First Person | A Cause Lost to Time

How China, India and Tibetans defeated the idea of Tibet

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

The Losar (February 12-14) greetings from the office of the Tibetan government in exile reminded me of my visit to Mcleodganj in 2015 during the Tibetan New Year. The quaint hill town was dressed in colourful prayer flags. In addition to the festive mood, the cold, crisp air was redolent with hope. It was an infectious sentiment, and everyone in Mcleodganj/ Dharamshala was in the grip of it. I was also deeply affected; and moved by the Dalai Lama’s statement that anything is possible in the future. It was a passing affectation.

The 2015 visit was my last to Mcleodganj. My first was in April 2008, and much more memorable. It started with a visit to the Bureau of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New Delhi. I had gone there to submit formal requests for interviews with both the Dalai Lama and the head of the Tibetan council of minister, the Kalon Tripa, Samdhong Rinpoche.

I had not even returned to my office when I received a call on my mobile from an unknown number. The man on the other side introduced himself cheerfully as a volunteer who could facilitate my visit to Dharamshala/ Mcleodganj as well as get an interview with the Dalai Lama.

We met in a coffee shop in New Delhi’s Khan market. The friendly stranger offered to escort me to Mcleodganj/ Dharamshala, arrange meetings with the senior functionaries of the Tibetan government in exile as well as non-government Tibetan activists, including, he lowered his voice and leaned forward, ‘some other people.’

Some other people? I asked.

Hushing me, he whispered, ‘Chinese spies are all over. I will explain when we go there.’ He had assumed that I had accepted his offer.

How could I not. We quickly tied up our plans over the next two days. He also managed to get a go-ahead for the interview with Kalon Tripa upon my return to Delhi from Mcleodganj. As a non-official, he had very impressive traction with the Bureau of the Dalai Lama.

True to his words, the trip to Mcleodganj/ Dharamshala was both fruitful and exciting. I met several government functionaries, monks, head of the refugee camp, retired soldiers of the Special Frontier Force (SFF) and a veteran of the brief armed resistance on Nepal-Tibet border in an area called Mustang. More on all of this a little later.

In the three days that we were there, the Indian volunteer to the Tibetan cause frequently pointed to strangers on the streets of Mcleodganj as Chinese spy, American spy, British spy and so on. The mystery behind the crawling spies in Mcleodganj was solved on my last evening. We were sitting in a café at the end of the single road that snaked through the township facing the Dauladhar range waiting for a mysterious visitor. He arrived just as I was getting impatient. Tall and lean, he was gaunt and a bit nervous. He refused to give his name. My escort urged him to tell me what he wanted to. But the visitor remained silent. Then he blurted out, ‘We are ready.’

‘Ready?’ I looked from him to my escort. My escort looked very pleased. ‘Ready for what?’ I asked.

‘Ready for everything,’ he replied.

I looked at my escort again. He told the visitor gently. ‘You have to explain to her properly.’

‘We are ready to march to Lhasa if His Holiness asks us to,’ he said. ‘But we will only wait for some time for His Holiness’ orders. If he does not give them, we will go anyway.’

Through his broken, half sentences I figured out that he was talking about waging an insurrection in Tibet. According to him, people on the plateau were ready and waiting for people like him to march into Lhasa. They will join in the rebellion.

What about preparedness? Training? Weapons?

Pointing towards the thickly forested Dauladhar range, he said, ‘We have been training.’

Who is training you?

At this point my escort took over the conversation. ‘There are some people, some Austrians who are training them in the mountains. When the time comes, we will get weapons also.’

I was amused by this drop of pretence by my escort, but I pretended to remain interested in the conversation. Our drive back to Delhi was long, and by now there was familiarity between us. Hence the conversation was more easy-going. Over the next six hours, we spoke of a lot of things including my profession and his background. Finally, he mentioned that he was a full-time volunteer with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) who has been working with the Tibetans. Given the scope of my visit, it was clear that he had influence over many official functionaries—some of whom he humoured, and some he manipulated.

