India, Tibet, and China, The Way Forward (Part 2): Tibet - Helpless and Tangled

"The future course of the Sino-Tibet India relations will largely be dictated by what the people of Tibet want and how they swing. The common belief is that they are in misery under the Chinese."

India, Tibet, and China, The Way Forward (Part 2): Tibet - Helpless and Tangled

When Indian and Tibetan flags were waved at the funeral of Company Leader Nyima Tenzin of Special Frontier Force, who died during the Kailash Range operations, there was the widespread belief that the 'Tibet' issue will be leveraged. It was short-lived due to haziness in Indian thinking, absolute clarity in China, and a return to resigned helplessness amongst Tibetans worldwide.

The issue has morphed significantly from the last century and needs a deep understanding of new issues and must be played with finesse. Undue military action or rebellious violence will end any action being snuffed out like the Khampa Rebellion in the 50s. Relevant issues about India, China, and Tibet need to be focused on India to chart out a future course of action. In this part, we will see the various facets of Tibet, which are very relevant in the crucial strategic triangle of India, Tibet, and China.

Before reading further, it is recommended that one reads the background to this article, which is available in the links below:

Admission of existence

Independence or Suzerainty not Sovereignty

Songtsen Gampo (627-649) ruled Tibet as an independent kingdom in the 7th century. He married a Chinese princess to establish relations with China. Buddhism entered Tibet from India around that time. Tibet was independent till the Mongols conquered China and Tibet in the 13th century and ruled them both. When Mongols waned, the succeeding Ming dynasty (1368-1644) did not take over Tibet.

The next (and last) imperial Qing dynasty (1644-1911) was of Manchus. In 1720, Manchus took over Tibet due to political turmoil and stayed on till their dynasty collapsed. The Qing's treated Tibet as part of their empire and maintained a Resident in Lhasa. However, Tibet retained its autonomy - its officials and legal system. The Qings did not attempt to formalize Tibet as a Chinese province. This nebulous and unclear relationship was termed as 'Chinese Suzerainty over Tibet' by the Britishers.

In 1904, Col Younghusband's expedition established the British presence in Lhasa. In 1912, Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Government declared Tibet as part of China. In February 1913, the 13th Dalai Lama declared the Independence of Tibet and expelled all Chinese; this created a de-facto independent Tibet with its flag, army, government, language, currency, and border control.

The British presence forced the Chinese out of the area. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in China in 1949. They instigated the Panchen Lama to appeal to them to liberate Tibet. In 1950, the PLA invaded Tibet, and the rest is history. The long and short of it is that Tibet was forced to amalgamate into China and it was never an integral or sovereign part of China as often claimed by PRC.

Tibetan Separatist Unrest

Tibetans have never acknowledged that they are a sovereign part of China. Ever since the CCP invaded Tibet and established their government, there has been strife.  The 1959 revolt in Tibet led to the Dalai Lama fleeing to India and setting up a Government in exile. During Mao's Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), monasteries were destroyed, religious persecution intensified, and a political struggle erupted on a significant scale.

In September - October 1987, Buddhist monks led major demonstrations for independence. The Chinese reacted harshly and crushed the move; this was repeated in March 1988. The Chinese again suppressed the demonstrations ruthlessly. On March 5, 1989, demonstrations for independence re-erupted in Lhasa. It led to martial law in Lhasa till May 1990.  

Serious public demonstrations for independence occurred again in May 1993. In 2008, five months before the Beijing Olympic Games, anti-China protests escalated into violence not seen in Tibet in 20 years. Pro-Tibet activists even attempted to disrupt the progress of the Olympic torch relay in many countries. 2011-12 has seen self-immolation incidents by Buddhist monks and nuns in protest against Chinese rule over Tibet.

Though the past decade has been relatively calm and devoid of any severe protests, it would be fair to say that at heart, Tibetans have not yet accepted Chinese rule and an underlying sentiment for independence is still alive.

Development and Integration

The CCP has carried out reforms in public life and improved social conditions in step with the rest of China. PRC has also undertaken extensive infrastructure development in Tibet under its Western Development Strategy. Though much of the infrastructure is military, Tibet is now better connected and more firmly integrated into China than ever before.

There is a modernization process underway. The economy is more robust and the standard of living has improved for most people, although disparities are also widening. The cities have benefitted much more from economic growth than the countryside. Despite everything, the Tibet Autonomous Region remains China's most impoverished administrative unit. It is also very clearly established that the Western Development Strategy has not benefitted the autonomous regions vis a vis others. Overall there is a sense of being discriminated against.

People Matters

Demographic Issues: Tibetans now comprise 90.48% of the population, Han Chinese make up 8.17%, and other population groups 1.35%. There has been a clamor of Han inward migration. There is no doubt that Han inward migration has taken place with projects. Construction, management, and maintenance are all done mostly by Han. Most of these are not permanent settlers. Many come in as part of project teams and are frequently rotated.

