Saturday, August 28, 2010
Whimpering India, assertive China
While New Delhi has floundered for 63 years on Jammu & Kashmir, Beijing has deftly made Tibet an integral part of China
On August 11, His Holiness the Dalai Lama met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ostensibly to thank him for “the good care India has taken of him and his followers living in exile for the past 50 years”. The Dalai Lama’s meeting with Mr Singh followed Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s visit to Dharamsala last month where she met the Tibetan spiritual leader and his senior aides. What transpired at that meeting is not known, but we can presume it was a routine discussion between the senior-most official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and India’s guests who would rather describe themselves as members of the ‘Tibetan Government-in-Exile’ which is based in Dharamsala. The Dalai Lama’s representative in New Delhi, Kalon Tempa Tsering, says too much should not be read into who called on whom where and when: “What’s so unusual about the meeting? It is part of the Dalai Lama’s regular interaction with Indian leaders … He keeps meeting Indian leaders… He met Vice-President Hamid Ansari a year ago.”
Mr Ansari no doubt holds an exalted office; if the President’s job were to fall vacant due to unforeseeable circumstances before Ms Pratibha Patil’s tenure comes to an end, he would become the head of state, if only as a stop-gap measure. That apart, as Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, he is not really important enough for the Government of the world’s second largest economy to get into a lather over his meeting with the “splittist” Dalai Lama. New Delhi’s pecking order is as well-known in the Gymkhana as in Washington, DC or Beijing: The Prime Minister matters, the Vice-President doesn’t.
So, it’s not surprising that China should have taken offence, and made it clear that it feels offended, when the Prime Minister agreed to meet the Dalai Lama. Beijing views this as granting legitimacy to the Dalai Lama’s claimed status as the undisputed leader of all Tibetans, whether living in exile or in their homeland, vested with both spiritual and temporal authority by “his people” of “his Tibet”. Beijing’s position is clear, unambiguous and asserted without any sense of either self-doubt or hint of apology: Tibet belongs to China, the people belong to both Tibet and China, and the Dalai Lama has no business to poke his nose into temporal affairs — for all practical purposes he is a persona non grata and the “splittist clique” he heads comprises anti-national elements.
We need not agree with that position. Indeed, history can be cited to contest China’s claim on Tibet. But if we are to take a moral position, if we are to contest China’s version of history, then we should have the courage and the wherewithal to stand by our conviction and be prepared to face the consequences. The Chinese have responded predictably by upping the ante on Jammu & Kashmir and denying a visa to Lt Gen BS Jaswal who heads the Northern Command. Whether the Chinese tit followed the Indian tat or it was the other way round is not quite clear because the visa is believed to have been denied in July while the Prime Minister met the Dalai Lama in August. But irrespective of the sequence, it is abundantly clear that Beijing has considerably lowered its threshold of tolerance and New Delhi has not exactly planned for a showdown.
To merely insist that “Jammu & Kashmir concerns our sovereignty and is as sensitive to us as Tibet is to them” is neither here nor there. That we are still reluctant to call a spade-a-spade, which China does without bothering about bruised egos — the Ministry of External Affairs spokesman said Lt Gen Jaswal could not visit China for a scheduled defence-related programme “due to certain reasons” although those reasons are no secret — is indicative of our inherent weakness. Diplomacy in the 21st century is not about maudlin sentiments and polite niceties; it’s about aggressively, unapologetically promoting, and securing, self-interest. China does that with great élan; we talk about “sensitivity to each other’s concerns”, a principle we tend to follow in the breach.
Since the Government of India has chosen to compare Jammu & Kashmir with Tibet — a needless comparison really because accession and annexation aren’t one and the same — it would be in order to elaborate upon the comparison. What New Delhi has failed to achieve in 63 years, Beijing has achieved in 50 years. Jammu & Kashmir, more so the Valley, remains a running sore for India, threatening to turn septic every now and then, a cesspit teeming with avaricious politicians and corrupt officials where hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees in ‘development aid’ have disappeared over the decades with little or nothing to show by way of either development or securing India’s strategic interests. In sharp contrast, as I witnessed during my visit to Lhasa earlier this month, Beijing has converted Tibet truly into an integral part of China. The Chinese Central Government has spent more than 100 billion yuan on just developing Tibet’s infrastructure over the past five decades and every yuan has been well spent. It’s not just roads and houses and hospitals and schools, or for that matter the Beijing-Lhasa rail link which is an engineering marvel, but the assertion of Chinese sovereignty over the Tibetan Autonomous Region which is at once impressive and instructive, especially for us in India.
Sixty-three years after Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession, we are still debating the constitutional status of Jammu & Kashmir. A succession of Prime Ministers, despairing at Kashmiri separatism, have offered ‘autonomy’ ranging from “anything short of azadi” to “azadi short of separation”. Article 370 stands as a psychological and legal barrier between India and a State the Government of India claims to integral to India. China dealt with the issue of autonomy for Tibet by restricting it to protecting Tibetan culture (for instance, polyandry is allowed but not encouraged; the one-child norm is relaxed but there are incentives for those who shun the relaxation; lamas are left alone but monasteries are guarded by the PLA) and allowing participation in what we call the political process “under the leadership of the Central Government”.
Most important of all, China does not restrict Chinese from settling in China’s Tibet, unlike India restricting Indians from settling in India’s Jammu & Kashmir. No, the Hans have not flooded Tibet, as is often alleged by the “splittist clique”, but they are free to seek jobs, set up businesses, acquire and develop property, and invest in Tibet’s economy, adding to the region’s prosperity. While New Delhi has squandered time and opportunity talking about ‘Kashmiriyat’ and ‘Insaniyat’ and other such bunkum, Beijing has firmly established its supremacy over Tibet: Every signboard in Lhasa is in Tibetan, but superscribed in Mandarin. Every address ends with China. And nobody shouts — alright, make that nobody dares shout — “Go China, go back!”
[This appeared as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on August 29, 2010.)