The Tawang trail
The Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang has once again brought the Tibet question to the fore. Indeed, Tibet today has come to be China’s 50 year itch. Although Mao’s People’s Liberation Army overran this vast and largely barren land in 1949-1951 it was not until 1959 that things came to a head when a failed uprising forced the Tibetan people’s supreme spiritual and temporal head, the Dalai Lama and his followers to flee to India and seek political refuge. Ostensibly India allowed the Dalai Lama to set up a Tibetan Government in Exile within its territory out of humanitarian considerations, although it is arguable the concession was a tit-for-tat diplomacy as a way of paying back China for the sanctuary and training extended to the Naga guerrillas under the charismatic leader AZ Phizo. It is also now known that the CIA did have some hands in nudging India to do as it did, for the Americans were then on a global war against the spread of Communism. Lezlee Brown Halper’s recent “Tibet: The Unfinished Story” based on declassified CIA files says as much. There is however no gainsaying that the relations between two Asian giants plummeted to a nadir after 1962 when the Chinese army crossed the McMahon Line and virtually took over the entire Arunachal Pradesh, and reached Tezpur. The Indian Army withdrew from Assam thereafter to defend the mainland. This episode is remembered for what was purportedly the then Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, farewell to Assam “My heart goes out to Assam…etc..”. Of course we know this speech which is still a cause for a great deal of bitterness is a figment of imagination of spin doctors, perpetuated by endless repetition by very sloppy academics. Much water has flowed down the river Brahmaputra ever since, and a great deal of changes have happened in the relation between the two countries. Although it is unlikely a war will be fought between the two again, not only in fear of the unnecessary pains they would inflict on each other, but also for the fact that the two emerging economic giants stand to lose their unquestionable leadership in the new world economic order.
In this sense, the Tibet issue has not been an itch for China alone, but for India as well. Indeed, the ambiguity over the McMahon Line has a direct relation to the status of Tibet. It may be recalled how the McMahon Line came into being after the Simla Conference of 1913-1914 between the British India Government and Tibet. China was invited but it walked out saying Tibet was part of China and had no right to enter into an independent treaty with another country. In other words, it refused to recognize the McMahon Line from its inception. The Dalai Lama has never said it, but the more militant Tibetan Youth Congress, also based in Dharmasala in Himachal Pradesh where the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Government in Exile is situated, has time and again underscored that all India needs to do is to recognize Tibet as an independent state and Tibet would recognize the McMahon Line. It is however unimaginable India would ever do this.
Again, since ancient Tibet is defined more as a cultural domain, when this domain is translated into hard territory to fit the modern definition of a nation state, it includes as per the Tibetan’s own national imagination, not just a vast area now in China, but also Ladakh and Sikkim in India, and Bhutan among others. It may be recalled that it is on the basis of this claim of cultural contiguity that China still now raises heckle that Arunachal Pradesh should form part of its autonomous province of Tibet. Unfortunately, modern states are no longer defined by such terms any more. Otherwise, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and a greater part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire would be one state today. While we empathise with the plight of the Tibetans, it is difficult to even attempt a verdict on the issue. But from the perspective of peace and regional harmony, we see no other way than was suggested by an article in The Wall Street Journal, once. China must concede to comprehensive autonomy for its Tibet Autonomous Region, ensuring the protection of the distinct Tibetan identity both culturally and demographically. Reciprocally, the Tibetans must realise there is no real option to such a resolution and give up all their claims of sovereignty. The Dalai Lama has openly and on record, agreed to such an arrangement, and we see no reason why China should not drop its suspicion of the leader and explore the option earnestly.