Compared to the 47 years of occupation in Tibet, the People’s Republic of China has been extraordinarily provocative this year. After linking Lhasa to Beijing with a direct railway network in July, China has launched two other railway lines that permanently attach Tibet to China, disgorging no less than 4,000 Chinese on a daily basis.
To add insult to injury, China ‘gifted’ a giant Mao Zedong statue to the airport town of Lhoka, 20 minutes away from Lhasa, as a symbol of cultural victory. Chinese and Tibetan officials from the regional administration in Lhasa then proceeded to publicly abuse the Dalai Lama.
In October, we learned that Chinese police on the Tibet-Nepal border had shot at a group of Tibetans escaping over the Nangpa-la pass to India, killing two of them “like dogs”. The shooting outrage captured by a Romanian television crew was screened at a public gathering in Dharamshala. My immediate reaction was to sprint down the hills and set fire to the Chinese embassy in Delhi. But then I didn’t.
We want to find a peaceful solution to our political problem. We do not want to take the short-cut by picking up guns because we still haven’t lost hope in a peaceful solution under the Dalai Lama’s leadership. We still hope that, after freeing Tibet, we can live with the Chinese as our neighbours. We do not want to end up like Israel and Palestine.
Non-violence is not a strategy for us. It is a holistic way of living; it is our basic principle for life. But not all six million Tibetans share the same commitment to this ideology. Some youth activists are so frustrated with this long route that they sneer at our Gandhian approach to free Tibet and criticise us for being worth only a two-column news report in dailies.
Tibetans crossing the mountains to India say that the Chinese refer to India as ‘Indu’, where the population eats rice and lentil porridge with their hands, licking their forearms from fingers to elbow. This is the perception of India in China. Except for a few Bollywood films, today’s Chinese have no way of knowing India. The international media hardly penetrate China due to language barriers and cultural chauvinism.
The average Indians’ imagination of China, too, has not gone beyond stereotypes. My Tibetan appearance invites cat-calls on Indian streets. The image of China here hasn’t graduated beyond Jackie Chan films.
So what are we actually talking about in the year of ‘Sino-Indian friendship’? In reality, nothing beyond mistrust and mystery. Except for the popularity of Chinese cuisine in India, little else has really transpired between the two countries.
Independent India’s first economic tie with Communist China was marked by the 1954 Panchsheel Trade Agreement. This was the first official document signed with Mao’s China by a third party recognising Tibet as a region of the People’s Republic of China after the People’s Liberation Army’s invasion of Tibet in 1949. With this,
India kicked off its diplomatic relations with China on a wrong footing, squandering the high ground of knowledge on the historic status of Tibet inherited from the British Empire. Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialists signed away Tibet’s independence without a word with the Tibetans.
This was also the first time the government of modern India was dealing with China officially. If India had no cross-border relations with China before 1954, it was simply because there had never been a common border between the two great Asian nations. With Tibet as a buffer State between imperial Russia, Qing dynasty China and the former British Empire, the imperialist powers maintained a wary distance between each other while playing the Great Game. Since 1947, India has not really made any changes in its foreign policy on Tibet.
What is making India think twice today about Tibet are geopolitical issues — how India and its South Asian neighbours are being adversely affected by what Beijing has been upto in Tibet of late. China’s development schemes for the Tibetan Plateau include large-scale mining, clear-fell deforestation, infrastructure- and road-building and firming up a burgeoning tourism industry.
Meanwhile, Indians living on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra have been devastated by death and destruction as the river changes its course every season and is affected by floods due to heavy siltation caused by the ruthless deforestation of Tibet. Environmentalists fear even more devastation and drought as China plans to divert a region of the Brahmaputra to the mainland to feed lands dried up because of Beijing’s development policies.
With global warming, climate change and heavy industrial pollution destroying vast swathes of the world, fresh water will have unprecedented value in the near future. Tibet, with its 2.5 million square kilometre land-mass, is perhaps the world’s major storehouse of fresh water in the form of glaciers, lakes and rivers. About a hundred rivers in South Asia originate from the Tibetan Plateau. So tomorrow whoever controls Tibet could hold the power to dictate terms in Asia.
Tibet may be controlled by China today, but with 150,000 Tibetans living in India across 40 refugee camps, 100 schools and 500 monasteries, with their leaders — both the Dalai Lama and the Gyalwa Karmapa — forced to be here, and with 2,000 years of shared cultural relations with India, Tibetans may just decide that their benefit lies with India, not with China.
As Chinese President Hu Jintao visits India next week, the two fast-growing Asian giants poised to become global leaders will be seen flexing their muscles. Both being mammoth developing countries, their nature and modes of production, their requirements of raw material and power and their search for greener markets lie on parallel tracks.
China and India are today locked in a competitive drive. There may never be a 1962 stand-off anymore, but impending military threats, military build-ups on the border, and a cut-throat competition in business are becoming costly. (Where India used to have 60 soldiers guarding its border with independent Tibet in 1948, India is now spending an average of Rs 63 crore everyday).
I am born in India, but I cannot become Indian. I once went to Tibet to see the situation myself. I was arrested, imprisoned and finally thrown out by the Chinese who called me ‘Indian’. In India we are living as refugees, but legally as foreigners. China’s occupation of Tibet has left us homeless, our families broken and separated with nowhere to go. The situation inside Tibet is much worse. Tibetans are oppressed under Chinese law, an armed police and military and by the majority Han Chinese population.
In the past, I have protested against the continued occupation of Tibet during visits to India by Chinese leaders and dignitaries. For this, I have been beaten up, imprisoned and forced to battle through long, drawn-out court cases. But I am not going to keep silent. I will protest again. This is my primary duty.
Tenzin Tsundue is a Tibetan writer and activist
The Indian Government served Tsundue with an order on November 12 forbidding him to leave Dharamshala until November 25. He is liable to be prosecuted under the Foreigners Act, 1946, if he fails to obey the order.