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India and the small insect

By Claude Arpi
March 28, 2006 17:59 IST
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A few years ago, while looking for a suitable subtitle for a book on Tibet's relations with her two giant neighbours, India and China, a remark made by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1910 came to me.

It was the best description of the Roof of the World's vicissitudes. 'When big insects eat small insects' accurately describes what happened to Tibet in 1950.

The recent 'dialogue' between the Dalai Lama's envoys and the Chinese authorities in Beijing as well as the seventh round of talks on the boundary question between the Special Representatives of India and China reminded me of this subtitle.

India-China talks: Hope floats on backwaters

Though it is customary that neither the Indian nor the Chinese side says anything on the nature and the progress of the border talks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang stated in Beijing: 'China believes that as long as the two sides proceed forward and conduct patient, thorough and friendly consultations in the spirit of mutual understanding and mutual accommodation, we can find a fair and reasonable framework acceptable to both sides so as to lay the foundation for the final settlement of the boundary issue.'

This is a fine declaration: Beijing speaks with an 'insect' of the same size. However, when a couple of weeks earlier, Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's special envoy, and his colleagues went to Beijing for their fifth round of 'dialogue' with the People's Republic of China, the same Qin Gang declared that 'no special envoy' was in China.

He said he had only heard that 'people with tight connections to the Dalai Lama (a Tibetan spiritual leader' were visiting China 'to learn about Chinese policies, see friends and personally observe changes in Tibet under Chinese rule.'

This is the difference in treatment given to a great power and a peaceful, non-violent small one. There is certainly a lesson for Delhi: It is better to be strong than weak when you want to deal with China.

In the Tibetan case, the spokesman declined to comment further 'since it was an 'internal affair' to the People's Republic.'

But if Beijing considers Tibet to be an internal affair, the ministry of foreign affairs should have refrained from comment.

"This is not important, the statement has only been issued by the spokesman of the foreign ministry and this ministry has nothing to do with our dialogue," explains Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile. "We are talking with the United Front Works Department. They agree that they are engaged in discussion. Even President Hu Jintao acknowledges to foreign dignitaries that his government has a direct dialogue with His Holiness (the Dalai Lama). He does not say that some people have come to meet friends."

'Non-violence only option'

Asked if President Hu Jintao knows about the dialogue, the monk prime minister said: "Yes, this is very clear. In the recent months, the Working Group on Tibet met for the 5th time and President Hu presided over the meeting. The negotiations were discussed."

So why this vituperation?

One possibility is that in China, as in India, one ministry is blissfully unaware of what the other is doing. But this does not seem to be the case.

In February 2006, when the Dalai Lama visited Israel, the same spokesman told the press that the 'Chinese government firmly opposes the Dalai Lama's attempt to split the country.'

The Chinese consul in Israel, Lu Chin, even requested the Israeli foreign ministry to prevent the Dalai Lama's planned visit to Israel. 'Although he (the consul) noted that sources promised that official state representatives would not meet with him (the Dalai Lama), the consul said that was not enough,' the spokesman said.

There is no doubt that there is a concerted move by Beijing to disparage the Tibetan leader and his representatives. Given that, one could ask: are the talks between Dharamsala and Beijing serious?

Talk with Dalai Lama: US to China

Professor Rinpoche is clear about this. "To have contacts and to talk is much better than having no contact and not talking. Today we have direct contact and we have a dialogue. We are able to understand them and tell them our views. A communication channel is opened. It may be just time consuming."

The issue is undoubtedly difficult to solve. One of the main problems is the difference in size of the protagonists. After the Chinese People's Liberation Army invaded Tibet in 1950, the Dalai Lama tried his best to 'cohabitate' with the Chinese for a few years, but the tension between the invaders and the population in Lhasa and in Eastern Tibet became unbearable.

As a result in 1959, the Tibetan leader had no other alternative but to flee and take refuge in India. A few years later, always thinking ahead, Beijing made a very clever move (unlike India, China is able to think 30 or 40 years ahead): the Land of Snows was divided into different administrative regions attached to different provinces of China. Simultaneously, the Tibetan Autonomous Region -- TAR -- was created, thereby creating two Tibets: the TAR and the territories outside the TAR.

