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Making Sense of the Tibetan Imbroglio

The ‘whodunit’ of the Tibetan situation as it has unfolded from early March is still unresolved. The Chinese Government blames it all on the Dalai Lama, and even dismisses his call for peace as a sham. What reason can there be for him to take cudgels against China at this time and instigate the agitation and, in the process, deliberately set about creating a credibility crisis over his commitment to non-violence?

He sounds sincere and genuine enough when he repeatedly asserts that he is not for independence of Tibet and goes to the extent of threatening to quit if his followers did not desist from violence. A scenario in which the Dalai Lama wantonly stokes the dormant embers of decades into a conflagration against China seems utterly implausible.

It imposes an equal strain on the imagination to think that the Tibetan Youth Congress or the scattered, motley groups of Tibetans under various banners would be witless enough to flout the Dalai Lama and go on a rampage because of their frustration with his passivity and moderation. Can it be that they misinterpreted some stray straws in the wind into deceiving themselves that at their signal, the Tibetan population in Tibet would rise in revolt and overthrow the Chinese?

Short of such an assumption, they should have known that there was no chance of their ever succeeding in making even the slightest dent on the might of the Chinese State to put down with an iron hand any defiance of its authority. Why, then, against all odds and simple common sense, did the Tibetan exiles and the amorphous, assorted malcontents in Lhasa and elsewhere embark upon a foolhardy adventure that was doomed to failure from the start?

If it was the intention of the Dalai Lama and his flock to foul up the smooth conduct of Olympic Games by setting the participating countries against China, they have shown an inexplicable lack of judgment by timing their uprising five months in advance of the event. They could have hit China harder with less effort if only they had mounted the agitation within a few weeks of the inauguration, so that the fires would still be smouldering when the glitterati were set to assemble. By their poor timing the protesters have ensured that the Chinese had enough time to quell the disturbances and for the resentment on this score to fade from the world’s memory.

Or, is it that the riots were not the result of a calculated, planned and premeditated outrage, as projected by the Chinese Government, but a spontaneous eruption over which neither the Dalai Lama nor any other group had any control? Even in that case, there should be some immediate provocation to trigger it. Try as one might, one is unable to spot any.

Deepening mystery

Looked at from any angle, the mystery only deepens as regards what exactly the dissident groups, with or without prompting by Dalai Lama, were expecting to achieve. By their premature and ill-considered moves, they have only helped the Chinese to further strengthen their hold on Tibet.

The British Prime Minister, Mr.Gordon Brown, the Canadian Prime Minister, Mr. Stephen Harper and the US Secretary of State, Ms.Condoleeza Rice have called upon China to hold talks with Dalai Lama and, in the meantime, to show restraint. The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Ms.Nancy Pelosi, has gone one step further, and totally forgetting the US invasion of, and atrocities in, Iraq and the inhuman tortures inflicted on Iraqis in Abu Ghraib and other detention centres, stridently spoken of the situation in Tibet as “a challenge to the conscience of the world”. She has grandiloquently declared: “If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out against China and the Chinese in Tibet, we have lost all moral authority to speak out on human rights.” France and a few other countries are making noises about a possible boycott of the Olympic Games if China does not make amends.

All this will be tantamount to nothing more than emission of hot air. It is unlikely that any of these pretentious countries will do anything so unwise, for they know on which side their bread is buttered. Actually, considering the political, economic and military strengths of China, no country can afford to antagonise it for the sake of an inaccessible region of less than two million people. Mussolini’s question, “How many divisions has he got?” when told of the Pope being against Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia, applies to their attitude as well.

From the statements of the Chinese Premier, Mr.Wen Jiabao, and spokespersons of the Chinese Government, it is plain as noonday sun that China has lost all confidence in the Dalai Lama’s bona fides. He is being viewed as a political exile engaged in “separatist activities in the guise of a religious leader” with the aim of “splitting” the motherland, and as the root cause of all the troubles.

That apart, the real question is what is China to talk to the Dalai Lama on? He has disowned the perpetrators of violence and in any event, with the steps taken by China to restore order, his role is not going to be of any critical importance. There are discordant voices among Tibetan groups over the purpose of such talks in the absence of a clear conception of what is being sought: Independence, autonomy, referendum or self-determination or what? In the circumstances, Dalai Lama’s representative capacity itself can be called into question, and the scope of the talks may have to be widened to include the other interests clamouring for a slice of the action. This will be the surest recipe for paralysis by analysis and activity without action.

Too late

There is absolutely no chance of China agreeing to bring within the purview of the talks demands such as independence, self-determination or referendum in the light of its stand on Tibet. It is too late in the day to go back on the endorsement, open and tacit, by the international community of the fact that Tibet is a part of Chinese territory and the recognition given to its sovereign rights as such for over five decades.

At the most, countries such as the UK, the US or France, keen to flaunt their self-righteousness and fish in troubled waters could take up the issue of autonomy and the lines of extending and buttressing it. This, being a technical matter involving a study of administrative and juridical details, does not lend itself to being thrown into the lap of a high-level political conference between Dalai Lama and the ruling dispensation of Beijing. Intense preparation will be necessary to configure, with the help of a study group, any possible new autonomous framework.

The one country which has played its cards with impressive dexterity ever since the beginning of the crisis is India. It has avoided any judgmental observations, while generally appealing for return to the path of peace and reconciliation, and reiterating its time-honoured policy of accepting Tibet as part of China.

Of course, in the context of the recent developments, China will not take kindly to India continuing to give asylum to the Dalai Lama and his followers. It will also expect India to come to China’s active support for its pursuit of what it regards as its legitimate objective of protecting the sovereignty and integrity of the country, for instance, by sealing the border to prevent movement of agitators into Tibet. India has to walk the tight rope, on the one hand, avoiding any appearance of ambivalence on these counts which could embitter relations, and, on the other, not letting China, or any other country, to pressure it to act against the nation’s best interests. It will require all its tact and nimbleness for India to be both flexible and firm.

Two birds with one stone

Some commentators have gone overboard by describing India as chicken-hearted. They also lambast China in stale and knee-jerk terms for the stern measures it has taken to bring back normality. This comes out of lack of hands-on experience in making policies and handling macro-issues impacting the country. What would India have done, what, indeed, has it been doing in similar circumstances, say, in Kashmir, or Assam, or Manipur? Surely, they do not want China to queer India’s pitch by giving asylum to some Hizbul Mujahideen leader on its side of the border, or declare its backing of an independent Bodoland?

In this smorgasbord of issues and events, there is a canny game plan that China can follow which will enable it to have the cake and eat it too. It could agree to Ms.Pelosi’s proposal to have an independent outside investigation on accusations made by the Chinese government that the Dalai Lama was the instigator of violence in Tibet. This will kill two birds with one stone: Obviate any immediate necessity for a dialogue and cool down the tempers with the possibility eventually of the world’s attention shifting to other issues.

(The writer, Mr.B.S.Raghavan IAS (retd), is a founder-member of the Chennai Centre for China Studies.)

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