India and Tibet: A Game of Chinese Checking

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    The arrival of the 14th Dalai Lama in India in 1959 as he fled the Chinese occupation of Tibet set in motion a complicated, sometimes forceful, sometimes indolent reaction by India. It ranged from attempting to push China back along India’s border with Tibet to assisting a Tibetan resistance movement, to a capitulation in 2003. But the Tibet Card, with all its implications and geopolitical fantasies, still remains a fantasy option in India’s China deck of cards.

    In April 2008, in the course of researching an article on Tibetans in India, I visited the Bureau of the Dalai Lama in New Delhi to submit formal requests for interviews with both the Dalai Lama and the head of the Tibetan council of ministers at the time, the Kalon Tripa, Samdhong Rinpoche.

    I had not even returned to my office when I received a call on my mobile from an unknown number. The man on the other side cheerfully introduced himself as a volunteer who could facilitate my visit to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, and further uphill to McLeodganj—the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. He also offered to arrange an interview with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.

    During our meeting in a coffee shop in New Delhi’s Khan market, the friendly Indian stranger offered to escort me to McLeodganj and Dharamshala, arrange meetings with the senior functionaries of the Tibetan government-in-exile as well as non-government Tibetan activists, including, he lowered his voice and leaned forward, “some other people”.

    Some other people? I asked.

    Hushing me, he whispered, “Chinese spies are all over. I will explain when we go there.” He had assumed that I had accepted his offer.

    How could I not? We quickly tied up our plans over the next two days. He also managed to get the go-ahead for the interview with the Kalon Tripa upon my return to Delhi from McLeodganj. As a non-official, he had very impressive traction with the Bureau of the Dalai Lama.

    True to his word, the visit was both fruitful and exciting. I met several government functionaries, monks, the head of the refugee camp, retired soldiers of the Special Frontier Force (SFF) and a veteran of the brief armed resistance on the Nepal-Tibet border in an area called Mustang. More on all of this a little later.

    In the three days that we were there, the Indian volunteer to the Tibetan cause frequently pointed to strangers on the streets of McLeodganj variously as a Chinese spy, American spy, British spy and so on.

    The mystery behind the crawling spies in McLeodganj was solved on my last evening there.

    We were sitting in a café at the end of the single road that snaked through the township facing the Dhauladhar range, waiting for a mysterious visitor. The Tibetan gentleman arrived just as I was getting impatient. Tall and lean, he was gaunt and a bit nervous. He refused to give his name. My escort urged him to tell me what he wanted to. But the visitor remained silent. Then he blurted out, “We are ready.”

    “Ready?” I looked from him to my escort. My escort looked very pleased. “Ready for what?” I asked.

    “Ready for everything,” he replied. “We are ready to march to Lhasa if His Holiness asks us to,” he said. “But we will only wait for some time for His Holiness’s orders. If he does not give them, we will go anyway.”

    Through his broken half-sentences, I understood that he was talking about waging an insurrection in Tibet. According to him, people on the Tibetan Plateau were ready and waiting for people like him to march into Lhasa. They would join in the rebellion.

    What about preparedness? Training? Weapons?

    Pointing towards the thickly forested Dhauladhar range, he said, “We have been training.”

    Who is training you?

    At this point, my escort took over the conversation. “There are some people, some Austrians who are training them in the mountains. When the time comes, we will get weapons also.”

    I was amused by this drop of pretence by my escort, but I pretended to remain interested in the conversation. Our drive back to Delhi was long, and by now there was familiarity between us. Finally, he mentioned that he was a full-time volunteer with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) who had been working with the Tibetans. Given the scope of my visit, it was clear that he had influence over many official functionaries—some of whom he humoured, and some he manipulated.

    Caught Between Geostrategy and Cultural History

    Ever since European explorers became aware of a remote Himalayan plateau in the mid-17th century, it has been a land of contested strategic importance and breathless fantasies—a mysterious haven of unimaginable beauty and bounty. India’s relationship with Tibet has been caught between geostrategy and cultural history. Consequently, it has been sporadic and fanciful, rather than consistent and pragmatic.

