What India stands to lose by abandoning Tibetans for ties with China

BJP coming to power in 2014 was greeted with enthusiasm by the exiled community.
Just after the 2014 elections, an excited Tibetan friend met me and said, “Let us know if there is anything you need from this government. We can help.”

It did not really surprise me. Through out my time working to support democracy among the Tibetan exile community, I was struck by how many on the right wing seemed to support their cause. It was an odd sort of support, almost personal, as if the crushing of Tibet under the jackboots of the People’s Liberation Army was a loss of Indian territory. I was reminded of the old, sad joke that the Arabs are willing to fight the Israelis to the last Palestinian.

This year, the Indian government has asked Tibetans to not celebrate 60 years of India giving them refuge. Photo: Reuters/file

And yet, the territory of Tibet was never Indian, and how the Tibetans manage their relationship with China has never been India’s to negotiate. The British thought so, and slaughtered their way using Gatling machine guns through Tibet’s armies during the Younghusband expedition – continuing to fire on even those retreating – and then tried to negotiate a three-way deal with them, the Tibetans, and the Chinese.

This was a model that Nehru rejected, and the right wing has never forgiven him, or his successors – of whatever hue – for not taking a more “muscular” approach.

In 2014, the new government was going to change all that – it was led by a RSS sangh pracharak no less, and so it seemed, for a time. The Sikyong, or elected political leader of the Tibetans in exile, Dr Lobsang Sangay, was seated prominently, near the front row, at Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony.

In 2016, the then US Ambassador to India, Richard Verma, became the first US Ambassador to visit Arunachal Pradesh. Then, in April 2017, the Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh as well, to Tawang, the monastery town he first crossed over to on Indian territory in 1959. This was not the first time; he had been there in 2009 to commemorate 50 years of that nightmarish rush into exile. Now though, after every new muscular move, it seemed to signal something more.

Just 10 weeks later, we had the Doklam stand-off. Now things seem to have changed.

This year, the Indian government has asked Tibetans to not celebrate 60 years of India giving them refuge. And then the Dalai Lama was denied permission to make a trip to Sikkim, a place far less sensitive than Arunachal Pradesh. The climbdown has been severe. This contrasts strongly not just with the previous policy of the government, but even with that of the previous government. Just 10 years ago, as the protests against the Beijing Olympics by Tibetans and their supporters spiked across the world, India raised security but, at the same time, allowed a protest procession by Tibetans to wind across New Delhi.

It seems that the same Indians who talked as if they were the strongest supporters of the Tibetans are more than happy to not have them fight the Chinese anymore.

For most Indians, what happens to the Tibetans may not matter. The Tibetans themselves are putting a good face on it, with the Sikyong saying, “Whatever we do, we don’t want to cause inconvenience to our hosts or to the persons who want to meet us.”

And yet, it matters deeply for Indian foreign policy. A couple of years ago, a person in the PMO who was quite impressed with Mr Modi and his “vision” told me how pleased the Chinese were to be dealing with him, and it’s easy to see why.

They saw him as a transactional leader, one they could “deal with”, not somebody who was tied up in the old India, the one tied up in its ideas of principles and ideals, the one that chose to not try to be a colonial power in China’s backyard, but to allow the Tibetans who fled into exile to live freely.

They might have been discomfited somewhat by the aggressive use of the Tibetans, but now they can see that he is willing to do a deal.

What message this sends to the rest of the world is not hard to see either.

source: Living Media India Limited


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