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India, Tibet and China: The Eternal Triangle

It is imperative that the two oldest civilizations and nuclear powers maintain a relationship which is based on mutual respect, equality and justice. Self Determination or Autonomy of 6 million Tibetans is central to any such agreement.

On 12th April this year, a frail 83-year-old Lhamo Thondup was discharged from a hospital in New Delhi where he had spent 3 days due to ill health. This would seem to be inconsequential; an extremely old man admitted to a hospital for treatment. Except for the fact that Lhamo Thondup or Dalai Lama as he is better known across the world as is the spiritual head of over 6 million Tibetans across the world and the last weakening symbol of Tibetan resistance against communist China.

Tibet in history

Tibet lies between the ancient civilizations of India and China. Sandwiched between towering Himalayan Mountains, it is nicknamed “the roof of the world” or “the land of snows”.

The earliest known account of Tibet is of Nyatri Tsenpo establishing his rule in 127 B.C with the establishment of the Yarlung Dynasty. Around 7th Century the country was unified under King Songtsen Gampo and his successors who founded the Tibetan Empire. It was at its greatest extent between the 780s and the 790s. During this time the Tibetan Empire ruled and controlled a territory stretching from modern-day parts of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, China, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan.

Tibet 7th Century Map

In 821, the Chinese Emperor Hwang Te signed a peace treaty with the Tibetan ruler Tsenpo which stated “Both Tibet and China shall keep the country and frontiers of which they are now in possession. The whole region to the east of that being the country of Great China and the whole region to the west being assuredly the country of Great Tibet. From either side of that frontier, there shall be no warfare, no hostile invasions and no seizure of territory”

Tibet continued to be an independent empire till the middle of 9th Century when Imperial Tibet collapsed in the Era of Fragmentation and small warlords took over.

Tibet 9th Century Map

In the 12th Century, as Genghis Khan expanded his empire, Tibet was incorporated into the Mongol Empire, retaining nominal power over religious and regional political affairs, while the Mongols managed a structural and administrative rule over the region. The Sakya Lama became the first temporal ruler of Tibet.

Between 13th Century and 17th Century, Tibet witnessed a power struggle between various monasteries and sects. Some of the most notable amongst them was the Phagmodrupa, Rinpungpa and Tsangpa Dynasties. In 1578, Altan Khan of the Tümed Mongols gave Sonam Gyatso, a high lama of the Gelugpa School, the name Dalai Lama. From 1642 until 1705 and from 1750 to the 1950s, the Dalai Lamas or their regents headed the Tibetan government (or Ganden Phodrang) in Lhasa. No historical evidence exists that the Mongols had integrated Tibet and China. Tibet was de facto independent from the mid-14th century on, for nearly 400 years. The Ming dynasty which ruled China from 1368-1644 maintained friendly ties with Tibet; however, they had little influence over it. The Qing dynasty came to power in 1644 and ruled till 1912. In 1720 a Qing expeditionary force defeated Dzungars and gained control over Tibet. The Qing occupation of Tibet lasted till 1912 when it fell due to the Xinhai revolution.

The Chinese chronicles of Gaoseng Zhuan written in 6th Century and of Yuzhi Shenseng Zhuan written in 16th Century capture details of the Indian monks who went to China. However, they are completely silent on the visits of any Indian monk to Tibet; thereby lending credence to the theory that Tibet was an independent region.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty, the 13th Dalai Lama declared Tibet to be independent and defined the relationship between China and Tibet as “the existing relationship between Tibet and China had been that of patron and priest and had not been based on the subordination of one to the other.”

The last British Consul General in Lhasa, Hugh Richardson (1936-1949) wrote about Tibet’s status as “The Government of Lhasa with which I dealt was beyond question in complete control of its own affairs dealing directly with the Government of India in such matters as frontier disputes, trade questions, supply of arms and ammunition and so on. There was no Chinese participation whatsoever in such matters and no reference to them, nor were they informed. In all practical matters, the Tibetans were independent”

In 20th Century, Tibet had diplomatic relations with Mongolia, Nepal etc. Tibetan diplomats travelled on documents issued by the Tibetan government. A Tibetan passport of finance minister of Tibet; Tsepon W. D. Shakabpa had received visa and entry stamps from several countries and territories, including India, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Switzerland, Pakistan, Iraq and Hong Kong. In 1947, a Tibetan trade mission visited India, China, USA and Britain.

Tibetan Passport

Thus, it can be seen clearly that Tibet existed as an independent region and the Chinese assertions that it had control over Tibet since the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) are not borne out of supported historical facts.

In 1951 People’s Liberation Army entered Chamdo in Tibet and defeated the Tibetan army. Negotiations in Beijing between the Tibetans and the Chinese government resulted in a Seventeen Point Agreement which formalized China’s sovereignty over Tibet. Tibetans later claimed that the agreement was signed under duress.

