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A flashpoint called Tibet

A flashpoint called Tibet
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First Published: Mon, Apr 28 2008. 12 03 AM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Mon, Apr 28 2008. 12 03 AM IST
The barbed wire barricade outside the Chinese embassy ought to become a permanent fixture of New Delhi’s landscape. It will remind the Indian people and their government about what it is that, at the core, separates India from China: freedom.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, however, has prostrated himself in a kow-tow to the zhung guo (“the central kingdom”) — calling China India’s “greatest neighbour”, deliberately leaving Tawang out of his official visit to Arunachal Pradesh and, as if to confirm this country’s tributary status, preventing anti-China protests in Arunachal Pradesh, hounding and gagging the poor Tibetan community in exile and, after declaring India would not tolerate Chinese minders, allowing Chinese cops to trot alongside the Olympics torch carriers and the contingent of army commandos for the short stretch the “flame” of fair play was exposed to the Indian “public”.
By bending over backwards to ensure Beijing is not offended, India can rightly claim as its national symbol, less the slow-moving (and perchance slow-thinking) elephant than the pitiful cur that bigger dogs kick around. What is being passed off as a moderate China policy is actually aberrant behaviour. It could not have reassured friendly states in South-East Asia which expect India to stand up to Beijing, but instead find it with its tail between its legs. New Delhi needs to show more grit, display more self-respect where China is concerned, otherwise the impression will grow of India as a Chinese punching bag.
Tibet is where India’s and China’s geostrategic and military interests collide head-on. A free and independent Tibet prior to 1949 was the buffer zone keeping the two Asian giants physically apart — there was no conflict for several millennia. All that changed with the Peoples’ Liberation Army marching into Lhasa, and Beijing unilaterally absorbing parts of north-eastern and southern Tibet into the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Yunnan and Sichuan, followed by nearly 60 years of brutal rule by a series of ruthless commissars, among them the present President of China, Hu Jintao.
The elimination of the Tibetan ethnic and national identity and culture, however, is as much Communist China’s ignoble achievement as it was a story foretold once Sun Yat Sen, the leader of the first Chinese republic that emerged in 1912, decreed it. In his famous set of lectures — San Min Chu I, the revolutionary leader was forthright in his praise of the Han Chinese imperium, he hoped republican China would regain “the territory of the Chinese Empire” in its “age of greatest power”, including all of Tibet and Sinkiang.
At the centre of Sun Yat Sen’s concerns is what he called “the minorities problem”. His preferred solution for “China’s salvation”, as he put it was, in effect, to gradually but violently rub out the 10% of the population composed of the Mongols, Manchus, Tibetans and Uighur Muslims of eastern Turkestan or Sinkiang. The use of violence was justified thus: “In simple terms, the race or nationality has developed through natural forces,” he declared, “while the State has developed through force of arms.” It neatly telescoped the issues of territorial aggrandizement and ethnic cleansing. An expansive China, eager for lebensraum but bereft of the irksome minorities problem, was one of Sun Yat Sen’s three hallowed principles that both Koumintang’s Generalissimo Changkaishek and Kungchantang (Communist Party)’s chairman Mao Zedong swore by.
Tibetans could have escaped their fate only if India had intervened forcefully, something the “Iron Man of India” and India’s first home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, advised Jawaharlal Nehru to do. But, overcome by the enormity of the military undertaking and its bleak prospects and his own naive views of a benign Communist China, Nehru did not act on Patel’s advice. Beijing had its way. The question is: Should the Chinese be allowed to continue to have their way?
Realistically, a truly independent Tibet is unobtainable. But India has retained a slight political and diplomatic leverage. Despite enormous pressure by Beijing, the Indian government has so far refused to recognize Tibet as “historically a part of China” — which would afford absolute legitimacy to China’s occupation of Tibet. A future Indian government can use this to leverage genuine “autonomy” for Tibet.
But, it will require proactive diplomacy backed by force. It is China the Indian military better start taking its bearings from, not the inconsequential threat posed by Pakistan. In the main, the Indian Army has to have the capability to mount offensives, with integral airlift, on the Tibetan plateau. For this purpose, three Light Divisions the army has been asking for several decades now ought to be sanctioned immediately, with this force permitted to grow by another six such Divisions to complement the 10 Mountain Divisions currently arrayed defensively.
This, together with a forward air force and naval posture steeled with thermonuclear-tipped, long- range missiles, will dampen Beijing’s ardour for confrontation. There is nothing China respects more than military strength, a basic axiom of the Chinese conduct of international relations that the ministry of external affairs and, by extension, the Indian government, seems to be blissfully ignorant of.
Bharat Karnad is professor at the Centre for Policy Research. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Apr 28 2008. 12 03 AM IST
More Topics: Manmohan Singh | India | China | Tibet | Tawang |