of the PRC represented a major shift from the past. The new government described China as a unitary multinational state. Following the Soviet model, for some time the PRC government even offered the ethnic minorities the right to self-determination. The offer was quickly withdrawn. The question may be asked – how did the ethnic minorities view the new government in Beijing? It would be erroneous to view ethnic minorities as homogenous and having the same political aspirations.  As Martin Jacques has pointed out the Uighurs and the Tibetans had definite separatist aspirations; the Yi wanted to retain its separate ethnic identity within China and among the Miaos, Zhuang and the Manchus ethnic identity was fast disappearing. The government’s policy was based on trial and error. The ethnic minorities were given a certain measure of autonomy, five autonomous regions were created within the unitary state. But in actual practice centralization was the order of the day. Along with economic development and militarization there was also the influx of Hans into territories inhabited by the ethnic minorities. The Tibetan experience will be described later.

It would be refreshing to compare and contrast the impact of ethnic groups on nation building experiments in China and India. The Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew has drawn a comparison. To quote Lee Kuan yew: “In China 90 percent is Han Chinese and speak Mandarin. And they have simplified the Chinese characters and educated everyone to master Chinese. So CCTV is understood throughout the country.  Compare the Indian and the Chinese cultures. The Chinese are doers; the Indians are contemplative and argumentative. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen entitled one of his books, The Argumentative Indian. When the Chinese decided to make Chongquing a prosperous centre in the Western region, they gave the necessary resources. Then you find Chongquing quickly blossoms”. A P Venkateshwaran, former Indian Ambassador to China, also highlighted how the differing cultural traits have affected the behaviour of the Chinese and the Indians. To quote Venkateshwaran: “China is expansionist; India is pacifist; Chinese are taciturn, Indians are garrulous; China is cohesive, India is disparate; Chinese are chauvinists, Indians are liberals; China is assertive, India is open; Chinese are collective minded, Indians are highly individualistic; Chinese are calculating, Indians are open-minded; Chinese have a superiority complex, Indians have an inferiority complex; China has been united because of the distinguishing characteristics of Chinese civilization; we have many languages, many scripts; we believe in unity in diversity; China is predominantly inhabited by the Han people, we have many ethnic groups in India; and Chinese are factional, we are fissiparous”.

Indian Experience

The ethnic, linguistic and religious divisions in India are well known. However it is worth recapitulating some of these differences. India is the world 7th largest country in terms of area and the second most populous with more than 1.2 billion residents. The Indo-Aryans constitute 72 per cent, Dravidians 25 per cent and Mongoloid and others 5 per cent. Hinduism is the most important religion with 80 per cent subscribing to that faith, Islam is the second largest with 13 per cent; Christians 2.3 per cent, Sikhs 1.9 per cent, Buddhism 0.8 per cent and Jains 0.4 per cent.

Over the centuries, as a result of constant benign inter-action, India has developed a composite culture. All religions, philosophic traditions, food habits, art, architecture, language and music have developed and interacted with one another. Unlike China where homogenization is the major characteristic, in India respect for diversity and tolerance is the hall mark.

Few illustrations of the composite culture in the realm of religion in South India are given below. The land for the tank in Kapaleshwar temple in Mylapore in Chennai was given by the Nawab of Arcot to the temple authorities. One of the well known authorities in Kamba Ramayana in Tamil was a Muslim, Justice Ismail. Few years ago, I was associated with the Calicut University as the first Professor for Maritime Studies. I came across an Islamic version of Ramayana called the Mopla Ramayana. A Christian, Yesudas has sung the most melodious Hindu religious songs in Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu. According to tradition Ranganathaswamy in Sri Rangam was married to a Muslim woman. Tulukka Nachiar, and the first offering to the Lord everyday is Roti. Until the Mohammadan law was codified in the Madras Presidency the Muslims in Malabar practiced the Marmakkatayam (matriarchal) system.  On their way to the famous pilgrim centre in Sabari Malai in Kerala, the pilgrims first offer their salutations in the vavar kavu a Moslem dargah dedicated to Bawa who is considered to be Lord Ayyappa’s brother. The Masjid in Nagore and the church in Velankanni are holy places visited by Hindus, Christians and Moslems alike.

