Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tibet, China, India: The Lies and the Facts

The Dalai Lama is a wonderful chap. He is wise and full of good humour and has led a peaceful resistance movement for half a century. His antagonist, the Chinese government, is hard to sympathise with. The regime has committed gross crimes in the past and continues to deny its citizens certain basic human rights. It is not surprising, then, that the Dalai Lama's cause finds favour across the globe. The demand for Tibetan independence, unfortunately, is backed by arguments that twist history, misinform the public and are on occasion willfully deceptive.

Greater Tibet
Take a close look at this image. It is the map of Tibet according to the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala. This is the area that the organisation led by Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, wants to liberate from Chinese rule.
The map will mean little even to most who actively proselytise the cause of Tibetan independence, so let me explain its implications. The area which is generally known to the world as Tibet is the bit in yellow, the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The other provinces on the map never had Tibetan majorities and were never under Tibetan rule apart from a brief period when Tibet became an imperial power, and controlled, also, a large swathe of areas now within the Indian republic. It is absurd for the Tibetan government-in-exile to claim that all of these regions, which constitute together a fourth of the total area of the People's Republic of China, belong in an independent Tibetan state. Is it any wonder that the Chinese government looks upon the Dalai Lama not as a holy man desirous of gaining autonomy for his province but as a dangerous secessionist?

Tibet as an independent nation
"As recently as 1914, a peace convention was signed by Britain, China and Tibet that again formally recognised Tibet as a fully independent country." The sentence I have quoted is from the introduction to Tibet's history on the government-in-exile's website. It is an outright lie, and the fact that the Dalai Lama has done nothing to alter it in all these years makes me think less of him. Media reports favourable to the separatist cause invariably quote the 1914 treaty as ground for considering Tibet a once-independent state.
Before 1914, all agreements regarding Tibet's boundaries were signed between Britain and the Qing emperor, proving that Britain did not consider Tibet an independent nation. In 1914, when the Qing empire had crumbled, a conclave was held in Simla between representatives of British India, Tibet and the weak new Chinese government. The final draft agreement provided for Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, and marked boundaries between China, Outer Tibet (more or less what is today the Tibetan Autonomous Region) and British India.
The first lie Tibetan activists tell, then, is that the treaty defined Tibet as a "fully independent country". The 1914 document cannot possibly be interpreted to mean any such thing, containing as it does the sentence, "Tibet forms part of Chinese territory". The Chinese envoy, moreover, rejected the draft. The second lie in the government-in-exile's statement is that all three parties signed on to the deal.
In 1914, Britain had an extant agreement with Russia, which included a commitment that all agreements about Tibet would be signed with China. Since the Chinese did not sign the Simla agreement, London believed it contravened the Anglo-Russian pact. As a result, Britain itself did not publish the accord as an official document till the Anglo-Russian treaty ended in 1938. The basis of Tibet's claim to independence, then, rests on an agreement that did not offer Tibet sovereignty, was not signed by China, and rejected for decades by the very power that drafted it, Britain.

Arunachal Pradesh
The recent diplomatic spat between China and India was sparked by the Dalai Lama's trip to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, an area China has never accepted as a settled part of India. Tawang has an interesting history. The boundaries drawn by the British in the late 19th century placed all of Arunachal in Tibet. Later on, British India moved north, but Tawang stayed a part of Tibet. Only in the 1914 agreement was the boundary of British India shifted further to swallow up Tawang. China, remember, never signed on to the agreement. The dispute over boundaries was central to its refusal to sign. The man who drafted the accord was Lieutenant-Colonel Henry McMahon, and the boundary he drew is called the McMahon line. It was a classic colonial land grab. Unfortunately, after 1950, the independent republic of India, which repudiated similar land grabs where they were found inconvenient, took the position that McMahon's border was the settled international boundary between India and China.
China was willing to talk the issue through, but after India gave the Dalai Lama asylum in 1959, relations between the nations soured, eventually leading the Chinese to undertake a land grab of their own. During the 1962 war, Chinese forces overran Arunachal, and India's military fled pretty much all the way to Calcutta. Afterwards, however, China voluntarily withdrew from almost all the areas it occupied, including Tawang.
In an impassioned editorial page article in the Times of India last week, the activist Tenzin Tsundue wrote, "For India to keep Arunachal, based on the McMahon Line, the only choice is to recognise Tibet's independence. It cannot legitimise the McMahon Line border otherwise." His argument is that, while McMahon's boundary is unjust (Tawang ought really to be in Tibet), the 1914 accord, signed by the 13th Dalai Lama's envoy, commits any future Tibetan government to respect that border, something China will never do.
I believe the opposite is true. The current Chinese regime is open to a final settlement of the international border with minor adjustments. Their forces have had control of Tawang in the past and withdrawn. India is helped by the fact that the citizens of Arunachal Pradesh have no great love for China. The situation would change radically if Tibet became a sovereign republic. Historically, geographically, culturally, linguistically, Tawang is closer to Lhasa than to Delhi. Instantly, secessionist movements would arise in Arunachal and Sikkim demanding to be part of the newly created Tibetan nation. At that point, a number of Tibetan officials would doubtless discover that the 1914 accord was, in fact, imposed by a brutal colonial regime, and must therefore be rejected.


