Claude Arpi | Delhi should not shy away from Dalai Lama contacts

At the time of India’s Independence, the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa had little experience in diplomacy; to give an example -- the Tibetan Kashag (council of ministers) wrote to Mao Zedong threatening him that if did not immediately return the areas occupied by some Chinese warlords in eastern Tibet, dire consequences would follow. A tiny David trying to bully a giant Goliath. The Great Helmsman was not bothered; he knew that the Land of Snows had no muscle to back up its threat, but the large monasteries around Lhasa were convinced that with the “truth” on their side, they could twist anyone’s arm.

Soon the Western powers and India began to advise the Tibetan government not to “rock the boat”; and this became a leitmotiv.

On November 3, 1949, the Kashag sent a message to the US secretary of state, asking for support for Tibet’s admission to the United Nations: “As Tibet being an independent state, we have no dangers from other [Western] foreign countries, but in view of the spread of Communism and their successes in China, there is now an imminent danger of Communist aggression towards Tibet.” The Tibetan note added: “The entire world knows that Tibet and Communist China cannot have any common sympathy by reasons of religion and principles of life which are just the opposite.”

As Lhasa’s first objective was “to defend Tibet against impending threat of Communists,” a similar appeal was sent to the Indian and British governments. However, as nobody was keen to “rock the boat”, why did they try to unnecessarily infuriate the Chinese?

At the end of 1949, the British government in London reiterated that Tibet was an independent nation, though out of fear of “rocking the boat”, they kept it very discreet. It was however confirmed by a cable from the US ambassador in India, Loy Henderson, to Dean Acheson, the US secretary of state.

Henderson quoted a Hansard report (official record of UK parliamentary debates) of December 14, 1949, republishing a letter from Antony Eden, then Britain’s foreign secretary, to Dr T.V. Soong, the Chinese foreign minister, of August 5, 1943, which noted that Tibet was a de facto independent nation. It had been agreed in the British Parliament, however, that on the ground, the boat should not be rocked.

Resolve the Tibet Act

These historical facts came back to mind when news from Washington flashed that the US Senate and House of Representatives had passed a “Resolve Tibet Act”. This law states that the “claims made by officials of the People’s Republic of China and the Communist Party of China that Tibet has been a part of China since ancient times are historically inaccurate”.

The Resolve Tibet Act also speaks of Beijing’s current policies which “are systematically suppressing the ability of the Tibetan people to preserve their religion, culture, language, history, way of life, and environment”.

Perhaps more meaningful is the following point: “US public diplomacy efforts should counter disinformation about Tibet from [Beijing], including disinformation about the history of Tibet, the Tibetan people, and Tibetan institutions, including that of the Dalai Lama.”

It is not much different from the December 1949 resolution in the British Parliament.

US delegation’s visit to India

But this time, former United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided to “rock the boat”. Along with other members of a US congressional delegation, she visited India and McLeodganj near Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile, where the US party had an audience with the Dalai Lama (and even attended a trance of the Nechung State Oracle).

In Dharamsala, Ms Pelosi really “rocked”; she targeted President Xi Jinping and praised the Dalai Lama’s “enduring legacy”. She said: “His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with his message of knowledge, tradition, compassion, purity of soul and love, will live a long time and his legacy will live forever. But you, the President of China, you’ll be gone and nobody will give you credit for anything.” Ms Pelosi added: “The Dalai Lama would not approve of my saying that when I criticise the Chinese government, he [would] say, let’s pray for Nancy to rid her of her negative attitudes.”

The visit of Ms Pelosi had the merit not only to rock the boat, but also to wake up the Indian government (and Dharamsala) from its slumber, which has unfortunately resulted in a large-scale emigration of Tibetans from India to the West.

Why did the American delegation visit Dharamsala just a few days before the Dalai Lama leaves for the United States for a knee surgery? Probably Washington was keen to bring India on board on the Tibetan issue. And indeed, India got involved.

The next day the same delegation was received by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. The Prime Minister tweeted: “Had a very good exchange of views with friends from the US Congress in a delegation led by @RepMcCaul, Chairman of @HouseForeignGOP. Deeply value the strong bipartisan support in advancing India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.”

Though the ‘T’ word was not mentioned, the meeting happened just one day after the rocket Ms Pelosi issued in Dharamsala.

Will this trigger a change of policy vis-a-vis Tibet in Modi 3.0?

Recently, I studied the debates in the Indian Parliament to find statistics regarding the “T” word: how many times had “Tibet” been mentioned in the House.

Looking at the transcripts of the Rajya Sabha debates between 2006 and 2023, I discovered with utter stupefaction that over the years, members of Parliament had used the “T” word less and less. While between 2006 and 2012, in questions or statements, “Tibet” appears between 30 and 40 times in a year (it does not mean a debate on Tibet, just the word “Tibet” being used in relation with the border or financial issues), it then begins to decline. From 2014 onwards, it was first used 19 and 15 times in 2014 and 2015, and thereafter less than 10 times, to end up at four times in 2023.

Why this total disinterest of Indian parliamentarians for Tibet (while the Tibetan plateau remains vital for India’s security, particularly in the northern sectors)? They were probably told not to “rock the boat”.

This has to change. One can only hope that the newly-elected MPs will spend more time looking at what is happening on the other side of the Himalayas and will debate it in Parliament.

The time has come for official contacts between the Indian government and the Dalai Lama, who turned 89 on July 6, to increase in frequency and intensity. This will be undoubtedly in India’s interests.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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