The greatest embodiment of India’s composite culture was Mohammad Abdul Kalam who passed away last year. A devout Moslem, he grew up in an eclectic environment in Rameshwaram and embodied in himself the noblest qualities of Indian culture. A Moslem steeped in Indian traditions, a scientist who could recite verses from Thirukkural and an artist who played the Sarawathi Veena, a scholar who was well versed in Quran, Geetha and the Bible, he is role model for all Indians. Kalam remained a teacher till the very end and was convinced that India will become a developed powerful nation. I admired him, I respected him, I loved him and on this occasion I pray for the continuance of his guidance, his love, his service and his inspiration.

Tolerance of different religions had been an integral part of Indian religious traditions. India had been the home of all major religions in the world. It is worth mentioning that Christianity came to Kerala in the first century AD, long before Vatican was Christianized. There was a flourishing Jewish community in Cochin. The Parsees came to Gujarat coast in the 9th century to escape religious persecution in their homeland. They were welcomed with open arms and they became an integral part of India enriching all aspects of Indian life.

A cardinal principle which Gandhiji and Nehru advocated and wanted to put into the foundation of Indian nation was the concept of secularism. They regarded secularism as the basic law of Indian nationhood. To maintain intact a diverse multi-religious country, it is essential that there is no domination by its religious majority. Gandhiji wrote in the Harijan soon after independence: “If a minority in India, a minority on the score of its religious profession, is made to feel small on that account, I can only say that this India is not the India of my dreams. In the India, for whose fashioning I have worked all my life, every man enjoys equality of status, whatever his religion is. The State is bound to be wholly secular”.

In order to appreciate better why the founding fathers wanted to make India a secular state, one must keep in mind the tragic events immediately before and after independence. The sharp Hindu-Muslim differences that chracterised the last phase of the Indian national movement, the communal blood bath which ensued after partition and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu fanatic – all these events made Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders take the conscious, deliberate decision to divorce religion from public life and assure the minorities that the religions that they followed will have no bearing on their civic rights. What is more, they wanted to assure the minorities that India was as much their country as it was of the Hindus. Twelve days before his demise, Gandhiji wrote in the Harijan: “All Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, Parsees, Christians and Jews, who people this vast sub-continent and have adopted it as their motherland, have an equal right to it. No one has a right to say that it belongs to the majority community only, and that the minority community can only remain there as an underdog”.

Prof. Sarvepally Gopal went further and argued: “The test of secularism in India is not what the Hindus think, but how the Moslems and other minorities feel. Minorities may sometimes turn aggressive out of a sense of grievance or insecurity; but far more dangerous is the sectarianism of the majority community, for it masquerades as nationalism and frequently degenerates into a form of fascism”.

The Indian experiment in secularism is remarkable because it is in sharp contrast with the policies of the neighbouring countries. Pakistan, which was created as a result of the partition of India, later proclaimed itself as an Islamic Republic. Burma, currently Myanmar, which was a province of British India until 1937, pursued a policy of promotion of Buddhism through legislation and state patronage. In Sri Lanka Article 8 of the Constitution gives Buddhism the “foremost place” and accordingly “it shall be the duty of the State to protect and promote Buddhist sasana while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Article 10 and Article 14 (1)(e)”. Maldives is an Islamic State and according to the Constitution only Sunni Moslems can become Maldivian citizens. What must be underlined is the fact that while the neighbouring countries turned to majority religions as the basis of national identity and unity, India, thanks to the statesmanship of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, rejected Hinduism, the religion of the majority community, as the basis of nationhood.

