Review: Tibet: When the Gods Spoke by Claude Arpi

Hindustan Times | ByThubten Samphel
Aug 17, 2019 10:10 AM IST

Claude Arpi shows that the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement’s guiding principle of non-interference in and respect for each other’s territorial integrity left China to do in Tibet whatever it willed

572pp, Rs1,650; United Service Institution & Vij Books
572pp, Rs1,650; United Service Institution & Vij Books

Claude Arpi’s third volume on relations between India and Tibet covers the deepening Chinese penetration of the plateau and Beijing’s administrative and military consolidation there. The free hand given to China in its consolidation in Tibet was made possible when the two Asian giants signed the Panchsheel Agreement on Tibet in 1954. This was the document with which India withdrew its effective presence in Tibet in the form of two trade agencies and military escorts, though India’s mission in Lhasa operated as before. The agreement’s guiding principle of non-interference in and respect for each other’s territorial integrity left China to do in Tibet whatever it willed. Beijing imposed land ‘reforms’ and a new leadership and administrative structure that led to the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.

Digging deep into India’s national archival treasure trove, Claude Arpi has pulled out a real gem. This gem is the assessment of the various Indian officers, and of the character and motives of those figures, both political and spiritual, within the Tibetan leadership structure. The comments by India’s Tibet hands include the urgent need for Tibet to reform its social structure, making it fair and just for all Tibetans. This Indian examination of the strength and weakness of the Tibetan leadership came for closer scrutiny when the Dalai and Panchen Lamas visited India in 1956 for the Buddha Jayanti commemorations.

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These lengthy and fascinating reports were submitted to New Delhi by Apa Pant, the political officer based in Gangtok, who dealt with affairs of Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim, PN Menon, the former Indian consul general in Lhasa, and PN Luthra, special officer of border areas in the Ministry of External Affairs.

Apa Pant was convinced that “Old Tibet cannot fight new dynamic China.” He suggested that “In Tibet, unless the high monks, thinkers and saints start seriously the re-organizing of the whole social and economic structure which is today based on privileges and is corrupt, there is no point in calling Tibet a Buddhist land…”

Apa Pant also suggested that “The Chinese have also a doctrine of social revolution and change which they are certain will help the common man. The Tibetans shall have to have an equally powerful dynamic policy of social change.”

Apa Pant made this fearful prediction. With China creating the conditions for the settlement of Tibet by Chinese migrants, “Tibet as we know it today will be annihilated, the process for its complete absorption into China (has) started.”

Colonel PN Luthra was assigned to the Panchen Lama’s party in its travels throughout India. About China’s designs on Tibet, the astute colonel has this to say. China, he wrote, “was eating Tibet like an artichoke, leaf by leaf.”

Claude Arpi (Courtesy the author)
Claude Arpi (Courtesy the author)

As for the time he spent with the Panchen Lama, Luthra wrote, “At a certain stage of the tour, it became possible to freely and frankly discuss any matter, however delicate, with the Panchen Lama himself or some of his principal associates.” Luthra was impressed by the Panchen Lama’s ability to recognize faces. He was, Luthra wrote, careful to “recognize the humbler staff such as motordrivers and dispatch-riders.” The Panchen Lama told Luthra that he did not believe in the “superstitious practices of Tibetan society. The Dalai Lama’s consultation with his oracle to decide the date of his departure to India had caused the Panchen Lama much amusement.” Luthra wrote, “I once asked the Panchen Lama what it felt like to be the incarnation of Amitabha. He replied that he had no such consciousness nor does he possess any supernatural powers. He struck me as a man without pretensions.”

According to Luthra, despite the traditional rivalry between Lhasa and Shigatse and the court politics of the two Lamas, “There seems to exist personal friendly accord as one would imagine between two youths who have so much in common… I have seen them cutting jokes, thumping each other’s backs and exchanging warm greetings.”

In 1959 when the Tibetan people rose up against Chinese rule in Tibet, the Dalai Lama along with an estimated 87,000 Tibetans fled Tibet to India, Nepal and Bhutan. The Panchen Lama chose to remain in Tibet. In 1962, the Panchen Lama after extensive research and tour of all Tibet submitted the 70,000-character petition to the Chinese Communist Party, laying bare the Party’s disastrous mistakes on the plateau, nearly falling short of accusing the Party of genocide. Mao Zedong called the Panchen Lama’s constructive criticism “a poisoned arrow” aimed at the Party. For this, the Panchen Lama spent 14 long years in prison. After Mao’s death in 1976, he was released. In 1989, he confided publicly to the Tibetan people that Tibet had lost more than it gained under Chinese rule. That year under mysterious circumstances, the Panchen Lama died.

Read more: Review: Will Tibet Ever Find Her Soul Again? by Claude Arpi

The third major voice to offer his commentary on the Tibetan political scene is that of PN Menon. He spent two years as India’s consul general in Tibet. In 1956 he was assigned to the Dalai Lama’s party. According to Menon, the weakness of the Tibetan struggle was “the real lack of a sense of unity and political consciousness in the way we understand it. At times the conflicting advice seemed to make the Dalai Lama rather confused…” But according to Menon, the Tibetan leader’s basic common sense seemed to “guide him away from the pitfalls of some of the advice offered.”

Contemporary and future generation of researchers of this period of Tibet’s relations with India will remain grateful to Claude Arpi for making these documents accessible. They will appreciate his bringing alive, loud and clear, the sterling character of these India’s frontier officials and their insights into the ominous events unfolding in overwhelmed and beleaguered Tibet.

Thubten Samphel is an independent researcher and a former director of the Tibet Policy Institute

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