The Dalai Lama’s representatives have just returned after the sixth round of informal talks with Beijing. This has once again brought forth the evocative appeal of the Tibetan cause. Its enduring symbolism will also not be lost on India, China and Tibet — three key players for whom the issue matters the most. For them, the Tibet question has been a challenge and one they have clearly not been equal to. Each has carried a burden of confusion, ignorance and imagined reality. Will they show any willingness to rework the Tibet question and seek new answers?
China is playing a waiting game and sees the issue as a question of time. It is working on the premise that by waiting for the Dalai Lama to pass away, it could gain absolute control over this restive province. But this gameplan is not original and could backfire. There are real chances that Tibet could be thrown into greater turmoil, hardly what a stability-obsessed China is looking for at this stage. By appearing inflexible in its dealings with the Tibetans, China could be preparing the groundwork for precisely this. Behind the glitter of Tibet’s engineering marvels, there are issues of marginalisation that will linger to give life to the resistance movement. Policy initiatives taken in the name of development of the periphery are bringing an exclusionary logic in their wake. And the problem for China will be that these faultlines will increasingly run on ethnic lines with the Tibetan community finding itself on the sidelines of this growth experience. Given the high premium it places on stability, is China prudent in closing the door on meaningful dialogue?
For Tibet, there is a growing realisation that the process of informal talks with Beijing seems to be going nowhere. It has been hopeful that the Middle-Way approach could provide the basis for a prospective settlement of the Tibetan question. The approach consists of a quid pro quo wherein Tibet would foreswear independence in return for a high degree of autonomy. The expectation is that autonomy would allow it to safeguard the Tibetan identity, culture and language as well as help it play an active role in redefining the economic future of the region. Today, Tibet finds itself at a crossroad, as the Middle-way approach has failed so far to yield any signs of a middle ground. If anything, China has only hardened its position. This may lead to a hardening of the Tibetan resistance movement. Even as Tibetans celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 72nd birthday today, the question Tibet needs to debate is: if the Middle-Way approach has not delivered during the Dalai Lama’s lifetime, can it realistically be expected to outlive him?
For India, the Tibetan issue raises an even more acute problem because of an unwillingness to even admit that such a question exists. This make-believe assumption arises from treating the Tibet question as one of history devoid of any contemporary relevance. This could not be further from the truth. Far from being incidental, Tibet today is perhaps far more relevant than at any point of its existence because both India and China are involved in a border discourse. China’s southern thrust, of which Tibet plays a critical part, holds huge implications for India. As their interactions intensify, it will be critical to examine whether their sub-regional visions coincide or not. The Tibetan “water bank” for instance is in every sense Asia’s water bank and the environmental sustainability of Tibet means the environmental sustainability of much of Asia. Will India be willing to raise these hard questions and create for itself opportunities that could be force multipliers?
Each of these questions essentially represents potential transitions-in-the-making. Depending on how these are managed, these transitions could either create spillover benefits for this neighbourhood or go horribly wrong. Either way, these conversations of change are best attempted during the Dalai Lama’s lifetime. These are by their very nature difficult questions and, therefore, need to raised, discussed and debated in a frank and transparent manner. It is precisely because these will involve difficult tradeoffs that it is prudent that they are negotiated while the Dalai Lama is there to lend the process his credibility. The costs of inaction at this stage would only reduce the Tibet question to being just a disturbing question.
Nimmi Kurian is associate professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.