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Train to Tibet

india Updated: Jul 05, 2006 19:25 IST

In a powerful, albeit symbolic, assertion of its unassailable control over Tibet, China has inaugurated the 2,500-mile (over 4,000 km) railway link between Beijing and Lhasa.

With that it has railroaded any surviving hope of Tibet's independence.

Unquestionably an engineering marvel, the railway line rises to the dizzying altitude of up to 16,500 feet - making it the world's highest.

Quite like the British colonial masters in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, China is using railway as an instrument of control.

The line also makes real all the worst fears of the Tibetan community-in-exile in India, including its illustrious leader, the 14th Dalai Lama.

The $4.2-billion project is expected to dramatically speed up the Sinicization of Tibet some five and half decades after the Red Army marched into Lhasa practically unchallenged.

That Beijing chose the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party on July 1 for its inauguration added some extra dose of symbolism if any more was needed.

Built almost entirely by Han Chinese workers, a fact acknowledged by Chinese officials, the railway is being projected by Beijing as a sign of its commitment to Tibet's economic progress under its rule.

While at one level that claim is fairly credible, in the broader context of Tibet's future the railway line is like a dagger right in the middle of the heart.

The Dalai Lama's extraordinary struggle since his exile in 1959 to keep the issue of Tibet alive in the international consciousness has suffered many debilitating blows over the decades but none so grievous as the rail link.

China's policy of integration and incorporation of Tibet into the national mainstream in utter disregard of historical truths has accomplished a decisive milestone.

When the train, flagged off by Chinese President Hu Jintao, crossed the 16,737-foot high Tanggula pass it became the highest point traversed by a train in the world.

If that and the fact that it cut through hundreds of miles of permafrost do not underscore the determination of the Chinese government never to let go of Tibet as a territory, then what does?

On the one hand the rail line flattens any immediate possibilities of the Tibetans realising their long-cherished dream of independence or even autonomy; on the other it also brings Beijing's military might precariously close to India.

Notwithstanding the current bonhomie between the two Asian giants, China clearly understands the strategic importance of ensuring efficient communication between the mainland and the "roof of the world".

Apart from giving Beijing the ability to transport troops and ammunition, some experts fear it would facilitate an easy passage of intercontinental and intermediate range missiles right to the border with India.

It is possible to argue that a rail line that could carry troops and ammunition could as easily carry traders and goods, but given China's long-term thinking it would be unwise to believe that Beijing would only do the latter.

There have been several reports of widespread protests by the exiled Tibetans against the rail line. However, such protests have been reduced to a sideshow as China has overwhelmed the debate over Tibet in a characteristically cavalier fashion.

A lot has been said about how Tibet's unique ecology has come under assault as pressure from China grows to make the territory economically viable.

More tragic than that though is the way the indigenous Tibetans have been pushed to the margins of development.

It is an irony that the rail line commenced even as the Dalai Lama has been engaged in giving special teaching to Buddhist aspirants visiting from mainland China.

Unlike the impact of the rail line, which will be felt immediately, that of the Dalai Lama's Buddhist teachings is necessarily slow and not easily visible.

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