Since the time European explorers became aware of a remote Himalayan plateau in the mid-17th century, it has been a land of contested strategic importance and breathless fantasies—a mysterious haven of unimaginable beauty and bounty. India’s relationship with Tibet has been caught between geostrategy and cultural history. Consequently, it has been sporadic and fanciful, rather than consistent and pragmatic. The only consistent aspect of India’s outreach to the idea of Tibet has been the engagement of the RSS, which driven by the notion of Buddhism being an Indian-origin religion, considers Tibet as part of the larger India. The fact that Mount Kailash and the Lake Mansarovar are located in Tibet and revered by both Buddhists and Hindus only reinforces the idea of one nation. In this, the RSS is encouraged by Tibetans themselves.

In the aforementioned interview, Kalon Tripa Professor Sandhong Rinpoche told me, “I feel that India has more logic to claim Tibet as its territory than China, which has no logic at all. Our religion, language and culture are of Indian origin. So, if Indians claim Tibet as a part of this country, we will have a difficult time arguing otherwise.”

He added, “We do not have any long history with China, whereas we do have a history with India. From China, the only thing that we have imbibed is our culinary system… everything else about the Tibetan culture is of Indian origin. In India, organisations like the RSS and Tibet Swaraj have always supported the cause of Tibetan independence.”

When the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, the first priority of the exiled community was to hold itself together body and soul. Survival was of utmost importance. Moreover, for a semi-literate, impoverished and hapless community, there was no future roadmap then. The Tibetan fate was more in the hands of outside powers, especially the United States and, to a lesser extent, India, with Taiwan and the USSR also trying to pitch in with their bit of advice and offers of support. Over time, the Tibetans realised that the support was not so much for them or the Dalai Lama; it was to test the mettle and resolve of the newly-formed Communist regime, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

However, at that time, all foreign help was welcome. This was ironical. For centuries, Tibetan leaders had shunned outsiders, fearing that their influences would corrupt the society. A practice the Dalai Lama came to regret. In a conversation with author Pico Iyer, he had said, “Our worst mistake, our greatest mistake was being isolated from the world.” This probably was the reason why the world has been ambivalent as far as Tibet’s independent status vis a vis China was concerned.

Once the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) started creeping upon Tibet, starting October 1950, the United States (US) reached out to the Tibetans in an effort to thwart the expansion of Communism. Through some American missionaries based in the Amdo region of Tibet, the American Committee for Free Asia (which later morphed into Asia Foundation, a part of the newly-created CIA), reached out to the Dalai Lama’s older brother Norbu (Taktser Rinpoche), a monk who had to escape his monastery to save himself from the invading PLA troops. Norbu had settled in Kalimpong in the Indian state of north Bengal, where he met some Americans who invited him to the US to settle down.

With Norbu settled in the US, his interlocutors invited his younger brother, Gyalo Thondup (the only brother of the Dalai Lama who didn’t become a monk) to study at Stanford University. While his visit to the US in October 1951 was facilitated by Chiang Kai-shek who had shifted to Taiwan after the revolution and was hopeful that the Tibetans would help him overthrow the Communists, the Americans offered to pay for Thondup’s education. Thondup, who had been a student in the Chinese capital of Nanjing for a few years before the revolution under the patronage of Kai Shek, declined further education and returned to Tibet. This was the time he established several contacts in the US State Department, or rather, the Americans established contact with him.

Thondup was an important member of the Dalai Lama’s government. Just as the senior lamas discovered the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation, Thondup was chosen to be his main political advisor when still a child. By early 1952, the situation in Tibet had started to deteriorate. The Chinese controlled the countryside, the Dalai Lama was still underage and the government functionaries were squabbling among themselves, with each suspecting the other to be a Chinese spy. Threats to Thondup had increased (as he was seen to be influencing his brother) both from the Tibetan officials as well as the Chinese who wanted to make sure that he was on their side. Hence, Thondup escaped to India via Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.

