A glance at some recent newspaper reports would suggest that the Indian authorities are being assiduously urged to “change” their policy on Tibet and that a new policy was in the offing that would enable India to play the so-called Tibetan card. All this is in riposte to China’s anti-Indian attitude most recently manifested, once again, in the blocking at the UNSC 1267 Sanctions Committee of naming the Jaish-e-Mohammad Chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist. But what is this Tibetan card; the playing of which that is so persistently advocated and what does it entail?
When China invaded Tibet on 7 October 1950 to incorporate Tibet into the just proclaimed People’s Republic of China, it presented India with an acute dilemma. What should newly independent India do? Hitherto policy matters pertaining to India were always decided by Whitehall taking into consideration British Imperial interests, including commercial and the safety and security of the British Empire in India. Therefore it was but natural, given the long history of association between Tibet, the British Indian government and China; that PM Nehru thought it fit to consult the Attlee government in London. He did so on 27 October 1950. Attlee’s advice to Nehru came in the form of an eight point memorandum. Points [ii] and [v] of this memorandum are most important. These were (Point ii) that ‘India should do what it can for Tibet ...short of military assistance.’ And that (Point v) ‘recognizing Tibetan independence must be ruled out’ [emphasis added]. Similarly, the British also emphasised the following points to the US. These were [a] that Britain was ‘always’ prepared to recognize Chinese sovereignty [note: use of word ‘sovereignty’ and not ‘suzerainty’] over Tibet, but on the understanding that Tibet is autonomous and [b] that Tibet’s inaccessibility makes it impracticable to do anything to stiffen military resistance to China. Tibet has long been judged as incapable of anything more than nominal resistance [emphasis added]. Nehru accepted British government advice for he maintained in a Note on 18 November 1950 that ‘neither India nor any external power could prevent the Chinese take-over of Tibet.’ Having taken this position Nehru, conscious of India’s inferior military position, now defined Indian policy as consisting of [a] to ensure the safety and security of India [b] acceptance of Chinese suzerainty/sovereignty over Tibet and [c] to advance friendship with China. It was partially due to Nehru and the machinations of Attlee that the Tibetan question in the UN, raised by the hapless Tibetans, never preceded beyond preliminaries. It died a natural death, for by then even the US had decided to play safe.
The 17 point Agreement signed between the Tibetans and China on 23 May 1951 ended any hopes of genuine autonomy for Tibet. Further the signing of the 1954 India-China Agreement symbolized the complete formalization of all developments since the invasion of Tibet by China and the total elimination of Indian political influence in Tibet. For the first time ever, India in a formal document recognized Tibet as an integral part of China. In international legal terms, it signalled the fact that the only country that had special relations with Tibet, had now agreed to relinquish these and did so without any reference or consultation with the Dalai Lama or even with the Tibetan government. For the Tibetans, it can be said that the curtain was finally drawn on their aspirations to be an independent state or even an autonomous one.
From this point in time till 23 June 2003, India maintained that ‘Tibet is an autonomous region of China’. Even in the 1962 conflict and thereafter, India did not waver or change its position. However when PM Vajpayee [BJP government] visited China in June 2003, the formulation to describe Tibet’s status with China underwent a significant change. The new position was that “The Indian side recognizes that the Tibetan Autonomous Region is a part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China”[emphasis added]. This position has been reiterated since in Joint Statements/Declarations on 11 April 2005 and 21 November 2006 [PM Manmohan Singh]. Thereafter there was no mention of the status of Tibet in the 15 January 2008 ‘Shared Vision of the 21st Century Statement’ or in the 16 December 2010 Joint Communique. The above formulation was revived later after May 2014.
By stating that India now considered Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR] to be a part of the People’s Republic of China [PRC] had certain distinct political connotations. Firstly, it was now understood to mean that India accepted that there was no ‘invasion’ of Tibet by China in 1950, since Tibet was a part of the PRC that had already been established in 1949. It also means that the entry of Chinese troops into Tibet in 1950 was only a part of territorial consolidation. Secondly, China had lopped off considerable parts of erstwhile Tibetan territory and incorporated these into other provinces. Thus by recognizing TAR, as opposed to Tibet earlier, India also recognized its new territorial limits and the incorporation of parts of Tibetan territory into other Chinese provinces; contrary to the position of the Dalai Lama. It may also be noted that China describes Arunachal Pradesh as "Southern Tibet".
Thus if this be the stated position that India had taken all along, where is the space for playing the Tibetan card? Not only would India have to renege on all previous positions taken since 1950, but also consider that there is no other foreign state that recognizes Tibetan independence. China considers Tibet to be a “core” issue and therefore any change in position by India would mean that a challenge to China’s territorial integrity had been made. Its reaction would inevitably be violent. As far back as 1954 PM Zhou had told Nehru in Beijing that China was a ‘peace loving’ country, but if its territorial integrity was threatened it would react with full force. All those who insist on playing the Tibetan card should be mindful of what this entails and not treat this issue with a light heart!