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The Tibet Story; by Annunthra Rangan


Article: 28/ 2024


Introduction: 


Invaded by China in 1949, Tibet, once an independent nation, faced immediate loss of life from military actions and subsequent loss of freedoms due to Communist policies, including the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Despite the passage of time, the threat to Tibet's unique national, cultural, and religious identity persists under Chinese control.


China's occupation and oppressive policies have led to the systematic dismantling of Tibet's national independence, cultural heritage, religion, environment, and the violation of universal human rights. Repeatedly, China has carried out these actions in blatant disregard of international laws. 


The Resolve Tibet Act, also known as the Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Dispute Act, marks the third legislation concerning Tibet passed by the US Congress, following the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 and the Tibetan Policy & Support Act of 2020. This new legislation directly challenges China's territorial claims over Tibet and aims to address the unresolved status of the region. It highlights that negotiations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama have been at a standstill since 2010 due to unreasonable conditions imposed by the Chinese side.


From 2002 to 2010, Tibetan representatives pursued genuine autonomy based on the Dalai Lama's middle path approach in discussions with China. However, these talks did not progress due to China's reluctance to loosen its control over the annexed region.


In March 2008, Tibet, renowned for its deeply religious and peaceful Buddhist population, experienced widespread protests across the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and ethnically Tibetan areas in neighbouring provinces. While some protests remained peaceful, others escalated into riots and violence, including the burning and looting of stores owned by Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China. "When violent rioting broke out in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, on March 14, 2008, after four days of peaceful protests, businesses owned by Chinese were looted and burned. At least 19 people were killed, most of them Han Chinese." The Chinese government's response was swift and severe. Estimates suggest that the March protests resulted in the deaths of over 100 "unarmed" Tibetans, many of whom were Buddhist monks.


In 1950, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), having emerged victorious in the 1949 Chinese Civil War, invaded Tibet. From Tibet's perspective, this invasion disrupted centuries of independent nationhood. Conversely, the Chinese viewed it as reasserting control over their sovereign territory, which had been lost during the previous century of foreign imperialism and civil war. The 1959 Tibetan uprising, a mix of nonviolent and violent actions partly inspired and led by the CIA, was brutally suppressed by the Chinese. Following these events, the Dalai Lama fled to northern India. He and the Tibetan Government in Exile have been based in Dharamsala, India, for the past half-century. In 1965, the CCP established the TAR, ostensibly granting regional autonomy to Tibet; however, in practice, Tibetans experience minimal or no autonomy, with Beijing controlling Tibet's politics, economy, and increasingly, its culture. 


The depiction of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) on Chinese social media, particularly following the meeting between U.S. lawmakers and the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, reflects China's growing apprehension about potential unrest in Tibet and U.S. interest in the region. This curated narrative suggests a deliberate effort by Beijing to portray Tibet similarly to Xinjiang in order to counter Western human rights criticisms.


A search for Tibet, known as Xizang in China, on various Chinese social media platforms reveals an image of a flourishing tourist destination with well-developed infrastructure and Tibetans freely practising their religion. However, the Central Tibetan Administration argues that this portrayal is misleading. They allege ongoing suppression of religious freedoms within the TAR, contradicting the positive image promoted by Chinese media.


The U.S Game: 


China's policy on Tibet is increasingly under scrutiny in the United States and the European Union. New legislative measures have been introduced to enable U.S. Department of State and EU officials to closely examine Chinese practices in Tibet. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the 'Resolve Tibet Act,' introduced by prominent bipartisan lawmakers, and it is expected to be signed by President Joe Biden soon. This bill calls for enhanced U.S. support for Tibet and advocates for unconditional negotiations between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama or his representatives, or the democratically elected leaders of the Tibetan community. 


What distinguishes the latest US legislation is its emphasis on the Tibetan right to self-determination and its acknowledgment of historical geographical boundaries. It identifies extensive areas historically part of Tibet that were fragmented and incorporated into neighbouring Chinese provinces such as Sichuan, Yunnan, and the creation of new provinces like Qinghai following China's military occupation of Tibet in 1950. Recognizing Tibet's original geographical extent is a key feature of the new bill, aiming to underscore China's efforts to alter Tibet's historical identity.


