MADRAS, India — The issue of Tibet has plagued relations between India and China for well over four decades. When China annexed the small Himalayan nation in the 1950s, New Delhi found itself in a difficult position, given its special ties with the Tibetan people: India had an open border with Tibet, and Tibetans were virtually considered citizens of the big neighboring state, even enjoying a special place in the Indian military. It therefore seemed natural for the Indian government to offer political asylum to the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet along with his followers and set up a government in exile at Dharamshala in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.
This displeased China, as it saw India’s action as an infringement of sorts in its internal affairs. The 1962 Chinese invasion of India led to a break in ties between the two countries, a development that is often cited as having contributed to then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s health problems, which not long after proved fatal. Nehru was shattered by China’s breach of trust, which he had helped nurture over a long period of time.
Tibet has recently come back into the spotlight, thanks to China’s diplomatic offensive there and its attempts to renew political contacts with the exiled Tibetan leadership. Admittedly, both China and India have made efforts to sort out the Tibetan question since the mid 1980s, when they began normalizing their own bilateral ties. But New Delhi’s war with Islamabad, and China’s special feelings for Pakistan, kept Tibet off India’s immediate agenda.
Now, with Beijing’s moves to place Tibet in the correct perspective, New Delhi, though still saddled with Pakistan’s proxy forces in the disputed Indian state of Kashmir, feels that Lhasa demands greater attention. In recent weeks, the Indian ambassador to China and other senior officials from New Delhi have been traveling to Tibet in order to explore avenues for strengthening border trade. They have also been trying to establish better facilities at Tibet’s Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar, both considered holy sites for Indian pilgrims.
But what may eventually help China inject greater warmth into its relationship with India is New Delhi’s realistic approach to the Tibetan question. It seems highly unlikely that Beijing will let Tibet go. The current spate of talks between the Chinese leadership and the Dalai Lama’s representatives are undoubtedly a precursor to a formal political dialogue between Beijing and Lhasa. But will that win Tibet its freedom? The chances appear remote.
What seems plausible now is greater autonomy for Tibet, and Beijing does not seem to be averse to this idea. In fact, it has been working toward this: For the past several weeks, China has released a number of Tibetan political prisoners, allowed smoother access to foreign diplomats and journalists keen on visiting Lhasa and the surrounding regions, and even invited the Dalai Lama’s elder brother to Tibet for the first time in 50 years. In return, Beijing has sought assurances from the Dalai Lama that he will not try to divide China, and that he will recognize Tibet and Taiwan belonging to China.
Although the Dalai Lama has, of late, said that what he now seeks is greater autonomy rather than independence for Tibet, there is still a wide chasm between him and China’s present leaders. However, they, unlike their predecessors, feel that it is better to solve the problem of Tibet now rather than wait for the spiritual leader’s death, an event that could signal the end of the Tibetan struggle.
Whatever course Beijing eventually takes, it is bound to affect New Delhi, which must view the Tibetan imbroglio in a practical fashion. New Delhi cannot let Tibet be a barrier on its road to Beijing. Rather, Tibet could be a bridge to reach out to China.
Historically, it has been so. It should not be so very difficult to achieve this once again, given China’s desire to make Tibet a hot spot for tourism and cinema. The Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) recently finished producing and filming a new movie, “The Touch,” in Tibet, and Indian movie-makers can take their cue from this; an added advantage for Indian directors is that the region boasts many spots dear to Indian religious pilgrims. Cinema can be an excellent means to a deeper understanding. So, too, can tourism. New Delhi should make use of both to build a stronger rapport with Beijing.
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