    The only consistent aspect of India’s outreach to the idea of Tibet has been the engagement of the RSS, which, driven by the notion of Buddhism being an Indian-origin religion, considers Tibet as part of the larger India. The fact that Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar are located in Tibet and revered by both Buddhists and Hindus only reinforces the idea of one nation. In this, the RSS is encouraged by the Tibetans themselves.

    In his interview with me, the Kalon Tripa, Professor Samdhong Rinpoche said, “I feel that India has more logic to claim Tibet as its territory than China, which has no logic at all. Our religion, language and culture are of Indian origin… So, if Indians claim Tibet as a part of this country, we will have a difficult time arguing otherwise.”

    He added, “We do not have any long history with China, whereas we do have a history with India. From China, the only thing that we have imbibed is our culinary system… everything else about the Tibetan culture is of Indian origin. In India, organisations like the RSS and Tibet Swaraj have always supported the cause of Tibetan independence.”

    When the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, the first priority of the exiled community was to hold itself together, body and soul. Survival was of utmost importance. Moreover, for a semi-literate, impoverished and hapless community, there was no future roadmap at the time. The Tibetan fate was more in the hands of outside powers, especially the United States and, to a lesser extent, India, with Taiwan and the Soviet Union also trying to pitch in with advice and offers of support. Over time, the Tibetans realised that the support was not so much for them or the Dalai Lama; it was to test the mettle and resolve of the communist-led People’s Republic of China (PRC).

    However, for a time, all foreign help was welcome. This was ironic. For centuries, Tibetan leaders had shunned outsiders, fearing that their influence would corrupt the society—a practice the Dalai Lama came to regret. In a conversation with author Pico Iyer, he had said, “Our worst mistake, our greatest mistake, was being isolated from the world.” This probably was the reason why the world has been ambivalent as far as Tibet’s independent status vis-à-vis China.

    When, in October 1950, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began making inroads into Tibet, the United States reached out to the Tibetans in an effort to thwart the expansion of Communism. Through some American missionaries based in the Amdo region of Tibet, the American Committee for Free Asia (which later morphed into Asia Foundation, a part of the newly-created Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA), reached out to the Dalai Lama’s older brother Thubten Jigme Norbu (Taktser Rinpoche). Norbu had escaped his monastery to save himself from the invading PLA troops and settled in Kalimpong in the Indian state of West Bengal. Here he met some Americans who invited him to the US to settle down.

    With Norbu settled in the US, his interlocutors invited his younger brother, Gyalo Thondup (the only brother of the Dalai Lama who didn’t become a monk) to study at Stanford University. His visit to the US in October 1951 was facilitated by Chiang Kai-shek, who had relocated to Taiwan after communists took control of mainland China in 1949, and was hopeful that the Tibetans would help him overthrow the Communists. The Americans offered to pay for Thondup’s education. But Thondup, who had been a student in Nanjing—China’s capital under the Nationalist government between 1928 and 1949—for a few years before the revolution under the patronage of Chiang, declined further education and returned to Tibet. At this time, he established several contacts in the US State Department, rather, the Americans established contact with him.

    Thondup was an important member of the Dalai Lama’s government. Just as the senior lamas discovered the 14th Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of his predecessor, Thondup was chosen to be his main political advisor when the Dalai Lama was still a child. By early 1952, the situation in Tibet had started to deteriorate. The Chinese controlled the countryside, the Dalai Lama was still underage and the government functionaries were squabbling among themselves, with each suspecting the other to be a Chinese spy. Threats to Thondup had increased (as he was seen to be influencing his brother) both from Tibetan officials as well as the Chinese, who wanted to make sure that he was on their side. Hence, Thondup escaped to India via Tawang in present-day Arunachal Pradesh.