The legislation empowers State Department officials to actively counter Chinese disinformation about Tibet and aims to facilitate coordination with other governments and multilateral efforts. Crucially, it rejects the false claim that Tibet has been a part of China since ancient times.


This legislative move has brought the Tibet issue to the forefront of the China debate ahead of the U.S. presidential election this November. It occurs amid a new phase of great power rivalry between the U.S. and China over trade, technology, and security.


Unlike Taiwan or the South China Sea, Tibet has not traditionally been a focal point in the U.S.-China geopolitical competition. However, as this great power struggle intensifies, issues like Tibet are emerging from the background to become central to policy discussions in Washington and other Western capitals. Whether the activism behind this bipartisan bill and similar efforts by EU parliamentarians will lead to significant changes in the Tibet issue remains to be seen.


India and the Tibet Story: 


India has supported the Dalai Lama and a Tibetan refugee community since 1959, following their flight from Tibet after a failed uprising against China. Despite its support for the Tibetan cause, India’s official stance since Jawaharlal Nehru’s tenure has been to recognize Tibet as part of China. New Delhi first acknowledged Tibet as a Chinese region in April 1954 through the Panchsheel Agreement signed by Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. This position was reaffirmed in December 1988 during Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China, where he reiterated that Tibet is an autonomous region of China and assured that Tibetan refugees in India would not be allowed to engage in political activities against China.


In June 2003, during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing, India reinforced its stance, with Vajpayee's joint statement with Premier Wen Jiabao using the legal term ‘recognize’ to describe India’s position on Tibet.


Tibetan Refugees in India: 


For over six decades, the Tibetan refugee community in India, led by the Dalai Lama and his exile government based in Dharamsala, has been a model of success for displaced groups worldwide. Displaced from their Himalayan homeland following the Chinese invasion in 1959, the exiles established a democratic government on foreign soil. This government includes a parliament representing the aspirations of Tibetans, an executive branch managing the daily affairs of those in exile, and a supreme justice commission for resolving civil disputes. Known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), this exile government has developed a range of cultural, educational, health, and religious institutions serving tens of thousands of refugees across the Indian subcontinent.


In recent years, however, this once vibrant community has faced a steady demographic decline. The population of Tibetan refugees in India, Nepal, and Bhutan has decreased from a peak of around 150,000 in the 1990s to just over 100,000 today. Most refugees are in India, with approximately 10,000 in Nepal and 1,300 in Bhutan. This significant decline has weakened essential institutions, including schools, monasteries, and settlements. If current trends continue, the future viability and legitimacy of the Tibetan exile government and its institutions are at risk.


Three main factors contribute to this demographic decline: China’s tightening of Tibet’s southwestern borders in the mid-2000s to limit the flow of refugees into Nepal and India, the emigration of Tibetan refugees to Western countries starting in the 1990s, and a general decline in birth rates among exiled Tibetans. These trends are particularly concerning given the advancing age of the Dalai Lama, who turns 89 this year. Although he transferred his political authority to a democratically elected prime minister in 2011, his moral authority and personal charisma—which have kept Tibetan exiles united and resilient—will be hard to replace. Historically, his death is expected to create a significant leadership vacuum in the Tibetan diaspora, especially in India, where his absence will be most acutely felt.


How are they different from other refugees that India has hosted so far?


The Government of India classifies all refugees within its borders as "illegal migrants," and there is no specific law governing refugees in the country. Consequently, Sri Lankan refugees who fled to India to escape violence and persecution during the civil war (1983-2009) are not eligible for Indian citizenship, even if they have resided in India for over 30 years, as in the case of individuals like Ganesan. As of March 31, 2023, there are 58,457 refugees residing in camps in Tamil Nadu, with an additional 33,375 refugees living outside these camps.


The influx of Tibetan refugees into India began in 1959 following the flight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama from Tibet. The Government of India decided to provide asylum and assistance for their temporary settlement, taking care to preserve their distinct ethnic and cultural identity.


However, the rights and services available to Tibetans arriving in India after the 1970s have diminished, reflecting a shift in Indian policy possibly aimed at preserving Sino-Indian relations. In 1963, the Indian government stopped legally recognizing arriving Tibetans as refugees. Consequently, those arriving after 1979, and some even in the late 1960s, have faced increased challenges in obtaining Registration Certificates (RCs). The process for acquiring an RC has become more complex, impacting access to employment, residency rights, and international travel.


