In a conversation with NDTV’s Sonia Singh, and narrated in her book Defining India: Through Their Eyes, the Dalai Lama dropped a political bombshell that given the election madness sweeping through the country largely went unnoticed. The Dalai Lama said: “In 2014, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Delhi for talks with Prime Minister Modi, I requested a meeting with him. President Xi Jinping agreed, but the Indian government was cautious about the meeting, so it didn’t happen.” The question is why did Narendra Modi think it not fit that the meeting between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese President take place? Does the government believe the Tibetan people’s foremost leader should not have a dialogue with China’s President? Or was Mr Modi miffed that the meeting was made possible without his intercession? Did the two directly concerned parties miss a historical opportunity to begin a dialogue due to India’s pettiness?
India does have a role to play in Tibet, and a truly autonomous Tibet might well be in India’s interests and enhance its security. Mind you, the dispute over Arunachal Pradesh began as a dispute with the Tibetans, though the government-in-exile has now repudiated that claim. The Chinese claim of “Tawang and surrounding areas” is largely based on a claim made by the present Dalai Lama in the late 1940s when he wrote a letter to the government of newly-independent India laying his formal claim to it.
Despite a historical political identity entwined with China, Tibet has traditionally looked towards India for economic and spiritual sustenance. Tibet has also had a long history of struggle with China and this Dalai Lama is not the first one to seek refuge in India. The British had an active policy to create a buffer against China in the form of an independent Tibet. The Chinese representative in Lhasa watched the Younghusband expedition’s exertions in Tibet passively; an immediate consequence of this was an assertion of Tibet’s independence.
Almost immediately after their civil war triumph in 1949, the Chinese Communists reasserted control over Tibet, which had by then enjoyed over four decades of relative independence. Since then, India has tried to head off the Tibet problem by accepting its annexation into the People’s Republic of China. In the years since the Chinese Communists tried to solve the Tibet problem by attempting to wipe out Tibetan nationalism and Buddhism with Mao’s Communism. It didn’t succeed. This policy has now been replaced by creeping “Hanisation” and massive doses of economic development. These too have worked only partially for the Chinese, but they seemed to do better with this than with the Maoist iron hand. Though Tibet is now relatively passive, it remains a dry tinderbox and the Chinese dread the likelihood of any spark that may set off a fire.
For India too, the policy has worked partially. Nearly 150,000 Tibetan refugees now live in India, and India has willy-nilly become the fulcrum of a worldwide struggle by the Tibetans to regain their nation. In short, the Tibet issue, though dormant now, is still very much alive and whether India likes it or not, it is being played out in its front yard.
Central to this sustained struggle has been the international stature of the Dalai Lama, who has become the symbol of many ideals and images. The mix of new age spiritualism, ethics, ecological values and politics has won for the Dalai Lama many influential and wealthy Western adherents to Tibetan Buddhism and supporters of Tibet’s cause. Macleodganj, the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile, is a magnet today that draws large numbers of young Westerners seeking a new meaning to and purpose in life. It draws top political personalities like Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, as well as top Hollywood stars like Richard Gere and Uma Thurman.
True, the Dalai Lama has become many things to many people but what should be relevant to us is that he has emerged as a man of great stature and influence. Presidents and Prime Ministers vie to receive him and the pictures that get transmitted the world over electronically remind the world that there is still a Tibetan nation yearning to be free and peacefully struggling for it. This is an extremely powerful image. Both China and India should worry about a post-Dalai Lama period.
We can be certain that it is the present Dalai Lama’s stature that keeps the lid on Tibetan militancy. After him, the political power of the next Dalai Lama will almost certainly be challenged. The chosen leadership of the exiles will not go unchallenged. The Chinese will almost certainly try to foist their own incarnation and will try to legitimise it with all the power available to them. It is unlikely that they will succeed, but it will certainly obfuscate the situation and preclude any future compromise on the issue of the spiritual leadership of the Tibetan Buddhists.
While the spiritual leadership may be contested, it is almost inevitable that a new generation of Tibetan exiles will stake claim for the temporal leadership of the Tibetan nationalist movement. If this is contested by the regency around the India-based incarnation, we will almost certainly see a competition for the hearts and minds of young Tibetans and this will inevitably lead to more assertive postures as the factions jockey for power. Such internal struggles often result in greater militancy.
On the other hand, we may see a duality of leadership emerging among the Tibetan exiles, a spiritual leadership that tends to the soul and a militant leadership that leads the struggle for attainment of political goals. It is due to the Dalai Lama’s foresight and sagacity that the contours of such a dual leadership is emerging with the second tallest Buddhist ecclesiastical figure, Ugen Thinley, the Karmapa, and the just re-elected Sikyong (Prime Minister) of the government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay. Both now enjoy considerable stature both among émigré Tibetan groups and within Tibet.
The splintering of the exile leadership into two or even more factions would be a desirable objective for the Chinese. From the Indian perspective the rise of an alternate religious leader in the interim would well prevent the splintering of the Tibetan Buddhist movement.
This will not be without consequences for India. People who have closer ethno-linguistic links to Tibet than to the plains populate the entire Himalayan region from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. Geographically, much of Ladakh is an extension of the Tibetan Changthang and the main language spoken is a Tibetan dialect. The Tawang tract in the other end was, till it was annexed by India in the early 1950s, under the temporal control of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa. The Bhutias of Sikkim are also a Tibetan race speaking a Tibetan dialect. The term Tibet derives from Tho Bhot, the original denotation for Tibetans. It is not difficult to see the relationship between Tho Bhot and the Bhutias.
The new post-Communist China thus reserves the highest premium to “internal harmony” while it is embarked on the rapid transformation of its economy within the window of opportunity its current demographics offers. Two decades from now, China will be an ageing nation and hence it feels that it must make the best of the present opportunity. This is the dominant mood among China’s top leaders, and they would be extremely loathe to let the ambitions of a relatively small number of Tibetans distract them from the goals they have set for China.
China has shown that it can contemplate two or more systems within one nation, as is now the case with Hong Kong, Macau and on offer to Taiwan. This is essentially a common economic system with a fairly generous allocation of administrative power, as we see in the case of Hong Kong. What system can the Chinese offer the Tibetans? The Dalai Lama is increasingly speaking about a Buddhist way of life in Tibet within China. Did we thwart this with our short-sightedness?