Interestingly, the residents of Tawang (which was taken over by the Indian government in February 1951 by chasing away the Tibetan commissioner) thought that the brother of the Dalai Lama had come to liberate them from the Indian rule. “I had to explain that I was running away from the Chinese occupiers of Tibet and was in no position myself to help free them from Indian rule,” he writes in his memoir, The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong.

He settled in Darjeeling where mysterious American visitors started to call upon him with veiled offers of help. Finally, the cards were opened in 1954, when Thondup was convinced that the US was serious about helping Tibet raise a resistance force and delivered the first group of potential fighters for training to the CIA. His memoir has a fascinating account of how Pakistan helped the Tibetans deliver the potential fighters to the US trainers. While Thondup doesn’t say whether the Dalai Lama was in the loop or not, it is difficult to imagine that the Dalai Lama remained oblivious of this guerrilla force throughout its existence. From these original guerrillas emerged a dedicated band of the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards, who helped escort him to India when he escaped in 1959. They kept the PLA troops at bay mostly by misleading them at certain places, but also by fighting in some areas.

Though the US kept up with its support till the end of the Sixties, the military assistance that it gave the resistance fighters was more notional than real. The training was inadequate and pertained essentially to spying on China, the equipment was mostly obsolete and ammunition never enough. According to Thondup, thousands of Tibetans died in 1954 because they were inadequately trained and armed. The US intention wasn’t really the liberation of Tibet.

As the US interest started to wane, others stepped in. After the debacle of the 1962 war against China, India discovered the Tibetan guerrillas. In November 1962, the government of India approved raising of Special Frontier Force (also, referred to as Establishment 22) with some funding and weapons from the US, channelled through the CIA.

The objective was ambitious: to train all able-bodied Tibetan men in special operations so that they’d be able to operate inside Tibet. With this in mind, until the Eighties, it was compulsory for all Tibetans to undergo six months training in the SFF, beyond which the service was voluntary. Officered purely by the Indian Army, and reporting to the Cabinet Secretary, the SFF was a secret force. “Our mission was liberation of Tibet,” said Samdup Gyaltsen, who was conscripted in 1977, but stayed on beyond the mandatory service period because he believed that he would one day march into Tibet. He retired in 2009, and was the vice-chairman, Ex-servicemen Welfare Association, SFF in 2015.

Ironically, the only operation that SFF carried out against China was planting some listening devices atop a mountain peak for intelligence gathering, sometime in 1965, and engaging the Chinese border forces in hit and run skirmishes on the Nepal-Tibet border in the area called Mustang. Gradually, the US lost interest in even the SFF as its relations with China improved after secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China (facilitated by Pakistan) in 1971. Thereafter China got Nepal to arrest and torture the guerrillas fighting in Mustang region of Nepal. Eventually, in July 1974, the Dalai Lama had to personally request them through an audio recording to lay down arms to avoid further annihilation. This finally closed the option of an armed struggle against China.

Thereafter India lost both the nerve and direction as far as employing SFF was concerned. It increasingly became just another regiment of the Indian Army, though remaining unaccounted for. Consequently, the only enemy it has seen action against has been Pakistan, starting with the 1971 war, in which it lost 46 of its soldiers. Since then, it has operated alongside the Indian Army in Operation Bluestar, Operation Meghdoot (Siachen glacier, 1984), Operation Vijay (Kargil, 1999) and most recently in the capture of Kailash range in east Ladakh, south of Pangong Tso in August 2020. Incidentally, to deescalate the tensions with China on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the government of India directed the Indian Army to vacate the position in February 2021. In any case, by 2009, the pretence of a secret force was dropped when the government approved same pay and allowances, including pensions for the SFF at par with what the Indian Army soldier gets.

However, going back to the narrative, once India had bold ambitions. In 1967, Indian diplomat T.N. Kaul facilitated a meeting between Thondup and the Russians, who offered to train Tibetan guerrillas in Tashkent. Even though the meeting was proposed and organised by the former ambassador to Moscow, Thondup was wary of the offer. He consulted his friend and the founding chief of the newly raised Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), R.N. Kao, who told Thondup to stay out of Russia’s hair.