Additionally, while the original Tibetan refugee community received land from the Indian government, more recent arrivals have not been as fortunate. This lack of land provision is significant, given that farming is a primary source of income for Tibetans, and Indian law prohibits foreigners from purchasing land. The closure of the UNHCR office in New Delhi and the cessation of its aid to Tibetan refugees in 1975 further exacerbated the situation.


India's lack of legal obligation allows it to modify refugee policies at will, often aligning with its current political interests. This results in an inconsistent refugee policy, illustrated by the varying rights and services provided to Tibetan refugees based on their arrival dates.


The Indian government recognized the first wave of Tibetans who arrived in 1959 with the Dalai Lama as refugees and granted them legal asylum. They were allocated land and housing, privileges not extended to other foreigners and later denied to new Tibetan arrivals. More importantly, these initial refugees were automatically issued Registration Certificates (RCs).


According to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the RC is a legal document issued by Indian authorities that allows Tibetan refugees to "enjoy all the privileges enjoyed by any Indian citizen except the right to vote and work in Indian government offices" (Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada 2009). While the extent of these privileges is debated, the value of the RC is clear. It enables Tibetans to legally travel and work within India, serves as an identity document, and is a prerequisite for obtaining an Identity Certificate necessary for international travel.


The largest concentrations of Tibetan refugees in India are found in Karnataka (21,353), Himachal Pradesh (14,973), Arunachal Pradesh (4,759), Uttarakhand (4,828), West Bengal (3,079), and the Union Territory of Ladakh (6,987). According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the rehabilitation of Tibetan refugees is nearly complete, with only one remaining housing scheme in various stages of implementation in Uttarakhand.


To ensure uniformity in extending various facilities by the central and state governments to Tibetan refugees across the country, the MHA issued the Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy in 2014. The Government of India sanctioned a grant-in-aid scheme of Rs 40 crore to the Central Tibetan Relief Committee (CTRC) of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, spanning five years from 2015-16 to 2019-20. This funding supports the administrative and social welfare activities of 36 Tibetan Settlement Offices in different states, and the entire Rs 40 crore has been disbursed, according to the Union Home Ministry.


Unlike Tibetan refugees, Sri Lankan refugees remain confined to their allocated camps and are unable to buy land, own property, or claim any assets in India beyond their refugee status. Regardless of when they arrived—whether during the Sri Lankan civil war or before—they continue to be regarded solely as refugees.


The CAA Act: 


The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019 amended the Citizenship Act of 1955 by introducing religion-based criteria for fast-tracking citizenship. The legislation facilitates expedited citizenship for religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—specifically Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, and Christians—who entered India on or before December 31, 2014. Muslims, the majority in these three countries, are excluded from this provision.


Critics point to the exclusion of refugee groups such as the Tamils from Sri Lanka, who have faced various forms of violence from the Sinhala-Buddhist state throughout the country's post-colonial history. The Sirimavo-Shastri Pact of October 1964 aimed to resolve the citizenship status of Indian Tamils—indentured labourers brought to Sri Lanka during colonial rule—by granting Sri Lankan citizenship to 375,000 and repatriating 600,000 to India. However, New Delhi has yet to fulfil its obligation to grant citizenship rights to these repatriated individuals.


Why is China furious? 


China's stance on Tibet has only intensified over time. Earlier this year, Beijing stated it was open to talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama but not with the 'illegitimate' Tibetan government-in-exile in India. However, the offer for discussions stalled as China outrightly rejected any dialogue on the Dalai Lama’s primary demand for Tibetan autonomy. Beijing views the Dalai Lama as a separatist, despite the spiritual leader's clarification that he seeks not political independence but autonomy and religious freedom, central to Tibet’s identity.


