27 March 2015

“She disciplined her memory to give up counting her losses. She gave her suffering one name: exile.” Opening her A Home in Tibet (2013), Tsering Wangmo Dhompa unveils the inescapable torture that time, remembrance and even hope became, for her mother, and a whole people. “My mother,” she adds, “My mother did not return home during her lifetime.” In Old Norse, heimr was the residence, the home, but also, the world. Homeless, world-less. Suddenly, the stories of generations get stuck in time. Without a space, without a world, this is what a people permanently risks: meandering only in memories, with their concerns whirling helplessly, like a destination-less exodus, calling in solely on the shrinking islands of exile lands. So, why is this memory not reaching at least our minds, as 28 March was, in 1959, the date of the dissolution of the Government of Tibet by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China? Caught in-between politico-religious plays, Tibet would fall prey to an era too familiar with wide-scale displacements, not so different perhaps from those of South Asia or the Middle East, a decade before. But, as peoples stay apart, and as we prefer chatting of economic capacities than of the project of genuine multi-cultural cohabitations, histories indeed become just memories. A people remains in a hospitable land for ten, twenty, fifty years. There, in a few hilly towns; there, in one or two colonies of our big cities. Segregated, still, until memories fade, and perhaps soon, die. As LILA Inter-actions looks up north, and looks around, to recall and remember the question of Tibet in India this week, Abanti Bhattacharya addresses the passivity imposed upon Tibet in the realm of geopolitics, caught between the interests and anxieties of its two giant neighbours: China, and India. Agneya Singh keeps the flame alive, and shining, celebrating the force of resistance of the Tibetan struggle in India, even as it suffers from a lack of leadership, and accountability. He reflects on the arts as possibly the needed new space for the metamorphosis of this energy, to continue transforming memories into change.

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The Conundrum In-Between

Abanti Bhattacharya

Free Tibet: A Retail Reality?

Agneya Singh

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Tibet is essentially a sovereignty issue for China. Hence, it is central to China’s national security. For India, Tibet is associated with the border dispute, and therefore, pre-eminently, it is a security issue. But there is a difference in how the two countries view the Tibet conundrum, and as such a solution to it has remained elusive till date.

The question is why the Tibet problem has been so intractable? Simply put, the McMahon Line did not discourage China to reach an agreement on the border with Myanmar. Yet China is steadfast in not accepting the same principle in the case of India. The answer is rooted in the notion of sovereignty that China ascribes to the Tibet question. Border dispute does not plague the Chinese sense of security, but sovereignty over Tibet does. Certainly, by occupying Tibet in 1950, China has closed the debate over its claim on Tibet. Subsequently, the formation of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1965 has further consolidated this sovereign claim. But the Tibet issue has continued to disturb, and at times even derail India-China relations.

The McMahon Line

Arguably, had it not been for the 1959 Tibetan revolt, the Tibet question would have been amicably resolved between India and China. But the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 seemingly ended the possibilities of a plausible solution to the border dispute, and even dragged the two into a war in 1962. The 1962 War is not to be viewed in isolation. The factor of Cold War politics hung heavy on the Tibet issue in particular, and on India-China relations in general. As well, the internal dynamics in both the countries precipitated the two to appropriate jingoism over pragmatism.

The question at this juncture is in what way the Dalai Lama’s flight to India afflicted China’s sense of sovereignty and security? Arguably, Tibet was caught between the two civilisational powers, India and China, metamorphosing into nation-state systems in the post-War era. However, both the countries approached the issue of Tibet differently, given their differing notions of security and, more precisely, their dissimilar strategic culture.

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For China, Tibet is associated with its hundred years of humiliation. Indeed, historically Tibet was not a part of China. Also, it was never a province of imperial China, unlike Xinjiang and Taiwan that were stitched into China’s ‘geo-body’ in 1884 and 1887 respectively. The Qing China, however, did attempt to bring Tibet under its direct administrative control, but this imperial strategy of ‘nationalisation’ of frontier territories was cut short, due to the ensuing Great Game between the British power in India and the Russians in the late nineteenth century. As such, the Qing forces could only bring the Eastern part of Tibet under its direct administrative control, which eventually also became the frontier between Tibet and China in the so-called British demarcation of Inner Tibet vis-à-vis Outer Tibet, the frontier between British India and Tibet as delineated in the 1914 McMahon settlement. What this essentially meant was that Western Tibet remained outside the realm of China till 1949. Notably, throughout history, China confronted its security threats – that of the nomadic tribes from the north and north-western frontier. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, China continued to confront security threats in Tibet, first from the Soviet Russia in the pre-War era and later from the US in the post-War era. Thus, when the Dalai Lama escaped to India, China believed that India and the US connived to destabilise China by interfering in the Tibet issue and fomenting a revolt in 1959. The CIA operations in Mustang and the Tibetan radio agents facilitating the Dalai Lama’s flight further buttressed the Chinese belief.

