India’s policy towards Tibet has been flawed since 1950 when the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, acknowledged China’s supremacy over the Shangri-La and let the Chinese gain control over Tibet. Nehru overlooked the realistic reservations from his deputy prime minister, Vallabhbhai Patel.
With Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreeing with the communist leadership in Beijing on the future political roadmap for Tibet, history seems to have repeated itself. Ironically, the Congress, responsible for the historical blunder in the early Fifties and now the main opposition party, has more or less supported the prime minister’s stand. Vajpayee’s subsequent clarification that nothing new has been accepted on Tibet seemed to be a routine comment and has not cleared the ambiguity, pointing to India’s abdication of responsibility once again to the Tibetan diaspora forced to flee its homeland.
Even some of the staunch supporters of the prime minister consider his visit to China a failure, particularly in the light of the dilution of the Indian stand on Tibet (now being described as “part of China”) without extracting any concessions whatsoever from Beijing on the border problem.
Look to the West
Some sections of the Tibetan refugee population in India also consider the prime minister’s shift of stand on Tibet as a great blow to their hope of returning to a free homeland one day. Vajpayee has missed a rare opportunity to reverse the five-decade-old Indian position that has always regarded the Tibetan Autonomous Region as a part of China. Prior to the communist takeover in 1949, Beijing had only asserted notional suzerainty over the region.
On the other hand, it is difficult to believe the prime minister’s perception that the exiled Tibetan leadership is satisfied with New Delhi’s position. It is possible that the government has consulted the dalai lama before or during Vajpayee’s tour. However, the real interests of the Tibetans to return to an independent Tibet has been sidelined during the deliberations. And yet, the prime minister insisted that the Indian delegation had adequately covered the subject of Tibet during the talks with the Chinese, stressing on autonomy for the occupied territory.
While officially India may have abandoned the Tibetan cause, Western powers like the United States of America and the European nations have not. The dalai lama is held in high esteem by the entire international community and is a big draw in the West. The monk was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, a decision welcomed by all countries except China.
The US and the European countries, which have considerable economic and political transactions with China, have been advising the communist leadership to soften its iron grip over Tibet and respect the human rights of its evicted population. The dalai lama, too, has climbed down from his previous demand for the independence of Tibet and autonomy to its people. He is now more eager to work out a peaceful settlement on the issue with China. He sent his emissaries to China twice in the recent past. The lama is still hopeful that good sense will prevail upon Beijing, enabling him and the large expatriate Tibetan community to honourably return to Lhasa.
In the changed global scenario, New Delhi needs to rework its approach to the problem of hapless Tibetans, waiting to go back to their homeland, in the various refugee camps in India. It is not right for India to be happy with the economic and commercial gains of the prime minister’s China trip. New Delhi should try to take advantage of this new economic friendship to impress upon the technocrat leaders of China to grant real internal autonomy to Tibetans on the lines of one country and two systems. If such an arrangement can successfully work in the former British colony of Hong Kong, which was ceded to the Peoples’ Republic of China in 2000, there is no reason why it cannot function in Tibet.