This fruitless history of violence, half-hearted support by the West, uncertainty about the Tibetan claim of independence and the growing influence of China eventually shaped the Dalai Lama’s thinking on the possible future of Tibet. And he gradually started to build on the moral superiority of peaceful resistance. On 4 March 1988, the Dalai Lama was invited to address the European Parliament in Strasbourg. There he enunciated the Tibetan demands for the first time in public, offering China, what came to be known as, the Strasbourg Proposal. The Strasbourg Proposal underlined his moderate, middle way approach towards the resolution. Giving up the earlier demand for complete independence, he now proposed ‘genuine’ autonomy for Tibet under the Chinese constitution. The key point of the proposal was that the Tibet autonomous government would function alongside the PRC. While the functions of defence and foreign relations would be with the Chinese government, all the other powers would be vested in the elected government of Tibet. This has been referred to as the Middle Path; and has remained the official Tibetan position.

However, in true democratic traditions, contrarian views also have traction within the Tibetan Diaspora. For example, Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), which is labelled as a terrorist organisation by the Chinese, insist on ‘Rangzen’ or complete freedom. Yet, it has been conscious that Rangzen is a mere dream. Hence, in 2013, it passed a resolution promising that if the Tibet issue is resolved, it will respect the majority decision; implying that it will forfeit claims of Rangzen in favour of the Middle Path.

In 2011, the Dalai Lama formally abdicated his temporal responsibilities, paving the way for an elected head of the government. This was partly driven by age and partly by China’s growing power and stature in the world. As a purely religious leader, it would be easier for him to meet world leaders, who may hesitate to meet a Tibetan head of the government in exile in deference to Chinese sentiments.

Harvard-educated Lobsang Sangay was elected Sikyong (Tibetan equivalent of a prime minister) in 2011. In a conversation with FORCE in 2013 and then 2015, Sangay insisted that the Tibetan struggle for dignified co-existence continues. His optimism is echoed by several Tibetans, both government officials and ordinary citizens. A large part of this optimism stems from the example of the Indian freedom struggle. Most Tibetans use that to hold onto their faith—Indians struggled without success for nearly two centuries, our struggle is merely 62 years old, is the line frequently iterated by people in the streets and in the offices.

The comparison to the Indian freedom struggle is fallacious. Indians were fighting a foreign power (thousands of miles away from home) in their own country. Also, for the foreign power, India was not a matter of sovereignty. China, which is in occupation of Tibet, has made it clear that it is an integral part of the country. It has repeatedly issued White Papers on Tibet, the most recent one in March 2019 (White paper: Democratic Reform in Tibet (full text) – Opinion –, which underscores its total grip over the plateau.

Ironically, despite hosting the largest Tibetan Diaspora, including the government in exile, New Delhi’s policy towards Tibet has been ambivalent. Notwithstanding the ambition of nurturing an insurgency inside Tibet through the SFF, the Indian government could never muster enough courage to put into practice what it imagined. Interestingly, sundry Indian intelligence officers have goaded Tibetan leaders to mount armed resistance against China even as the government of India insist that they indulge in no political activity from the Indian soil. Driven by intelligence agencies, the thinking has been that the refugees (and the Dalai Lama himself) were a Tibet Card, which could be used against China at an opportune time.

But the problem with policies driven by intelligence agencies is that they suffer from tunnel vision and rarely see the big picture. A ‘card’ per se suggests a coldly calculated policy devoid of ethics that has driven India’s foreign policy since Independence. Perhaps, this is the reason no Indian government could sensibly figure out how it could balance Chinese bullying by helping the Tibetans, despite various official and semi-official groups lobbying aimlessly with the Tibetan government in exile.

The bitter truth is there is no Tibetan cause; and no Tibet card. It died when the Dalai Lama sought asylum in India. Only under one condition freedom struggles waged from foreign countries can succeed. If the interests of the foreign supporter coalesce with the insurgents. In the case of India, its interest lies in good relations with China, not Tibet.




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