There is more than what meets the eye of the recent controversy on the issuance and withdrawal of visas to Dolkun Isa and Omar Kanat of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC).
There is more than what meets the eye of the recent controversy on the issuance and withdrawal of visas to Dolkun Isa and Omar Kanat of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC). Things are not entirely what they seem. The visas were given despite or because of the antecedents of all the parties concerned.
The WUC describes itself as an international organisation that represents the collective interest of the Uyghur people both in East Turkestan and abroad. The main objective of the WUC is to promote the right of the Uyghur people to use peaceful, non-violent and democratic means to determine the political future of East Turkestan.
The WUC is Washington based. It also has a large presence in Germany and Rebiya Kadeer heads it. A successful businesswoman, Ms Kadeer was at one time one of the five richest people in China.
Ms Kadeer was not always at odds with the government and was once a delegate to the National People’s Congress. She was also an official People’s Republic of China representative to the Fourth UN World Conference for Women in 1995. She left China in 1996, to fight for the rights of the Uyghur people. She is clearly a woman of substance as well as means.
The other organisation that was at the centre of the recent events is a somewhat lesser known outfit called Initiatives for China (IFC). The IFC describes itself as a grassroots movement dedicated to advancing a peaceful transition to democracy in China. It was ostensibly the IFC which organised Sixth Interethnic/Interfaith Leadership Conference to bring together various ethnic and religious groups from China. This conference series is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which in turn is funded by the US Congress.
The NED’s aim is to support groups abroad “who are working for freedom and human rights, often in obscurity and isolation”. Clearly it aims to use aspirations for democracy and self-determination to pry open otherwise closed or highly centralised regimes, but very selectively. The NED is not concerned about the situation within many US allies like Saudi Arabia or Israel, but very concerned about what goes on in rivals like China or Russia. It has a clear agenda, which is to further the US interests. It operates in close coordination with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which also reports from time to time to the US Congress.
The other US think tank sponsoring this conference at Dharamsala is the US Institute for Peace (USIP), which is entirely funded by the US state department. It acts as the instrument to advance the US agenda and has in recent times been closely associated with two Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated think tanks.
What is interesting is that the Interethnic/Interfaith Leadership Conference was taking place in India. All such conferences need Government of India permission. Did the Indian government grant it permission The roles of some “think tanks” which have come into some prominence after the regime change in New Delhi are being spoken about in this connection. National security adviser Ajit Doval is, by past association and present relationship, at the apex of two of Delhi’s busiest and most well-funded think tanks. The better-known one is the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) that
Mr Doval headed till he joined the government, and the other is India First Foundation, headed by his son, Shaurya Doval. Both these outfits have risen up the food chain due to the munificence of Western agencies and other organisations that have increasingly kept them sleek and well-fed with conference partnerships and research grants from several top US-based think tanks like Atlantic Council, Heritage Foundation, USIP, German Marshall Fund (GMFUS) and Brookings. Little of this money is for free. The advancement of agendas never lets up. Besides, Rightist think tanks the world over usually think alike and act in concert.
Under the National Democratic Alliance dispensation, US think tanks like Brookings and Carnegie Foundation set up shop in New Delhi to influence, if not make policies.
The raking up the Uyghur issue is not without reasons. Along with Tibet, Xinjiang is a perceived weak link in the post-1949 Chinese empire. Both regions are also across India’s frontier with China. Xinjiang or East Turkestan abuts the Ladakh district of Jammu and Kashmir.
Like Tibet, Xinjiang also had a troubled relationship with China. Chinese dominance waxed and waned with the ebbs and tides of imperial power in Beijing. After 1912, when Sun Yat-sen proclaimed a republic, by now enfeebled China for all practical purposes lost all authority in Tibet and Xinjiang. Chinese garrisons were driven out and local leaderships assumed complete authority.
While Tibet was securely under the control of the Buddhist theocracy, Xinjiang came under the sway of several warlords till 1941, when a renegade Kuomintang (KMT) general-turned-warlord, Sheng Shicai, established a Soviet Republic under the close guidance of the Comintern in Moscow. The Russians now moved in. They took over all international relations and trade.
It had consequences in India, because it caused the British to extend Ladakh’s border outwards by incorporating Aksai Chin to create a buffer. In 1949, Joseph Stalin handed over Xinjiang to the newly-established People’s Republic of China of Mao Zedong. It was during the process of occupying Tibet and Xinjiang that China occupied Aksai Chin.
In 1949, the population of Xinjiang was comprised almost entirely of various Turkic nationalities of which the Uyghurs were the largest. Han Chinese only accounted for six per cent. Thanks to a continuous migration sanctioned and blessed by the authorities in Beijing, that proportion has now gone up to almost 48 per cent. Much of this is centered in Ürümqi, Xinjiang’s capital, which is over 80 per cent Han. The Uyghurs are still the majority in the region below the Khotan and Kashgar line. This is the region that abuts India.
The gas and oil finds in the immediate region have given impetus to the development of the area. But, unfortunately, the gains have not been equally shared. The Uyghurs continue to be less well off and deprived. The feeling that it is their national resources that are being exploited by the Chinese authorities to mostly benefit the Han migrants is quite pervasive.
When I last visited Ürümqi, shopkeepers in the bustling ancient marketplace were quite open and vocal about their sentiments. Many Uyghurs speak a bit of Urdu due to the relationship developed with Pakistan after the construction of the Karakoram Highway. Ürümqi has several restaurants that advertise themselves as serving Pakistani food.
There is also another unintended but nevertheless burgeoning Pakistan connection. Well known Pakistani institutions like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa have trained no less then 4,000 Uyghurs to wage a jihad in their homeland. The ISI connection of these outfits is well known to the Chinese. Ostensibly keeping the lid on them helps the Pakistanis keep the Chinese obliged to them.
The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy.