Chinese Cultural Policies in Tibet: A Perspective from India

Swati Chawla

Indians have at least two vantage points from which to view what is happening in Tibet. Large parts of Himalayan India border Tibet, and the perspective from these regions is often different from the capital in New Delhi. Lay and monastic populations of Himalayan India, Bhutan, and Tibet have been closely knit in networks of kinship, religious patronage, pilgrimage, and trade for centuries. Seasonal migration was customary, as was travel for monastic education. Tibetans could enter British India without a passport or a visa.1 And Indian cities of Gaya, Sanchi, and Sarnath were important sites of pilgrimage for Tibetans, as was Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet for Indian pilgrims. Thus, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama trod along the path of many Tibetans before him when he escaped into India on March 31, 1959. The large Tibetan diaspora that followed him into exile as a result of China’s crackdown on cultural freedoms in Tibet is often recognized as an important influence in India’s response to those policies. However, older Indo-Tibetan interconnections, particularly across the Himalayan range, have played an equally decisive part. Thus, even when Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not wish the Dalai Lama “happy birthday” on his 85th birthday this July—an omission noted by many Tibetans and Tibet supporters in India—leaders from his party from the Himalayan regions of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh certainly did.2

In addition to different geographical vantage points, there are some differences across India’s multi-party political spectrum too. China experts such as Jabin T. Jacob at Shiv Nadar University point out that the political right in India has been more forthcoming on cultural and religious issues in Tibet.3 For them, the cultural and historical interconnections mentioned above mean that “what the Chinese do in Tibet has implications beyond Tibet [in India].” Their map of a putative “Akhand Bharat” (Undivided India) has often included Tibet, especially Kailash Mansarover, which is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus and Buddhists. “The specific contours of the map change depending on who is sketching it, but it has, at different times, included Tibet, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka,” Jacob said.4 He added that the political parties on the left, often wrongly painted with the same brush, are also not blind to the nature of the Chinese Communist Party, and have, in multiple party congresses, expressed their differences with it.

The specter of communism

The first few years following India’s independence from colonial rule in 1947 were rife with cartographic anxiety and attempts to secure the loyalty of borderland populations. India’s first deputy prime minister Sardar Vallabhai Patel warned Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of the dangers posed by China, and of India’s responsibility towards the Tibetan people.5 The Chinese characterization of the Tibetan establishment as a corrupt feudal theocracy, and itself as an agent of emancipation did not find much resonance in India.6 Anxieties over India’s border security on the eastern front continued to escalate through the 1950s and 1960s. And it was in this context that the Indian state received reports about the impact of Chinese policies in Tibet. Accounts from Tibetans escaping into India—monks in particular—of sweeping changes under the communist regime in China fueled India’s fears, and featured prominently in intelligence from the regions bordering Tibet through the 1950s and 1960s. In June 1955, the Indian political officer in the erstwhile Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim reported to the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi about a rumor that the Chinese proposed to bring about “500 girls trained in Communism” to Lhasa who will be made to marry monks from various monasteries. He added that “such monks as marry them will be given loans to carry on trade etc.” And he apprehended the larger agenda: “The Chinese are experiencing great resistance from the monasteries to their regime in Tibet and to the new changes. Perhaps this is the subtle means of overcoming resistance and hastening the process of Sinification of Tibet.”7 India feared that communist control over Tibet might have a cascading effect in the region on the survival of monarchies in Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim, and radicalize politics at home, especially in the border state of West Bengal.8

But this ‘specter of communism’ is now done and dusted, Jacob said, adding that “in any case, it isn’t so much communism as a combination of Han nationalism and a Leninist state that is behind the crackdown [in Tibet].” Furthermore, China has changed since the mid-20th century: “The Chinese are savvy too. They are selectively allowing parts of Tibetan Buddhism to flourish. This would not have happened under Mao.”

The ‘Tibet card’?

“The Indian Foreign Ministry is responsive to happenings in India, not in the Tibetan Autonomous Region,” another China expert Hamsini Hariharan told me.9 A phrase that is often used as a shorthand in describing this aspect of India’s foreign policy is “the Tibet card,” which Hariharan explained as “a political tit for tat.” “If China brings up Kashmir, or India’s persecution of its minorities, India brings up [China’s treatment of] Tibet,” she said. Jacob concurred, “Yes, our policy towards Tibetans is influenced by our foreign policy goals vis-à-vis China. We have an interest in contesting Chinese propaganda about their historical claims on Tibet, which are, of course, factually untrue. If they are able to say that they are doing a good job in Tibet, and make claims on Tawang, we counter it by whatever means necessary including the Tibet card.”

During Narendra Modi’s first swearing-in ceremony as prime minister in 2014, the ‘Sikyong’ or head of the Central Tibetan Administration Lobsang Sangay was in attendance as a special guest, as was the Taiwanese trade representative.10 Two years later in 2016, the Dalai Lama was a guest at the then President Pranab Mukherjee’s gathering of Nobel laureates, an invitation at which China expressed dissatisfaction “saying it hoped India would recognize the Nobel Peace Prize winning monk as a separatist in religious guise.”11 The following year, a bipartisan US congressional delegation led by Nancy Pelosi met the Dalai Lama at the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala in northern India. The delegation called China out on human rights violations, and expressed solidarity with the Dalai Lama’s struggle for meaningful autonomy. It was given wide coverage in the Indian media.12 However, just months later in early 2018, events by the administration in exile commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s escape into India were variously cancelled or moved elsewhere from the capital in Delhi.13 The Indian government issued a directive prohibiting bureaucrats and leaders from attending these events, because it was a “very sensitive time” for the Sino-India relationship.14 And Prime Minister Modi did not invite any Tibetan representatives to his second swearing-in ceremony in 2019.15 For journalist Debasish Roy Chowdhury, these seemingly conflicting positions are evidence that “India balances the carrot and stick [vis-à-vis China].”16 India’s Tibet policy has little do with Tibetans in exile or in Tibet.

The same is evidenced in the way the Indian media covers—or does not—what is happening within the TAR. Chowdhury observed that there is little news reporting on China in India, except from a geopolitical or defence perspective. He said, “I get the sense that the Indian media don’t care about the Tibetan issue per se, but only the geopolitical question around the Dalai Lama’s position. It is not a human-interest subject for them.” He pointed out that Indian reporters in China are briefed to report only stories which affect India, and any other stories are mostly wire copies from western media outlets, as opposed to original reporting. This is partly because of restrictions within TAR, and also because Indian media houses don’t invest much on their foreign correspondents. “They wouldn’t send a Beijing correspondent to cover Tibet,” Chowdhury said.

Consequently, even as Tibetans within India have worked hard to raise awareness about specific Chinese cultural policies in the TAR and beyond, many Indians understand the issue in simplistic terms. Among my own students over the years, I have observed that the only associations about Tibet are of monks—not even nuns—in red robes, or the figure of the Dalai Lama. As Hariharan observed, “they understand that Tibetans have been discriminated against because of their religion, and China is an authoritarian country…[and] might have a baseline understanding of the crackdown on religious freedoms, but not much beyond to how, say, the linguistic policy or the One Child Policy works in the TAR.”

The “post Dalai Lama scenario”: Who controls Tibetan Buddhism?

The deracination of monastic institutions during the Cultural Revolution and beyond is an important part of the Tibetan exile administration’s stand against the PRC. The stand has found a sympathetic ear within Indian government and media. In addition to the historical and religious interconnections mentioned before, India also has a significant place in the Tibetan self-definition as the birthplace of Buddhism, and the land from which Tibetan monastic tradition, language, philosophy, and literary traditions originated. Mahayana literature from India was properly catalogued and preserved for the first time in the Tibetan language, and several important Buddhist texts no longer extant in Sanskrit or any other Indian language are available in Tibetan.17

At stake in the destruction of Buddhist institutions within Tibet, therefore, is not just Tibetan heritage, but Indian heritage and history too. In an interaction with my students this summer, Amitabh Mathur, former advisor on Tibetan Affairs in the Ministry of Home Affairs, said, “The Tibetan struggle is a civilizational struggle, and it derives inspiration from its religious leaders. [And] the struggle between India and China on the question of [the Dalai Lama’s] succession is about who controls Tibetan Buddhism. For the Chinese, it is a political thing. They have been posing as the biggest Buddhist nation in the world, which is perhaps statistically true.”18

The question of the Dalai Lama’s succession—euphemistically described as “the post Dalai Lama scenario”—is inescapably at the heart of any cultural policy on Tibet, whether in India or China, or even the United States, which recently appointed a special coordinator for Tibetan issues. On whether the PRC government can exercise any control over the succession since about 6 million Tibetans live in Tibet, and only a fraction (about 125,000) in exile, Mathur stressed that “it is not an election,” but a personal choice of the present Dalai Lama. As Tibetans in exile often point out, the Panchen Lama installed by the Chinese has also found little resonance with Tibetans. Mathur believes that the endorsement of other senior lineage holders, most importantly the Seventeenth Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, will lend credibility to the process which many fear might have to contend with a rival candidate: "It is in our interest that lineage holders are treated respectfully in India. The Chinese will try after the Fourteenth is no more to get endorsement for their candidate from a number of people. The Shugden followers and the monks stuck in Tibet will be forced to endorse the Chinese candidate.”

Conclusion: A red rag to the bull or fools’ paradise?

In a talk at the Institute of Chinese Studies this July, former Indian ambassador to China, Nirupama Menon Rao pointed out that the cross-border fighting on the night of June 15, 2020 marked the end of a 45-year long chapter where no armed confrontation involving loss of life had happened between India and China.19 She was asked a question that often comes up in Indian fora on Sino-Indian relations: “Is talking about the Dalai Lama a red rag to the bull? And, therefore, should you not talk about him?” Rao admitted that “the presence of the Dalai Lama in India is a thorn in the flesh for [China].” However, she pointed out that even endorsement of China’s position on the Tibetan question has not won India much credit with its neighbor. Mathur too believes that “we are living in a fools’ paradise if we think that the Sino-Indian boundary question would be resolved but for the Dalai Lama.”

The question itself arises from a misunderstanding that Sino-Indian relations can be approached through a strictly bilateral prism, from which it is possible to excise Tibet and the Himalaya. While culturally diverse and influenced by their specific and often confrontational histories, Tibet and the Himalaya connect the two Asian giants. As Omair Ahmad explained to our students: “What is the Sino-Indian boundary dispute, but the fight over the detritus of the Tibetan empire”?20

1. For more on Tibetan migration to India before the Dalai Lama, see https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/tibetan-migration-to-india-before-the-fourteenth-dalai-lama.

2. Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, member of Parliament from Ladakh on Twitter, https://twitter.com/JTNBJP/status/1279985469611114497. Kiren Rijiju, member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh on Twitter, https://twitter.com/KirenRijiju/status/1279995957325660160. Rijiju’s video message, https://twitter.com/tlekshay/status/1280047048436314114.

3. Personal interview, October 18, 2020. All subsequent references from Jabin T. Jacob are from this interview.

4. For examples in Bharat Mata (Mother India) iconography, see, http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00routesdata/1800_1899/congress/bharatmata/bharatmata.html.

5. In his letter dated 7 November 1950 to Nehru, Patel said, “The tragedy of it is that the Tibetans put faith in us; they chose to be guided by us; and we have been unable to get them out of the meshes of Chinese diplomacy or Chinese malevolence.” Quoted in L.L. Mehrotra, India’s Tibet Policy: An Appraisal and Options (New Delhi: Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre, 2000).

6. Even the cautious and measured Prime Minister Nehru confessed the incompatibility of China’s twin aims of “liberating” Tibet and coming to a peaceful settlement: “It is not quite clear from whom they were going to liberate it.” (Jawaharlal Nehru to Lok Sabha on December 7, 1950. Indian Parliament on the Issue of Tibet: Lok Sabha, 1952-2005.)

7. “Reports on Sikkim (Gangtok),” Ministry of External Affairs, Research and Intelligence Section, 1955, File No. 52- R&I/ 55, National Archives of India.

8. “Printing of Brochure on ‘Contemporary Heads of Missions in South, South-East and East Asia,’” Ministry of External Affairs, Research and Intelligence Section, 1969, File No. HI/ 121 (3)/ 69, National Archives of India.

9. Personal interview, October 18, 2020. All subsequent references from Hamsini Hariharan are from this interview.

10. For China’s reaction to the invitation, see Indrani Bagchi, “Tibetan leader at Modi’s swearing in irks China,” Times of India, June 5, 2014, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Tibetan-leader-at-Modis-swearing-in-irks-China/articleshow/36080500.cms.

11. “China upset as Dalai Lama meets President Pranab Mukherjee,” Reuters, December 16, 2016, https://in.reuters.com/article/china-india-dalailama/china-upset-as-dalai-lama-meets-president-pranab-mukherjee-idINKBN1451BP.

12. For more on the visit and China’s response, see Douglas Busvine, “Top US Lawmakers Meet Dalai Lama, Say Won’t Back Down on Human Rights in Tibet,” The Wire, May 11, 2017, https://thewire.in/diplomacy/us-dalai-lama-tibet.

13. For more on some of the events and Indian government’s position, see “Government’s discomfort was ‘conveyed’ to Tibetan leadership on Dalai Lama events in Delhi,” The Hindu, March 6, 2018, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/governments-discomfort-was-conveyed-to-tibetan-leadership-on-dalai-lama-events-in-delhi/article22940334.ece.

14. For more on the cancellations, see “Dalai Lama event in Delhi cancelled, ‘Thank You India’ programme shifted to Dharamsala, here is why,” Financial Express, March 6, 2018, https://www.financialexpress.com/india-news/dalai-lama-event-in-delhi-cancelled-thank-you-india-programme-shifted-to-dharamsala-here-is-why-india-china-tibet/1088630/. For more on how India’s equivocal position impacts Tibetans in India, see Kunal Purohit, “After 60 years in India, why are Tibetans leaving?” Aljazeera, March 21, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2019/3/21/after-60-years-in-india-why-are-tibetans-leaving.

15. See “No invite for Taiwan representative and Tibet’s govt in exile,” The Economic Times, May 30, 2019, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/no-invite-for-taiwan-representative-and-tibets-govt-in-exile/articleshow/69571515.cms.

16. Personal interview, October 18, 2020. All subsequent references from Debasish Roy Chowdhury are from this interview.

17. L.L. Mehrotra, India’s Tibet Policy.

18. Amitabh Mathur, Webinar for course on “Tibetans in India” at Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University, May 29, 2020. All subsequent quotations from Mathur are from the same webinar.

19. For the full talk, see https://www.icsin.org/activity/show/india-and-china-the-end-of-a-chapter.

20. Omair Ahmad, Talk at “Tibetans in India: Speaker Series 2020” co-organized by Swargajyoti Gohain (Ashoka University) and Swati Chawla (O.P. Jindal Global University), August 6, 2020.

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