shivani said...

....and completely agree with u here.

Aditya Baliga said...

Excellent piece! Enlightening!

DS said...

Always felt that the Dalai Lama was a great spiritual leader and a jolly one at that but an ineffective political one and that Tibet and it's existence is finally a political problem. Can a spiritual leader also be a political craftsman? Therein lies the problem.

Nice read, didn't know all the origins of the claims and lines drawn so thanks for the research.

adrian mckinty said...

This may seem petty (ok it is petty) but I wish the Dalai Lama would ask his monks not to throw their garbage everywhere in the town where they've been guests for fifty years.

Sanjay said...

Tibet's claim as an independent nation (distinct culture) originates predates 1914 - right?. The TAR does look a little large :-) probably based on historical size of territory or influence. A future government of an independent Tibet.... yeah right!!

Anonymous said...

really well written . i think n ram has also been making much the same point. as for india and arunachal , shekar gupta recently wrote that if we didnt want to be another mexico - whose citizens voluntarily move to neighbouring USA, we need to recognise some realities out there. Else, the ppl of AP and much of the NE will secede if need be without their land. s anand

Girish Shahane said...

Shivani, Aditya, SA, thank you! DS, I agree absolutely that the religion-politics problem is central to the Tibetan issue. The Dalai Lamas were historically both religious and political leaders; Tibet, in other words, was a theocracy. That's why the appointment of each Dalai Lama had to be approved by the Chinese emperor. In fact the word, 'Dalai' is not Tibetan but Mongolian, because the title 'Dalai Lama' was first bestowed by a Mongol ruler.
Adrian, maybe the monks throw garbage everywhere as part of their effort to integrate with the natives.
Sanjay, Tibet certainly is a distinct culture, few people deny that. But Tamil Nadu is a distinct culture as well, and was once the centre of an empire as great as any that has flourished out of Lhasa. Being a separate nation-state is something quite different from being a distinct culture, right?

Sanjay said...

WIkipedia says that 'SongtsÃĪn Gampo (604–50 CE)' was a king of an independent nation state. Anyway going by historical basis for nation states, Mongolia would be the largest country on earth, certainly with huge swathes of China and erstwhile Soviet territories included.

Girish Shahane said...

Sanjay, my point is that nation-states did not exist in the 7th century AD. If we include past empires within the definition of nation-states then, as you say with regard to the extensive Mongol empire, there will be overlapping claims for pretty much all the territory on earth.
It is true that Tibet was ruled independently for the period you mention; but for the last millennium it has been under Chinese control (I include the Mongol dynasties that ruled China in my definition of 'Chinese control'). Surely the past 1200 years count for something :)

Anonymous said...

The Tibetan parts of Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan are very much Tibetan majority. For this reason, these areas are Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures within their larger provincial contexts.

Qinghai is a slightly different story. It is huge and much of the land it covers is Tibetan majority. Qinghai also happens to include the city of Xining in the far NE which is an enormous metropolitan area containing nearly half the population of the province. Qinghai's NE also contains other ethnic groups such as the Hui, Mongols and Salars. But that big splash of red that is Qinghai is chock full of Tibetans and administratively, the Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures cover the better part of it.

