While addressing the students of lucknow University in 1951, BR Ambedkar had said, “India has failed to develop a strong foreign policy. Tibet has been garrisoned by China; it will have long-term threat to India.” This statement of Baba Saheb is still relevant. The recent visit of the Dalai lama to Twang has stirred a fresh controversy. China threatened India for permitting the Dalai lama to visit Twang. The Indian Government has made it clear that it was a spiritual visit and nothing to do with politics. But the anger and frustration of China are well entrenched in the Chinese strategic calculus. While explaining the vision of BR Ambedkar, it becomes interesting to connect his thought of a strong nation and realistic foreign policy.
Despite being humiliated as a human being in caste-ridden social structure of India, Ambedkar never undermined the importance of nation. He strongly advocated for a power which a country needs to aspire. It is the only route through which it can make its presence felt in the world politics. Unfortunately that did not happen during the Congress regime. He was scornful of Nehruvian foreign policy, especially on China and the erstwhile Soviet Union. He wanted Tibet must remain an independent country. While delivering speech in Kathmandu in 1955, he cautioned the aggressive approach of China to Himalayan states. Almost six decades of Indian foreign policy synchronised itself under the duress of China from a major power to a trivial entity.
But the current Government is moving in the directions of Baba Shaeb’s thoughts. Narendra Modi was the first Prime Minister who visited Bhutan and Nepal after becoming the Prime Minister. That was a breakaway from established trend of Indian Prime Minister’s entourage. Modi as a Prime Minister made the Himalayan states more important. This was a major turning point in Indian foreign policy. Since then China is very aggressive. The Modi Government is also working on the long-term strategy, which was missing earlier. That is why at the fag-end of his prime ministership, Manmohan Singh uttered that India did not have strategic culture. With Modi’s doctrine, China is feeling uneasy.
China plays dual role. On one side, it is keen to hijack the Buddhist structure through its soft power diplomacy, on the other hand, it is waiting the Dalai lama to pass away and let the Tibetan liberation Movement be rudderless and leaderless. China published a white paper on Tibet in 2015 to showcase the world how Tibet has been converted from pastoral land to well-developed cities. China claims that the Tibetan culture and people have been much better off since its occupation rule began in 1959. It claims: “Tibet’s traditional culture is well protected and promoted, and freedom of religious belief in the region is respected, while its ecological environment is protected too.” The white paper also presents data to justify its rule for the last 50 years. It claims: “Earlier Tibet did not have a single school in the modern sense; its illiteracy rate was as high as 95 per cent among the young and the middle-aged; there was no modern medical service, and praying to the Buddha for succour was the main resort for most people if they fell ill; their average life expectancy was 35.5 year.”
Even if the above data are true, there are many aspects of which are equally misleading. The Tibetan community has been killed and subjugated to slavery. Their twin identities of faith and pastoral lives were forcefully destroyed by the communist regime. Tibet has been strategically cut into two parts. One part of it, the Tibet Autonomous Regions (TAR), has been converted into a nuclear dustbin, spreading deadly diseases such as cancer. Thousands of Tibetans are behind bars. Their economic status is very low. The policy of transferring Han Chinese into the TAR is making the Tibetans a minority community in their own region. China under the 2020 Plan wants to transfer more Hans to Tibet. This would strengthen China’s rule of terror and worsen the pace of the ongoing cultural genocide.
Tibet remains the decisive factor in shaping the China-India relations for the last 65 years. However, India has maintained a principled stand and stated time and again that Tibet is a part of China. Meeting with the Dalai lama and refugee status of Tibetans living in India has been categorically defined by Indian leaders consistently. Atal Behari Vajpayee during his visit to China in 1979 as the Foreign Minister explained that the Dalai lama was given refuge in India purely in reference to his spiritual position. Ordinary Tibetans were granted refugee status on strictly humanitarian grounds. But China remains apprehensive. Any move of India is looked, explained and understood by China under the shadow of Tibetan cause. Overall India-China relations have been shaped under the currents of Tibetan factor.
The Chinese takeover of Tibet is strategic rather than historical or ideological. The Tibetan rebellion of 1959 and the China-India border war of 1962 tended to strengthen Chinese belief in the strategic importance of Tibet. No sooner had the PlA troops entered eastern Tibet than they began building roads. Strategic development continued in Tibet for more than two decades and certainly the most spectacular aspect of the overall development in Tibet from 1950 till 1976 has been strategic or military oriented. China has always been apprehensive of the influence of external powers into the territory of Tibet. That is why purportedly shifted the area of buffer zone from Tibet to their tiny Himalayan states like Nepal and Bhutan with India. To consolidate its position, China signed border agreements with Burma and Nepal in 1960, Magnolia in 1962, and Pakistan in 1963
China’s Tibet policy impacts Indian security interests mainly in two ways. One, it exposed the border problem between India and China, which led to the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The Chinese invasion of Tibet ended the buffer zone between the two countries. At the same time, it increased China’s reach into South Asia. In fact, Tibet has an 870-mile border with Nepal and China has been consolidating its relationships with Nepal. Another serious consequence of Chinese developmental strategy in Tibet could be in terms of environmental hazards. India’s major rivers originate from the Trans-Himalayan region. China’s Western Development programme is feared to cause major deforestation and ecological imbalance. Tibet and Tibetan ethnic areas are endowed with the greatest river system in the world. Its rivers supply fresh water to 85 per cent of Asia’s population and approximately 50 per cent of the world’s population.
The Dalai lama is the most revered figure of Buddhism. The Indian Government has started its diplomatic venture by creating a Buddhist circuit from India to South East Asia and Central Asia. China is trying to divert this circuit towards its turfs. Tibet is lynchpin of this diplomacy and the Dalai lama is spiritual driver. Keeping the words of Baba Saheb, Tibet and Tibetans’ dignity need to be protected. It is not merely for the interests of Tibetans, but for India.
(The writer is Head of the Department of Political Science, Central University of Haryana)