'The 1962 war was already planted in the Panchsheel agreement'

Tibetan President-in-exile Lobsang Sangay tells Sonia Sarkar that China’s growing presence on the global stage has helped increase awareness over the Tibetan problem

By Sonia Sarkar
  • Published 18.02.18

Lobsang Sangay speaks a broken Bengali: " Amar baari Darjeeling achhe... My home is Darjeeling." But it is Lithang in Tibet, the place his family hails from, that Sangay is homesick for. And that's the way it has been for many years now. The 49-year-old's movement for Free Tibet hasn't yielded results all these years, but Sangay rallies on. In fact, he is just about to leave for Switzerland, followed by Brussels and Paris - a trip he is undertaking to spread awareness about the movement and to raise funds for his administration. Though he is back now, hours before flying out of Delhi, he had spoken to The Telegraph about China, the Dalai Lama and, of course, what Tibetans want. Excerpts:

Q Where do you see your movement going?

Till the early 1980s, Tibet was almost a non-issue to the world. With the growing influence of China, there is a renewed awareness. What happened to Tibet in the past 60 years, could happen to anyone. All the neighbouring countries let the occupation happen because they thought it's only happening with Tibet and nothing will happen to them. But now they see Chinese presence everywhere. Even in India, there was interest about Tibet but not much awareness; suddenly with Doklam there's both.

There are allegations of human rights violations by the state agencies in Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and Manipur. Do you see similarities between what is happening in these parts and the Chinese position vis-à-vis Tibetans?

There are human rights violations in India and those need to be addressed. (Fiddles with his prayer beads.) But here, there is a mechanism to address the violation of human rights. Indians can cast their vote and replace their leaders. In Tibet, there is no such space - you cannot vote, you cannot go to court or think of getting a fair judgment. There is no freedom of speech in Tibet.

Your demand for Free Tibet has also been diluted. Now you want autonomy within the framework of the Chinese Constitution and within China. Why did you compromise?

This policy of middle-road approach started in the 1970s and solidified in the 1980s. One has to be realistic. We follow non-violence; we have to solve the problem through dialogue. China says sovereignty and territorial integrity cannot be compromised. We told them, we accept your premises, so give us genuine autonomy as per your laws. But there has been no breakthrough; this is an ongoing movement.

Q Do you think the Dalai Lama failed the people of Tibet?

The Dalai Lama has done whatever he could. People in Mongolia or Taiwan or Hong Kong tell us that the Tibet issue has the highest profile across the world because of the Dalai Lama.

In 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled from China to India, there were speculations that he was a CIA agent.

During the Cold War, the United States supported our cause but it all ended when American diplomat Henry Kissinger went to China in 1971. Former CIA agent John Kenneth Knaus in his book, Orphans of the Cold War, writes that he (Knaus) tried to meet the Dalai Lama but couldn't, even though he was involved in helping the Tibetans. Finally, when he met the Dalai Lama, he got such a cold reception from him, he wished he had never met him. So speculation about the Dalai Lama being a CIA agent is misleading. [But Sangay didn't mention that in the same book, the author who helped direct a Tibetan guerrilla campaign against the Chinese occupiers, that lasted from 1956 to 1968, writes about how the Dalai Lama thanked the CIA for organising some of the guerrillas who protected him during his flight into Indian exile in 1959.]

Q China expert and author Bertil Linter, in his book China's India War, writes that India's problem with China starts with the Dalai Lama - from the time India gave shelter to him.

He is wrong.

Q Why do you say so?

There is China's military presence in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal. What has the Dalai Lama got to do with it? Remember, in 1914, the Simla agreement was signed between the Tibetan government and the British government of India. It was decided that the McMahon Line would be the borderline between the Tibetan and the northeast region of India, as proposed by British colonial administrator Henry McMahon at the Simla Convention. At the same convention, we had a trade agreement with British-ruled India, which was renewed after every 10 years till 1944. There was no trade issue. Then came the Panchsheel agreement in 1954. It was actually a renewed agreement of trade with Tibet, but with a new preface. China decided that the agreement would be renewed every eight years and not 10 years. The eight years were over in 1962. So the 1962 Sino-Indian war was planned long back in the 1950s. The 1962 war was already planted in the Panchsheel agreement. It has nothing to do with the Dalai Lama.

Q The Dalai Lama holds all the power. You just have a designation. How does it feel to be a president without powers?

The Dalai Lama's words are more powerful than mine. But Tibetans do listen to what the Tibetan administration says. The administration takes important decisions on issues related to education, health, geriatric care, etc., and Tibetans living in exile in 40 countries across the world follow these decisions. Even when the Tibetans living in Tibet visit India, they cry, they tell me - "Come back to Tibet."

Q How important is the movement for you?

I have lived in the US for 16 years; I am a doctorate from Harvard, I had a job in the US. I had all the comforts in life. Now my salary is Rs 30,000 per month. Ours [the Tibetan administration] is the most kanjoos system. Who would work for such a little salary these days? But I want freedom, dignity and identity, so I came back to India to fight for my cause.

But once you get freedom, all the money that you raise for the cause would stop coming in. How would the Tibetans survive?

Once we get freedom, we will look for means of livelihood. We don't want the cause to keep running for the sake of money.

You were invited to the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. Don't you think the idea was to irk China and that India is using Tibetans in its fight against China?

If at all India is using us, then we are under-utilised. ( Laughs.) China says, Tibet is their core issue. India should also say, it is their core issue - it's, after all, a 3,000-kilometre-long border [India-China].

What do you have to say about the Buddhist monks of Myanmar who have unleashed terror against Rohingya Muslims?

The Buddha would never appreciate this. Discriminating in the name of religion is not right. When a Buddhist resorts to violence, he is not a Buddhist anymore.