In the summer of 1889, the legendary linguist, scholar and spy Sarat Chandra Das arrived at the Potala, disguised as a wandering pilgrim, became the first foreigner to meet the 13th Dalai Lama. He recorded that the eight year old’s eyes were “large and penetrating, and the shape of his face remarkably Aryan, though somewhat marred by the obliquity of his eyes”. The country’s Chinese administrators, by contrast, “were all black and of villainous appearance, greatly contrasting with the respectable Tibetan gentry, which forced me to think they were all recruited from low-class people from Western China”. His finding was blunt: “the Tibetans abhor them from the depths of their hearts”
Now, as the successor of that eight year old child visits Arunachal Pradesh, a storm of anger unleashed in Beijing has washed over the Himalayas. New Delhi’s decision to allow Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, to visit Arunachal Pradesh, will cause “serious damage” to ties and jeopordise border talks, China says.
To many in New Delhi, the dragon’s huffiness speaks of rank hypocrisy. Beijing, after all, has shown little concern for Indian sensitivities on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, even refusing to allow the United Nations to impose sanctions on Masood Azhar Alvi, a man who heads a terrorist group China itself has banned.
But there’s something considerably more important in international relations than point-scoring—and that something is understanding. Das’ text, and the racist memes that underlie it, tell us not a little about the deep fears and hatreds that underlie both countries’ positions. Asia’s twin giants are prisoners of a toxic history neither appears to have the political imagination to overcome.
Tenzin Gyatso has visited Arunachal Pradesh in 1983, 1996, 1997 and twice in 2003—which, put together, gives excellent reason to wonder why Beijing should claim this particular tour has hurt its “core interests”. The answer lies in geopolitics. For one, the Dalai Lama acknowledged Tawang to be part of India in 2008, overruling his own pre-2003 insistence that it was Tibetan—and thus territory over which China had claim. Then, last year, the United States announced it believed Tawang was indisputably Indian, a claim that was followed up by the superpower’s former ambassador to New Delhi, Richard Verma, visiting Arunachal Pradesh.
For a country more secure about its place in the world, this challenge to its territorial self-perception might not amount to much. However, its economic and military might notwithstanding, China is not secure——a legacy of the savage subjection of the country by colonialism powers from the eighteenth century, culminating in the horrors of Japanese imperialism during World War II.
In Beijing, and among many ordinary people in China, the India-United States axis is read as part of a plot to encircle the country, and incite internal troubles that will bring about its collapse. The claim is overblown, but separatism is seen as a real threat. Thus, China’s limited problems with Islamist terrorism have led to to savagely crack down on Muslim religious practices in Xinjiang.
Das, interestingly, had a not-small role in shaping this paranoia. His secret cartographic work paved the way for Francis Younghusband’s savage war on Lhasa, which pried open Tibet for British commercial interests. The invasion led China’s Qing dynasty to realise it needed to exercise direct control over Tibet, rather than treat it as a vassal state, so another invasion followed in 1910. The Qing collapsed in 1913, but the Chinese communists occupied Tibet in 1951, shoring up their new republic’s western flanks.
From 1956, India deepened the fears—a part of the story not often told in this country. Tibetan guerillas were being raised by the Central Intelligence Agency from Indian territory, for staging deep-penetration raids inside China. The scheme came to nothing, but China has long disbelieved Indian assertions it was carried out without New Delhi’s knowledge. There’s historical baggage, therefore, to the events playing out in Tawang.
Precisely what will India gain from backing the Dalai Lama, though? Back in 1889, signs of anti-Chinese anger seemed everywhere: Das, though, did not close his eyes to inquity in feudal Tibet. He wrote, for example, of the ragyahas, condemned for minor crimes like vagabondage to lifelong unpaid servitude carving up bodies for burial. He saw prisoners loaded with heavy chains: “some had their hands manacled, others their arms passed through blocks of wood, not a few had their eyes put out. The Government does not provide these miserable wretches with food, but lets them beg their sustenance”.
Experts are divided, but few believe there is any real secessionist threat in Tibet. The Government has succeeded in winning acquiescence, if not warm support, through economic development, and granting some limited space for cultural rights. The last major protests came in 2012, when many monks immolated themselves—but even those events posed no threat to the state.
Tibet’s society, moreover, isn’t unequivocally enthusiastic for the religious order the Dalai Lama represents—and Das’ manuscript helps understand why. Far from demonstrating the compassion on which Buddhism was founded, the Dalai Lama presided over a clerical dystopia. Life convicts, Das recorded, were “placed in a cell, the door is removed, and the opening filled up with stone masonry, only one small aperture, about six inches in diameter, being left”. A few he recorded, “live for two years under this horrible treatment, while others, more fortunate, die in a few months”.
Lhasa’s filth, the absence of health infrastructure to deal with a smallpox epidemic, the despotism of the monastic regime: these did not elude Das either.
New Delhi is right to tell Beijing that it can’t expect India to show respect for China’s concerns when there’s no sensitivity flowing the other way. It’s entirely legitimate, moreover, for India to be irate at Beijing’s less-than-straightforward efforts to lay claim to Tawang. In earlier border talks, both sides had agreed that settled areas would not be touched in a border settlement; now, China is seeking to roll back that principle.
Having said that, there’s plenty New Delhi stands to lose from courting trouble with China. The country could inflame insurgencies in India’s North-East, as it did in the 1960s and 1970s, or interfere with the Brahmaputra water system. The Dalai Lama might be on India’s side—but he offers precious little retaliatory leverage.
These are excellent reasons for India to prepare the military capacities it needs should the worst-case scenario arise—but also to avoid zero-gain, high-loss confrontations.
The bottom line is this: the Tawang dispute just isn’t worth the wider relationship, rich as it is in trade, technology and investment. That doesn’t mean New Delhi should bow to Beijing’s whims, but it is an excellent case for avoiding acting like a group of schoolboys prodding a sleeping dragon with a sharp stick to see what might happen. Machismo might play well on television—but isn’t smart strategy.