Tibetan confidence in India has increased, but will Modi give in to China?

  • Tshering Chonzom
  • Updated: Sep 19, 2014 15:46 IST

Chinese President Xi Jinping is on his maiden visit to India and returns home today.

Among a host of issues and actors that took the centre stage before and during Xi's visit were the Tibetans in India who were on an overdrive to make appeals, sign petitions and organise protests against his tour.

But, the question remains. What do the activists, the Tibetan parliament based in Dharamsala and its head, Lobsang Sangay, sympathisers in India as well as the Dalai Lama - who are using Xi's visit as an opportunity to remind the Indian and the Chinese governments of a 'Tibet issue' - really expect when they ask Narendra Modi to 'save' or 'stand up' for Tibet?

While the Dharamsala establishment's appeal for resolution of the Tibet issue through a 'mutually beneficial policy of middle-way approach' is comparatively reasonable to take up, Tibetans should not be disappointed that nothing came out of the Xi-Modi meeting.

It was the first such high-level state to state meeting between the two leaders.

For Modi, it was more of an opportunity to take forward his much-touted agenda of boosting India's trade and economic development by courting Chinese investment. It is a different story that Xi finally committed to only one fifth of the hyped investment of 100 billion dollars over the next five years.

There were, however, speculations that Xi himself might bring up the Tibet issue with Modi. In a news report on August 30, Ma Jiali, an expert on India at the Communist Party School in Beijing, confidently suggested that Xi would be raising the issue of 'existence of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala'.

He counselled that 'India should keep its promise about adhering to one-China policy and give no importance to forces trying to split China'.

In what can be seen as a response to such exhortations from the Chinese government routed through its intellectuals, Sushma Swaraj, India's foreign minister, reportedly argued on September 9 that 'for India to agree to a one-China policy, China should reaffirm a one-India policy'.

Swaraj's statement indicated that India, in congruence with its approach to not mention Tibet in any of its joint statements with China since 2010, would continue with this convenient policy - which it did.

However, her statement also indicated that India was flexible enough to agree to a 2003-type quid pro quo when India rephrased its recognition of 'Tibet as a region of China' to 'Tibet Autonomous Region is a part of the territory of the People's Republic of China' in return for China's recognition of Sikkim as a part of India.

The question is what kind of a quid pro quo, if at all, can be envisaged in the future? Currently, the optimism of a breakthrough in the boundary dispute was sullied by news of tension along the LAC, among others.

As much as the Tibetans are dependent on India — given that the Tibetan exile government (the Central Tibetan Administration as it calls itself now) is based here, it is also a fact that Tibet remains the missing link in the India-China border dispute.

The Tibet issue is a left over problem from history; hence, the moral dilemma preventing India from abandoning it completely.

Moreover, having been based in India for more than 50 years now, with many born here, the Tibetan people have been able to establish some sort of affinity with the land and its people; not to mention many others who are interested and have taken up Indian citizenship.

Their leaders, in their bid to sell Tibet to the Indian imagination, have constantly emphasised historical Buddhist and cultural ties. Sections of the Indian political class have not acknowledged this link, which remains the motivating factor for allowing the Tibetans to reside here indefinitely.

Reflecting this religious and cultural link is the two days conference that brings together heads and members of about nine diverse religions of India at the Dalai Lama's behest beginning on Saturday, just a day afer Xi's departure.

The attempt to accentuate the strategic dimension in the India-Tibet link — Tibet as intrinsic to India's security — is also of relevance.

Lobsang Sangay, in the last few days, has been arguing that Tibet should be a 'core issue' for 'India and South Asia as a whole' just as it is for China. Since Lobsang Sangay's arrival in the Dharamsala scene in 2011, there has been some sort of a shift in its approach, visible in the leader's first 10 March speech in 2012 when he appealed to 'ASEAN and Saarc to include the Tibet issue in your agenda given Tibet's geopolitical and environmental significance affecting billions of Asians'. Previously, Tibetan campaigns were mainly directed at gaining Western support.

Since about 2010, even the Dalai Lama has changed his position when he stated that India's dealings with China with respect to Tibet was no longer 'over-cautious'. In the last few years, Tibetan parliamentarians in exile have been active in meeting with Indian politicians and leaders across various Indian states where they have been warmly received.

It would be useful to see whether these efforts contribute to a proactive Indian policy towards Tibet. Notably, Tibetan confidence in India has increased with Modi's ascendance to power and the invitation to Lobsang Sangay to attend his inaugural ceremony. But there are also skeptics who fear Modi might do a Nixon on China given China's economic clout. Like everybody says, one can only 'wait and watch'.

(The author is an associate fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies. Views expressed by the author are personal)

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