    Interestingly, the residents of Tawang—which was taken over by the Indian government in February 1951 by chasing away the Tibetan commissioner—thought that the brother of the Dalai Lama had come to liberate them from Indian rule. “I had to explain that I was running away from the Chinese occupiers of Tibet and was in no position myself to help free them from Indian rule,” he writes in his memoirs.

    Cloak, Dagger, Resistance—and Resignation

    Thondup settled in Darjeeling, where American visitors began to call upon him with veiled offers of help. Finally, the cards were opened in 1954, when Thondup was convinced that the US was serious about helping Tibet raise a resistance force. He delivered the first group of potential fighters for training to the CIA. His memoirs The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong has a fascinating account of how Pakistan helped the Tibetans deliver the potential fighters to US trainers.

    While Thondup doesn’t say whether the Dalai Lama was in the loop, it is difficult to imagine that the Dalai Lama remained oblivious to this guerrilla force throughout its existence. From these original guerrillas emerged a dedicated band of the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards, who helped escort him to India when he escaped in 1959. They kept the PLA troops at bay mostly by misleading them at certain places, but also by battling them in some areas.

    Though the US kept up with its support till the end of the 1960s, the military assistance it gave the resistance fighters was more notional than real. The training was inadequate and pertained essentially to spying on China, the equipment was mostly obsolete and ammunition never enough.

    According to Thondup, several thousand Tibetans died in 1954 because they were inadequately trained and armed. The US intention wasn’t really the liberation of Tibet, but the strategic irritation of China.

    As the US interest started to wane, others stepped in. After the debacle of the 1962 war against China, India discovered the Tibetan guerrillas. In November 1962, the government of India approved the raising of a Special Frontier Force (also referred to as Establishment 22), with some funding and weapons from the US channelled through the CIA.

    The objective was ambitious: to train all able-bodied Tibetan men in special operations so that they would be able to operate inside Tibet. With this in mind, until the 1980s, it was compulsory for all able-bodied Tibetans to undergo six months’ training in the SFF, beyond which the service was voluntary. Officered purely by the Indian Army, and reporting to the Cabinet Secretariat—and, by extension, its Research and Analysis Wing, or R&AW, India’s equivalent of the CIA—the SFF was a secret force. “Our mission was liberation of Tibet,” said Samdup Gyaltsen, who was conscripted in 1977 but stayed on beyond the mandatory service period because he believed that he would one day march into Tibet.

    In 1967, Indian diplomat T N Kaul went as far as to facilitate a meeting between Thondup and the Russians, who offered to train Tibetan guerrillas in Tashkent. Even though the meeting was proposed and organised by the former ambassador to Moscow, Thondup was wary of the offer. He consulted his friend and the founding chief of the recently raised R&AW, R N Kao, who told Thondup to stay out of the Russian lair.

    Ironically, the only operation that SFF carried out against China was planting some listening devices atop a mountain peak for intelligence gathering, some time in 1965 and engaging the Chinese border forces in hit-and-run skirmishes on the Nepal-Tibet border in the Mustang area. Gradually, the US lost interest in even the SFF as its relations with China improved after Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China (facilitated by Pakistan) in 1971. Thereafter, China pressured Nepal to arrest and, according to several accounts, even torture the guerrillas fighting in the Mustang region of Nepal. Eventually, in July 1974, the Dalai Lama had to personally request them through a message—an audio recording–to lay down arms to avoid further annihilation. This finally closed the option of an armed struggle against China.

    For its part, India steadily lost both the nerve and direction with the SFF’s Tibetan application. It increasingly became just another regiment of the Indian Army, though remaining unaccounted for. Consequently, the only enemy the SFF has seen action against has been Pakistan, beginning with the 1971 war, in which it lost 46 of its soldiers. Thereafter, it has operated alongside the Indian Army in Operation Bluestar, Operation Meghdoot (at Siachen Glacier, 1984), Operation Vijay (Kargil, 1999)—and, most recently, in the capture of the Kailash range in East Ladakh, south of Pangong Tso, in August 2020. In any case, by 2009, the presence of a secret force was dropped when the government approved the same pay and allowances, including pensions for the SFF at par with what a soldier in the Indian Army receives.