For India, Tibet has been the combination of a cultural issue and a security concern. For some time, India did retain the privileges in Tibet that was bequeathed to it by the British. But certainly, it did not view Tibet as its sphere of influence. And thus, it naturally gave up its claims and privileges in Tibet and reached an agreement with China in 1954 whereby it accepted Tibet as a region of China. Also, quite expectedly, it gave asylum to the Dalai Lama, in consonance with its past traditions and religious-spiritual linkages. More importantly, the rationale for India to reach the 1954 agreement was not to settle the Tibet issue but the border issue, and specifically the McMahon line that demarcated the border between India and Tibet. This demarcation gained urgency only after the Chinese occupation of Tibet that brought the two countries sharing a common border for the first time in history.

This differing perspective on Tibet has remained entrenched in the strategic and foreign policy perspectives of the two countries, till date. Also, this differing perspective has caused the two countries to keep the border and Tibet as separate, despite the fact that Tibet and the border issue are deeply entangled and any solution to either requires a holistic discussion and dialogue between the two countries. India and China are both evading this reality of critical entanglement of Tibet and the border. And thus, the Special Representative Talks have been protracted.

The Special Representative Talks: and Tibet’s voice?

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While the Tibet conundrum has kept India-China relations in limbo, the Tibetan movement inside and outside China has further complicated the relations between the two erstwhile civilisational powers. Today, Tibet is more a cultural issue and is specifically active about striving to keep the Tibetan identity alive. Hence the cases of self-immolations inside Tibet, all about making the point that Tibetans are different and cannot be clubbed under the Chinese minority question. And further, that the Tibetans deserve to be equally treated, at par with the Han Chinese. Outside Tibet, the movement under the Dalai Lama has certainly moved away from demanding self-determination and independence to striving genuine autonomy for the Tibetans. A genuine autonomy in the Dalai Lama’s understanding is not about seeking independence from China, but rather asking for protection and promotion of the Tibetan identity. To China, the Tibetan demands are in opposition to the notion of autonomy that it has granted to the TAR, and hence the Dalai Lama’s demands are tantamount to secession, or in Chinese parlance ‘splitism’. In fact, the Dalai Lama’s call for genuine autonomy questions the very notion of China’s sovereignty and keeps the memory of century of humiliations alive. Hence, the Tibet question and the Tibetans both inside and outside pose a security threat to China. For India, the presence of the Dalai Lama does not pose a security threat; rather it has allowed New Delhi to enhance its soft power projections.

In sum, any solution to the Tibet conundrum requires not just a meaningful dialogue between India and China tabling the Tibet issue directly in the bilateral talks, but it also needs to involve the Dalai Lama, who had been the political representative of the Tibetans. Without tabling the Tibet issue upfront and discussing it among the three sides, the Tibet conundrum is likely to continue. There is indeed an urgent need for a trilateral discussion on Tibet involving India, China and the Dalai Lama.

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Tibet: A single word that evokes a flurry of images, thoughts and emotions. Grim mountains sketched by the ravages of time, snow-clad peaks melting in the piercing light of a neon sun; a cruel wind lashes against the aged walls of a monastery. A single word that has become synonymous with the displacement and exile of an entire people; the persecution of a cultural ethos. Genocide is easily observable and quantifiable whereas cultural homogenisation or conversion works insidiously over long periods of time and with little to no trace. This is the reality of Tibet that faces us today; is it a dying cause or a growing fad? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between.

Growing up in New Delhi, the political epicentre of India, one occasionally heard this name, Tibet, uttered in school assemblies, on television, and over dinner tables, albeit referenced in passing. The Tibetans were portrayed as an exotic entity; monks in red chanting Buddhist prayers, lost in the mountains. We were summarily apprised that the Chinese intentions were all too dubious; they had stabbed us in the back and our very own pandit Nehru never recovered from this betrayal. The Dalai Lama and his exiled followers had taken refuge somewhere in the Himalayas and that was where this oft-repeated story ended. It was a general knowledge item that usually never even made it to the annual school quiz. As a result, Tibet and the Dalai Lama were expeditiously relegated to the nether regions of one’s consciousness, replaced instead with more pressing matters such as the latest pop number on MTV.

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In universities, on the other hand, Tibet makes a come-back and just about all of us have had that friend – you know – the one who wears the ‘Free Tibet’ shirt and organises protest marches, or poetry readings, or bake sales. You do know what I am referring to here, don’t you? If you attended DU, there is a fair chance you have been dragged to a fair share of these events, perhaps even playing a role beyond that of the casual observer. The Tibetan cause is a perfect fit for the self aware 20 something to latch onto, for an added measure of self-importance. Rebellion is in vogue and who would not want to wear colourful shirts and brandish flags about, in a somewhat threatening manner? Most of these self-professed ‘Free Tibet’ activists tend to outgrow the revolutionary fervour of their youth in a few short years and Tibet is once again out of sight and out of mind! Of course, the t-shirts come in handy every now and then…

