India’s Tibet policy and Dharamshala’s shambolic India policy

The involvement of the Tibetan government-in-exile in India in matters outside their purview on a political level is worrisome. The political leadership of the Tibetan refugees is making provocative statements which impact India’s internal affairs and jeopardise the fragile relations between India and China.

THE worry beads used by Tibetan Buddhists and Indian Hindus are believed to focus the mind. However, as we approach the end game of the Great Game on the Tibetan Plateau, focus seems to be the one thing missing in the Indian ruling party’s trans-Himalayan policy.

The return to an autonomous— forget an independent— Tibet is akin to a pilgrimage to the mythical Shambala.

The reiteration by the Dalai Lama, spiritual head of the Tibetans, that he is “not seeking independence for Tibet and wishes to stay with China” is not new, however, his declaration that “he would return to Tibet at once if China agrees” has sparked fresh speculation of a possible rapprochement with Beijing.

Tibetan political leadership in India skating on thin political ice

The present temporal Tibetan leadership seems to have other ideas if we observe their overtures in New Delhi and Washington.

The June 22, 2023 statement in Australia of Penpa Tsering, the President or Sikyong of the so-called Tibetan government-in-exile based in India was gratuitous.

We live in India. I was born in India. It is not as drastic as it is being made out in the international media … of Modi’s coercive policies. He is not trying to change Muslims into Hindus. There are some cow vigilantes overreacting to certain situations for which the government gets blamed.

The Tibetans have bent over backwards to prove their usefulness to the Hindu fundamentalist dispensation in New Delhi.

I think India is one of the most tolerant countries in the world. So diverse culture, so many religions, so many different kinds of people,” Penpa Tsering said on being asked about India and the ‘Hindutva thrust’.

One of the conundrums of Indian foreign policy is how it allows the Tibetan government-in-exile to function from Indian soil and then screams blue murder about foreign interference in India’s internal affairs.

Clearly, the Tibetan political leadership has closed their famed Third Eye to the attacks on Muslims and Christians in India. Forget the Third Eye; when the Tibetans wade into areas outside their political ken, they do so without any eyesight, hindsight or foresight.

The very least they could do is read the annual reports of the United States International Religious Freedom Reports.

The Tibetans have bent over backwards to prove their usefulness to the Hindu fundamentalist dispensation in New Delhi.

In 2019, Dr Tenzin Dorjee, a US citizen of Tibetan origin and a former commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote a dissent note where he disagreed with the even tenor of the report on religious freedom in India.

In fact, in 2015, the Dalai Lama had himself expressed concern about rising levels of intolerance in India.

Notably, the Dalai Lama has had contact with the top leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) since 1979. RSS–Tibetan connections go back to 1962 when the Indo-China war took place.

This latest attempt by the Tibetan political leadership is clearly hitching their fortunes to the Hindutva bandwagon. Or should I say, chariot? 

The Tibetan leadership’s support for Hindutva in India bodes ill for the continuance of the broad consensus amongst the non-communist political leadership and the non-Hindutva citizens in India towards the Tibetans.

At the outset, it should be made clear that the average Tibetan refugee is welcome. But when the political leadership of this refugee community makes loaded statements that impact the internal affairs of the host country, it is incumbent for the Indian citizen to ask some questions.

The Tibetans have been the only refugees who continue to be welcomed into India since the late 1950s except for a few instances when the Indian security establishment was exasperated with some political initiative from McLeodganj (a suburb that serves as the official capital-in-exile of the Tibetan government-in-exile) which had not been cleared by New Delhi.

Of late, there are not more than a handful coming to India. More seem to be returning to China, for employment opportunities in the main.

Enter the Karmapa

In 2011, the Himachal police raided the Gyuto Tantric Monastic University, home of the Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorjee. 

The Karmapa, spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu School which is one of the four sects of Buddhism, fled Tibet and sought refuge in India in January 2000. The Indian security establishment was taken off guard by the arrival of the then 14-year-old.