    From Fight-Fight to Talk-Talk

    This fruitless history of violence, half-hearted support by the West, uncertainty about the Tibetan claim of independence and the growing influence of China eventually shaped the Dalai Lama’s thinking on the possible future of Tibet. And he gradually started to build on the moral superiority of peaceful resistance.

    On 4th March 1988, the Dalai Lama was invited to address the European Parliament in Strasbourg. There he enunciated the Tibetan demands for the first time in public, offering China what came to be known as the ‘Strasbourg Proposal’.

    The Strasbourg Proposal underlined his moderate, middle way approach towards a resolution. Giving up the earlier demand for complete independence, he now proposed ‘genuine’ autonomy for Tibet under the Chinese constitution.

    The key point of the proposal was that the Tibetan autonomous government would function alongside the PRC. While the functions of defence and foreign relations would be with the Chinese government, all the other powers would be vested in the elected government of Tibet. This has been referred to as the Middle Path, and has remained the official position of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

    However, in true democratic traditions, contrarian views also retained traction within the Tibetan diaspora. For example, Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), which is labelled a terrorist organisation by the Chinese, insists on ‘Rangzen’ or complete freedom. Yet, it has been conscious that Rangzen is a mere dream. Hence, in 2013, it passed a resolution promising that if the Tibet issue is resolved, it will respect the majority decision; implying that it will forfeit claims of Rangzen in favour of the Middle Path.

    In 2011, the Dalai Lama formally abdicated his temporal responsibilities, paving the way for an elected head of the government. This was partly driven by age and partly by China’s growing power and stature in the world. As a purely religious leader, it would be easier for him to meet world leaders, who may hesitate to meet a Tibetan head of the government-in-exile in deference to increasingly influential Chinese sentiments.

    Harvard-educated Lobsang Sangay was elected Sikyong (Tibetan equivalent of a prime minister) in 2011. In a conversation with FORCE magazine in 2013 and again in 2015, Sangay insisted that the Tibetan struggle for dignified co-existence continues. His optimism is echoed by several Tibetans, both government officials and ordinary citizens. A large part of this optimism stems from the example of the Indian freedom struggle. Most Tibetans use that to hold onto their faith—Indians struggled without success for nearly two centuries, our struggle is merely 62 years old, is the line frequently iterated by people in the streets and in the offices.

    The comparison with the Indian freedom struggle is of course fallacious. Indians were fighting a foreign power that was thousands of miles away from home. China, which is in occupation of former neighbour Tibet, has made it clear that it is an integral part of the country. It has repeatedly issued White Papers on Tibet, the most recent one in March 2019, which underscores its total grip over the plateau.

    Ironically, despite hosting the largest Tibetan diaspora, including the government-in-exile, New Delhi’s policy towards Tibet has been ambivalent. The Indian government could never muster enough courage to put into practice what it imagined. Sundry Indian intelligence officers have, from time to time, goaded Tibetan leaders to mount armed resistance against China even as the government of India insists that they indulge in no political activity from Indian soil.

    Driven by intelligence agencies, the thinking has been that the refugees (and the Dalai Lama himself) were a Tibet Card, which could be used against China at an opportune time.

    But the larger picture of détente with China, and a need to maintain diplomatic and economic relations even in the face of checking a rampant China on the regional and global checkerboard, has sometimes made the intelligence view resemble tunnel vision.

    The truth is there is no Tibetan cause, and no Tibet Card. It died when the Dalai Lama sought asylum in India, and again in 2003, during the tenure of the National Democratic Alliance government, which formally recognised the Tibetan Autonomous Region as a part of China. In any case, India’s calculated interest lies in good relations with China, not Tibet.


    Ghazala Wahab is executive editor of FORCE newsmagazine. She has co-authored with Pravin Sawhney Dragon on Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power.

    This article is part of our special series the 'Making of Modern India' through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India's exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.

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