Check out the work of sociologist Andrew Fischer for this part of NW China.

globalbabble said...

My knowledge of Tibet-China conflict is largely based on the film "Seven Years in Tibet". If Tibet was always under Chinese domination, why was there the need for China to send their military in, or for the Dalai Lama to flee?
Ok, ok. I'll read wikipedia.

Girish Shahane said...

Anonymous wrote: "The Tibetan parts of Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan are very much Tibetan majority." This is exactly the kind of obfuscation the pro-secession lobby likes, and is enough to impress foreigners who can't really be bothered doing their own research.
It is the same as saying, "The Tibetan parts of Dharamsala are Tibetan majority." The provinces, though, are not Tibetan majority, nor have they been ruled by Tibet for over a thousand years.
Globalbabble, do read Wikipedia, but consider also why we sent our army into Kashmir or the north-east.
The hero of Seven Years in Tibet was a nice Nazi, something the story failed to highlight for some reason.

Anonymous said...

It is very interesting for me to read the article. Thanks for it. I like such topics and everything connected to this matter. I would like to read a bit more soon.

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks, Anonymous! Hope I can find more of interest to say about the issue.
Actually, I'm waiting for some Friends of Tibet people to argue against what I've written. I got a lot of hate mail from them when I published an article along these lines in the Times of India a couple of years ago. Now the discussion is public, I wonder if they'd care to present their point of view.

Satish said...

Well argued, Girish. Certainly the Dalai lama is much cannier than the simple child-like saintly image which is popular in the mass media.

I am a bit baffled though, by one of your responses in the comments section:
"It is true that Tibet was ruled independently for the period you mention; but for the last millennium it has been under Chinese control (I include the Mongol dynasties that ruled China in my definition of 'Chinese control'). Surely the past 1200 years count for something :)"
By that rationale, since the East India Company & the british established their hegemony in india over 400 years, it undermines India's quest for freedom? How does a time slice from history give any legitimacy to Chinese rule over (admittedly disputed) areas of Tibet? The core issue is about giving people the chance to choose their rulers via a democratic process, which China has consistently denied.

Girish Shahane said...

Firstly, the dominion of the Company and the Raj didn't last anything close to 400 years. Secondly, the 1200 years I mentioned is not a "time slice". It extends without a break from 800AD to 2009. Thirdly, the Brits never thought of India as a part of Britain, so our quest for freedom was not a matter of contested boundaries.
As for China denying its people the right to choose their rulers, India has done pretty much the same thing, right? Have we allowed referendums in any province? At this point in a debate people always say, "India is democratic, so out case is different", but India's democracy has never extended to allowing people to make a choice about sovereignty. X or Y might win a state election through a democratic process, but the rulers will always sit in Delhi. Our democracy provides no route to changing that, even if a majority of a province's subjects desire it.

Sam said...

"Historically, geographically, culturally, linguistically, Tawang is closer to Lhasa than to Delhi."

Assuming you meant it in the context of Tibet's capital versus India's capital - I find that incorrect, and surprisingly unwitting given the very well researched and thought out argument.
Not that I do not agree with the rest of it, but having spent time in AP as well as with a lot of Tibetans, I have to posit that they have some similarities, but ultimately very different cultures. Someone with less knowledge about the history and culture might be able to discern that, but there are some fundamentally different philosophies at work between the common Arunachal Pradesh/Aksai Chin man and a Tibetan one.

Girish Shahane said...

And the differences, in your mind, are greater than those between a Tawang man and a Haryana or UP man? If so, I'd like some elaboration on what these differences are. A bit tough to respond when all you say is, 'I've seen 'em and they're different'.

Satish said...

So your position on Tibetians having the right choose their rulers is, "India is not allowing it, (assume that you're alluding to J&K & such like here), so why should the Chinese?"
Since when did India become the benchmark for what is essentially a basic human rights issue?
The Raj analogy: i know it was a bit absurd, but the intention was make the point that one can't use history - it has been like this for 200/800/1200 years, hence it cannot change - to justify what is clearly a denial of the right to freedom.

Girish Shahane said...

