India wakes to a Tibetan headache
DHARAMSALA, India - Within hours of the violence and vandalism breaking out last Friday in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, the township of Dharamsala, nestled against the Indian Himalayas, was spruced up like an Old Dame anticipating a shipload of boisterous sailors who just docked at the port after months of seafaring.
The township is the seat of the Tibetan so-called "government-in-exile", presided over by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader and temporal head of the 8,000-strong Tibetan community living here. (Dharamsala, also called "Little Lhasa", literally means "Rest House" and was established in 1849 by the British rulers of India as a garrison town.)
The Dalai Lama would have reason to be satisfied with the attention he is receiving from the hordes of Western media persons who have descended on Dharamsala in the past 24 hours. He has become a revitalized cause celebre in the international media ever since Lhasa erupted into violence. He scheduled a special conference on Sunday afternoon, after the big sharks of the Western media arrived. The occasion was pregnant with possibilities. At the conference, the Dalai Lama launched a tirade against the Chinese authorities. Most important, he point-blank refused to make any appeal for calm in Tibet in the worst unrest in Tibet for nearly two decades.
Protests spread from Tibet into three neighboring provinces on Sunday as Tibetans continued to defy a Chinese government crackdown. Angry demonstrations broke out in Tibetan communities in Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces.
The Tibetan capital of Lhasa was tense on Monday ahead of a midnight deadline for people who took part in the violent anti-Chinese uprising to surrender or face severe punishment. Tibetan officials say 16 people have died and dozens wounded in the violence, although other estimates put the figure much higher.
The Dalai Lama said, "The situation in Tibet has become volatile, and only a miracle power can control it, not me."
He seems to realize this may well be his last waltz. The potential for embarrassing China - and in particular, President Hu Jintao, who once headed the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet - has never been as great as in the runup to the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in August. The Dalai Lama accused China of unleashing a "cultural genocide" in Tibet and demanded an international probe. But, he said, "We want genuine autonomy and not independence [from China]."
Tibet has suddenly sailed into view. Violence has erupted in Lhasa after a gap of two full decades. Such large-scale violence was last witnessed in 1987. How much of the violence on Friday was pre-planned or orchestrated from outside Tibet, it is difficult to assess from Dharamsala. The Chinese authorities have alleged that the "Dalai Lama clique" instigated the violence. But one thing stands out.
The complete coordination with which the apparatus of the Tibetan "government-in-exile" has sprung into high-quality action on the political and propaganda front leaves little doubt that it was at the very minimum anticipating Friday's eruption. Tibetan activists here are more forthcoming. They darkly hinted they were indeed expecting the disturbances. But they refuse to elaborate how they knew or who their collaborators were or what they did with what they knew.
Set against the Himalayan peaks which still wear a brooding wintry look sprinkled with powdery snow, the Dalai Lama's palace and its surroundings provide a stunning location for a drama-filled political cause that mixes liberation theology yet defaces communism.
A dozen handsome-looking Tibetan youth with flowing hair and bold headbands spread the red Chinese national flags on the streets of Dharamsala and trample on them with a couple of Indian policemen silently watching. A shed has been erected at the gates of the Dalai Lama's palace where a "relay fast" is observed by Tibetan activists protesting against China's governance of Tibet.
Western television cameras eagerly lap up the images for beaming them to drawing rooms in Europe and North America. The Dalai Lama's palace basks in the warm spring sunshine of Western attention.
There is much excitement in the air in Dharamsala as the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is expected in this Himalayan hamlet on Tuesday. It seems she is not having a stopover in Iraq and Afghanistan but is heading straight for Dharamsala. Pelosi took the initiative of arranging a Congressional medal for the Dalai Lama a few months ago, which China robustly protested. Beijing warned the George W Bush administration that such unfriendly acts could cast shadows on US-China relations.
The Dalai Lama insisted at the press conference that Pelosi's trip was long scheduled. He described her as an old friend. But her visit nonetheless comes at an awkward time for India. Delhi has adopted an attitude of "see no evil, hear no evil". But it remains to be seen whether the Chinese are impressed.
Actually, a delicate three-way diplomatic tango is likely commencing - involving the US and China, with India providing the turf - which can only turn out to be messy for India. There is an old African saying that when elephants clash, the grass gets crushed. China would see a pattern insofar as steadily through recent months, sections of the Indian corporate media, which have been traditionally known to serve as mouthpieces of American regional policy, have been on overdrive stirring up dust in India-China relations.