Chinese concerns over its security and sovereignty are key factors in the conflict in Tibet. China views itself as a victim of foreign imperialism, particularly during the "century of humiliation," which remains vivid in their collective memory. This perspective leads China to adopt a stringent stance on sovereignty issues in regions like Tibet. The fear is that Tibetan independence could inspire similar secession movements in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Taiwan. These regions are not only crucial border areas and buffers against foreign influence but also integral to China's national identity, which has been severely impacted over the past two centuries, contrasting with its proud imperial past. Additionally, China perceives the Dalai Lama, perhaps unjustly, as a "splittist" capable of inciting "Colour Revolutions" throughout the country.


In the midst of ongoing discussions in New Delhi regarding whether to refer to India's northern border in the Himalayas as its ‘border with Tibet’ instead of China, Beijing had adopted the term ‘Xizang’ for Tibet in 2023. This move is underscored by a recent 'White Paper' from China, titled ‘CPC Policies on the Governance of Xizang in the New Era: Approach and Achievements’. The document details the progress and policies implemented in Tibet since Xi Jinping became president in 2013.


Xi Jinping has been observed employing political narratives reminiscent of Mao's era. Concurrently, numerous Chinese entities and global media outlets are accused of amplifying propaganda aligned with the CCP's directives. Exiled Tibetans frequently allege Xi Jinping's administration of religious suppression and cultural erosion. Consequently, protests, including self-immolations, have intensified, rendering the Tibet issue highly sensitive for Beijing. The unfolding dynamics of China's narrative strategy in South Asian nations present an intriguing area of observation.


Conclusion: 


A resolution favouring the Tibetan people could benefit India by countering China's baseless claims on Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing calls South Tibet. It might also partially address China's dismissal of the McMahon Line, the boundary between Tibet and India established in the 1914 Simla Accord, signed by British India, Tibet, and China. 


India's stance on Tibet, shaped by its geopolitical calculations and the need to manage Sino-Indian relations, has resulted in an inconsistent refugee policy. While the initial wave of Tibetan refugees received substantial support, later arrivals have faced increasing hardships. This disparity underscores the dynamic nature of India's refugee policies, influenced by shifting political interests. On the international front, the U.S. and European legislative measures, such as the Resolve Tibet Act, represent a growing scrutiny of China's policies in Tibet. These measures aim to support Tibetan self-determination and counter Chinese disinformation, bringing the Tibet issue to the forefront of global geopolitical discussions. However, China's firm stance on sovereignty and its strategic concerns regarding separatist movements complicate any potential resolution. 


The 14th Dalai Lama remains a critical link between India and Tibetan Buddhism, often emphasising the deep, traditional connection between India, the mentor (Guru), and Tibet, the disciple (Chela). His statements about his reincarnation, particularly his assertion of the exclusive right to determine his own rebirth and his legitimate successor emerging from a free country, possibly India, places New Delhi in a strategically advantageous position relative to China. Therefore, India should robustly support any successor or reincarnation born on Indian soil, while actively coordinating with the Gaden Phodrang Foundation, the organisation tasked by His Holiness with recognizing his reincarnation.


In this context, India could also seek support from Washington under the Tibetan Policy and Support Act (TPSA) 2020, which affirms the right of Tibetan Buddhist communities to appoint the 15th Dalai Lama without external (Chinese) interference. Additionally, garnering backing from Buddhist-majority countries like Japan and Vietnam, which currently have strained relations with China, would be beneficial. A 15th Dalai Lama born and raised in India, with the support of the global Buddhist community, would significantly bolster New Delhi's standing among Tibetan exiles worldwide and strengthen its leadership in Buddhism in contrast to China.


The recent visit of a high-level U.S. delegation to India, which includes a meeting with the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, should be a recurring event. High-ranking Indian ministers should also make it a point to have regular audiences with the Tibetan leader. Key commemorations of Tibetan history, such as Tibetan Independence Day (February 13) and Uprising Day (March 10), should see active participation from both India and the U.S., promoting these events to counter the Chinese narrative that seeks to downplay them.


Furthermore, New Delhi and Washington should consistently highlight the severe human rights violations occurring in Tibet at the United Nations and other relevant forums. Attention should be drawn to the self-immolations of Tibetans and the plight of escaped political activists seeking asylum in India and elsewhere, allowing these individuals to present their testimonies in international settings. This would challenge China's claims of peace and development in Tibet while also countering Beijing's interference in Kashmir at the UN.


(Ms. Annunthra K is a research officer at C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)



References: 


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