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Monday, Dec 16, 2019
Home / Columns / India, China and Tibet

India, China and Tibet

Our response to the Beijing Olympics is far too complex to be caricatured as support or opposition. Nearly all of us empathise with the Tibetans, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: Apr 25, 2008 18:14 IST

Now that the Delhi leg of the Olympic torch relay has passed off largely without incident, most Indians are both relieved and disappointed. We are relieved because our government has kept its word to the Chinese and not allowed protestors to disrupt the relay. But we are also disappointed because, at some level, we are delighted by the manner in which China’s human rights record has become an international embarrassment. And many of us smirked in satisfaction as the relay was disrupted in London, Paris and San Francisco. <b1>

Our feelings about the Beijing Olympics are complex and contradictory. Most of us have decided that a boycott would not be in India’s national interest. As pragmatists, we recognise the importance of good relations with China. But few of us would be sorry to see the Olympics go up in smoke or to see the Chinese humiliated at an event that was meant to showcase their achievements to the world. Some of this has to do with the baggage of history. Indians are extraordinarily sympathetic to the Tibetan cause because we believe that it was the Chinese invasion of Tibet that set off the chain of events that culminated in our military defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962. When the Chinese overran Tibet claiming that it had always been part of China, Jawaharlal Nehru was content to accept their claim. Partly, this was because the Chinese had a strong case but it was also because Nehru had visions of a brave new world order in which India and China would jointly remake the rules.

At the time, it was not an unreasonable position. But its immediate consequence was that the Chinese could lay claim to swathes of Indian territory, arguing that all this was part of Tibet and, therefore, part of China. Almost all of our territorial disputes with China can be traced back to our acceptance of the Chinese claim on Tibet. If we had denied that China had any right to Tibet, then there would be no question of entertaining Chinese claims to chunks of India.

But there was also a psychological component. Indians believed — and this view was encouraged by the government — that the Chinese had betrayed us. We had introduced them to the world at the Bandung Conference, had formulated a code of Panchsheel for peaceful existence and had even backed them over Tibet. And yet, they had no hesitation in attacking us and killing hundreds of Indian soldiers over a border dispute. The 1962 defeat marked a huge setback in India’s confidence. The world stopped taking us seriously. We began to question Nehru’s leadership and it would take decades for us to recover our international standing.

In our minds, all this is China’s fault. You could argue that the Chinese/Tibetan claim to parts of Indian territory is historically valid — as many scholars do — and you could say that India needlessly provoked China with its Forward Policy when we could simply have done a deal over Aksai Chin. But few Indians really believe this. As far as we are concerned, we made the mistake of backing China over Tibet — and then, the Chinese did to us what they had done to the Tibetans.

Even if we did not link the Chinese claim to Tibet with our own humiliation in 1962, we would still feel for the Tibetans. No matter what standards you apply, there is no doubt that the Dalai Lama is one of the extraordinary figures of our times. Despite being thrown out of his own country and despite the strong feelings within his community, he has consistently opposed the use of violence. He seems entirely without bitterness and, even now, he is against a boycott of the Olympics. <b2>

Contrast the Tibetan movement with the many separatist movements we have seen erupt all over the world in the last few decades. In nearly every case, the separatists have resorted to violence. When that has failed, they have usually moved on to terrorism, targeting innocent civilians, claiming that they have no other means of combating the power of the occupying state. The Tibetans constitute perhaps the only movement that genuinely believes in turning the other cheek. It is for this reason that much of the world believes that they deserve our support.

The closest parallel — in terms of geography, at least — is with Kashmiri separatists. Tibet gets none of the benefits that India’s Kashmiris do. Kashmir has democracy, its citizens can elect their own government and can throw out ministers who do not perform. It receives a subsidy from the Indian taxpayer that is so embarrassingly large that the impoverished citizens of Bihar would probably revolt if they realised what a good deal the Kashmiris were getting.

Contrast the attitude of the Kashmiri separatists with the attitude of the Dalai Lama and his government in exile. Though Tibet has no democracy at all and its culture is being stamped out, the exiled Tibetans still hope to win their battle through peaceful means. Not for them the terrorism and violence that has become an intrinsic part of Kashmiri separatism. Not for them the weasel-like position of, say, the Hurriyat which is scared of fighting elections, takes money from India and Pakistan, and follows a policy of pure opportunism.

There is one other factor and, though it is politically incorrect to say so, I’m sure it plays some subliminal role in Hindu attitudes to Tibet. Most Hindus regard Buddhists as cousins, if not brothers. Some even go so far as to regard Buddhism as an offshoot of Hinduism. When Buddhism disappeared from India and Hinduism reasserted itself, Hindu priests were savvy enough to suborn the Buddha to their cause, claiming centuries after his death, that he was an avatar of Vishnu. Even now, we treat Buddhist monks with the respect we accord to Hindu sadhus. Many Hindus I know were shocked to discover that the Dalai Lama ate beef. In their minds, he was one of us, so such deviations from Hindu practice seemed astonishing.

I do not want to make too much of the Hindu empathy with the Dalai Lama’s movement and its emphasis on non-violence, but ask yourself this: if the Tibetans had been Muslims led by an Ayotollah or an Imam, would they have captured the Indian imagination in quite the same way? And finally, even if you take the Tibetans out of the mix, there’s India’s rivalry with China to contend with. Indians believe that the West has sided with Chinese tyranny even while lecturing the world about democracy and human rights. In 1971, when we were mobilising global opinion to stop the genocide in Bangladesh, Henry Kissinger used the Pakistanis to open the door to China. The US took Pakistan’s side and the Chinese also suggested that they might intervene militarily if West Pakistan was attacked by the Indian Army. <b3>

That has been the pattern ever since. India’s economic success story is a tribute to the Western values of democracy and liberalism. But the West has flocked to China, despite Tibet, despite Tiananmen Square and despite the ruthless suppression of dissent. Ironically, it is China’s lack of democracy that makes it an attractive investment target — decisions are taken quickly, and protestors are shot.

When Indians visit China, we are stunned by the tall buildings and the economic progress but there is always an undercurrent of resentment to our admiration. Businessmen may recommend the Chinese model but the rest of us are not just envious, we are also piqued that this success has been achieved with the support of the West and over the dead bodies of millions.

So, our response to the Beijing Olympics is far too complex to be caricatured as support or opposition. Few Indians trust the Chinese. Most resent China. And nearly all of us empathise with the Tibetans.

But we are now realistic enough to know that in today’s world, India cannot afford to be enemies with China. As neighbours, we must learn to live in peace and to sort out our differences through negotiations.

That’s why we ensured an incident-free run for the Olympic torch. And that’s why we’ll turn up in Beijing.

Because we have learnt the hard way that in international affairs we cannot let our hearts rule our heads. Alas.