When India’s Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru welcomed the Dalai Lama in 1959, offering him and other Tibetans asylum, in order to preserve Tibetan identity, he suggested rehabilitation in separate settlements rather than assimilation into mainstream Indian society. The refugees were eventually placed in dozens of settlements across the country, where they built monasteries, schools, and cultural centres. The then chief minister of Karnataka offered a large piece of land for their rehabilitation, making that state the biggest exile Tibetan hub.
The Dalai Lama, and a handful of his officials ran the Tibetan Government-in-exile initially from a few rooms at Birla House, in Mussoorie, a hill station in northern India. A year later, the Tibetan headquarters was relocated to another old colonial outpost further north, in McLeod Ganj, with a new name, ‘Central Tibetan Administration’ (CTA). Wary of antagonising China, Nehru objected to using the name ‘Tibetan Government-in-exile’.
This move, in a remote area much farther away from New Delhi, may have been intended to tuck the Dalai Lama away from the view of the world, so that the Tibetan issue could hopefully just disappear. It may be recalled that in 1954 Nehru had signed the Panchsheel treaty with China, defining the relationship between India and China, and disregarding Tibet’s sovereignty.
But Tibetans remained united and strong under the Dalai Lama, who guided them and provided hope in his regular addresses that the situation would be better and that the time for return would come soon. As Nehru envisioned and the Dalai Lama hoped, within two decades the initial hardships of exile began to pass. The new generation of Tibetans began entering adulthood, many attended schools and colleges, and life in the Tibetan settlements also improved. Their freedom struggle also gained much traction.
India allowed the Dalai Lama to travel abroad, which helped to grow his international image. His first foreign tour was to Japan and Thailand in 1967. On his first European tour in 1973, he met with Pope Paul VI in Rome. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, it raised his image to a new very recognisable level worldwide, Tibet and its horrendous situation started drawing international attention. Also, Tibetans gradually started moving and settling abroad. Educated and impassioned young Tibetans now serving in various Offices of Tibet around the world brought the Tibetan freedom struggle even further into the public eye, making it an international movement.
Combined with the strong resistance to Chinese rule by Tibetans inside Tibet, China reached out to the Dalai Lama and offered to discuss the Tibetan situation, saying that leaving aside independence all other issues could be discussed. Seizing the opportunity, the Dalai Lama crafted his ‘Middle-Way Policy’. This shunned the goal of seeking independence but proposed internal freedom (‘genuine autonomy’) in which Tibetans would be free to run their own affairs as a part of China. External relations and defence would remain with Beijing. This proposal, in fact, is in line with the provisions in the Constitution of China itself.
However, China rejected the proposal claiming it was a hidden agenda for independence. Talks stalled between the two sides in the 1990s and were renewed in the early 2000s with nine rounds of talks over the next eight years. However, these didn’t bring any breakthrough.
Starting in 2009, Tibetans in Tibet began taking their lives in a wave of self-immolation protests. Since then, more than 150 Tibetans have immolated themselves, all calling on the Chinese government to allow the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, and for Beijing to end its repressive policies. China’s policies in Tibet even today are reprehensible, with political repression, cultural assimilation, demographic marginalisation, ethnic discrimination, economic deprivation, and environmental destruction. Any dissent from official views is met with imprisonment and torture.
India has continued to hold the position that Tibet is a part of China, in the hopes of having China’s support for India as a global player, maintenance of a peaceful border, and support for India’s development. How effective this has been is for India’s policymakers to judge.
Although times have changed, India’s rehabilitation policy for Tibetans made in the early 1960s, remained largely unchanged. The exiled Tibetan population grew only marginally over the decades, but they made themselves educated, skilled, and capable. They aspired to a better life but the agrarian and handicraft-based livelihoods no longer sustained them. Unemployment levels remain high and Tibetans have no access to bank loans and cannot own property. They also faced difficulties in travelling abroad since they were not entitled to Indian passports (although that has changed).
Increasingly, young Tibetans in India are looking to the West, moving there and to other parts of the world. This may have impacted the Tibetan demographics in India. It is estimated that 60,000 Tibetans remain in India compared to over 90,000 just a decade ago.
The exile Tibetan setup has changed as well. The Dalai Lama relinquished his political powers in order to completely democraticise Tibetan society. Tibetans elected a Harvard-educated legal scholar in Lobsang Sangay as their political leader. It is now the second and third-generation Tibetans born and brought up in India who are running the show — although the Dalai Lama, their father figure, is still the main face of the Tibetan movement.
With India’s political stand regarding Tibet unchanged combined with its less than friendly policies towards the Tibetan population, a sense of insecurity and dejection prevails. The plight of the Karmapa Lama is a prime example. With no real basis, he was subject to constant harassment for being a ‘Chinese spy’, his travels restricted and was refused documents needed to function in day-to-day life.
Tibet and India have lived side by side since ancient times, and have a shared history, with political, cultural, social, and religious bonds. Considering that Tibet has always been historically India’s friendly neighbour in the North, and a buffer between India and China, many Tibetans are urging the Indian government to review its policies.
In the political ‘Great Game’, Tibet has always been a very useful card for India to play against China. Although India may not have used this to its advantage, still, India cannot afford to lose it.
The presence of the exiled Tibetan community and the Central Tibetan Administration in India is a powerful card that Delhi can play to its strategic benefit. It helps that the Tibetan movement in India is quite strong and effective, which means China cannot ignore it. But if Tibetan numbers in India diminish and their voice becomes weak, it will not be possible for India to play that card against China.
History has shown that no empire, however great and mighty, is permanent, and there will certainly be a day that Tibet will become free. Irrespective of where Tibetans move, the Free Tibet movement is not going to die. Tibetans will never give up.
(The author is the editor of Tibetsun, an online portal on Tibet affairs. Views are personal.)
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