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Tibet: Resuming dialogue is the only option

By Ram Madhav
March 24, 2008 12:43 IST
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China reacted predictably. It insisted that the Buddhist monks in Lhasa and elsewhere had indulged in arson and violence. It reiterated its resolve to 'crush' the voices of independence. It accused His Holiness the Dalai Lama of masterminding the uprising and described him as a 'wolf'. The Communist Party of Tibet called him a 'jackal in ochre robes'.

China's predicament is quite obvious. Unlike on earlier occasions -- whether it was the Tiananmen Square massacre or the Tibetan uprisings in the late '80s -- today technology has become a big bane for it. Despite its best efforts to gag the media, jam satellite transmissions and launch a propaganda offensive, it couldn't really suppress the details of the happenings from reaching the outside world.

Dharamshala, which apparently has some channels of communication still open with the gadget-savvy monks and other Tibetans in Tibet and elsewhere, has valid reasons to believe that the Chinese government is indulging in genocide. Even His Holiness had claimed that 70-80 Tibetan demonstrators were killed in the crackdown by the Chinese security forces. Samdong Rimpoche, the highly revered prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, too expressed his serious concern over what he termed as the 'cultural genocide' launched by China in Tibet.

All this happened so suddenly and swiftly that even the so-called Sinologists and Tibet experts were caught completely unawares. The uprising of Tibetans on the occasion of the 59th Anniversary of the last battle for saving Tibet thus brought the question of Tibet's future onto the centre-stage again.

While the Chinese government is fuming at the rising demand for Tibetan independence not only within the occupied Tibetan territory but all over the Western world, certain individual and national players are looking at this crisis as an excellent opportunity to further embarrass, if not put pressure on, the Chinese by way of boycott of the Olympics scheduled to take place in a few months from now in Beijing. They also see an opportunity for them to meddle in the troubled waters with demands like UN-sponsored lawyers and jurists in Lhasa etc.

As it happens always, in this melee the core issue for which His Holiness and the government in exile are fighting is totally left by the wayside.

I was in Lhasa towards the end of last year. No doubt Lhasa is a well-developed city today -- with good roads, flashy cars, upmarket malls and omnipresent advanced electronic gadgets. But keen observers don't miss the fact that while the city has everything that other developed cities in China boast of, the only thing conspicuous by its absence is Tibetanism, the essential persona of Tibetan identity.

Tibetans are no doubt there, but largely as pullers of rickshaws and push-carts, doing small-time businesses or petty jobs. There is a glaring demographic division -- which some rightly prefer to call as invasion by the Hans -- that has left the Tibetans at the lower rung, both numerically as well as in terms of development.

More importantly, they find themselves far removed from their spiritual and temporal leadership.

What is of paramount importance for the survival of Tibetanism in Tibet is the return of His Holiness and his followers to the Potala Palace. No one knows its significance more than His Holiness himself. That is the reason why he and his government-in-exile are prepared for the autonomy offered, albeit half-heartedly, by the Chinese.

There were several rounds of talks between the leaders of the government-in-exile and the Chinese government that led to agreement on several points. Yet the stalemate continues, especially on two crucial issues.

One is the demographic and geographic question. China, after annexing Tibet in 1959, divided it into 6 different regions. What is today described by China as the Autonomous Region of Tibet is just one of those 6 regions. All the 6 regions are inhabited by a good number of Tibetans. In fact the recent uprisings were witnessed in almost all these regions. His Holiness wants unification of Tibet which is vehemently opposed by the Chinese.

The second issue on which stalemate continues is about what should be the history taught to the Tibetans in their schools and monasteries. Tibetans want freedom to teach their history as how they look at it. But the Chinese want it the way they manufacture and propagate it. In fact the Chinese version of Tibetan history has been showcased in museums across the Tibetan region, including Lhasa.

What is most unfortunate is the breakdown of the talks some time in 2006 after which China never showed any interest to resume them.

It is a razor-edge walk for His Holiness and his men. A section of the exiles is vociferously opposed to the very idea of autonomy. Anything short of total independence is not acceptable to them. Many in India and elsewhere who have been ardent supporters of the Tibetan cause too feel let down by the acquiescence of His Holiness for autonomy.

However, none can deny the fact that His Holiness is the right man to decide on such matters. In a conflict between urgent and important, it is his wisdom coupled with experience that would guide the Tibetan struggle. As one of the senior leaders in the government-in-exile put it succinctly 'The fire of independence can never be doused.'

The recent violence has provided justification for China to vilify and in the event further delay the process of reconciliation set off by His Holiness. But it can't escape the responsibility for the violence as it is essentially an outcome of the breakdown of dialogue.

News trickling down from Lhasa of the crackdown by the Chinese forces is disturbing and will certainly not help in finding a solution to this problem. China should realise that this time round the uprisings are quite widespread, clearly indicating that the displeasure over and opposition to its stranglehold over Tibetans is becoming bolder and shriller.

It is not in its interest to use its Cultural Revolution-style responses against popular revolutions. Brutal oppression, military action, media gagging etc might have paid off in the previous century. But they will only harm Chinese interests if pursued in this age and time also. Ominous signs are visible already, with Chinese intellectuals -- perhaps for the first time after the dreaded Cultural Revolution experience -- openly raising their voice and questioning the stand taken by their own government.

Their language betrayed clear defiance, which would certainly rattle the Chinese leadership. It is time the Chinese started responding differently. It should positively receive the offer of resumption of talks by His Holiness.

India has maintained the position that the Tibet question is China's internal matter. With 150,000 Tibetan citizens living in exile on its soil, many of whom shuttle between India and Tibet frequently, India nevertheless has a role in the resolution of this issue. Also, with Tibet under its control China has become India's Himalayan neighbour.

Violent struggles in the Himalayan region are a matter of concern for our national interests. Whether it is Burma or Nepal or Tibet, these violent struggles have the potential to allow certain Western powers to gain strategic foothold. This may, in the short term, help in containing and pinning down China. But it cannot be overlooked that India's strategic interests lie in keeping the Himalayan region free from any influence of outside powers.

The writer is a national executive member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

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Ram Madhav