The latest attempt by the Tibetan political leadership is clearly hitching their fortunes to the Hindutva bandwagon.

The Karmapa, considered the third most significant Tibetan religious leader after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, has had his activities scrutinised following accusations of alleged ties with Chinese authorities.

The Indian government had previously confined his movement to within 15 km of his residence, which was close to the Dalai Lama’s residence. He was not allowed to visit the Dalai Lama frequently.

In July 2008, the Karmapa was denied permission to visit the monasteries in Himachal Pradesh and then Jammu and Kashmir which are situated close to the Chinese border.

Suspicions about the Karmapa

In an article published in February 2011, a former senior official of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) noted: “The Karmapa is the head of what is known as the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It is claimed that the institution of Karmapa is more than 200 years older than the institution of Dalai Lama, who is the head of all Tibetan Buddhists, wherever they may be living.

There has been a controversy regarding the present 17th Karmapa ever since the death of the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorjee, in 1981.Claims were made on behalf of two other persons that they were the real incarnations.”

The Karmapa left India for the US on an Indian travel document in May 2017. It is now learnt that he has acquired a Dominican passport. It is also understood that he is reluctant to accept US citizenship as that would be a major obstacle in him being recognised by the Chinese as the spiritual head of the Tibetans in a post Dalai Lama situation.

His incarnation as the Karmapa was accepted by the Chinese when he was seven years old and still in Tibet.

There has been no definite news of the Dalai Lama recognising Karmapa. The latter still nurses the grievance that India did not allow him to visit the Rumtek Monastery, the most important monastery of the Karma Kagyu lineage located in the now Indian state of Sikkim.

Not to forget that there has been no love lost historically between the Black Hats sect that the Karmapa belongs to and the Yellow Hats sect that the present Dalai Lama belongs to.

Yoking the Shambala to Hindutva

The prayer wheel turned when the new Hindutva security leadership established itself with the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2014. The Nehruvian ‘Forward policy’  might have been discredited by history and the 1962 war, nevertheless the Modi government decided to try a new incarnation of it.

Dr Lobsang Sangay, the then President of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) attended the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an honoured guest on May 26, 2014.

The conundrum of Indian foreign policy is how it allows the Tibetan government- in-exile to function from Indian soil and then screams blue murder about foreign interference in India’s internal affairs.

For left political circles in India, this was akin to Raul Castro in Cuba inviting the descendants of the Hawaiian royal family seeking to reestablish Hawaiian sovereignty on an equal footing with heads of other South American states.

The swearing-in ceremony was attended by then formal leaders of all the SAARC countries including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Prime Minister Sushil Koirala of Nepal.

Reality check

A few years later, the penny dropped. In 2018, the Modi government issued a directive prohibiting Indian bureaucrats and leaders from attending events organised by the CTA marking their 60 years in India. 

The directive came on the eve of an informal summit between the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. An embarrassed CTA was forced to cancel events featuring the Dalai Lama and to hold them outside New Delhi.

A short history of Tibetan diplomatic naivety

The Tibetan political leadership had not been cognisant of the political realities even before Indian independence in 1947. This is clear from Sonika Gupta’s work on the issue.

She writes that soon after India gained independence, the Tibetan administration voiced an expansive demand for the repatriation of Tibetan territories along the McMahon Line and beyond. 

This sparked an extensive diplomatic dialogue between Lhasa, New Delhi and London while India deliberated its response to the Tibetan demand.

It also revealed the intricacies of Tibetan elite politics that affected decision-making in Lhasa translating to a fragmented and often contradictory policy in forging its new relationship with India. 

Most importantly, this Tibetan territorial demand undermined the diplomatic efficacy of Tibet’s 1947 Trade Mission to India, entangling its outcome with the resolution of this issue. 

This was a lost opportunity for both India and Tibet in building an agreement on the frontier which worked to their mutual disadvantage in the future.