Tibetan students keep the struggle alive in India

If I sound harsh, I should clarify that I have always cast my lot with the heady romanticism of my somewhat flippant contemporaries. If there will ever be a non-violent revolution, it is the burning young minds – on and off college campuses – that will be the first spark! I have often looked upon the Tibetan struggle with unequivocal sympathy and admiration. I have attended more peace marches, sit-ins, lie-ins and jail-ins than I care to remember. The motto, ‘little victories, big defeats’, springs to mind; it reminds me of the day-to-day achievements in the realms of peace, equality and brotherhood that eventually culminate in epic revolutionary struggles. Even though one might say that our commitment to the Tibetan struggle is superficial and short-lived, even if it stems from a desire to join a fad or some other frivolous purpose, the results are usually welcome and much needed.

It seems to me that the blame for the faltering direction of the ‘Free Tibet’ movement falls squarely on the shoulders of the self-appointed spokespersons of the exiled Tibetan peoples. Unlike the case of Palestine, international media and big-pocketed philanthropists have time and again flocked to the call for solidarity with Tibet. In the meantime, despite unimaginable and brutal oppression, the Palestinian resistance has always re-grouped. The key leaders have emerged time and again from within the Palestinian community to form the vanguard of rebellion against the sordid oppression of Israeli apartheid. Even a cursory look at the Tibetan movement exposes the abysmal leadership and structures of accountability therein. I find myself scratching my head to come up with a single name beyond that of the Dalai Lama, of course, who can be expected to exert any kind of influence or authority when it comes to guiding the overall movement for a ‘Free Tibet’… perhaps Richard Gere?

The question naturally arises: What hope is there left in such a hopeless situation? I fully admit that China is more than just a force to be reckoned with, and even if we could amass all the human rights activists, students and concerned citizens from all corners of the world, it would make little difference to the ground reality. So what weapons remain in our arsenal? Art is a tool that the disenfranchised have often turned to in the hopes of challenging authority. As a filmmaker, I too have turned to the medium of cinema in an attempt not only to portray my own ideas, but also to understand my own conflicting thoughts about Tibet and the future of the movement.

A shot from M Cream

A short experimental film that I made several years ago, entitled Red Lamas, analyses the lack of global concern with regards to the Tibetan question. Through the use of imagery and metaphor, the film serves to strike home the desperation of the Tibetan peoples, as the world watches silently on. Needless to say, this film was shot when I was still at university and caught up quite heavily in the heady idealism of the Tibetan cause myself.

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More recently, in my first feature film, M Cream, I took a more balanced and critical approach in looking at the overall movement and its finer nuances. The film follows the exploits of a motley bunch of university students who sets out on a road trip to the Himalayas, in pursuit of an elusive drug. The film criss-crosses a host of socio-political issues that are intimately linked to the young and questioning mind. In the course of the journey, the characters happen upon Dharamsala and the plot serves to bring to the surface a few of the more contradictory aspects of the struggle. For instance, the interplay between religion and politics – a lethal cocktail – that has hijacked the Tibetan struggle only too well. Perhaps, as I have grown up, my early optimism for the merits of the struggle have turned into the feeling of a frustrating reality, and possibly a keener insight and understanding as far as the pitfalls go.

A shot from M Cream

Things are rarely as they seem and the same holds particularly true for Tibet. If the track record is anything to go by, it really does appear that unless the focus and direction required to steer this struggle arises from within the ranks of the Tibetan people, the movement will fall further into the bracket of retail revolution. This would comprise a fair deal of catchy merchandise and empty hyperbole… but little else.

Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, Delhi University, Delhi. She teaches courses on China’s foreign policy, Chinese History, India-China relations, East Asian international relations and Chinese Nationalism. She was previously an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi (2002 to 2009), where her research was primarily on Chinese nationalism, minority politics and China’s foreign policy. At the IDSA she was also a member of the editorial board for the IDSA journal, Strategic Analysis, and part of many specialised projects on China. She has published extensively in national and international journals, such as Issues and Studies, Asia-Pacific Review, East Asia, Journal of East Asian Affairs, Strategic Analysis, among others.
Agneya Singh is a filmmaker and screenwriter based in Delhi. Starting out as a documentary filmmaker in New Delhi, he subsequently began to explore narrative structures in story telling, critically commenting on various aspects of society and polity. The notion of rebellion and the idea of protest are recurring themes in his body of work. His short films and videos have been screened at several film festivals and media showcases. A graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, Agneya has recently directed his first feature film, M Cream. Shot on location in India, the film has been received very warmly in various festivals across the globe, where it was awarded several prizes. It will shortly be released in India and internationally.

Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
LILA Inter-actions will not be responsible for the views presented.
The images and the videos used are only intended to provide multiple perspectives on the fields under discussion.

Images and videos courtesy: Jaypore | Web Teach | Tibet.net | SFI India | Agneya Singh

Voice courtesy: Samuel Buchoul & Shriyam Gupta

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