Thursday, April 11, 2019

Tibet: When the Gods Spoke

The Dalai Lama on his way to India (November 1956)
This is to introduce the third volume of my study on the relations between India and Tibet (1947-62), undertaken under the Field Marshal KM Cariappa Chair of Excellence of the United Service Institution of India.
It is titled: Tibet: When the Gods Spoke.
It relates to the period 1954-1957.
It ends up with the visit of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama (and Premier Zhou Enlai) to India.
The book will be officially launched on April 18.

Volume 1
Tibet: The Last Months of a Free Nation
The first volume recounted the tragedy that befell Tibet; not only had the Dalai Lama and his people lost their country, which had lived blissfully ignorant of the great revolutions reshaping the rest of the world, but it was a tragedy for India too which lost a peaceful neighbour. Suddenly India had to share a border with Communist China whose ideology was the opposite of Buddhist values. At that time Delhi did not realize it, but when a few years later, India would understand that it had lost a secure border, it would be too late.
Some wiser Indian officials and politicians immediately saw the implications in the change of neighbour, but their views were not heard.
Letters, cables, telegrams and notes accessed by us, showed that two factions emerged during the tumultuous months of November/December 1950: on one side were Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and KM Panikkar, his ambassador in Beijing, both obsessed by an imaginary friendship with New China and fixated on the ‘larger implications for World Peace’; the other side feared the strategic implications for India.
In a way, the fate of Tibet and India’s borders with Tibet was sealed once Sardar Patel, who articulated the dangers of the Chinese invasion for the Indian frontiers, passed away on December 15, 1950; it was hardly two months after the entry of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Eastern Tibet. Nehru’s policy would have disastrous consequences which can still be felt today on the Indian borders, whether in Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh.

Volume 2
Will Tibet Ever Find Her Soul Again?
In the second volume, we studied the consequences of the signature of the 17-Point Agreement in May 1951; the Tibetan delegates had no alternative but to accept that the “the Tibetan people shall return to the family of the Motherland of the People's Republic of China” and “drive out imperialist aggressive forces from Tibet.”
A two-phase operation was meticulously planned by Mao Zedong; the first part culminated in the Battle of Chamdo which saw the Tibetan forces being decimated; the Great Helmsman’s second step was ‘diplomatic’, the weak Tibetan State was forced to put its thumbprint on an agreement allowing Communist China to take over the Land of Snows.
This period also saw the beginning of the Hindi-Chini-Bhai-Bhai honeymoon between Delhi and Beijing. Over the next months and years, the Indian officials posted on the Roof of the World would discover the true objectives of the Communists; but nobody in Delhi or the Indian Embassy in Beijing was ready to listen.
The second volume went in depth into the slow break-down and deterioration of the age-old Indo-Tibet relations, gradually being replaced by a cruder relation with the new occupiers of Tibet.
It ended with the signature of the so-called Panchsheel Agreement to which the Tibetans were not even invited to participate. India’s long border with Tibet (now China) was wishfully deemed settled in the process.

The Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama in India ((January 1957)
Volume 3
The third volume studies the Chinese consolation on the plateau after having secured the Indian withdrawal from Tibet through the April 1954 Agreement.
Paradoxically or ironically, this period witnessed the first Chinese intrusions in Barahoti, a small flat grazing ground located in today’s Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. Though the first two of the Five Principles (Panchsheel) spoke of ‘Mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty and Mutual non-aggression’, the Chinese troops walked into the Indian Territory, before the ink on the treaty had hardly dried.
During the period under study, many such intrusions took place in the Central Sector of the Indo-Tibet border, now Sino-Tibet border.
In the next chapters, we look at the diplomatic front, which began with Premier Zhou Enlai’s visit to Delhi in June 1954 and followed by Jawaharlal Nehru’s trip to Beijing in October, to culminate a year later in the Bandung Conference. Hardly any words about Tibet were exchanged during the encounters between Nehru and Zhou; for the Indian and Chinese leaderships, it was a settled issue …except for the border. The Tibetans were nowhere in the picture.
At that time, the Indian Government started noticing some cartographical aggression by Beijing. One chapter goes into the details of Delhi’s handling of the issue and the ‘misunderstanding’ about what Beijing called ‘old maps’.
In Tibet itself, it was time for India to wind-up her presence on the plateau; the negotiations would take many more months than expected, particularly for the dak-bungalows, but early 1955, an agreement would be finally found. A few photos in chapter 6 show the extent to which some of these guest houses were really valuable buildings, but the political decision had been taken to simply hand them over to China. A similar fate awaited the military escorts in Gyantse and Yatung; in a rather discreet manner, it was soon withdrawn. Delhi was probably ashamed to have even a scarce military presence in Tibet.
With the passing months, the consolidation of the Chinese presence in Tibet continued; it translated into the construction of several roads leading to Lhasa …and to the Indian borders. The two main axes (Tibet-Sichuan and Tibet-Qinghai) reached the Tibetan capital in December 1954, this would adversely affect the bilateral trade; suddenly, the PLA no longer needed Indian grain and other commodities.
A few chapters are consecrated to Tibet’s tiny neighbours, Sikkim and Bhutan which were deeply worried about their own future, while watching the development taking place in the North. Delhi had to work out new policies for these States, as well as for her own border areas. The visit of India’s Foreign Secretary RK Nehru to Sikkim, Tibet (Chumbi) Valley) and Bhutan was an important event in this new political context; it is covered in three separate chapters.
The changes in NEFA, particularly in Subansiri and Tawang Frontiers are studied in some detail. The leadership in Delhi did not understand the strategic issues triggered by the occupation of the Tibetan plateau for her borderlands. It translated into, for example, sending the anthropologist Verrier Elwin on a mission to Tawang, which, though interesting in itself, neglected the military and strategic aspects which were systematically overlooked by the Indian State. It would have disastrous consequences a few years later, though intrepid officers such as Maj SM Krishnatry and Capt Sailo clearly described the ‘imperiled’ border of India.
On the other side of the plateau, in Western Tibet, life continued as usual; Indian traders continued to carry their goods from the Himalayan region and while the Chinese presence was still at a minimum, the PLA focused mainly on building new roads. However, the attention of the Communists was brought by the Tibetans, to the borders areas such as Barahoti or Nilang Valley; this would have long-term consequences for India, the Chinese intrusions still today become active every summer.
The visit to China of Kushok Bakula Rinpoche of Ladakh was an important event which unfortunately did not make the Chinese reconsider their policies or make the Indian Government realize that something was going wrong in Tibet.
It was also the time of the first uprisings in Kham province of Eastern Tibet; the revolt was followed by a violent repression by the Chinese Army. Though not directly related to India Tibet relations, we look into this momentous event as well as the creation of the Preparatory Committee of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which was to bring new ‘reforms’, often unwanted, to the Tibetan ‘masses’.
Incidentally, it is the Tibetan ‘masses’ known as Mimang, the People’s Association, which revolted first against the occupation of their land, while the clergy and many aristocrats accepted the new situation, for their own interests.
In many ways, the Indian government could only be a silent spectator to the happenings triggered by the signature of the two agreements (the 17-Point Agreement with the Tibetan representatives in 1951 and the so-called Panchsheel Agreement signed with India three years later); both legalized the Chinese presence on the plateau.
The four last chapters are consecrated to the visit of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama to India on the occasion of 2500th anniversary of the birth of the Buddha. What is striking is that at no point in time were the Tibetan Lamas involved in the acceptance of the invitations.
At the last minute, after months of reluctance, , Beijing agreed to the visit. It was a risk for Beijing, which knew that many Tibetans were keen that the Dalai Lama should take refuge in India. The Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited Delhi thrice in less than three months between November 1956 and January 1957; he wanted to make sure that the Tibetan leader would return to Tibet. In the process, he promised to postpone the Communist ‘reforms’ for a few years.
Eventually, the two Lamas returned to their homeland, to give a ‘last chance’ to the Communists to respect theirpromises. Those final years will be the subject of the last volume of our quadrilogy.
Could India have played a more proactive role? However, for many Indian officials, reforms were necessary and the Chinese presence was not entirely a bad thing for Tibet.
In the process, they forgot to take into account the repercussions of the Chinese occupation of the plateau for the Indian border.
To conclude, an annexure tells us the true story of the Aksai Chin road cutting across the Indian territory in Ladakh.

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