However, ‘population invasion’ is visible only in the major cities and towns of Tibet. Here Hans is outnumbering Tibetans. It is also a fact that Hans get better jobs than Tibetans. To that extent, the Tibetans are discriminated against in economic opportunities. More importantly, the PRC still does not trust Tibetans. It is already being reported that 50000 Tibetans have been put in labor camps as part of Xi Jinping's Tibet Solidification process. The critical point is that the Tibetans are a majority in the countryside; this will be a critical factor as days pass.

Clash of the Titans

Tibetan Diaspora: The Tibetan diaspora is mainly in India with significant concentrations in Karnataka (44,468), Himachal Pradesh (21,980), Arunachal Pradesh (7,530), Uttarakhand (8,545), West Bengal (5,785), and Jammu and Kashmir (6,920). The Tibetan Government in exile functions from Dharmshala.

It is reported that the Tibetan community in India has dropped by 44 percent, from around 150,000 in 2011 to 85,000. Tibetans also reside in other countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, the US, Canada, and Switzerland. The annual inflow of refugees used to be 3000. It has now reduced to about 100 annually.

This downward trickle is attributed to the attitude of the Indian government, changed conditions in Tibet, and the difficulty in crossing over. With time, the Tibetan Diaspora are better educated and have acquired an international presence. They will be essential assets in mobilizing international opinion.


Buddhism: Buddhism, like Hinduism, is not so much a religion but a way of life. The overwhelming majority of Tibetans continue to practice Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism and culture is still rooted in people. It is not in any great danger. However, Buddhism is weaker than it used to be. Like other religions, it is partly due to modernization and partly due to active Chinese attempts to suppress it.

However, as per historical tradition, the Dalai Lama is the political and temporal head of all Tibetan Buddhists. He is revered as such. He is still the prime figure whether he is in or out of Tibet. Any push back against the Chinese will have to come from the Buddhist structure as it always has. The Chinese know that. They see the monasteries as the leading centers for anti-Chinese activities.

As per the Chinese leadership, the real problem is Dalai Lama and not the Tibetan people. Though Chinese society has undergone dramatic changes during the past few decades, it shows little tolerance for any dissent from ethnic minorities. Any sign of dissent from any ethnic minority is often interpreted as separatism by the Chinese and invites severe state repression in a situation of inferior human rights.

In Tibet's case, the entire Chinese ire is directed at the monasteries, monks, and Dalai Lama. The Chinese state is excessively focused on preserving territorial unity and plugging separatism. Hence it has repeatedly taken a hard line against Buddhism, monks, and monasteries. It influences courts to enforce harsh and unfair decisions without adequate evidence or proper legal proceedings; this is in line with its general practice in other parts of China with other nationalities.

Application of math in routine Chinese affairs

Dalai Lama Succession: The Chinese manipulated Tibetan Buddhism in the 1950s. That was how they got a foothold in Tibet. They won over the tenth  Panchen Lama on their side against the Dalai Lama. However, at the end of his life, the tenth Panchen Lama did express regret at his actions. The Chinese installed their own man as the eleventh Panchen Lama after abducting the person appointed by the Dalai Lama.

To date, his whereabouts are not known. Today, there are two Panchen Lamas installed by the Dalai Lama and another six-year-old picked and installed by the Chinese government, known as Panchen "Zuma" Fake Panchen. With the Dalai Lama getting on in age, the Chinese would be actively plotting a CCP, and Xi Jinping similarly nominated succession.

There is already speculation and indications they will do so. There is also an indication that as part of Xi Jinping’s  Tibet solidification program, the Chinese will interfere with Buddhism. They have already spoken of the Sinicization of Buddhism. It implies re-education centers, communism based Buddhist reform, and straight enlargement of penetration and subversion of monasteries to control the Tibetan Buddhist way of life.

Tug of war

Political Issues: 17-Point Agreement’ to ‘Middle Path’

17 Point Agreement: On May 23, 1951, the 17 The Point Agreement was illegally thrust upon Tibet. It gave complete control of Tibet to the CCP -PLA combine. It was signed on behalf of Tibet by a person of no authority. It eventually led to the Dalai Lama seeking refuge in India.

However, it is reported  that the very opening paragraph of the main statement admits Tibet’s status as a separate entity where, for whatever reasons, China did not enjoy any effective control for "over the last hundred years and more." If this is correct,  it is a legal loophole – lying unexploited; this was followed by two decades when PRC was isolated, completely closed, and remained incommunicado. Tibet was subjected to intense political suppression and cultural destruction during this time.