Today, this is the main bone of contention between Dharamsala and Beijing. The Dalai Lama himself is born in Qinghai province and his Special Envoy Lodi Gyari in Eastern Tibet, both outside the TAR. How can they accept a deal for a Tibet in which their birth place would be excluded?

Ashwin Mahesh argues for a free Tibet  

The Tibetans admit today that "not a single positive change has taken place inside Tibet" since September 2002 when the dialogue with Beijing started.

However, though the last round of talks highlighted the gulf separating the two parties, it had the merit of having genuinely put these differences on the table.

Tibetan sources says: "The first round of talks was more tourism, during the second there was some talk; the third one there was an elaborate exchange of views; during the fourth (in Berne, Switzerland) the Tibetans were able to respond to the Chinese suspicions and during the fifth, feedback was received from the Chinese."

From the start, the Dalai Lama was keen on a different type of negotiation. An anecdote indicates his thinking. When the Strasbourg proposal (renouncing independence and accepting to remain under the People's Republic of China) was being finalised, it was shown to Jimmy Carter, a close friend of the Dalai Lama. The former US president carefully read the proposal, spending hours pondering over each word. At the end, the Dalai Lama's messenger was asked: 'What is the Dalai Lama's bottom-line?' The answer was: 'This is his bottom-line.'

The messenger had to explain that the Tibetan leader considered himself 'neither a politician nor a diplomat'; he was a simple monk, not ready to play the usual diplomatic games.

This honesty and sincere search for a peaceful compromise of course created a lot of problems for him. Most Tibetans could not understand why their dream of an independent Tibet had vanished.

'Enough, already!'

Today, how can the gulf between the two parties be bridged? Though the Tibetans philosophically admit that "the dialogue is not something static, it is moving," the problem of the size and the power of China remains.

I personally feel the Chinese are unsure of their case. The fact that on all their web sites they speak about 'China's Tibet' proves that even in their own subconscious thinking, they see Tibet as different from China. It would not occur to anybody in India to speak of 'India's Kerala' or 'India's Gujarat'.

Further, the Chinese are very sensitive to a loss of face, and wherever the Beijing leadership goes in the free world, they are questioned on the situation of Tibet and urged to listen to the Dalai Lama's representatives. These five rounds of talks are mainly due to this international pressure.

Some Chinese leaders believe the Tibetan issue equates to the Dalai Lama only. They believe that if the Dalai Lama dies, the problem will fade away.

"It is a very dangerous thought because, if the Dalai Lama is not here to guide the Tibetan people, for us it will be devastating, it will give rise to bitterness, anger, resentment. It cannot be imagined today," says Lodi Gyari.

The ensuing chaos would not be to Beijing's advantage and will certainly not help the image of China as a peaceful nation.

So what could unlock the tangle?

First and foremost, South Block should not play ostrich and pretend to not be interested in the issue of Tibet.

Congress needs a China hand

India is the first stakeholder in what happens in Tibet. Not only are the major rivers of India such the Brahmaputra, the Sutlej or the Indus flowing down from the high plateau, but a Chinese rail track is coming close to the Indian border.

While Dai Bingguo, the Chinese executive vice foreign minister, and National Security Adviser M K Narayanan were tasting Kerala's culinary delicacies (appams, idlis and pearl spot fish), the puppet 'Chairman of Tibet', Qingba Puncog announced: 'The eye-catching Qinghai-Tibet railway is expected to be further extended from Lhasa to Xigaze City in the southwestern part of the region.' Puncog affirmed that the section between Lhasa and Xigaze was expected to be completed during the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010).

As for South Block, one can hope that Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran's 'private' visit to Dharamsala earlier this month is a step in the good direction.

Delhi could certainly --in a gentle manner-- set up a meeting between the Dalai Lama and President Hu Jintao during his forthcoming visit to India. After all, Chairman Mao used to meet the young Lama in 1954/55 to thrash out the differences in views about Mao's 'Liberation of Tibet'.

A face to face encounter could clear a lot of misunderstanding, paving the way to a step forward. It would be a true win-win situation for the three parties.

But will the Fourth Generation leadership dare to take the jump?

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Claude Arpi