Whenever the president of China visits India, the Indian police locates me, no matter where I am and throws me into the nearest central jail.
This time, when the Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping Chennai Connect was happening, I went to gatecrash the party. Imagine a scene. As the two Asian leaders meet for that iconic photograph, greet each other and raise their clutched fists together in front of the legendary Krishna Butterball, all of a sudden, they hear a noise from behind the boulder. As the cameras hurriedly pan left, they see a man on the nearby cellphone tower unfurling a long red banner reading “Free Tibet” down the length of the tower and screaming the Free Tibet slogan at the top of his voice.
As with most things in life, this dream protest didn’t materialise — I was arrested days before the summit.
I had done such protest stunts earlier, successfully, twice — by climbing the Oberoi hotel in 2002 in Bombay, and the Indian Institute of Science building tower in 2005 in Bangalore. This lone act helps in raising the real issue between the “new neighbours”, India and China; the issue of 70 years of Chinese occupation of Tibet and its dangers to India. Indian security establishment officials tell me that is also why the Indian government gets the usual request from the Chinese embassy in Delhi to put me away every time there is such a visit.
The post-arrest interaction with the police is most rewarding for me. I sit with police officers, and start my chai pe charcha on Tibet. The current narrative in India is only concerned with the “China border”, which started from the 1962 Chinese aggression in the Tawang region, and it got reinforced after the Doklam stand-off. India never had any borders with China; it was only after the Chinese occupation of Tibet that China appeared over the Himalayas. Neither the media-crafted narrative nor the organised education system gives any clear picture about Tibet — what lies behind the Himalayas, the real civilisational neighbour with whom India shares a 4,085km border.
As India was emerging as an independent country, it organised the first Asian Relations Conference in the presence of Mahatma Gandhi, and Tibet was present there as an independent country. Between 1947 and until the Chinese invasion, Tibet and India shared equal status as independent countries for three years. There was even an Indian high commissioner in Lhasa.
With the founding of Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China in 1949, Jawaharlal Nehru’s India calculated its interest was best served by convergence with China. India became one of the first countries to recognise Tibet as a part of China, straining our previous cordial relations. Not keeping all the eggs in one basket, India continues to host the Dalai Lama and 100,000 Tibetan refugees here.
As a newly founded communist country, the rise of China was supported by India in its early stage, and later, its growth was facilitated by the United States. India’s blunt stand “Tibet is a part of China” from the 1954 Panchsheel agreement was later reiterated by Rajiv Gandhi during his 1988 Beijing visit. But Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government brought in a nuanced articulation in its 2003 statement saying “Tibetan Autonomous Region is a territorial part of People’s Republic of China”.
Indian nationalism is often stumped when China claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of “South Tibet”. But this requires context. The Tawang region, the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, was part of Tibet until the agreement in 1914 resulted in the McMahon Line. This bifurcated the entire region of Tawang and made it a part of British India, with maps drawn and documents signed. The Dalai Lama stands by this and has repeatedly reiterated it during his subsequent Tawang trips. India, therefore, has historical, legal and documentary evidence of this political move.
Where was China when this decision was made? China had recently won its independence in 1911 after being occupied by the Manchu empire for over 250 years. And under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen, the Republic of China was being established. The fact that China did not sign the Simla Agreement has no bearing on the McMahon Line — the latter was a bilateral treaty (between British India and Tibet), and the Simla Agreement was trilateral (between British India, Tibet and China). The McMahon line keeps the peace between the Chinese and Indian military even today.
In this backdrop, how does India hope to validate its claim over Arunachal without recognising Tibet, which gave away Tawang to India? Whether India supports the ongoing Tibetan freedom movement or not may be a strategic call, but without recognising the historical independence of Tibet, wouldn’t India’s control over Arunachal Pradesh look like the Chinese occupation of Aksai Chin? Perhaps, if the Chinese push comes to shove, India may be forced to recognise the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama as the leader of Tibet.
India and China emerged as Asian giants in the chaotic period of establishing their respective republics; India as a federal State, and China, modelled on the Soviet idea of the republic where nationalities are bundled together by coercion or by military occupation.
India and China formulated the One-China, One-India policy. Today, India is a democracy and only has to deal with the Kashmir issue. But China is facing resistance movements in Tibet, East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and Southern Mongolia. The five-month revolt in Hong Kong is also hugely significant for it shows the limits of Chinese power, and may be inspiring citizens inside China. Taiwan too remains a concern for Beijing. This makes Delhi’s One-China policy absolutely lopsided in terms of diplomacy. India has to remain silent on 60% of contested area under China’s territorial control, and also its rule over Hong Kong and claims over Taiwan, while China has to stand with India only on Kashmir. And it does this too unfaithfully, as we have seen recently at the United Nations.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government has a unique opportunity to finally carry out Sarder Vallabhbhai Patel’s policy statement that he wrote as a letter to Nehru, advising him to support Tibet, and take every precaution against “expansionist China”. Will the Modi government act on Sardar Patel’s words or remain satisfied with just his statue?
The 12-day stay in central jail in Chennai was my 16th jail term. It was a great retreat and better than the one I had in Sewagram. As a Tibetan born in India, India is as much my country as Tibet. The Dalai Lama doesn’t look at China as an enemy, but as nation afflicted with anger and greed.
Whether China quits Tibet or not, the Buddha will not abandon the suffering. China is now stuck with us, our journey together is our path to freedom.