India’s Tibet Policy: Time to turn back the clock?

An Officer and His Holiness': How Dalai Lama staged a dramatic ...
A young Dalai Lama with Jawaharlal Nehru. | Claude Arpi

by Apa Lhamo  12 June 2020

When power dynamics in India (1947) and China (1949) changed, the Tibet Question loomed large in the two Asian states’ bilateral arena. India’s Tibet Policy in the first five-six years of Nehruvian Government had a trace of British footprints, meaning Independent India accepted Chinese Suzerainty but not sovereignty over Tibet and Tibet had the power to conclude treaties with other nation-states especially in relation to India.

Notwithstanding Nehru’s favourable mention of China as “that great country to which Asia owes so much and from which so much is expected”, India invited two delegates from Tibet as representatives of Independent (de-facto) Tibet to the Asia Relations Conference. Prime Minister Nehru also strongly objected to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA henceforth) invasion of Tibet in 1950.

However, the Communist Party of China’s strategy of obtaining legitimacy for its invasion of Tibet through the 17-Point agreement on May 23, 1951, in addition to the PLA’s gaining of control over the whole of Tibet compelled Nehru to steer India’s Tibet Policy wheel in a completely different path. India sacrificed Tibet’s historical status by recognising China’s claim over Tibet in fact and law, and signed the Panchsheel Agreement. In this bargain, India expected ‘gentlemanly’ reciprocity from Mao-Zhou led China to honour India’s special and spiritual relationship with the Himalayan regions and Indo-Tibetan border.

History is a strong witness to what a catastrophe of an agreement it was, and the ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ remained just a pretty mantra. The Nehruvian Government’s objection to negotiate India’s ‘Religious Geography’, the Himalayas’, bordering occupied Tibet and the Chinese’s arrogance in being not willing to take cognizance of the treat(ies) Tibet had signed with British India before 1949 was one of the prime catalysts for the India-China war in 1962.

India’s Tibet Policy has undergone few etymological and structural changes since then. For instance, from “Tibet is an autonomous region of China’ to ‘The Indian side recognises that the Tibetan Autonomous Region is a part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China” to explicitly clarifying India’s stance during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in June 2003. In the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) he signed during the visit, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee assured Beijing that New Delhi will not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities. In return Beijing agreed to begin trade with India’s Sikkim and resolved to settle ‘long-standing disputes’. Nehru’s historical sacrifice of India’s hitherto ‘peaceful’ or rather unharmful neighbour, and Vajpayee’s reassurance of India’s stand on Tibet continues to haunt India’s geopolitical legitimacy.

India’s recognition of Tibet as part of China validated China’s claim on some territorial disputes including the MacMohan line. China began to secure its frontiers through construction of military bases, roads, deployment of hundreds of military personnel, pretty much an alien development hitherto, on the border. Tibet is a cardinal issue concerning both the parties.

India and China standoffs over border areas primarily stem from and between territories of Rutok and Burang County of Ngari in Tibet with India’s Ladakh; Uttarakhand; Lhuntse and Tsona County of Lhoka with India’s Arunachal Pradesh; Dromo County of Shigatse with India’s Sikkim and Bhutan; Metok County of Nyingtri with Arunachal Pradesh. These developments are alighted through media every now and then. However, an important development which is rarely attended to by stakeholders in India – media and people, in general – is China’s acceleration in building border defence villages in territories bordering India in the last few years.

In 2017, during the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping responded to a letter sent by a Tibetan family living at Yümai (ཡུལ་སྨད་) village in Lhuntse County of Lhoka, out of a pool of letters. What drew the attention of the President was the family’s mention of their role in “safeguarding the village from India’s occupation”. Xi wrote back to commend the family, saying, “Without peace in the territory, there will be no peace for millions of families, and we will safeguard every blade of grass and tree on the motherland’s border wall.”

One of his propaganda strategy slogans thus became: “Govern the nation by governing the borders; govern the borders by first stabilizing Tibet; ensure social harmony and stability in Tibet and strengthen the development of border regions.”

The TAR Party Secretary Wu Yingjie also echoed Xi Jinping and stated: “We will never allow one inch of land in Tibet to be separated from China.”

The family consisting of two daughters, Dolker, Yangzom and their father have since been paid special attention by the TAR Party Committee. Under the auspice of the CCP CC, it made one of the daughters, Yangzom, a member of the CCP. The family has been living in Yümai since 1979 and were reportedly the only inhabitants in the village till 1996. Now the village has almost 200 inhabitants, many of whom were relocated from other parts of Tibet to “be the guardian of the sacred land.” The inhabitants didn’t have electricity, proper roads, hospital(s) and schools. China claims to be undertaking ‘poverty alleviation projects’ in Tibet but the example of this Tibetan Family in Yümai is an apparent evidence that until the concerned area is of strategic importance to China, these projects are more of an appeasing enticement. The compulsion of the letter, therefore, can be understood and comes across as a tactical move as well.

Yümai is situated on the India-China border across Arunachal Pradesh. With an investment of 159 million yuan, the village now has 56 residential houses, 197 residents in a new planned land area of 440.98 mu (72.65 acres).

Similarly, since 2018, the TAR Party Committee under directions from the CCP CC has sped up the construction of Border Defence Villages or Xiaokang (边境小康村) villages in Tibet’s border areas, particularly bordering India and Bhutan. According to the Housing and Construction Department of TAR, a total of 628 border villages will be constructed, out of which 358 villages are in the border areas of Sangyul Village in Lhodrak County (close to Bhutan) and  Yümai (close to Arunachal Pradesh), Jagang Village in Rutok County of Ngari (close to Demchok, Ladakh), Geyru village in Dromo County of Shigatse and Dhamo village in Nyingtri, to name a few.

China has crawled back to normalcy from the Covid-19 pandemic and has just concluded its latest National People’s Congress (NPC) session with nearly 3000 delegates from Party branches. However, the Chinese leadership is wreaked by both domestic and international criticisms for concealing information about the virus, for silencing whistle-blowers and for downplaying the severity of the virus’s outbreak. Internally, protest both in action and thought within China from intellectuals, party members, doctors, common people, and a loss of over 1.38 trillion yuan just in January and February were reported.

Internationally, over 125 nations have signalled their support for an investigation into the origin and cause of the Covid-19 pandemic, including with threats of sanctions and pull outs of business from China. The Chinese leadership, unsurprisingly, tried to change the narrative of its failures and divert public anger to other matters including a New National Security Law in Hong Kong, South China Sea, Taiwan and border standoffs with India.

Whether Xi Jinping is able to revive and retain CCP’s legitimacy and ability to achieve his agenda including his China Dream by 2021 and make China the ‘major power’ by 2049 is something to look for through passage of time. But at this fragile moment for China, the major powers like the US, the UK, the EU, Australia, and Scandinavian nations are rethinking their China Policy. India should also rise to the occasion and re-evaluate its China Policy, particularly its position on the Tibet Question.

India should reclaim and recognise Tibet’s historical status as an independent nation and make it a core issue in its bilateral relations with China. Education of and about the Tibet Question should be given more importance in the educational institutions for the general public. Awareness should be spread among the intelligentsia, academics, Research Institutions, media outlets and general public as well, many of whom keep using Chinese narratives of the Tibet Question and trade Tibetan names of areas with Chinese names in the academia as well in the mainstream media. The least it can do is to reinforce India’s legitimacy in the border areas.