Keeping in mind the experience of the years soon after independence- the Kashmir problem, the problems relating to integration of states and Naga struggle for separate state – the founding fathers adopted a Constitution where the division of powers favoured the Centre. Even then the regional leaders soon realized that despite inherent limitations, the Constitution did provide an opportunity for regional parties to come to power through the ballot box. Parties like the DMK in Tamil Nadu, which initially wanted to secede and create a separate State, soon realized that they could protect, foster and promote Tamil cultural identity while being part of a united India. What is more when coalition governments came to power in the Centre, they became allies; their regionalism was softened and they became the votaries of a united India. The same applies to the Mizo experience. For a variety of reasons, mainly the neglect of the northeast by the Government of Assam and the Centre, Mizos raised the banner of revolt in the late 1960’s. Violence was used against the insurgents and the Mizo population was uprooted from their villages and settled along the national highway. In a statesmanlike manner Prime Minister Indira Gandhi created separate states for the Khasis, Mizos and the Nagas. The Mizo leader Laldenga entered into an agreement with Rajiv Gandhi where he upheld the unity and the constitution of India and came to power through democratic process. The Mizos have realized how much they can gain by being part of India. It is necessary to highlight the fact that Mizo representation in the central services today is out of all proportion of their numerical numbers.

I do not want to belittle the complex problems facing the Government of India in Jammu and Kashmir, Nagaland and Manipur, but, at the same time, it must be pointed out that the success of Indian experiment in nation building is due to the establishment of a political system where multiple identities can co-exist harmoniously. National integration is taking place in a big way. I was in Nagaland couple of years ago, and I was surprised to find that the Nagas could converse in Hindi and in English. The Naga girls wear Salwaar Kameez and Hindi films and songs are immensely popular. Except in my State – Tamil Nadu – where the narrow minded bigoted Dravidian politicians follow a short sighted policy by sticking to a two language formula, where children are taught only two languages in the schools, Tamil and English. In all other states three language formula – regional language, English and Hindi – is followed. As a result, Hindi, not by compulsion but by voluntary acceptance, has become the lingua franca of the country.

 Dr. Shashi Tharoor, diplomat turned politician, recently gave an illustration of how the minorities, unlike many other Asian countries, occupy high positions in our country. In the 2004 parliamentary elections, the Indian National Congress emerged as the single largest party, an Indian citizen of Italian origin, Roman Catholic by faith, Smt. Sonia Gandhi was elected as the leader of the parliamentary party, but she graciously declined the post of the Prime Minister and offered it to another distinguished leader belonging to another minority community, a Sikh. And Dr. Manmohan Singh was sworn in as Prime Minister of India, by the President, who belonged to another minority group, Moslem- Mohammad Abdul Kalam.

Tibet –  Litmus Test for China’s experiment in Nation Building

Success of nation building experiment in multi-ethnic societies, as pointed out earlier, will depend as to what extent the political system provides space for various ethnic groups to retain their distinct identity while extending political loyalty to the country in which they live. While India, over the years, has succeeded in this difficult task Chinese nation building is based on homogeneity, cultural assimilation and rapid economic development, resulting in Han migration. Nowhere else is this so evident as in the case of Tibet.

Tibetans are not a homogenous group. They comprise, in addition to Tibetans, kindred ethnic groups like U-Tsang, Drokpa and the Khambas.  The Tibetans may number around 5 to 7 million. According to Chinese government statistics, Tibetans constitute 92 per cent of the population of Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Han Chinese only 6 per cent. According to many Sinologists the proportion of the Tibetans is an over estimate and Han Chinese an under estimate. The Tibetans follow the Vajrayana form of Buddhism and their culture has blossomed as a result of intimate contacts with India than with Han China.  The British Government had extra-territorial rights in Tibet, which the newly independent India relinquished as extra-territorial rights were the legacy of imperialism.