In 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama fled from Chinese Occupation to India and established a government in exile at Dharamshala in India.

Indian Influence on Tibet

For centuries, India has had a deep influence on Tibet. Mount Kailash, Lake of Mansarovar and Rakshas, which are some of the holiest Hindu sites, are in Tibet. The Tibetan name for their land; Bod, is derived from the Sanskrit word Bhautta.

Shiva residing in Mount Kailash

Buddhism was introduced in Tibet in 5th Century during the reign of Thori Nyatsen, an event which changed it forever.

In 640 A.D. Songtsen Gompo sent his minister Thonmi Sambhota and 16 students to India to study Buddhism & Sanskrit. When they returned, they introduced a new script in Tibet which exists till today. Tibetan grammar is based on Sanskrit grammar which was in use in India in 7thCentury. Tibetan Kings sent scholars in large numbers to India to learn Buddhism. Besides Buddhism, they also learned medicine, astrology, linguistics and other sciences in India. The Tibetan system of medicine; Swa Rigpa, is heavily influenced by India.

Tsangyang Gyaltso, the 5th Dalai Lama, was born in the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh. Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh is the second largest monastery in the world.

With the rise of the Mughal Empire in India, Buddhism as a religion saw a decline in India and Indo-Tibet relations went into a decline.

India continued to be the preferred land for the Tibetans well into the early 1950s. Thus, it was not surprising that when the 14th Dalai Lama decided to flee Chinese oppression, he chose India.

India. Tibet. Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama who is supposed to be the incarnation of Avalokiteśvara binds Tibetans worldwide.

From the 1st Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup (1391–1474) to the 14thDalai Lama, Lhamo Thondup (1940 – present); the institution of Dalai Lama has been a unifying force in Tibet. He has been instrumental in keeping various religious factions together, acted as the spiritual and also as the head of the Tibetan government from 1641-1705 and from 1750-1950s.

Dalai Lama

With Buddhism finding its way to Tibet from India, it is natural that India has had a profound influence on Tibet. The 5thDalai Lama was born in India and in 1959; the current Dalai Lama escaped Tibet and sought refuge in India.

The current Dalai Lama who considers India as his ‘spiritual home’ has stated “If we look back at the time when we came to exile in India, we had come to our spiritual home. In the minds of the six million Tibetans, India is our spiritual home”. At an event in March this year, he further stated that the next Dalai Lama may come from India. “In future, in case you see two Dalai Lamas come, one from here, in a free country, one is chosen by Chinese, then nobody will trust, nobody will respect (the one chosen by China). So that’s an additional problem for the Chinese! It’s possible, it can happen”, he said.

In 2000, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, also fled from China and sought refuge at Dharamsala in India. The Karmapa lineage predates the Dalai Lama by at least two centuries.

Karmapa – Ogyen Trinley Dorje

India and China: Two oldest civilizations

India and China boast of two of the ancient most civilizations of the world. The earliest mention of India as Sindhu appears when Chinese explorer Zhang Qian (164-114 BC) was visiting Central Asia.

Buddhism travelled nearly 2000 years ago from India to China and left an everlasting influence on its culture.

Leshan Buddha in China

In Chanakya’s Arthashastra (2nd Century – 3rd Century BC) there is mention of trade routes between India and China. The Silk Road was the route used for economic contact between the two regions. Scholars and Monks from both India and China regularly travelled from one region to the other, to study and learn. Fa-Hien, a Buddhist Monk travelled from China to India to collect Buddhist texts during 399-412 AD. Nalanda University in India was most sought out by monks from China to study and learn Buddhism.

Fa Hien travel across India

The cultural exchanges continued through the 7th, 8th and 10th Century when the Cholas controlled a large part of India. The Cholas enjoyed a good trading relationship with the Chinese Song Dynasty and established a shipping route.

Chola Dynasty and China

The Ming Dynasty (1405-1433) under Admiral Zheng He sent several naval expeditions to India. Bengal too sent several diplomatic missions to Nanjing (1405-1439).

The saga of McMahon Line

Tibet had remained an independent region for centuries with little or no Chinese influence or dominance. The Qing dynasty in the 17th Century had managed to exert Chinese dominance over Tibet. With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1913, Tibet declared itself as an independent nation.

At the Simla conference (October 1913–July 1914) attended by Sir Henry McMahon, the Foreign Secretary of British India & Lonchen Satra the representative of the government of Tibet, a demarcation line between Tibetan Region and British India known as the ‘McMahon Line’ was negotiated. The participants included delegates from China. Article 2 of the Simla Accord stated “The Governments of Great Britain and China recognising that Tibet is under the suzerainty of China, and recognising also the autonomy of Outer Tibet, engage to respect the territorial integrity of the country, and to abstain from interference in the administration of Outer Tibet (including the selection and installation of the Dalai Lama), which shall remain in the hands of the Tibetan Government at Lhasa. The Government of China engages not to convert Tibet into a Chinese province. The Government of Great Britain engages not to annex Tibet or any portion of it.”

