Chinese adventurism and the Tibet factor
Had China extended the 1962 war against India, it would have had to battle it out at various fronts simultaneously. The situation in Tibet was grim and a power tussle was on within the ruling party
The Dalai Lama, Beijing’s bête noire, was recently awarded the Professor ML Sondhi Prize for International Politics 2016. Sondhi, a renowned academic, a Jan Sangh politician as well as a visionary diplomat, was probably the first to advocate normal relations with Israel, at a time when India was still living in a dream-world of non-alignment with the Hebrew state.
During the function, the Tibetan spiritual leader, in a veiled threat to Beijing, stated that China will have to think of Tibet in case of a conflict with India, as handling both simultaneously (India and Tibet) would not be an ‘easy’ task for Beijing. At the same time, the Dalai Lama played down the possibility of a military conflict.
He, however, added that since India has become a military power, the only option for China was ‘compromise’: “India is not a small country. It is gaining military power. So the only thing is compromise. The Chinese have to think about the situation inside Tibet when it comes to conflict with India.”
This raises an important issue: The significance of the ‘Tibet factor’ in the history of the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict; the highly-unstable situation on the plateau in the months which preceded the Chinese attack in the NEFA and Ladakh played a restraining role for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in October 19622 — particularly the 70,000-character petition of the Panchen Lama addressed to Premier Zhou Enlai and another high official, Xi Zhongxun, President Xi Jinping’s father.
At the beginning of the 1960s, resentment was at its peak in Tibet. In January 1962, during a speech at an important party forum, Mao Zedong brought up the issue of the Panchen Lama and the situation in Tibet. The young Tibetan Lama, who had been made Chairman of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region when the Dalai Lama left for India in 1959, had started to criticise the Communist Party’s policy in Tibet.
The Tibetan issue was to became a crucial factor which impeded longer military operations against India at the end of 1962. In the 70,000-character petition, (dubbed by Mao as a “poisonous arrow”), the Panchen Lama listed several problems on the plateau.
In the summer of 1962, when the PLA started to work on the details of the military operations, it soon realised that the campaign could not be sustained for a long time. It was, therefore, decided to terminate the war ‘with a unilateral Chinese halt, ceasefire, and withdrawal’. Historian Shi Bo believes that in view of “practical difficulties associated with China’s domestic situation”, the PLA, after achieving its military objectives, had to “quickly disengage and end the fighting as quickly as possible”. China’s ‘domestic situation’ is referring to the power struggle within the Party (Xi Zhongxun would be purged in July) and the situation in Tibet. With discontent brewing on the Roof of the World, the supply lines to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had been greatly weakened.
Tibet’s instability appears clearly in the 70,000-character petition sent by the Panchen Lama to Zhou Enlai who requested Xi Zhongxun and Li Weihan, responsible of the United Front Work Department dealing with ‘minorities’, General Zhang Jingwu, the Representative of the Central Committee in Tibet and General Zhang Guohua, the Commander of the Chinese forces during the 1962 war, to read and study the Panchen Lama’s petition.
Interestingly, when the Panchen Lama died in 1989, Xi Zhongxun wrote in The People’s Daily that the Tibet experts found “most of the comments and suggestions [of the Panchen Lama were] good; they could be implemented, but some had gone too far”. Indeed, he had gone ‘too far’ for the communist leadership.
He had criticised the handling of the 1959 ‘rebellion’ (‘uprising’ for the Tibetans). Xi Sr commented: “[It] was counter-revolutionary in nature, being against the party, the motherland, the people, democracy and socialism. Its crimes were very grave. Thus, it was entirely correct, essential, necessary and appropriate for the party to adopt the policy of suppressing the rebellion.”
In separate chapters entitled, ‘Democratic Reforms’; ‘Production in Agriculture and Animal Herding’; ‘Surviving of the People’; ‘Nationalities’ Policy’; ‘Dictatorship of the Party’; and finally, ‘Freedom of Religion’, the Panchen had mentioned the deep grievances of the Tibetan population. He paid a heavy price for having dared to write what everyone knew; he spent the years from 1964 to 1978 in solitary confinement and rehabilitation camps.
Few analysts have pointed out that a longer war would have been difficult to sustain in the atmosphere of ‘rebellion’ prevalent on the Roof of the World at that time. Though openly siding with the ‘reformists’ camp led by Lui Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, the Panchen Lama was also warning the communist leadership of the resentment of the so-called nationalities.
Some new historical documents regarding the 70,000 characters’ letter have recently appeared in English on a blog, War in Tibet. The transcripts make fascinating reading. In the Summary of a Meeting between Comrade Xi Zhongxun, Comrade Li Weihan and Panchen held on June 21, 1962, in The Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Jaazharlal Nehru and India are several times mentioned. At one point, Xi Zhongxun intervenes and recalls his encounters with the ‘Master’, the Panchen Lama: “We held several meetings here just for you to vent your anger and figure out ways to solve problems.... if you are angry, let it out. If you have disagreement, speak out. Problems should be solved through consultation and discussion.” But the Panchen Lama’s anger venting would take him to jail for 14 years.
About the restive situation in Tibet, Xi speaks of Nehru: “This requires that we do our work better under the leadership of the [Tibet] Work Committee [implementing the ‘reforms’], and construct our motherland better. Nehru is laughing now, but don’t let him have the last laugh."
At another point, during the three-day discussions, Xi Zhongxun mentions other implications of the Panchen Lama’s letter: “Tibet is the front line of national defence, and there is struggle against enemies as well.” He adds: “This is the joint work of Nehru and Dalai. If they messed up Nepal, how can they not want to mess up Tibet? What’s their purpose? They just want to overthrow the current leadership in Tibet and restore the old order. …Things are difficult in Tibet, but solutions and hope do exist, and our future is bright.”
Though the situation is relatively stable in Tibet today (it is not the case in Xinjiang), it would certainly be an important factor in case of Chinese adventurism. Indian planners should take note of this crucial strategic issue and in-depth studies should be undertaken on the situation in Tibet in the eventuality of a Sino-Indian conflict.
(The writer is an expert on India-China relations and an author)
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