Influential voices in the Indian strategic community have also jumped into the fray, including former diplomats who served at the highest level in the Indian foreign policy establishment and are close to the ruling Congress party. Their plea is that Tibet is at the core of India's intractable border dispute with China. They claim China is displaying the iron in its soul by pressing its claims in the border dispute. According to them, China is deliberately "provoking" India because it is in no mood to settle the border dispute with Delhi until Beijing has "subdued" Tibet on its terms. They see the odds as heavily favoring China in its current shadow boxing with India, whereas, Tibet is Delhi's only leverage.
At the same time, there has been a pro-US shift in Indian foreign-policy orientations in general in recent years. The present government has worked hard to harmonize its regional policies with the US policy almost across the board. It has left virtually no stone unturned - be it over Kosovo, the Palestinian problem or Afghanistan.
From this perspective, the strong Indian reaction to the Lhasa violence assumes significance. First, it is not clear whether an Indian reaction was warranted on an issue which is patently China's internal matter. The question is of diplomatic propriety - and not the rights and wrongs of what took place in Lhasa. Second, Delhi cannot adopt double standards. Delhi is not going to be amused if any world capital makes it a point to begin pronouncing on incidents of violence that rock India from time to time. Delhi used to show irritation whenever Pakistan took note of Hindu-Muslim violence in India.
The Indian Foreign Ministry expressed its "distress" over the "unsettled situation and violence" in Lhasa. It called on "all those involved" (meaning, Tibetan agitators as well as Chinese authorities) to "improve the situation and remove causes of such trouble in Tibet".
Without doubt, Delhi has chosen to be prescriptive on an internal matter of China. But it can boomerang, even if it pleases Washington in the present instance. Ironically, news just trickled in that the 60-member Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) passed a resolution by consensus at its summit meeting in Dakar, Senegal, on Friday expressing "concern about the long-lingering, oldest unresolved dispute of Kashmir" and underscoring the organization's support of the Kashmiri people's right of self-determination.
The Indian Foreign Ministry promptly dismissed the OIC statement, saying, "The OIC has no locus standi [standing] in matters concerning India's internal affairs, including Jammu and Kashmir, which is an integral part of India. We [Indian government] strongly reject all such comments," the Indian Foreign Ministry pointed out.
Of course, Delhi did the right thing. No government in Delhi will countenance a dilution of India's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Equally, the central issue is whether the Dharamsala folks have a future. Indian strategists are exceedingly foolish to pretend Delhi holds a "Tibet card". A visit to Dharamsala will at once bring them face-to-face with the sobering reality that the Tibetan community here faces disarray once the 73-year-old Dalai Lama departs from the scene. He dominates the landscape with his sheer physical presence.
While hundreds of Tibetan demonstrators marched in the town center on Sunday, local Indians went on with their daily lives. The Indians and the Tibetan Buddhists live in water-tight compartments in Dharamsala. Even after 49 years, they hardly intermix. The Indians complain that the relatively more affluent Tibetan "refugees" are disdainful. This is especially so among second-generation Tibetans who otherwise feel comfortable with the Western nationals who throng to this exotic town in the Himalayas for a variety of reasons.
The local Indians complain wealthy Tibetans are buying up property at fancy prices. No matter what Indian strategists in their ivory towers may write, Tibet is not a "popular" issue among ordinary Indians. Therefore, there is a touch of surreality about the whole situation. There is a "civilizational" angle insofar as Indians are largely indifferent towards Buddhism. Western nationals throng the Buddhist monasteries in Dharamsala curious to know about Tibetan medicine, yoga, mysticism and of course Buddhist philosophy. But there are hardly any Indians to be seen in the monasteries except the odd tourist escaping the heat of the Indian plains.
The sad reality of Indian history is that the country gave birth to Buddhism, but in the name of "Hindu revivalism", it subsequently decimated Buddhism and ruthlessly removed all traces of it from the Indian cultural consciousness, though Buddhism still remains the finest flower of the Indian civilization in a philosophical sense.
It, therefore, becomes difficult for ordinary Indians to champion the issue of Tibet. The issue needs to be "oxygenated" in Indian opinion constantly, which is eventually bound to become tedious. But that is looking ahead. For the present, a lot of money is undoubtedly pouring into this little town under the rubric of "donations".
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).