By Kingshuk Nag
Originally published in The Times of India, New Delhi, June 4, 2012
Tibet as a buffer state between India and China
On the 50th anniversary of the insult heaped by the Chinese in the border war of 1962, India must resolve to return the ‘compliment’. This should be done by reviewing the country’s Tibet policy and recognizing Tibet as being under the illegal occupation of the Chinese. An independent Tibet is not only a boon for Tibetans but also for India and Indians. Not only do Tibetans and Indians have cultural affinity but an independent Tibet will also act as a buffer state and keep the untrustworthy Chinese away from our northern borders.
The action has to be swift, because the Tibetans are fast becoming a minority in their own land. This is the result of huge migration into Tibet from mainland China – a process that got impetus after a direct rail line was laid to Lhasa in 2006. The extent of this migration can be gauged by the report of a US Senate team that visited Lhasa in 2010. It said that Lhasa did not look like a Tibetan town and resembled a Chinese city with Tibetan quarters. This shows how much the Tibetans have been pushed to the corner in their own land. The process of migration is fuelled by the exploitation of Tibet for its rich resources: an estimated $100 billion of different types of mineral deposits lie buried in Tibet. Iron ore, gold, zinc and copper are some of them. The Chinese are furiously exploiting these resources, with utter disregard to the fragile environment of Tibet, which is located at an average height of 15,000 feet (and therefore called the roof of the world). Nuclear wastes are also believed to be dumped in Tibet, whose peaceful people are being dislocated from their land too. The Tibetans are vehemently protesting against this ill treatment, but they are non-violent people who display their anger by sacrificing their own lives. In the last three years, more than 40 monks and nuns in the monasteries that dot Tibet have immolated themselves.
The Chinese are now setting up dams across the YarlungTsangpo that flows through Tibet into India – and is called the Brahmaputra here. Though these are run-of-the-river dams, the flow of water in the Brahmaputra will be affected and adversely impact life in Assam and Bangladesh. At a later stage the Chinese plan to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra to the Yangtze river and from there to the Yellow river to carry it to the north of China, which is water-starved. At least 10 major rivers in Asia, which flow through 11 nations, start from Tibet. These rivers include Indus, Sutlej, Mekong (which is the lifeline of Indochina), Salween (which flows into the Andaman Sea), Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Yellow river. About half of the population of Asia is dependent on rivers whose headwaters are located in Tibet. So in a century when wars are expected to be fought for water, whoever controls Tibet controls the rest of Asia.
The Chinese realized this long ago. Soon after China became communist, the so-called People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Tibet in 1950 to take control. And while PLA took over Tibet, all that the Indian government could do was to watch on and, in fact, give what is tantamount to tacit support. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, thought that the second half of the 20th century would mark an Asian resurgence led by India and China moving forward hand in hand. Under the influence of KM Pannikar, the Indian ambassador to China, he decided to look the other way when Tibet was being invaded in October 1950. This was in spite of a warning from home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who advised Nehru to the contrary in a long letter written on November 7, 1950. Shortly after, Patel died.
Before that Tibet was an independent country from 1913 onwards. All through history Tibet was only loosely tied with the Chinese. In some periods of history, the Chinese did have control over Tibet and in other periods the Tibetans were totally free. Even during the period when there was Chinese rule over Tibet, the control was loose and the Tibetans had significant autonomy. In fact, before 1911 when China became a republic the idea of China was not even properly conceptualized. When the Qing dynasty, which ruled over large parts of modern day China, fell in 1911, the Qing soldiers were actually escorted out of the Tibetan capital Lhasa.
In 1914, the foreign secretary of British India, Henry McMahon, called for a conference between India, Tibet and China to demarcate India’s borders with Tibet and Tibet’s borders with China. At the time, the British were playing what is called a ‘great game’ with Russia in central Asia and as Russia was expanding southwards, the British wanted to control them. Demarcating the borders was part of the British plan to contain the Russians. In the event, the Chinese after initially reaching the agreement failed to sign it. They had problems with the border demarcation of China and Tibet, called the Inner Tibet line. They had no objection to the Outer Tibet line, which marked the borders between India and Tibet (after the 1914 agreement, it is called the McMahon line).
Under this Simla convention India set up a mission (which after independence was like a full-fledged embassy) in Lhasa. It was allowed to keep a chain of guesthouses in Minsar principality near Mt Kailas and Manasarovar lake, which was frequented by Indian pilgrims. But after the Chinese entered Tibet, Nehru downgraded the mission to the level of consulate, which was closed in 1962. In 1954, the Nehru government made the cardinal mistake of recognizing Tibet as a part of China. While doing so, the government failed to insist with the Chinese that at least as a quid pro quo, they ratify the Simla convention. Nehru disregarded the advice of his senior ministers like Govind Ballabh Pant, Morarji Desai and even senior officials of the foreign ministry. A few years later, the Chinese bared their fangs and, disregarding “Hindi-Chini bhaibhai”, invaded parts of India. The rest is history. Gradually growing stronger economically, China is now trying to encircle India, propping up nations like Pakistan and even Burma and Nepal. It is time India took up the cudgels and to begin with derecognized Tibet as part of China. Interestingly, last fortnight India sought a consulate general in Lhasa against the Chinese request for a consular office in Chennai. Reports indicate that the Chinese were in for a shock.
Actually India should have learnt from the Soviets. As Tibet lies in the south of China on India’s border, there is Mongolia on the north of China on Russia’s border. The Chinese had designs on Mongolia (and control part of it called Inner Mongolia) for long till the USSR started offering protection. Thus Mongolia became an independent nation and has always remained in the Soviet and later Russian camp. India’s policy towards Tibet should be similar.