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Tibet: Chinese Bridgehead or Vulnerability | April 2012

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Tibet is not China. One of the legendary documents in the archives of the Ministry of External Affairs relates to the closing of the Indian consulate in Lhasa during the 1950s. The orders to close the consulate, the only one of its kind in the Tibetan capital, dismayed the then Consul General. And he is meant to have said, paraphrased, ‘that with the decision to close the consulate the Himalayas will now cease to be a natural frontier between India and China’. What was conveyed in that terse reply to a shockingly short-sighted decision by late Jawaharlal Nehru is a simple message, that Tibet provided a natural buffer between India and China. But independent India’s first Prime Minister did not see things with a strategic perspective, or at lease his idea of strategy did not have a territorial or security related component. And with his perplexing decision to close the consulate a chain of events was set in motion which ultimately resulted in the final and formal takeover of Tibet by communist China.

Imperial China had always maintained a treaty relationship with Tibet, through the Dalai Lama. It remained a ceremonial one, in which neither did anything to upset the cart. Pegged in between the Himalayas and imperial China there was not much that Tibet could do in any case. And not that it had any motive to do much, content in its solitude and isolation. Except that communist China’s strategic vision was quite at odds with the world as viewed from the Tibetan prism. Expansionist in the sense of protecting its core through securing its frontiers, China did not hesitate to walk into Lhasa and occupy Tibet. In that venture it was aided by the narrowed Indian vision of the core and the periphery of its security.

Since that grave India error matters have only worsened in Tibet and for its people. It is officially called Tibetan Autonomous Region, but is self-governing only in the words of its name. There is nothing autonomous about Tibet and there will come a time when there will be nothing Tibetan about Tibet as well. Indian hesitation is to blame for the tragedy that has befallen the Tibetan people. Hosting the Dalai Lama is all very well, but doing something to improve the lives of the Tibetan people, in Tibet, is as much India’s responsibility as it is that of the rest of the world. India’s strategic error began the process of Tibetan colonisation so the onus to right the wrongs rests with New Delhi.

Indian hesitation is motivated by a fear that China will do something to question the accession of Kashmir to India. Tibet is not a Kashmir in any sense and India only does disservice to the Kashmiri and Tibetan people if it remains trapped in a straightjacket of its own making. The number of self-immolation incidents in this calendar year is shocking, ghastly and a terrible tragedy. They only serve to underline the fact that there is a crisis in Tibet and its people. It is time India opened its eyes to their plight and help them in their pursuit of justice.


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