Hotel Norbu House at Mcleodganj, Dharamshala, is at almost the same altitude as that of His Highness (HH) Dalai Lama’s official residence. The hotel also has a similar perspective of the majestic snow-capped Dhauladhar range that the Tibetan leader, who lives in isolation and in exile, Instagrammed in November last year. This does not really mean that most Tibetans, who revere the Dalai Lama dearly, share his views about the homeland, China and the country that has given them refuge — India.
The views of Tibetans — mostly young — have crystallized further during the long 2020 stand-off between India and China that involved, first, the ugly spat between Indian and Chinese troops at Galwan, second, the use of Tibetan fighters in occupying some crucial heights in Northern Ladakh, and, lastly, the unexplicable retreat by the two sides from some of the prominent features of the region. This writer heard many voices of young Tibetans processing the outcome of the happenings in Northern Ladakh where more than a million troops were in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation for a year.
“We, Tibetans, shed blood for India during this stand-off, but, now, in the name of peace, we hope our interests are not forsaken again,” complained a young woman. She is an articulate votary for change. She feels that the policy of the exiled community — towards their homeland – must decisively change.
“Now, we must demand independence for Tibet, rather than autonomy within China that Dalai Lama has been seeking,” she asserted.
The Chinese have always anticipated and feared the radical expression of these strong sentiments by the emerging Tibetan leadership and the new generation, and the support it may garner from its enemies. They have thereby taken steps to progressively decimate this threat. Chinese strategic leaders have always perceived Tibet as the backdoor to attack China, or, as Tibetans would beautifully describe, that Tibet is like the lips to get to the throat and the body.
It must be recalled that the forced occupation of Tibet by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1959 compelled Dalai Lama to go into exile. The Indian government, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, gave refuge to the Tibetan-Buddhists and also allowed a Tibetan government in exile.
The rapid and unprecedented rise of China in terms of global influence and the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative diminished the political and moral space for Tibetan Buddhists. India, due to its soaring trade with China and its efforts to buy peace, drove the Tibetans to a corner so that they could have no influence on its neighbour. Every time a Chinese leader visited Delhi, all the Tibetan Buddhist protestors were chased out or put behind bars.
So much so, a few years ago, when Dalai Lama wanted to lead the celebration of the exiled community to thank India for giving them refuge, the foreign ministry instructed all government officials to stay away from the event — lest it antagonizes the Chinese. This was after the stand-off between the two countries at Doklam, Bhutan, in 2016.
AT ONE POINT, scores of meetings between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed to help the two governments get over nagging diplomatic niggles. More so, India-China used the multilateral forums of BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation (SCo) to iron out the glitches between the two countries. These multilateral arrangements were premised on the belief that the neighbours can sort out their issues without giving ‘outsiders’ the opportunity to meddle in their affairs.
Jinping gave an impression that a deal has been apparently struck with India to sort out long-standing boundary issues. Also, that India will not get into a military alliance with the US. However, after August 5, 2019, and the abrogation of Article 370 that changed the status of Kashmir and Ladakh, the Chinese government began to have major misgivings about the Indian government’s intentions. They also read deeper into the belligerent statement by Union Home Minister Amit Shah about fighting till the last drop to take over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir that includes Aksai Chin, which is under Chinese control.
Indeed, for China, these were categorical expressions of dangerous ambitions on the part of the current Indian dispensation in Delhi led by Modi. For China, this could undermine its security and hence the viability of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which culminates in Kashgar, barely 600 kilometers from the Indian city of Leh in Ladakh.
All the fears that the Chinese have had since the Tibetan crisis blew up in 1959 seemed to have returned to haunt Beijing. The amassing of troops and heavy weapons at Eastern Ladakh is a manifestation of this paranoia to pre-empt the Indian army so that it cannot engage in any kind of alleged adventurism encouraged by the United States.
Interestingly, the evidence of intrusion by the Chinese into Pangong Tso and Depsang of Daulat Beg Oldy (DBO) — all emanated from US-based satellites. The Indian government was loathe to even admit that the Chinese troops had occupied our territory. Modi did not mention the name of China – even once — as an intruder. He referred the whole issue in a round-about manner pointing towards it metaphorically as an ‘expansionist’ power.
However, another aspect has become crystal clear in the simmering conflict and the stand-off. Apart from other contentious issues, the use of Tibetan troops of the Special Frontier Force or Establishment 32 has made it amply clear that the next war, if it ever takes place, might actually be over Tibet.
This realization has electrified the Tibetan exile community that has seen its numbers fall over the years. Its Tibetan Reception Centre in Dharamshala has had no Tibetan refugee since 2008 when the Chinese shut down their borders. What is worse, more Tibetans are either returning to China, or, moving to the West.
The decision of the Karmapa Lama to take up the citizenship of Dominica had given an impression that Tibetans are not so keen anymore to keep alive its antagonism towards China. Influential strategic affairs experts feel that India was giving up its strategic leverage over China by giving up the Tibetan-Buddhism cause. Even now, there is no clarity when the Karmapa will come back to India. His followers are hoping that the home ministry will soften its attitude towards the young Tibetan Buddhist leader.
The withdrawal of the troops from the Indo-China border is a matter of relief for the people of the region. However, ironically, the Tibetan-Buddhists feel that their cause for freedom gets ignored whenever the two countries talk about peace.
However, the exiled community is drawing strength from the US State Department which has made it clear that it will not countenance any role for China in choosing Dalai Lama’s successor. Washington’s aggressive attitude towards Beijing as conveyed during the leadership summit of Quad gives hope to the exiled community that they will continue to be a big factor in this territorial confrontation building between China and the western world with India as an unwilling partner.
However, the uncanny question remains: so how will India choose to resolve this?