Was Tibet a part of Han China in the past?  If it were part of China, it would have been sinicised completely. While the exact nature of relations between Tibet and Han China is a matter of controversy, according to perceptive historians, whenever China was strong it used to insist on tributary relations with Tibet which the latter was compelled to acquiesce, whereas when China had a weak government the Tibetans used to assert their independence. Bertil Lintner has summed up the Tibetan reality as follows: “Tibet was an independent country, largely isolated and having limited interaction with the rest of the world. It did, however, have its own government, flag, national anthem and a small and poorly equipped army, but still an army”.    In his famous speech, accepting the Nobel peace prize in December 1989, His Holiness 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet pointed out that the relations between Tibet and China has to be based on equality and mutual respect. These principles were laid down as early as 823 AD, carved on a pillar which stands even today in front of the Jokhang, Tibet’s holiest shrine in Lhasa. “Tibetans will live happily in the great land of Tibet and the Chinese will live happily in the great land of China”.

After the revolution in China in 1949 the communist leaders felt that the Western world was refusing to come to terms with an independent China and was conspiring to encircle and quarantine China. . Tibet, especially the Dalai Lama, the communist leaders felt was a willing tool of the Americans.    The end result was the 1950 invasion of Tibet, which completely altered the situation. India did not protest; what is more, Indian diplomat KM Panikkar justified Chinese military intervention. To quote Panikkar: “I do not think there is anything wrong in the troops of Red China moving about in their own country”.

During the period of India-China honeymoon Nehru believed that the Chinese leaders will continue to respect the autonomy of Tibet. Did they not declare Tibet as an “autonomous region”,  Nehru argued. What is more, he was lulled into inertia by Chou En Lai’s repeated assurances that China will respect Tibet’s autonomy. In a statement in Lok Sabha on 27 April 1959, after Dalai lama had been given asylum, Nehru recalled: “When Premier Chou En-lai came here two or three years ago, he was good enough to discuss Tibet with me at considerable length. We had a frank and full talk. He told me that while Tibet had long been a part of Chinese state, they did not consider Tibet to be a province of China. The Tibetan people were different from the people of China proper, just as in other autonomous regions of the Chinese state, the people were different even though they formed part of the state. Therefore, they consider Tibet an autonomous region which would enjoy autonomy. He told me further that it was absurd for anyone to imagine that China was going to force communism on Tibet. Communism could not be enforced this way on a very backward country and they had no wish to do so even though they would like reforms to come in progressively. Even these reforms they proposed to postpone for a considerable time”.

It may be recalled that in 1956 India celebrated the 2500 birth anniversary of Guatama Buddha. Dalai Lama with his faithful followers came to Bodh Gaya, where the Mahabodhi temple had been renovated, to attend the celebrations. He was extremely unhappy with the ongoing Chinese repression in Tibet. Open revolts were taking place in eastern parts of the Tibetan plateau. The function was also attended by Premier Chou En-lai. Chou En-lai was at his persuasive best and assured Nehru that Tibetan autonomy will not be disturbed by the Chinese Government. Dalai Lama was reluctant to go back to Lhasa, but on Nehru’s assurance he returned to Tibetan capital.

The high watermark of India –China relations was the signing of the Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet Region of China and India on 29 April 1954. Reference to Tibet as Tibet region of China implied that India recognized Tibet to be an integral part of China. In the agreement there was no reference to the autonomous region of Tibet though Nehru in repeated statements had mentioned that China had given assurances that the autonomy of Tibet will be respected by Beijing. The agreement also incorporated the five principles of Peaceful co-existence. The agreement contained specific provision for the promotion of cultural and trade relations between the two countries.  Sections in the Government of India, led by Girija Shankar Bajpai and members of parliament cutting across political parties wanted Nehru to make use of the opportunity to demand that China respect the traditional boundary line between India and Tibet. Chou En-lai maintained that the maps then in circulation were old maps and the Chinese Government had no time to study the problem. Chou En-lai stated that the questions “which were ripe for settlement” have been resolved. Very few in India at that time understood the subtleties in Chou En-lai’s statement.