McMohan Line

Though it is currently the effective boundary between China and India, its legal status is disputed by the Chinese government. Even the Chinese maps of the time referred to the area as Tibet Autonomous Region. Chinese maps of the early 18th century also reflect Tibet separately.

Interestingly, though China has accepted the McMahon Line as the border between itself and Burma, it refuses to accept the same with India because that would tantamount to China accepting Tibet as a separate and independent nation.

Panchen Lama

After the Communist Party came to power in China in 1949, Nehru tried to have friendly ties with it, being the first to give it diplomatic recognition. Declaration of McMahon line as the border in 1950 by Nehru did not raise any concern by the Chinese. In 1954, under Panchsheel, India accepted Tibet as part of China and gave up the historical rights it had acquired from the British rule. India presented a frontier map which was accepted by China, and the slogan “Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai “ was promoted.

Historical records now reveal that in 1956, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had proposed a boundary settlement between India and China which closely mirrored the McMahon Line. However, when in 1959 the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India from Lhasa, China retaliated by including both the North East Frontier Area (NEFA) and Aksai Chin as Chinese territories. In 1961 Nehru ordered the Indian Army to set up forward posts to safeguard India’s border. In 1962, China responded by attacking Indian posts around the McMahon Line and marched southwards. After the hostilities ended in 1963, China withdrew back to the McMahon Line.

India China and Tibet’s future

India and China continue to have an unsettled border which often results in clashes between the two armies. Regular violation at the Line of Actual Control leads to face off for extended durations.

China has often laid claim to large Indian territories which include Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh etc. Chinese maps often show Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory and China used to offer stapled visas to Indians from Arunachal Pradesh. China is particularly sensitive to the Indian town of Tawang which has the biggest Buddhist monastery outside of Lhasa.

China is also in possession of nearly 35,000 Kms of Aksai Chin which India considers as its own territory.

In the last 5 decades, China has used brutal force to clamp down on the Tibetan independence movement. It also calls the 14thDalai Lama “a political exile engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the disguise of religion”. In March this year, China termed Dalai Lama a “dangerous secessionist” who undermines “One China Policy” thereby implying that Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet are integral parts of China. China has also asserted that any future reincarnation of Dalai Lama would have to pursue Chinese laws & regulations. It has insisted that it has the right to appoint the successor of the current Dalai Lama.

With a political motive to control Tibetan Buddhism, China in November 1995 forcibly took away six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima who had been named as the 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama. He and his entire family have never been seen ever since. 28th April 2019 marked the 30th birthday of the missing Panchen Lama who has now spent 24 years in Chinese captivity.

Tibetan, British and Chinese participants and plenipotentiaries to the Simla Treaty in 1914

Today Beijing wants to wipe out all proof that Tibet was once an independent nation even though it is blatantly clear that there is a clear distinction between the Chinese and Tibetans.

Tibetans are essentially looking at an existential crisis post the 14th Dalai Lama. With China hell-bent on seizing control of all things religious and spiritual concerning Tibet, Tibetans may soon face a loss of identity. Tibetans need a reawakening of their soul culturally, intellectually, spiritually which is not limited to only monasteries in India.

To avoid earning Chinese wrath and to secure better trade deals, the world has long been indifferent towards the plight of the Tibetans.

With an expansionist China nibbling away at territories of all its neighbours (currently, China has territorial disputes with Japan, India, Indonesia, Bhutan, N Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei ); the Indo-Chinese border dispute will get even more vexed. India is also at a danger of losing its biggest lever over China, that of a weakened Dalai Lama, fighting for Tibetan existence, who is revered by Tibetans and Buddhists across the world. This has serious implications for India as it hosts the largest settlement of Tibetans outside Lhasa.

India needs to stand together with the Tibetan people who have reposed their faith in India’s leadership for the last 6 decades and fight for the diplomatic rights of the Tibetans which are acknowledged in the 1961 UNGA resolution. India’s stand on the border dispute is supported by historical facts; China, on the other hand, keeps shifting the goalposts. Both India and China need to stick to the 1993 “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control”.

It is imperative that the two oldest civilizations and nuclear powers maintain a relationship which is based on mutual respect, equality and justice. Self Determination or Autonomy of 6 million Tibetans is central to any such agreement.

(This article has been co-authored by Ishita Sen and Krishna Kant Sharma)

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Krishna Kant
Krishna Kant Sharma, is a New Delhi based Technology professional with extensive experience in IT, Telecom & Digital domains .He has varied experience,having worked with the Central Government as well the private sector. His interest areas include Politics, Military Strategy, Technology & Gender Rights. He is also an avid sportsman & a keen philatelist.

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