With Beijing, does Delhi have a Tibet card?

Updated on Sep 21, 2016 09:57 AM IST

By giving refuge to the Dalai Lama and helping create a Tibetan nation outside Tibet, China believes India is already playing a Tibet card. Delhi rejects it, and insists that the Dalai Lama is a spiritual leader, not conducting political activities

Tibetan spiritual leader The Dalai Lama at a meeting with the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1956.(Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Tibetan spiritual leader The Dalai Lama at a meeting with the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1956.(Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi

When Narendra Modi took oath on May 26, 2014, there was a surprise guest at Rashtrapati Bhawan – Lobsang Sangay, the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Four months later, when China’s President Xi Jinping visited Ahmedabad, the security administration was instructed to crack down on Tibetan protesters.

The contrasting images take us to the heart of the underlying tension in India’s Tibet policy. Delhi does not want to antagonise China, and clearly recognises its limitations. But it provides home to Tibetan people as well as the government-in-exile, and is keen to emphasise the cultural connectivity between Tibet and India. Sections of the establishment have sought to use it as leverage but with an extraordinary increase in Chinese power, India’s ability to play the ‘Tibet card’ has diminished even further.

Nehru and Tibet

During colonial rule, British accepted Chinese ‘suzerainty’ – and not sovereignty -- over Tibet, but maintained independent diplomatic ties. India saw itself as a natural successor of the same relationship. But the script got complicated as China invaded Tibet in 1950.

Sardar Patel was deeply concerned. In a now-famous letter to Nehru in November 1950, he warned of a two-front threat. “The tragedy of it is that the Tibetans put faith in us; they chose to be guided by us; and we have been unable to get them out of the meshes of Chinese diplomacy or Chinese malevolence.”

This represents the strong impulse within the Indian system -- which continues till date -- to see Tibet as an issue where India has a responsibility. It was also an implicit criticism of Nehru for not doing enough to nip Chinese designs.

But Gyalo Thondup, the brother of Tibet’s spiritual head Dalai Lama, has written of how Nehru had sent him three separate messages, asking Tibetans to mobilise militarily and offering Indian assistance. Thondup did not hear back from his own government for six months. By then, it was too late.

In his recent autobiography, former diplomat MK Rasgotra reveals that Nehru twice sent a confidant to Lhasa to sound out the Dalai Lama’s cabinet about applying for UN membership. Tibet only applied after the Chinese Army had invaded.

Nehru only then reconciled himself to Chinese control over Tibet and underplayed differences. “The realist in Nehru recognised the reality of China’s effective occupation of Tibet,” writes Rasgotra. In 1954, India gave up its rights on Tibet and recognised it as a “region of China”. The period of focusing on the convergence rather than differences was short-lived though.

The Dalai Lama arrives

According to historian Srinath Raghavan, China suspected India had assisted Khampa rebels planning to launch a resistance in 1956. But this perception, he concludes, is not rooted in facts. Nehru had told Dalai Lama during a visit in 1956-57 that an armed struggle was futile, and that he would not permit any activity in India. He also almost forced Dalai Lama to return home even though -- according to Thondup -- India had assured the Tibetan leader of asylum before he came.

Prior to a Tibetan uprising in 1959, the CIA was assisting Tibetan rebels. China felt convinced that India too was involved. While there are different views, Raghavan - who has extensively looked at the archives - believes that there was no such “covert alliance” between India and US then.

The game changed after Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959.

There was a surge in public opinion in favour of Tibet. Nehru granted Dalai Lama asylum, opened the doors for 100,000 Tibetan refugees, authorised Tibetan language schools financed by central government, and permitted Tibetan monasteries for monks. But Thondup recalls how Nehru did not want Dalai Lama to speak to the press, and make any political statements. The same year, India also abstained when the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for “respect for the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people and their distinctive religion and culture”.

Even at this moment, Nehru was trying to pull off the same balancing act that was to mark Indian stance.

The Chinese had no time for such balance. They accused India of encouraging a “Chinese rebel”, wanting to create Tibet as a buffer state, and said, “Friends, it seems to us that you cannot have two fronts.Will you think it over?”

Border tensions had escalated, and war broke out eventually, with India humiliated.

India then followed it up with the most direct support it has ever extended to Tibetans. It collaborated with CIA and Tibetan exiles to set up a combined operations centre to supervise a rebellion in Nepal’s Mustang against China, confirms the Dalai Lama’s brother, Thondup. It also initiated contacts with Taiwan.

India also created the Special Frontiers Force of Tibetans who could one day be dropped to liberate Tibet; the Aviation Research Centre to gather technical intelligence on China and Tibet; the Indo-Tibetan Border Police to guard the border along Tibet; and the Special Services Bureau to instill patriotism among the bordering population and check subversion.

But over the years, with changing geopolitics, the value of the Tibet-centred plans diminished. John Garver, author of a book on India-China ties, argues that Indian response on Tibet has been marked by a sense of weakness, “by a judgment that there was not really very much that India could do to alter the basic direction of developments regarding Tibet, and that the costs of doing so are unacceptably high”.

The Tibet card

By giving refuge to the Dalai Lama and helping create a Tibetan nation outside Tibet, China believes India is already playing a Tibet card. Delhi rejects it, and insists that the Dalai Lama is a spiritual leader, not conducting political activities.

If the ‘Tibet card’ is to be used, what should be the end? There is one view that this could send a signal of displeasure to China, especially if backed by military capabilities, and neutralise them on certain issues. “They are bullies and understand the language of strength,” says one retired diplomat.

But another official source says, “Let us assume, for a moment, that we use this card more effectively. Will the Chinese give up their claims on Tawang, or the territory in PoK they hold, or even fully come around to accepting J&K as ours? I am not so sure.” He adds that China could also retaliate by stepping up support to Indian insurgent groups.

More importantly, is there a card at all?

China’s firm control of Tibet through political, military, economic and demographic measures; the changing aspirations of the Tibetans outside Tibet (many of whom will not go back home), and the wide disparity in power between Beijing and Delhi means India’s ability to use Tibet as a card is limited, even if it had the will to do so.

The Tibet story is that in diplomacy, timing is key. Once the moment is lost, it is a struggle to retrieve space.


Among Tibet-watchers in Delhi, there is deep anxiety about what happens after The Dalai Lama. The issue may divide the Tibetan community, and generate geopolitical tensions. And India is not quite prepared to deal with the fallout

For one, there is no clarity on how a successor will be picked. The Dalai Lama himself has been ambiguous — suggesting there may be no one after him, or that his reincarnation will be born in a free country (which rules out present day Tibet under China), or that it could be a woman (but an "attractive one"). There have also been suggestions that The Dalai Lama could, in his lifetime, emanate in someone else (and pick his reincarnation)

Two, China will not keep quiet and is bound to pick a Dalai Lama. The Tibetan community may not accept it, which may lead to a situation of two Dalai Lamas. China will try to make the recognition of its own Dalai Lama a test

Three, besides The Dalai Lama’s own Gelug sect, there are three other main sects in Tibetan Buddhism — Kagyu, Sakya and Nyingma. Given the Tibetan struggle is for preserving their unique identity, religion and culture, the response of these lineage holders — based in India — is key. Currently, there is a churn. The Sakya head has just passed on leadership to his son; the Nyingma leadership is about to be reconstituted. There are already two key claimants for the Karmapa

Four, till 2010, The Dalai Lama was both the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetans. Now, there is an elected Central Tibetan Administration. The CTA’s dynamics with the next Dalai Lama will be important.

    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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