|Dekyi Lingka, the Indian Mission in Lhasa|
It was the most gratuitous act done by the Indian Government.
Let us go back a couple of years in history.
When Mao’s troops invaded Tibet at the end of 1950, India enjoyed several privileges in Tibet; apart from the full-fledged Mission in Lhasa, there were three Indian trade marts managed by Agents posted in Gyantse, Gartok (Western Tibet) and Yatung (near the Sikkim border). These Agents were entitled to a military escort. The Post and Telegraph Service, a chain of rest-houses and the principality of Minsar (near Mt Kailash) were also under the Indian Government’s control.
Ideologically, Nehru was not comfortable with these ‘imperialist’ advantages, though he admitted that they were useful for trade. However, after the invasion of Tibet, the Indian government found it increasingly difficult to retain these benefits on the ground. The new masters did not want any trace of foreign power on their newly acquired territory.
When Indian visitors, traders (and even diplomats) began to be harassed; Delhi could have protested, but they meekly bowed to the Chinese.
On 3 November 1951, during a press conference when a journalist pointed out ‘differences’ between India and China, especially about the status of the Indian Mission at Lhasa, the Prime Minister remarked that the Indian mission would continue to remain there.
A few months later, the issue of the Indian Mission in Lhasa came up again during an interaction with the press, Nehru vaguely answered that the Mission was dealing “with certain trade and cultural matters more or less [sic!]”. He added that technically the Mission never had any diplomatic status. This was far from correct. Before Independence, the British Head of the Mission had for years negotiated with the Tibetan Foreign Bureau bilateral issues concerning India and Tibet, including the frontier in Tawang area.
By June 1952, the situation further evolved. The Chinese were physically in control of most of the plateau; the Tibetans had begun discovering the hardships caused by an invading army. When asked about the negotiations with China on Tibet, Nehru hinted at changes: “Obviously once it is accepted and admitted that the Chinese Government is not only the suzerain power in Tibet, but is exercising the suzerainty, then something will flow from it. Then you cannot treat Tibet as an independent country with an independent representation from us. Though our Representative remains, this changes his character somewhat, and the trade mission and other things also follow.”
The Prime Minister therefore admited that ‘due to the circumstances’, the status of the Mission may change.
During the following months, Nehru’s position continued to shift; it became vaguer and vaguer: “the status of the representative in Lhasa has never been defined for the last thirty years,” said the Prime Minister once, adding “from an independent country, Tibet had become a country under the effective suzerainty of China, China is now exercising its suzerainty”.
It is in these circumstances that the decision was taken to downgrade the diplomatic relations between Tibet and India; the Indian Representative in Lhasa would thereafter be re-designated as a Consul-General.
A few weeks later, the silver-tongued Zhou Enlai told KM Panikkar, the gullible Indian Ambassador in China that he “presumed that India had no intention of claiming special rights arising from the unequal treaties of the past and was prepared to negotiate a new and permanent relationship safeguarding [China’s] legitimate interests.”
But that was not all! Nehru informed Panikkar that there was no objection to convert the Mission in Lhasa into a Consulate-General …and to open a Chinese Consulate in Bombay.
Nehru however added: “We would naturally prefer a general and comprehensive settlement which includes [the] Frontier.”
That is why I called it a ‘gratuitous gesture’. If the Government was so keen to downgrade India’s relation with Tibet, the bare minimum would have been to settle the border issue at the same time. It was easier then, than now!
But nothing happened on the frontier front; the Mission in Lhasa was downgraded and a new Consulate was offered to the Chinese in Mumbai, as a bonus.
The Chinese eventually closed the Consulate General after the 1962 conflict with India.
It was refreshing to recently read in the Indian media that Delhi was keen to reopen its Consulate General in Lhasa.
As an article in The Business Standard put it: "India and China are sparring over the opening of consulates in Lhasa in exchange for Chennai, in what amounts to a second round of diplomatic confrontation between Asia's largest powers (after the one in the South China Sea)."
It is an important move by India, and this for one good reason, in the past India had 'interests' in Tibet; today it continues to have them.
What are these ‘interests’?
The 4,057 km common border between India and China; the presence in India of the Dalai Lama and more than one lakh of his people; the environment issues; the rivers of Tibet flowing to India, but also traditional and civilisational interests such as the Nalanda tradition of Buddhism (which has been preserved for centuries in its purest form in the Tibetan monasteries), without forgetting pilgrimages such as the Kailash/Mansarovar as well as trade.
Last week, the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies released a new report stressing the importance of increased economic engagement between India and China. It argued: "India should facilitate more border trade with China with better connectivity and more commerce opportunities including on the Nathu La trading point in Sikkim."
The writers of the report strongly believe that India's attempt at facilitating economic exchanges with China will benefit all players in South Asia.
The reopening of the Consulate in Lhasa should be seen in this context.
Paradoxically, it is not that Nehru did not understand the ‘interest’ of having a representation in Lhasa. In November 1958, in a note written from Bhutan, after meeting the Consulate General in Lhasa, the Prime Minister remarked: “it is obvious that some places require special attention. Thus, our mission in Tibet has to be considered quite apart from any other place in the world. I can hardly imagine a more dreary life, both climatically and to some extent politically, than has to be faced in Tibet.”
He then suggested giving a grant for buying books and the latest movies for a library for the staff of the mission (he even said that Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Big B’s father, then an OSD in the MEA should select the Hindi books).
Would China agree to reopen the Consulate, it will be an occasion for Beijing to show its ‘peaceful’ face.
Take the example of the Indian army delegation which made a rare visit to Tibet, earlier this month and interacted with the officers of a Chinese military regiment based in Lhasa; with a Consulate, such confidence-building measures could become routine; it could not only facilitate bilateral trade, but also help the large number of Indian tourists wanting to visit Tibet and its holy sites.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the closure of the Indian Consulate General in Lhasa, the reopening of an office, even if it is no longer a full-fledged Mission like in the old days, would go a long way to heal the wounds of 1962 and restart the Indo-China relations afresh.