Though the Indian government never wanted to be politically involved with Tibet, the age-old ties have remained alive
For millennia, the Himalayas have been an active bridge between the Indic and Tibetan civilisations. The great physical barrier has been a place of intense contacts between two worlds which shared their search for infinity.
After the arrival of a newcomer (Mao’s People’s Liberation Army) on the plateau in 1950-51, the ancient relations became more and more strained, ending with being completely severed in 1962.
Beijing could not tolerate India’s special relations with Tibet.
Today, while Beijing promotes its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or the new Silk Roads, it has made sure that the ancient kinship between Tibet and the Himalayas is not revived; all the borders have been closed for almost 60 years now, with the exception of three land ports opened for petty trade at Nathu-la, Shipki-la and Lipulekh-la; far from the flourishing business that took place over many centuries. Beijing has conveniently set aside these traditional trade routes to sponsor new ones (with Pakistan).
The situation turned for the worse in March 1959, when the Dalai Lama reached Khenzimane, north of Tawang, and was given asylum by the Indian government; and relations between India and Tibet, as well as the trade and pilgrimage, reached a point of no return.
Soon after the Indo-Tibet frontier became the “disputed” Sino-Indian boundary, intrusions took place in Longju in the then North East Frontier Agency (Nefa) and Kongka-la/Hot Springs in Ladakh in the summer of 1959, making New Delhi suddenly realise India had a new neighbour and that the boundary had not been settled, as the idealist Indian government had wanted to believe.
After 1962, an ancient world disappeared and India (and the Himalayas) lost a friend, a kind neighbour and a peaceful border.
But the kinship of shared values and common history between India and Tibet have remained; unfortunately, this never translated into a coherent policy for Tibetan refugees as well as the populations of the border areas.
Though the Indian government never wanted to be politically involved with Tibet, the age-old ties between the Land of Snows and India’s Himalayas has remained alive (as we have seen since the start of the present crisis in Ladakh); but now it needs to be revitalised by the government.
While the People’s Republic of China was able to annex Tibet by force of arms, Beijing has been unable to assimilate Tibetans into their system. Can Beijing succeed in the future? It is a moot question, the answer to which the future alone holds.
Some argue the past should be forgotten, as the world has changed; further, China has become a powerful state; and the fact that the Communist regime is today dreaming of leading the world and imposing the “Chinese Dream” on the planet is worrying for the Tibetan and the Himalayan population. In view of this situation on India’s borders, we must think of a new approach towards the Himalayas.
At the outset, instead of a new policy for Tibet alone, it would be better to have a common policy for the Himalayan belt and Tibet, which have shared countless cultural, spiritual, strategic and economic similarities. I would therefore suggest a new “Himalayan and Tibetan Affairs’ Policy”.
Some general principles should dictate this new policy.
First, that India should look after its own interests, then after the interests of those who are ethnically or culturally close to India, like the Tibetans. It seems obvious, but it has not always been the case.
India should adhere to its ideals of being a peaceful nation, of fighting against any form of imperialism and defending the rights of weaker people; further the government should certainly not take at face value declarations of peace by other nations, particularly China.
Another principle is that India’s policies or actions should not be dictated by what others will think or say, particularly how China will react to a particular decision. This tendency has lasted too long with no tangible gain for this country (for example, the 2018 directive that no Indian officials should meet the Dalai Lama); retrospectively, it had counter-productive effects.
Unfortunately, India faces a country which still believes that power comes out of the barrel of a gun; without emulating China, India must quietly and forcefully look after its own interests and be honest, frank, straightforward about it.
Whatever overall policy is finally adopted, one element is crucial -- coordination. In view of the individualistic tendencies of India’s bureaucracy, this is extremely crucial in order to achieve the targeted aim of a common policy for all stakeholders (external affairs, defence, home, education, culture, security agencies). That is why I propose the creation of a Department of Himalayan and Tibetan Affairs (DHTA), to function under the Prime Minister’s Office.
If any “coordinator” were to work under one of the above ministries, he/she will not be able to implement the holistic policy decided by the government.
A DHTA, headed by a secretary-rank officer, could be the central element for developing the border areas.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a post of SOFA (Special Officer of Frontiers Affairs) existed; the scope of the SOFA’s responsibilities was limited due to the fact that it worked under the MEA alone; it was however manned by (excellent) officers; a few SOFAs could be professionally looking after border areas and Tibetan affairs.
Keeping in mind the welfare and customs of the local population and the Tibetan refugees, the DHTA could take measures to stop the migration of the local population towards the big cities; build infrastructure, work on closer ties between the defence forces and the local population, an eventual revival of border trade, trans-border pilgrimages, and promote Buddhism on a larger scale.
The DHTA could revive the Indian Frontier Administrative Service (IFAS); in the 1950s, IFAS officers did a great job on India’s northern borders and in Tibet; most of them had sacrificed promising careers in the Army to join the service; all were remarkable personalities. Even though the cadre does not exist any longer, they are still a role model for young IAS/IPS officers posted at the borders.
The need of the hour is to revitalise the Himalayas and link it with the welfare of Tibetan refugees and the promotion of their unique culture. It is the only way to balance China’s propaganda efforts in the border areas.