Review: Imperial Games in Tibet by Dilip Sinha - Hindustan Times

Review: Imperial Games in Tibet by Dilip Sinha

ByTsering Namgyal Khortsa
Jul 05, 2024 07:36 PM IST

Scholarly, accessible and timely, Imperial Games in Tibet focuses on the history of the nation in the high Himalayas since the seventeenth century

The Tibetan issue is a perplexing one, and the nation’s prominence in the international arena waxes and wanes depending on the tidal currents of global geopolitics. It has always been so, claims the new book, Imperial Games in Tibet: The Struggle for Statehood and Sovereignty, by former Indian diplomat Dilip Sinha. A wonderful work of scholarship based on extensive archival research, it succinctly summarises how Tibet came to be drawn into the imperial politics played out in the high Himalayas.

Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama being shown a Vampire Jet Fighter in a photograph dated 11 January 1957. (HT Photo)
Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama being shown a Vampire Jet Fighter in a photograph dated 11 January 1957. (HT Photo)

China claims that Tibet has been a part of China since time immemorial. Tibetans, however, believe themselves to be a sovereign nation with a distinct cultural, religious, and linguistic identity entirely independent of China. Imperial Games analyses how rival imperial powers, China, Britain, and Russia, vied for influence in Tibet and how the geopolitical circumstances — the Great Game — of the past three centuries sealed the fate of the landlocked Buddhist nation.

304pp, ₹373; Macmillan
304pp, ₹373; Macmillan

Communist China’s occupation of Tibet in 1950 dashed its struggle for sovereignty and statehood and compelled its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to flee with hundreds of thousands of his countrymen in March 1959. He subsequently settled in Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, where he set up his government in exile.

Sinha believes Tibet’s current plight is the result of a combination of miscalculation and misfortune.

“Mongols invaded Tibet in the thirteenth century, and the Manchus arrived in the eighteenth century. Both groups conquered and ruled Tibet from Beijing,” he writes. While Tibet was once an imperial power, the arrival of Buddhism from India “ushered in a reclusive pacifism.” The proliferation of monasteries made it vulnerable to foreign intervention, as the lamas were willing to seek outside assistance to settle internal disputes.

During the Manchu dynasty, which ruled China between 1644 and 1911, Tibetan lamas frequently travelled to China, counting even its emperors among their students, further complicating ties between Lhasa and Beijing.

The fall of the Manchu dynasty in 1912 provided Tibet with the opportunity to reassert its independence, but a lack of international support left it rudderless, unable to accomplish its mission. Consequently, due to the incorrigible nature of the Tibetans, the harsh terrain of the land, as well as the towering historical influence of China and its claim of “suzerainty” over Tibet, the country was never colonised by a Western power. This is why Tibet remained one of the few nations in Asia that were not recognised as transitioning to a modern Westphalian state.

“Its misfortune was that Britain and Russia left it in the Chinese empire, refusing to support its bid for independence even after the collapse of the Manchu dynasty. Had either of them annexed it at that time, or earlier, Tibet would be a free country today,” writes Sinha.

“Russia and China did not support Tibet’s appeal to the UN after the fall of the Manchu dynasty, leaving it to India and the US. The absence of international support left Tibet at China’s mercy,” Sinha states. Gullible Tibetan rulers who were “taken in by the Chinese Communist Party’s assurances of respect for their autonomy and religion” were also partly to blame.

Sinha does not spare Prime Minister Nehru and the Indian government either. The newly independent nation, which inherited its treaties and relations with Tibet from the British Raj, did not support Tibet during and after the Communist Chinese occupation and instead accepted the latter’s rule over Tibet.

The author concludes the book on a somewhat depressing note. There is “no endgame in sight for Tibet,” he says, though Tibetans “have defied China’s military by clinging to their faith and endured their misfortune with stoic resilience.”

“China’s repression of its own Han Chinese people leaves no scope for minorities like Tibetans to enjoy any political or human rights,” he says, adding that “China is the current winner of the imperial game, and there is no end in sight to its occupation of Tibet.”

The death of the current Dalai Lama, 88, and the process of reincarnation will probably be embroiled in controversy, as China is unlikely to recognise his spiritual avatar. “There is little prospect of a smooth reincarnation, given the continuing wrangles over other senior lamas like the Panchen Lama and the Karmapa Lama,” the author states.

Sinha reckons the role of the Tibetan government in exile, based in Dharamshala, will be critical, “as will the attitude of other countries, particularly India and the US.”

In a way, this means the imperial games continue, even though China may be the winner at this stage. 65 years after the Chinese occupation, Tibet is back on the global agenda again with the recent visit of a high-level bipartisan US Congressional delegation to Dharamshala to meet with the Dalai Lama.

In June, the US Congress passed the Resolve Tibet Act that calls for a peaceful resolution of the dispute over the status and governance of Tibet. It also calls on Beijing to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

Author Dilip Sinha (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Dilip Sinha (Courtesy the publisher)

Meanwhile, in India, memories of the clashes at the border in Ladakh in 2020-2021 are fresh. Both India and China have also recently made attempts to rename places in Arunachal Pradesh. Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with members of the Congressional delegation can be seen as an attempt to once again flex India’s muscle.

Tibet continues to haunt both India and China. Bring the US, the new imperial power, into the picture, and it’s clear that the Great Game continues to this day.

A well researched book primarily focussed on the history of Tibet since the seventeenth century, Imperial Games in Tibet is accessible and timely and will appeal to both specialists and lay readers.

Tsering Namgyal Khortsa is a writer and journalist living in Dehra Dun.

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