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Tibet's second betrayal

by Trevor Mostyn, Prospect Magaznie, June 2008

Some Indians resent the presence of Tibetan refugees. Yet had India stood up to China's 1950 invasion of Tibet, the problem could have been averted

London, UK -- After having the world’s attention drawn to its shortcomings during the miserable odyssey of the Olympic torch, China bent over backwards to show its compassionate side in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake.

<< A Tibetan monk in a monastery in Dharamsala India. If the fashionable cynics of Delhi had their way, the little Tibet of Dharamsala/Mcleod Ganj would disappear and the Dalai Lama would be forced to leave again. Picture from Flickr

Yet the ghost of Tibet is unlikely to fade away before the August Olympics. The Dalai Lama’s 11-day visit to Britain has kept the plight of the Tibetans in the public eye, even if he is speaking here only on the art of happiness and has met the prime minister only in his capacity as a “religious leader.”

Yet back in India, where the Dalai Lama has been in exile since 1959, not everyone shares the west's warmth towards the Dalai Lama. The Delhi intelligentsia who weekend in the Himalayan hill station of Dehradun can be quite savage about Tibet’s spiritual leader. I thought it was a one-off when the wife of a successful entrepreneur told me that the Dalai Lama should “go home” to Tibet and that India could not afford to host roughly a hundred thousand indolent Tibetan refugees. But I heard this view expressed again and again by Indian journalists—and even by a retired general—along with praise, at India’s expense, for China’s economic success.

I suggested that India, unlike China, enjoyed democracy and a political system of checks and balances. Is it not significant, I asked, that the leader of India’s ruling Congress party is a Roman Catholic (Sonia Gandhi) and its prime minister a Sikh (Manmohan Singh)? And that until recently, its president was a Muslim (Abdul Kalam)? China, by contrast, is governed by a group of about nine anonymous men within the National People’s Congress. But my arguments fell on deaf ears.

In April, after unrest had broken out in Lhasa, I met Samdhong Rinpoche, the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile, in Dharamsala’s “Little Tibet,” with its cheerful Buddhist monasteries surrounded by the white peaks of the Himalayas. Samdhong had fled Tibet for India in 1959, shortly after the Dalai Lama. Edward Heath, I reminded him, had once told the Dalai Lama that Tibetans inside Tibet had forgotten their spiritual leader. On the contrary, Samdhong told me, the world was witnessing a fourth generation of young Tibetans rise up against the occupation. Like the Dalai Lama, however, he rejects violent action.

What about the Indian resentment I had witnessed towards the Tibetans the country harbours? “After 1,300 years, Buddhism has been brought back to India, the place of its birth,” Samdhong told me. He counters complaints that India cannot afford to employ and feed its own people, let alone poor Tibetan refugees. He believes the refugees are only unpopular in areas in Delhi where there is fierce competition for jobs.

Does Tibet have a future? Surely, I say, with Tibet being repopulated by Han Chinese, Buddhism maintained only as a folkloric anachronism, 90 per cent of Tibet’s monasteries destroyed during the cultural revolution of the 1960s and any rebellion ruthlessly crushed by Chinese troops, the prospects are bleak. Yet Samdhong told me he believes that China will in time “grow up” and face its responsibilities to the Tibetans. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama will remain a focus for Tibet’s identity.

India itself was eventually made to pay for China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950. Even if it could not have stopped the attack, India should never have recognised China’s claim to Tibet. Pandit Nehru’s self-image as the world’s great non-aligned leader allowed him to be beguiled by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai into fighting for communist China’s place at the UN at the very moment China was preparing to invade Tibet.

Tibet itself had chosen isolation, and never applied for UN membership. And in rejection of worldly attachment, it had ignored its own mineral wealth rather than encouraging the west to exploit it and, presumably, protect Tibet from China’s greed. The British Raj had always recognised the value of Tibet as a buffer state between India and Russia, but Nehru, flushed with independence and his beloved non-aligned ideology, put commitment before strategy.

India’s Brigadier John Dalvi says in his book Himalayan Blunder that Nehru failed to understand China’s weakness at the time of the Tibet invasion. China was not particularly strong in 1950, and was embroiled in the Korean war. However, Nehru failed to realise his monumental folly until 1962, when China invaded Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India from Tibet in an attempted land grab.

The Sino-Indian war was to be a disaster for India. Ever the democrat and the public school gentleman, Nehru was convinced that China would behave correctly. Under the influence of the politically correct socialism of defence minister Krishna Menon, India largely refused US guns or equipment produced by the private sector. Consequently the army sent out by Nehru to defend against the Chinese invasion was hopelessly ill prepared. Indian troops fell into a series of traps, not least when Chinese troops sat out icy weeks in comfortable stolen monasteries while Indian troops froze in snow-bound huts. The war ended when China, having successfully captured the disputed area, declared a unilateral ceasefire.

But the war failed to solve the territorial dispute. The Indian army would now be forever on the alert, an economically disastrous situation for a newly independent country struggling against massive poverty. These days, China’s border claims on India are made in the name of Buddhist Tibet, the very country it seized in the name of atheist communism. These claims are based on areas of Arunachal Pradesh, such as the Tawang corridor, which have close Buddhist links with Tibet but which are also strategically valuable.

Photographs of the mutilated bodies of the Tibetan victims of Chinese repression cover the streets of Mcleod Ganj, the Dalai Lama’s northern part of Dharamsala, and two cages of hunger-strikers, one for men and one women, stand outside the Tsuglagkhang temple complex.

Huge torchlight processions wind their ways through the narrow streets of the bazaar to end with prayers in the Tsuglagkhang. New monasteries sprout in the hills above, led to by pilgrim forest paths whose trees flutter with coloured pennants. But if the fashionable cynics of Delhi had their way, the little Tibet of Dharamsala/Mcleod Ganj would disappear and the Dalai Lama would be forced to leave again.

Trevor Mostyn runs the journalist fellowship programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University

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