Blinded by anti-China hysteria the United States was deeply involved in fomenting anti-China feelings in Tibet. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was training the Khampas in bases located in East Pakistan and used to air drop them in Tibet. Pakistan at that time was an ally of the United States in the Cold War and was a member of the SEATO and CENTO. There were remnants of the Kuomintang in the northern parts of Burma and they also assisted the United States in these subversive activities. The end result was the intensification of the civil war in Tibet with China unleashing a brutal policy of repression. The Dalai Lama had to flee from Tibet and come to India in March 1959. An exodus of the Tibetan refugees followed. The Chinese media stepped up its attacks on the Dalai Lama as a “reactionary” “counter-revolutionary”, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, a “political leader, not a religious head of a minority; a globe-trotting character who wants the world to support Tibet’s secession and independence”.

Beijing is aware of the fact that so long as Dalai Lama lives, Tibet would continue to attract international attention. But time is not in Dalai Lama’s favour. In July 2016 Dalai Lama will complete 81 years and it is only a question of time before his life comes to an end. Beijing has already propped up its stooge Panchan Lama and is encouraging foreign dignitaries to call on him. On his last visit to China, George Yeo, Sigapore’s former Foreign Minister, called on Panchan Lama on his own initiative, which is an example of the likely attitude of many developing countries.

Keeping in mind the rapidly changing international situation, especially growing entente between United States and China and India’s desire to normalize relations with China, Dalai Lama occasionally has stated that he is willing to accept a solution within a united China, which guarantees Tibet’s autonomy. The solution has to be based on the principle of equality, trust, respect and mutual benefit. China has yet to respond. Meanwhile Tibetan resistance continues to erupt occasionally. In June 1989 several Tibetans immolated themselves which attracted international attention.

China’s increasing militarization of Tibet, including construction of 25 air fields and installation of nuclear launch facilities are illustrations of China’s determination to integrate Tibet with China as speedily as possible. Communication facilities, including construction of railway links and air facilities have reduced the distance between developed China and not so developed Tibet. Increasing industrialization of Tibet is leading to the induction of Han people and by the end of the century the Tibetans are likely to become a minority in their homeland. What is more, more and more countries are interested in developing mutually beneficial relations with China and these countries are unlikely to make human rights violations in China as a primary focus of their foreign policy.

Idealism VS Pragmatism: Dilemma in Foreign Policy

When the Tiananmen Square incident took place, New Delhi did not criticize China. India was trying to normalize relations with China and the Indian foreign office did not want to disturb the ongoing dialogue. It may be recalled that when Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, India remained a silent spectator because any criticism of Soviet Union would have adversely affected Indo-Soviet friendship. In other words pragmatism dictated Indian response, not the high ideals which Gandhiji and Nehru taught us. But the most disappointing aspect was the reaction of the non-governmental organizations – media, trade unions, students and teachers – they were more royal than the King and more Anglican than the Bishop.

Henry Kissinger, in his book On China, has vividly described the dilemma facing United States in its policy towards China after the Tiananmen Square incident. There were those who advocated that American diplomacy should be geared to promote democracy, whatever may be the cost. The realists, however, argued that each country should be judged by its own yardsticks. For China liberal western democracy was not the ideal, unity and stability of the country was paramount, and, therefore, the best option available for the United States is to continue to engage with china. Once the United States establishes enough confidence changes in government policies could be advocated with greater chances of success.

As the inter-dependence between the United States and China, or for that matter between India and China, expands, the dilemma mentioned above would continue to confront the policy makers. As far as Tibetan desire for autonomy and human dignity is concerned, it is likely to be a losing battle and the ruthless regime in due course would impose its hegemonistic rule, whatever may be the human cost.   The surviving Tibetans would continue to exist, but as a helpless minority, aliens in their own homeland.

The famous poem of the Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish comes to my mind. The poem, entitled The State of Siege opens with the following lines:

“There on the hill side gazing into the dusk and cannon of time

near the shadow crossed gardens

we do what the prisoners and the powerless always do

we try to conjure up hope”


**The Author is grateful to Mr. Premkumar and Ms. Usha of the American Library, Chennai for their assistance in locating reference materials.

*** This essay is partly based on Author’s earlier writings.

(Dr V. Suryanarayan is founding Director and former Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is currently Chairman, Chennai Centre for China Studies.  His e-mail address: )

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