A strong foundation for the roof of the world

Given the possible changes in China’s policy towards Tibet, India must lose no time in adjusting to the new possibilities they bring

When asked about the Dalai Lama and prospects of talks with Tibetans living in India, Chinese officials normally follow a hard line by portraying the 14th spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists as being a “splittist,”and his supporters across the world as being secessionists, even “terrorists.” This is why the response of Wu Yingie, the second most important person in the Chinese communist party in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), came as a bolt from the blue. “Talks with the Dalai Lama are ongoing and smooth,” he told journalists from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries visiting Tibet last month. “What we are discussing, however, is not Tibet’s future, but his own.”

The remarks were significant for two reasons. One, because Chinese references to the Dalai Lama are now polite and even acknowledge his religious status. Second, for the admission that talks with his personal envoys, which are known to be under way, were discussing the question of his possible return to Tibet. The unwritten significance is the new confidence that the Chinese government feels with regard to Tibet — a development India must engage with.

Less security

That confidence is evident on the ground, especially when compared to the nervousness prevalent during the Olympic Games in 2008 when reports of self-immolations and protests were common. At that time, security forces manned Lhasa’s streets, with locals undergoing frequent document checks. Today, the security presence is minimal, even as “crowd control kiosks” — police outposts that were stocked with riot gear — now lie padlocked. The influx of (Han) Chinese migrants from other parts of the country has also changed things. While there is no way of confirming figures put out by a Human Rights Watch report in 2013 of “two million” migrants being resettled, it is quite obvious that they now own or run a sizeable number of shops, malls, and hotels in Lhasa and other cities. The other obvious change is in infrastructure. Over the past 20 years, Beijing has pumped in more than $14-billion into the region. In 2014, it announced a further investment of $21-billion for more airports, a lakh-plus kilometres of roads, and 1,300 kilometres of railway lines.

“Given the possible changes in China’s policy towards Tibet, India must lose no time in adjusting to the new possibilities they bring”

The region has a GDP of 12 per cent, and received close to 12 million tourists last year, with the government now leveraging Buddhism in a way it has never before. In August, during the Shoton festival which the journalists witnessed, more than a lakh of Tibetans and tourists thronged the Drepung Monastery in just one morning. Even the Dalai Lama’s summer palace has been reopened, where thousands of Tibetans come each day to worship under China’s gaze.

China’s leader holds a special link to Tibet as well. President Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, a Communist Party leader, knew the 10th Panchen Lama well in the 1950s, and had met the current Dalai Lama, who presented him a watch that he wore. “Xi Zhongxun was one of the most liberal leaders,” the self-styled Prime Minister of Tibetans in India >Dr. Lobsang Sangay told The Hindu in an interview last month. “It is still to be seen if the son will have learned from the father. He has shown boldness on corruption, in politics. Hope he shows boldness on Tibet too.”

What India must do

Given the possible changes in China’s policy towards Tibet, India must lose no time in adjusting to the new possibilities they bring. For too long, the Dalai Lama and the growing population of Tibetan exiles in India have been seen as some sort of pawn to be “leveraged” against China. The truth is that the questionable benefits of such leverage will only last for the span of the Dalai Lama’s lifetime, or until (if) he is able to return to Tibet. Instead, India must undertake a survey of Tibetans living in different parts of the country to find out what their priorities and hopes are. It must be remembered that a “Free Tibet” is something India doesn’t recognise, nor do the Dalai Lama or the so-called Tibetan government-in-exile ask for it. In the event that exiles would rather remain in India, given that many have been born and raised here, the government must reconsider and give this community citizenship.

This is also the time to work purposefully towards a resolution of the India-China border issue. Both countries have been guilty of passing up opportunities, but must seize on the strong mandate Prime Minister Narendra Modi has received, as also the confidence that the Chinese government and President Xi Jinping exude, and translate it into a common understanding of the frontiers between them. The $100-billion bilateral trade target that India and China share can only grow exponentially with such an understanding, and will help India strengthen its centuries-old direct people-to-people ties with Tibet through tourism, religious pilgrimages and direct trade. It is only then that the “Roof of the world” that currently rattles the base of Sino-Indian ties will transform itself into a strong foundation for the two countries to build their relations on.

(The Chinese Foreign Ministry invited a group of SAARC journalists, including the writer, to visit Beijing, Lhasa, and other parts of Tibet, in August this year.)

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Printable version | May 25, 2020 9:19:11 PM |

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