Sunday, May 11, 2014

Reading a Tibetan tale

My review of Tibet: An Unfinished Story ('Reading a Tibetan tale') appeared in The Pioneer today.

Author : Lezlee Halper and Stefan Halper
Publisher : Hachette,
Price: Rs 599

The day Indian researchers have access to the MEA’s or MHA’s archives, the history of Tibet in the decades after Independence will be seen from a different angle, observes CLAUDE ARPI

Is Tibet an unfinished story? I must admit that what drew me to read Tibet — an Unfinished Story, by Lezlee Brown Halper and Stefan Halper, is the title.
According to Beijing, Tibet’s historical chapter is long closed. In May 1951, a ‘17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’ was signed (under duress says the Dalai Lama) between some Tibetan delegates and the Central Government (read the Communist leadership in Beijing). Article I clearly says: “The Tibetan people shall return to the family of the Motherland of the People’s Republic of China.”
Since then, Tibet has been part of the Chinese ‘Motherland’. Not a single State, including the US, objected to this basic political fact. Reading the title, I was curious to see what the authors, two known scholars of the University of Cambridge, UK, would propose to make the Tibetan issue a closed chapter. One has to wait till the last paragraph to discover the rationale of the title.
This said, there is no doubt that the authors have done a lot of research. One interesting feature of the book is the parallel made by the authors between the ‘Myth of Tibet’ and the ‘real politics’: “Mythical Tibet has long been an integral part of the story of the West,” they write.
Unfortunately, at the time of the Great Game, “Lhasa was unable to negotiate the treacherous currents of ‘Big Power’ politics and Chinese nationalism”.
The Myth of Tibet was a fact. A few weeks after Tibet was invaded, strange descriptions of Tibet circulated in the West. On November 3, 1950, an article in Combat, explained that the invasion of Tibet is not an ordinary invasion, there is something more behind it, an inner significance. After a short description of the religious scene prior to the invasion, Combat explained that Tibet was “essentially devoted to prayers, to the adoration of the Divine and to inner life”.
The reporter expounded his occult theory about the remnants of the Atlantis civilisation: “Tibet has a very special place in the Atlantis tradition. According to this tradition, the Atlantis, the motherland of a supremely wise and powerful humanity, kept the secrets of a communion with the spirit.”
A day later, Le Journal de Genève was more to the point: “The regime of the lamaist aristocracy will perhaps have a successor which will only be a foreign organisation imposed by the invader. But it will not be so easy to destroy a spiritual power which has survived for centuries in its castle of eternal Himalayan snow.”
This perhaps explains why it is still today an ‘unfinished story’; more than 60 years after their ‘liberation’, the Tibetan people still resist their ‘liberators’.
To pen the book, the authors have consulted hosts of historical documents mainly from the British and the US declassified archives. The great pity is that there is very little from the Chinese, Tibetan and Indian side (apart from some quotations from the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru).
As a result, one gets a well-documented version of Tibet history mainly from the Western point of view. The story of the CIA covert operations or the US State Department support to the Dalai Lama permeates the entire book.
One can’t blame the authors for the lack of a proper declassification process (or even interest) in India.
Apart from a recent move by the MEA to declassify some 60,000 odd files and send them to the National Archives of India (tellingly, a babu has forgotten to provide the column with the reference which make the files traceable for research), not much has been done in this domain in India since Independence.
It is not the case in the US. A few days ago, the US National Archives has released an impressive overview of its 2014-2016 Open Government Plan (for declassification). The National Security Archive, a private organisation working on the Freedom of Information, wrote: “Kudos to the Archive for embracing the power of technology, open source, and crowd-sourcing to share its jewels with the widest possible audience.”
In this domain at least, there is no doubt that India should take a leaf from the US.
In his controversial book on India’s accidental Prime Minister, Sanjaya Baru wrote that Manmohan Singh was an eager learner: “For him, China remained an enigma and he eagerly sought out people who were knowledgeable about it.” He invited Harvard professor Roderick MacFarquhar to brief him about China. But why should a US scholar, even if he is extraordinarily knowledgeable, brief the Indian Prime Minister on such an issue?
One of the reasons for this is that Indian scholars do not have access to their own archives. The day Indian researchers will have access to the MEA’s or MHA’s archives (as is mandatory by law), even without speaking of documents of the RAW, the history of Tibet in the decades after independence (or any other issue) will be seen from a different angle.
The US or western version of history may unfortunately continue to prevail; this however raises another question: Did the CIA operations in the 1960s or early 1970s described in the book, do anything good for the ‘Tibetan cause’? No, in my opinion.
Despite this, Unfinished Story is worth reading because it tries to look at past events in a larger, geopolitical perspective. One realises that in the end, only ‘national interests’ prevail; when, at the beginning of the 1970s, the Kissinger-Nixon duo dropped the Tibetan cause, it was for the sake of the larger interests of the United States to open a dialogue with Mao’s China (and ‘balance’ the Soviet Union’s power).
As the 13th Dalai Lama once said: “The big insects always eat the small insects”. It was in 1910 and he was referring to Great Britain and Tibet.To come back to the title, the authors say at the end “we commented that the Tibet situation could not be improved if the problem was not properly understood, and it is not.”
True, but to ‘complete’ the story, it is certainly not a change of policy in the State Department or the White House which will help. The Chinese have an aversion for whatever comes from Washington; just reading this book, may give them prickly heat.
It is a pity that the authors have not analysed in more detail the Dalai Lama’s Middle Path approach. Although presently rejected by Beijing, it seems to be the only possible way out to solve the issue to the satisfaction of the Tibetans and the Chinese government.
India may have a role to play in an eventual rapprochement, but Delhi will have to do it in a discreet and sensitive manner.

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