Five Point Plan: Later, Deng Xiaoping realized that winning hearts was better than an attack on faith or coercion. In 1979, Deng even said , "except independence, all other issues can be resolved through negotiations.” Communist Party Secretary Hu Yaobang even offered a public apology to the Tibetan people when he visited Lhasa in 1980.

He termed the unfortunate happenings as 'excesses of some over-enthusiastic party cadres' in Tibet in the past. Based on these overtures, many parleys took place, and delegations visited Tibet with no resolution. On September 21, Dalai Lama addressed the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus and put forth a Five-Point Plan.

The points were 1.Transformation of the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace. 2. Abandonment of China’s population transfer policy. 3. Respect for the Tibetan people’s fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms. 4. Restoration and protection of Tibet’s natural environment and the abandonment of China’s use of Tibet for the production of nuclear weapons and dumping of nuclear waste; and 5. Commencement of earnest negotiations on the future status of Tibet and on relations between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples. Nothing happened.

The Middle Path: The very next year, in 1988, the Dalai Lama put forth his ‘Middle Path’ policy when addressing the E.U. parliament in Strasbourg. He said, "The Tibetan people do not accept Tibet's present status under the People's Republic of China. At the same time, they do not seek independence for Tibet, which is a historical fact—treading a middle path between these two lies the policy and means to achieve genuine autonomy for all Tibetans living in the three traditional provinces of Tibet within the framework of the People's Republic of China.

The Government of the People's Republic of China could remain responsible for Tibet's foreign policy. The Government of Tibet should be founded on a constitution or basic law a self-governing democratic political entity", this has been rejected outright by the Chinese since they felt that it would be a precursor to independence and dilute the CCP power. We should never forget that CCP will never share power with anyone. In 1989 the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, which only incensed the Chinese.

An Opportunity Ahead

As China prospered economically, its political clout also grew, and Tibet got further marginalized. The  2003 Sino-Indian agreement virtually sealed Tibetan fate.  It changed the Indian stance on Tibet. After that Tibet issue meandered politically; before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, China wanted to settle the Tibet issue since it feared that they might lose face as USSR did in Moscow Olympics with a significant boycott. However, the whole deliberations ended in violence, and nothing came of it. After that, as China grew more robust, the margins for Tibet kept getting thinner.

However, the current Chinese aggression, international assertion, duplicity, and behavior in the Pandemic period reignited the Tibet issue. While it is commonly understood that the Dalai Lama has given away Tibet's shot at independence, it is not so. Legally the Chinese have rejected his proposal, and hence the middle path is not sacrosanct. Secondly, the 17 Point Agreement will not hold up legally. Notably, China is vulnerable to 'losing face' in any future international event as was feared before the Beijing Olympics. These political leverages can be used.

Overall Assessment

The future course of the Sino-Tibet-Indo relations will largely be dictated by what the people of Tibet want and how they swing. The common belief is that they are in misery under the Chinese. There is also an uninformed perception that Tibet can go up in flames for the Chinese at the flick of a switch. The reality is far from that. It would be fair to assume that there will be three shades of Tibetans.

The first shade would be those who have still not reconciled to the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The diaspora, the government in exile in India, and the hardcore followers of Dalai Lama will naturally fall into this category. Those who have been won over or are aligned with the CCP and are themselves communists. These could be within the walls of monasteries also.

After all, it was this variety that opened the gates to Tibet for the communists long back. Then there will be a wide variety who want to get on with life. They would generally prefer the relative prosperity of Chinese rule. Will they face danger, death, and privation of separatism or dissent? One also needs to realize that the Chinese have made inroads in seven decades.

The potential for victory against the CCP is non-existent. Any pullback has to be planned in detail and is a long haul. Also, any chance of change is only feasible if there is full support from India, the USA, and Europe. So far, all three have left the Tibetans in a helpless and tangled condition.

In the next part, we will examine the Indian angles. However, before that, I would request feedback and observations from better informed and knowledgeable people than me to give their ideas or guidance on the issues covered so far. It will be fascinating to know what India should do in the current conditions and those looming ahead.

(Lt Gen PR Shankar retired as Director General of Artillery, Indian Army. The author has vast operational experience and has held many important command, staff, and instructional appointments in the Army. An alumnus of Defence Services Staff College Wellington, Army War College Mhow, Naval Post Graduate School Monterrey and National Defence College Delhi, he gave great impetus to the modernization of Artillery through indigenization.

He has a deep understanding and experience of successful defense planning and acquisition spanning over a decade. Major 155mm Gun projects like the Dhanush, M777 ULH and k9 Vajra, Rocket and Missile projects related to Pinaka, Brahmos and, Grad BM21, surveillance projects like Swati WLR and some ammunition projects came to fructification due to his efforts. You can reach him on Twitter:@palepurshankar, Email ID: [email protected])

(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')

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