No, Satish, that's not my 'position', but I put that in because few Indians show any inclination to accept a Kashmiri right to self-determination, while being pretty enthusiastic about such a right when it comes to Tibetans.
The point of providing the history of Chinese dominion was to show that Tibet has never been an independent nation. Which is not to say it can never be that in the future. But since the contention of the government-in-exile is that their nation was independent until the Chinese invaded, it is relevant to show that this is untrue.
I'd like to ask you: since you say there exists "clearly a denial of the right to freedom" in the case of Tibet, would you say the same in the case of Kashmir? If not, why not?

Satish said...

Sorry to dissapoint, but there's no "If not". If & when Kashmiris get to choose on their soverignity, i'll be cheering!
I know what you mean, though.. i've known a few folks with Kashmir-Tibet contradiction syndrome too.

manish nai said...

Very nice piece Girish.
manish nai.

Girish Shahane said...

Manish, thanks! Satish, I'm not as strong a votary of straightforward referendums because they put nations on a slippery slope. There's no end to the number of ethnic groups demanding separate states in their little neck of the woods. It's a recipe for partitioning and re-partitioning without end. Like the Tamils in north-east Sri Lanka would get a vote on an independent homeland, so would Baluchis in Pakistan, Afghanistan would splinter into a dozen shards, the Kurds would break up Turkey, Iran and Iraq and so on.

Anonymous said...

Girish - thanks for a succinct and enlightening article. You just made me very interested in geopolitics - something which I avoid!

Can you (or maybe you already have) also shed light on aksai chin?

Girish Shahane said...

Aksai Chin was the other area disputed between China and India, apart from the region around Tawang. India considered it part of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir state, and China needed it as a link between Tibet and Xinjiang. India started printing maps showing Aksai Chin firmly within this country, China built a road that passed through the region. After the 1962 war, China withdrew from regions in Arunachal, but kept the land it had grabbed to the west, namely Aksai Chin.

satish said...

Yes Girish, I agree - It cannot be simple black or white decision else there will be no end.. I am not suggesting a universal pro/against postion on provincial soverignity. There are many unique complexities in each instance and there is no one size-fits-all answer. The minimum expectation however, would be to atleast seek a dialogue with those making the demand(something which China has not done).
At same time, the origins of a nation state itself are sometimes questionable - if someone more competent than Hari Singh had been ruling at the time, the Kashmir situation would have probably unfolded differently. On Kashmir , I am for giving them the choice. Of course, I have no clue of the geo-political or security implications of such a decision, beyond the layman's POV.

Girish Shahane said...

I'm with you on this, Satish. I wish India would make more serious efforts to resolve the Kashmir dispute, and also wish China would negotiate with the Dalai Lama.

Rita Putatunda said...

Hi - This is extremely interesting and you've certainly got me hooked :) - Do write more on other "disputed area" topics. Our regular media simply does not cover such topics, or, if they do, the writes are usually biased, one-sided, and with some agenda of the writer.

Sanjay said...

This self determination question - what are the choices we make available to people of 'X' province - a choice to stay with 'A', join country 'B', become independent, become smaller entities which each carry on 'self determining', join Brazil for the beaches, USA for super sized transfatty meals?? Do people currently staying in province 'x' have a right to the land? Maybe the invaded and stayed on, and eradicated the local populace - does that legitimize their ownership? Maybe the land has changed hands 7 times over the last 2890 years? Who owns it? Who cares? Pointless debate.
China and most other modern powers think or at least act in terms of national interest defined in economic and military terms. India by and large does not.

Girish Shahane said...

Of course, everybody knows we've been distributing our land and wealth for sixty years. See how much the nation has shrunk in comparison to its size when it became a republic.

Sanjay said...

Girish - Someday, I hope we are in a position to aid needy nations with 'wealth' - voluntarily! Anyway, to quote your example on Aksai Chin - we printed maps and the Chinese built roads which, in part, helped them militarily settle the issue later.

Girish Shahane said...

What you forget is that the Chinese needed to build roads to connect Tibet and Xinjiang; Aksai Chin was vital to their development; it meant nothing to India.
Of course, you are free to interpret and over-interpret all these facts to suit your particular view, as the foreign policy hawks have done.