The Tibet issue played a major role in precipitating the India-China war of 1962. There were localised skirmishes along the border, but these began to be seen in a more ominous light by China in the wake of the Tibetan revolt of 1959 followed by the exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to India. The setting up of Indian posts and increased patrolling on our borders were seen as part of a sinister Indian design to subvert Chinese rule in Tibet. The status of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan issue have remained a shadow over India-China relations even though New Delhi has recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and has under-played official relations with the Dalai Lama.
The Tibet government-in-exile is allowed to function at Dharamsala but is not recognised by the Indian government. For China, Tibet is a “core issue” just as Taiwan and Xinjiang are.
A changing relationship
During the tenure of the Narendra Modi government, there have been instances of open courtship of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
Its ‘Prime Minister’ Lobsang Sangay was an invitee to the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Modi in 2014. The Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Pema Khandu, declared that his state had a border with Tibet and not with China, in 2017.
But after the Modi-Xi Jinping summit in Wuhan in April 2018, there appeared a rethink on the Tibet issue with the Ministry of External Affairs reissuing instructions to government functionaries to avoid public association with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan representatives of the government-in-exile. An international Buddhist conference, which the Dalai Lama had been encouraged to convene, was cancelled. The Tibetans were advised that the 60th anniversary, in 2019, of the Dalai Lama’s entry into India, should be a low-key affair.
The second Modi-Xi summit in Mamallapuram in October 2019 reinforced this trend. The Modi government was signalling that it was prepared to put the Tibet issue in cold storage while advancing bilateral relations with China.
The wrong card
During the recent clashes between the Indian and Chinese armed forces on the border in eastern Ladakh, the Tibet issue has resurfaced and will add to mutual distrust and suspicion. A deliberately leaked report to the media revealed that the secretive Special Frontier Force (SFF), recruited mainly from the Tibetan community in India, was used in the operations in southern Pangong Tso. One of its soldiers, Tenzin Nyima, died in a mine blast and at his funeral, independent Tibet’s flags were displayed. BJP leader Ram Madhav attended the funeral and tweeted about it. He subsequently took it down, presumably at the behest of the Ministry of External Affairs.
Several commentators were quick to welcome the report on the SFF, no longer secret, as a reminder to China that India still held the “Tibet card” and would be ready to use it to bring it to heel. Like much of the bizarre fantasising that seems to have taken hold in India, this, too, may only heighten mistrust and hostility in Beijing without inflicting any real pain. In any negotiations with an adversary, one should never provoke a confrontation over an issue where the other side has greater equity and stake than oneself. This is clearly the case here. It is also intriguing that this story was highlighted on the eve of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow. At the very least, it would have made his interaction more challenging.
The SFF has been in existence for several years. Its efficacy lies in its rigorous training, high morale and professionalism. It should not have become yet another pawn in a political game to convince public opinion that India has more levers of influence than it actually has. In doing so, the potential efficacy of the SFF has been undermined and Chinese suspicions over India’s intentions regarding Tibet would have been aroused to a new intensity.
A crisis of credibility
The tactical use of the Tibetan issue and of the Dalai Lama is both cynical and counter-productive. Ever since his arrival in India, he has enjoyed respect and reverence across the Indian political spectrum as a religious leader. We have consistently maintained the position that he is our welcome guest as a high religious personage and that we do not endorse political activities engaged in by him or the Tibetan community. This has helped manage Tibet as an issue in India-China relations, reducing its salience as an irritant. Unfortunately, this consistent and longstanding position has been severely compromised.
In any India-China border settlement, an understanding over Tibet will need to be arrived at. The best-case scenario for India would be a reconciliation between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese regime, and this seemed possible during the first few years of Xi Jinping’s rule. In our informal conversations with Chinese counterparts, we have conveyed that their assumption of the Tibetan issue being permanently resolved once the Dalai Lama was no longer in the scene was misplaced. In fact, we pointed out, the situation may become even more fraught once the restraining hand of the Dalai Lama was no longer available. The Tibetan community in India, particularly the youth, could become more radicalised.
In Tibet, reconciliation between its people and the Chinese state would be more likely with the blessings of the Dalai Lama rather than in his absence. Both countries, we conveyed, need to have an early and quiet dialogue on this issue and not allow it to become a festering problem for the future. There was receptivity on the Chinese side to these views. However, this waving of the Tibet card, which serves only to irritate and annoy, puts paid to any such engagement on a sensitive issue, with serious implications for the future. It undermines the immense goodwill and gratitude that New Delhi has all along enjoyed with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in India and abroad. The community is disturbed by the manner in which the Indian government plays hot and cold towards it and has become anxious about its future.
The bending of foreign policy issues to serve domestic political ends is proving to be costly for India. The most valuable asset a country and its political leadership possess is credibility with both friends and adversaries alike. When image-making gets unlatched from reality, credibility is the first casualty. And India indeed faces a crisis of credibility.
The author is a former Foreign Secretary, and a Senior Fellow at CPR. Views are personal.