In the early 20th century, British India adopted its forward policy towards Tibet for expanding her market and at the same time, the British desired to establish Tibet a buffer against Czarist Russia’s threat to India. British successfully made Tibet a buffer state between Russia, China, and British India after British India’s short invasion of Tibet in 1903. Subsequently, Chinese nationalists viewed the British invasion of Tibet as a security threat to China from its backyard. British left India in 1947. The Communist Party of China established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949. After that, China invaded Tibet in 1950. Subsequently, the centuries-old zone of peace between India and China disappeared. Despite the initial misgivings, India still not wanting a war with communist China framed the Panchsheel Treaty of 1954 whereby both these nations had agreed to mutually respect each other’s sovereignty and not interfere in each other’s domestic affairs along with a non-aggressive policy towards each other. With the annexation of Tibet, countries like India, Nepal, and Bhutan lost their buffer zone between them and China, making them direct Chinese neighbors which in turn brought them into the Chinese sphere of influence and expansion. Today the identity of Tibet as a sovereign state no longer exists and the cultural identity has been constantly suppressed by the Chinese overlords who, with the influx of the Han Chinese settlers have tried to destroy what vestiges of the Tibetan culture is left at the ‘roof of the world’.
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The biggest cultural suppression was observed when after the annexation of Tibet, the local system of government, where the Dalai Lama was the head of Tibet was forced to give up his power after the Communists according to their beliefs had outlawed religion, forcing him and many other Tibetans to exile and form a government in exile for themselves in Dharamshala in India where this system is still in place. This escape from Tibet in 1962 and the Indian administration granting them asylum sparked a war between India and China which rattled India to its core and imposing a crippling stigma against future dealings with China. This has strengthened the Chinese position further while imposing its conditions over India.
This became a huge human rights issue across the world during the 60s but gradually began to fade away only to occasionally crop up between India and China. However, this still remains an issue of core importance between India and China as they continue with the flagship belt and road initiative whereby they plan to revive both the land-based and maritime routes. A major portion of this route passes through Tibet which has led to continuous degradation of the environment in and around this issue is of paramount significance. The Chinese intentions became much clearer when the General Secretary and President Xi Jinping moved their military forces across the Indo-Tibetan border for several incursions in a show of strength. With their belligerence increasing across the Line of Actual Control most recently in last year, it would be wise for India to ramp up their Tibet policy and increase their support for the Tibetan diaspora along with increased diplomatic support for Dalai Lama.
India has always been messing up its policy about Tibet against China as during the Vajpayee regime India had indirectly agreed to accept the de-facto rule of China over Tibet. Even though the Modi administration has taken a somewhat concrete step in its Tibet policy, it is important to note that they also agreed to the term ‘Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China’, accepting the legitimacy of China and the CCP over Tibet. While it was a blunderous decision for Jawahar Lal Nehru to cede Tibet over to China, it was Vajpayee’s mistake that gave Beijing the courage to claim Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet allowing frequent excursions from the PLA going so far as to establish Chinese villages in that region like Yumai where Xi has been encouraging the settlers to remain and become ‘guardians of Chinese territories’
In a broader geopolitical context, these moves are undertaken by China to assert their dominance over these strategic regions, within the Indian line of defense. The move to shift the pilgrimage route to Mansarovar to Sikkim is also in the Chinese strategic interests as by increasing their influence in this region and the promise of resolving all territorial dispute with Bhutan, in an event of war china could effectively cut the ‘chicken’s neck’ stranding all Indian troops stationed in the North-Eastern states, preventing resupply and reinforcements from getting there. It is also of Indian interests to seek to free Tibet as the several Chinese hydro-power protests in that region can cut off the Tsang-Po/ Brahmaputra river water supply and effectively dehydrating our North Eastern states. India must start referring to the south Himalayas as Tibet and not China on official maps along with urging China for granting greater autonomy to the locals. These along with building up a strong intelligence network to prevent another Ogyen Trinley and strengthening the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force would greatly help India to assert their dominance over the region.
These are in the context within which we observe the India China relations. We might have overcome our 1962 stigma but with time, Tibet is becoming a mere lip service issue for Indian administrators to indulge in when paying a visit to the North-Eastern states. We are continuously giving China the strategic edge in a very complex geopolitical game, where our loss would entail a complete encirclement by the Chinese on all sides, and given the deployment capabilities that they displayed after the Galwan standoff, India needs to understand the strategic importance that Tibet would play in an upcoming conflict, especially in a diplomatic sense; where China has been slowly but surely trying to encroach on Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh by claiming it to be South Tibet. With the frequent Chinese incursions that are taking place in the Indian LAC, it is time that India reinvigorates their armed forces, strengthens the chain of command, and pursues a policy of responding to these with caution but with extreme prejudice. The strengthening of the Indian economy would also help in this regard allowing India to seize back some control over the bilateral issues with China as they are being directed by Beijing at present. These along with encouraging Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in exile across India would show the world about the mistreatment received by the Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese would shift the diplomatic focus back to this issue and make China at the very least grant more autonomy to the Tibetans.
By Pranjal Ray