Between Tibet and China, India Plays Delicate Balancing Act
By HEATHER TIMMONS and MALAVIKA VYAWAHARE(NY Times): For more than 50 years, India has been a sometimes gracious, sometimes uneasy and occasionally hostile host to tens of thousands of Tibetans who fled their homeland and settled here after claiming religious and political persecution by the Chinese government.
Last week, India played all three roles, as President Hu Jintao of China met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other emerging market leaders in New Delhi. After a Tibetan set himself on fire during a planned protest in central Delhi, the Indian authorities put Tibetan communities under a virtual lock down and jailed hundreds of Tibetans.
For India, which has been sometimes criticized for an ostrich-like “non-alignment” approach to foreign policy, the situation represents an unusually sophisticated balancing act. India has allowed generations of Tibetans to build a miniature Tibet within the country, and officials express sympathy for the Tibetan cause. But maintaining a growing economic relationship with China is vital, analysts and political experts say.
“We need to handle the matter delicately,” said Muchukund Dubey, former foreign secretary of India and president of the Council for Social Development, a New Delhi-based research group. That delicacy involves abiding by very specific rules about what Tibetans can do in India, despite India’s democratic roots. Tibetans “have every right to organize themselves, but they cannot indulge in political activities,” Mr. Dubey said. The Tibetan man’s self-immolation was certainly political, he said, as well as “embarrassing” to the government of India.Political experts in India have been openly critical of China’s handling of Tibetans’ quest for autonomous rule and their desire to preserve an independent culture, while pragmatic about the need to forge good relations with China.
“There is definitely a need for the Chinese government to recognize the policy failure” in Tibet, said Manoranjan Mohanty, chairman of the Institute of Chinese studies, an academic group in New Delhi. The Indian government often raises this issue during private talks with Chinese officials, he said. But India is “also concerned about $70 billion worth of trade we have with China,” Mr. Mohanty said. “The target is to increase it to $100 billion by 2015.”
Since the Dalai Lama first fled China in 1959 to India after a failed Tibetan uprising, India has maintained a nuanced position. “The Indian government, while sympathetic to the case of the Dalai Lama, contends that Tibet legally is a part of China,” an article from The New York Times in September 1959 reported. Flash forward to 2006, the last time Indian and Chinese heads of state made a joint statement about Tibet: “The Indian side reiterates that it has recognized the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China, and that it does not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India. The Chinese side expresses its appreciation for the Indian position,” it said.
India’s uneasy hospitality does not come without some advantages for India, political analysts say. India has informally agreed with China not to allow its officials to meet with the Dalai Lama or share a stage with him, but that is sometimes broached. “Whenever there is a problem between India and China, India plays the ‘Tibet card,’” said Srikanth Kondapalli, the chairman for East Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “When China indulges in anti-Indian activities, the Indian foreign secretaries meet the Dalai Lama,” he said.
In July of 2010, India’s foreign secretary, Nirupma Rao, met with the Dalai Lama at his residence. The substance of their discussions was not disclosed, but they happened a week after India’s national security adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, met officials in Beijing to talk about, among other things,
China’s plans to build nuclear reactors for Pakistan.
West Bengal’s governor broached the agreement not to share a stage with the religious leader last December, attending an event with the Dalai Lama, a move that was interpreted by political analysts as a push back against increasing pressure from China to restrict the Dalai Lama’s activities in India.
About 100,000 Tibetans now live in India, mostly in close-knit communities in Delhi, Dharamsala and other areas in northern India. Many consider themselves to be temporary refugees, biding their time before an autonomous homeland is returned them, even if they have lived in India for many years.
They are granted the right to work, health care and education in India, but not to vote. They are promised protection from repatriation and can own land in specific areas, a privilege not extended to other foreigners. The Central Tibetan Administration, based in Dharamsala, is considered by Tibetans to be a fully fledged government. It holds elections and a finance and health department, a planning commission and an attorney general. Still, the Indian government considers it a “non-governmental organization,” or NGO, the same designation given to charities.
Some of the young Tibetan students arrested during last week’s protests said they had left Tibet as children, without their parents, and spent most of their lives in India. While Tibetan student groups sometimes recruit their Indian counterparts, discussion of Tibet’s struggle is somewhat limited –the country’s largest English-language newspapers carried pictures of the Tibetan who had set himself alight on Monday in Delhi, but thoughtful political analysis of the situation was sparse. From a purely populist point of view, on Wednesday, when the man who self-immolated died in Delhi, “Rihanna & Ashton Kutcher” was trending on Twitter in India, but “FreeTibet” was not.
Last week’s crackdown on Tibetan protests is hardly unusual. In March 2008, about 100 Tibetans, mostly monks and nuns, attempted a march from Dharamsala to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa to protest China’s hosting of the Olympics. The Indian authorities quickly quashed the march, issuing a restraining order against the marchers and then arrested them.
Chinese officials thanked India for cracking down on Tibetan protesters last week. The “Chinese side appreciates effective and concrete measures taken by the government of India,” in curbing protests, Luo Zhaohui, director general of the Chinese Department of Asian Affairs, said.
While Indian officials and policy experts acknowledge the situation is far from perfect, India is still playing the leading global role in aiding the Tibetans, they say. “We open our hospitals and our schools to them,” Mr. Dubey, the former foreign secretary said. “Is any other nation doing any better for the Tibetans?”