In 1959, as India and China wrangled over the McMahon Line, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai wrote to the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asserting that the McMahon Line was illegal and that Tibet too had expressed “dissatisfaction with this line, and, following the independence of India in 1947, cabled asking India to return all the territory of Tibet region of China south of this illegal line.”

When the political leadership of Tibetan refugees makes laden statements that have an impact on India’s internal affairs, it is incumbent that Indian citizens raise concerns.

In response to this, Nehru wrote back to Zhou Enlai refuting the territorial claims made in the Tibetan cable as fantastical.

The Simla Convention of 1914, concluded between the plenipotentiaries of Britain, Tibet and China, had demarcated the McMahon Line as the border between Tibet and India. 

It was followed up by the 1914 trade regulations between Tibet and India that remained in force at the time of the British exit and beyond till 1954. 

Politically, the Simla Convention and its associated trade regulations remained the last treaty that Tibet entered into with India as a de facto independent state without the restrictive imposition of Chinese suzerainty.

While the Chinese had repudiated the convention, Britain and Tibet continued to be governed by its provisions right up to 1947, though with selective enforcement by both sides. 

Upon Indian independence, according to customary international law, the British treaty obligations and rights would routinely devolve from Britain to India. However, in practice, it was not that simple a matter.

On the Indian side, there was a lack of appreciation of Tibetan anxieties as Tibet negotiated rapid political changes along its borders with both India and China. British and Indian inability to decode Tibetan elite politics also proved to be a major hurdle in developing an effective response to Tibetan anxieties about its future relationship with India.

The Indian assumption that there was no need to discuss existing frontier arrangements under the Simla Convention with Lhasa proved to be a costly error of judgement. 

A mutually agreeable Indo-Tibetan re-affirmation of the Simla Agreement, prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 would certainly have proved to be an asset in countering Chinese claims in Tibet.

It would have at least removed from the equation the critical lacunae of the Indo-Tibetan border being demarcated but not delimited. As evident from Zhou En Lai’s 1959 letter to Nehru, China disingenuously used the Tibetan territorial claims made to Nehru to amplify its own territorial claims even as it rejected the Simla Agreement.

Security cooperation

It has been the worst kept secret that the Tibetan community in India was an important component of India’s Himalayan security policy. 

Since the India–China war of 1962, all Tibetans seeking refuge in India have been debriefed by Indian intelligence with the help of the Tibetan secret service under the control of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Tibetans were also run as agents in the past by independent India as the British did in their colonial period.

Ladakh, now a Union territory, shares a small but strategic border with the adjoining Tibetan Autonomous Region. Tibetans have been recruited into the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

While most of the present personnel are from lower Himalayan regions on the Indian side of the disputed border, recruitment is still done from the Tibetan refugee community in India.

When the political leadership of Tibetan refugees makes laden statements that have an impact on India’s internal affairs, it is incumbent that Indian citizens raise concerns.

What is troubling to many Indians is that these Tibetan refugees are being used in internal security duties in Chhattisgarh. There is an ongoing tribal insurgency which is ideologically Maoist.

Tibetan refugees have also been recruited into “Special Frontier Force (SFF), a covert Indian military unit largely comprising Tibetan refugees. It reportedly has about 3,500 soldiers”.

In 2020, the Chinese and many Indians were discomfited with the Tibetan flag laid alongside the Indian flag on the coffin of a dead soldier who had died in a mine blast.

The prayer wheel turned with the new Hindutva security leadership establishing itself with the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2014.

Rajnath Singh, the Indian defence minister’s bluff and bluster notwithstanding, India is afraid of China” says a subheading in a recent France 24 story.

It goes on to state: “New Delhi’s concerns are closer home, and the stakes are higher. India shares a contested 2,500-kilometre border with China and is haunted by its defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian war. 

Deadly border skirmishes have periodically erupted between the two countries and India is intensely aware of China’s superior military might.

It is arguably imperative that India does not allow the Tibetan exile leadership to play spoiler in the sensitive India–China negotiations and relations.

This article has been written in collaboration with the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre.

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