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When scholar, spy and explorer extraordinaire, Sarat Chandra Das ventured into Tibet in 1879, dressed as a monk, armed with his sextants and theodolites, counting his steps as he surveyed vast swathes of land, little would he have imagined that Tibet would continue to remain central to the global conversation even after close to a hundred and fifty years.

Tibet has had a rich legacy of coexisting as an independent entity alongside India and China while political power shifted in Asia between empires and kingdoms. However, that legacy is being systemically dismantled with the world turning a blind eye to ruthless Chinese control over Tibetan culture and identity. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims that Tibet is an integral part of China. The Tibetan Government-in-Exile maintains that Tibet is an independent state under unlawful occupation. Regardless of the legal status of Tibet, the issue of human rights, including the right to self-determination and the right of the Tibetan people to maintain their own culture, traditions, identity and autonomy must remain legitimate areas of international concern.

The turning point in Tibet’s history came in 1949 when the People’s Liberation Army of the PRC first crossed into Tibet. Thereafter, the 17-point agreement was signed between the Chinese and Tibetan representatives in 1951 and ever since then, there had been widespread discontent regarding the manner and the circumstances in which it was agreed to. The Tibetan resistance eventually culminated in the failed Tibetan uprising in the face of ruthless Chinese aggression which saw the 14th Dalai Lama escaping to seek political asylum in India in 1959. His Holiness was escorted by his followers and soldiers of the Assam Rifles, India’s oldest paramilitary force, to cross over to Tawang in India and then on to Lumla in Arunachal Pradesh.

The Dalai Lama’s arrival set in motion, what can possibly be an irreversible change of dynamics when it comes to Sino-Indian relations. Since India achieved Independence in 1947, the country has had an inconsistent policy viz-a-viz Tibet, primarily due to contemporary compulsions. It has ranged from attempting to push China back along India’s historical borders of Tibet to indirectly assisting a resistance movement, to a capitulation in 2003. Most recently, it is being suggested that India may have rethought its approach on Tibet with public acknowledgement of the Dalai Lama’s birthday by no less than the top Indian leadership. However, these claims are not underscored by any consistency, which has been the primary lacunae on the Indian side. If anything, they point to the hardened Chinese stance on Tibet that even a mere public acknowledgement of a religious and spiritual leader is seen as ‘interference’. Moreover, the Chinese claims over Arunachal Pradesh as part of a historical ‘South Tibet’ has acted as a counter-weight in so far as Indian involvement in Tibetan matters is concerned. Those claims, however, rely on ‘Chinese history’ whereas it is largely agreed that any discussion on Tibet must essentially derive its standing based on empirical sources of Tibetan history and Indo-Tibet relations.

India assumes a large share of the responsibility when it comes to Sino-Tibet relations, considering it is home to a close to a lakh-strong Tibetan refugee community that fled persecution at Chinese hands. Of late though, the numbers have declined rapidly, owing to India not recognising the Tibetans-in-exile as refugees, but as foreigners. It also does not help that India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees, which would ensure legal protection of the rights of Tibetans. Consequently, the Tibetans in India have minimal access to social services and are ineligible for government jobs or welfare schemes. If this rapid emigration continues, what will remain of the Tibetan community in India, the country which the Dalai Lama made his home? Former National Security Advisor of India Shivshankar Menon, in a recent conversation on Argumentative Indians, spoke about India’s non-involvement but support for the Tibetan right to self-determination. (

While that argument does have its merits, a case can also be made for a proactive Indo-Tibet partnership to be more than just an entity that is caught between geostrategy and cultural history.

The persecution of Tibetans at the hands of the PRC has been well documented. Independent reports have pointed to the heavy censorship of Tibetans living in Lhasa. Even speaking of the Dalai Lama or having a Tibetan flag on one’s mobile phone is reason enough for an individual to be jailed. Intense surveillance, lack of any judicial recourse, and torture camps are just some of the instruments of the State-sanctioned assault on the Tibetan way of life. Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan language are discouraged to the extent of marginalising them on the very land they blossomed. Political rights are far and few, evidenced by the fact that no Tibetan has been appointed Party Secretary - the senior-most position in the Government. The PRC also has a policy incentivizing migration in Tibet from mainland China, with the goal of reducing the Tibetans to a minority. Human Rights Watch quotes a Tibetan blogger - “Getting a passport is harder for a Tibetan than getting into heaven. This is one of those ‘preferential policies’ given to us Tibetans by [China’s] central government”. Environmental exploitation under the guise of development is rampant and Tibet’s resources are being used not for the benefit of the Tibetans, but for the PRC. This is the reality of the ‘autonomy’ that Tibetans have been accorded by the PRC.

The Dalai Lama in his ‘Strasbourg Proposal’ outlined the future Tibetan strategy of a conciliatory, middle-way approach wherein, giving up their demands for independence, the Tibetan autonomous government would function alongside the PRC with ‘meaningful’ autonomy. ‘Rangzen’ or complete freedom remains a pipe dream and has now given way to a hope for pragmatic, peaceful co-existence. However, the reality is soon dawning that there is no Tibet cause and no Tibet card. China’s economic rise globally has stunned even its harshest critics and until the day we see evidence to the contrary, the Tibetan cause may remain limited to mere lip service, down in the pecking order of global issues of concern.

Until that day, the Tibetan struggle for self-determination and dignified co-existence can be expected to continue.

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