Time for Transforming India’s Policy on Tibet

Valedictory address delivered by Ambassador Lalit Mansingh, former Foreign Secretary, at VIF’s seminar on ‘Tibet in the Aftermath of Devolution of Political Authority’ – September 6 & 7, 2011

As India enters the 65th year of its existence as a sovereign nation, it is time to take a pause to reflect on the policies of the past, to revisit our triumphs, our failures and to reflect on challenges met and opportunities lost.

The macro picture that emerges is of great success. Following a traumatic and violent partition, and burdened with a colonial economy drained by 200 years of exploitation, India in 1947 faced an uncertain future. In contrast the India by 2011 boasts of a strong demographically young society and a $4 trillion economy set on the path of irreversible growth. It is taken for granted that India will be a major player in the new global balance of power.

And yet, as we celebrate success, we need to introspect and identify the areas where we missed the mark. If I am asked to name a single issue on which India failed to measure up to its challenges I will, without hesitation, say it was Tibet. The Tibet issue is a perfect illustration of Murphy’s Law: if something can go wrong, it will! Many will question this conclusion as wisdom by hind sight. Yes it is. And such wisdom by hind sight is important because it insures that the errors of judgment of the past will not be repeated.


So what went wrong with our Tibet policy? Ten points, according to me:-

  1. India’s assumption that China was interested in larger issues like joining India in creating an Asian renaissance turned out to be entirely erroneous.
  2. Under a policy described by former Foreign Secretary Mr. Jagat Mehta as “Unilateral friendliness” with China, India naively believed the false assurances of the Chinese leaders that the Chinese maps of our northern borders were cartographic errors. This would be rectified soon. They were never corrected.
  3. Equally naively India believed the Chinese assurances regarding the safety of the Dalai Lama and the Welfare of the Tibetan People. This was never carried out.
  4. In subsequent negotiations with China on the border issue, we were wrong in taking a rigid, legalistic posture and asserting territorial claims for which there was insufficient evidence. The jury is still out on the assertion of Mr. A.G. Noorani that all our claims were not entirely founded by empirical evidences.
  5. The Tibetan issue reflects a major systemic failure in the Indian system.

    There were voices within the cabinet that were urging caution in dealing with China - amongst them two Home Ministers; Sardar Patel and Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant and Finance Minister Morarji Desai. Their advice was ignored. India’s national interests would have been better protected if Pandit Nehru had taken his cabinet colleagues to his meeting with Chou En Lai in February 1960.

    Also ignored was the professional advice of the Foreign Service establishment, including Sir G.S. Bajpai, then Secretary General in the MEA and younger Foreign Service officers like Sumal Sinha, Mr. V.V. Paranjpe, Mr. P.K. Banerjee and Mr. Arvind Deo who incidentally served as India’s Counsel General in Lhasa.

    Sadly, the Prime Minister relied on a group of political appointees like Sardar K.M. Panikkar and Mr. Raghavan, who failed in offering their independent assessment of what was happening in Tibet to the PM. Mr. Panikkar in fact was informed in advance of the Chinese plans to quote unquote “Liberate” Tibet but did not apparently report this for fear that it would affect India’s ambitions to play a mediating role in the aftermath of the Korean war.

  6. India failed to demand reciprocity before accepting the Chinese demands to support its “One China” policy and its sovereignty over Tibet and Taiwan. Had reciprocities been applied in the beginning, China might have refrained from questioning India’s sovereignty in J&K and Arunachal Pradesh.
  7. The Chinese have been relentlessly pursuing their goal of integrating Tibet with mainland China by rail, road and air. Let us be clear, they have every night to do so. India, in contrast has lagged behind in integrating the border areas adjoining Tibet.
  8. There is growing evidence to suggest that China is seriously proceeding to construct a series of dams on the Brahmaputra or the Yarlung - Tsangpo. This will have catastrophic consequences on the North East of India and Bangladesh. India’s concerns on this issue have been muted and ineffective.
  9. The frantic pace of development activities in Tibet is having its effects on the environment, with consequences not only for Tibet, but the entire South Asian region and parts of South East Asia. It will affect the glaciers, the rivers which supply water to the region and the seismic safety of the fragile Himalayan eco system. I am not aware if this has been seriously discussed by India, either bilaterally or internationality.
  10. And finally, the conclusion is inescapable that we have failed the people of Tibet time and again, in their greatest hour of need. India was a silent witness to the brutal takeover of Tibet, the systematic suppression of the cultural and religious rights of the Tibetans, the savage attacks on Buddhist monks and nuns, the pillaging and destruction of their monasteries and the demographic manipulation under which Tibetans may well became a minority in their own homeland.

    In 1950, when PLA troops entered Lhasa, not only did India do nothing, it dissuaded the UN and other countries that were willing to come to the rescue of the Tibetans.

    In 1951, when the so-called 17 point agreement was forced on the hapless government of the Dalai Lama, India did not protest.

    In 1954, India signed an agreement with China under which it surrendered all its rights and responsibilities in Tibet and withdrew its garrisons from Yatung and Shigatse. That the 1954 agreement was signed in the name of the Buddhist principles of the Pancha shila made it a tragic mockery of the Tibetan people.

Let me make one point clear, if there was a failure of India’s Tibet policy, it was a bipartisan failure. Every government of India, whether led by the Congress or the BJP, has been complicit in evading India’s historic responsibilities in Tibet. The formulation of the 1954 agreement has been repeated as a Mantra in joint statements issued during Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988, Mr. A.B. Vajyapee’s visit in 2003, and during the Indian visits of Wen Jia Bao and Hu Jin Tao in 2005 and 2006.

It is worth noting that the standard formulation on Tibet was absent, for the first time, in the joint statement issued after Wen Jia Bao’s visit during December 2010.

If this is a signal of change in our China policy, it is to be welcomed.


If, as our scholars conclude, India has irrevocably surrendered its ‘Tibet Card’ and formally accepted Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, is there nothing that can be done for the Tibetan people by India or the international Community?

I am not so pessimistic. There is growing body of opinion that in a global and interdependent world, the concept of state sovereignty is no longer absolute. The talk is increasingly about a “responsible sovereignty” or “shared sovereignty”. No state in the world today can claim the absolute, sovereign right to deny basic human rights and freedom to its own citizens. In extreme circumstances, and subject to transparent and credible safeguards, the international community can also exercise the Right to Protect (R2P) to affected groups.

Admittedly, this is still a grey area in international law but this is increasingly acceptable internationally. I am not suggesting that the R2P should be applied to the Tibetans in China. It is nevertheless a useful reminder to China a great nation and civilization that it must act as a responsible global citizen and show sensitivity to the rights of its own Tibetan people.

Secondly, India has never hesitated to express concerns over the plight of people who happen to be the citizens of another state. Mahatma Gandhi wrote letters to President Roosevelt about the status of Blacks in America. India took the leadership in opposing Apartheid in South Africa. India continues to voice its anxiety about the treatment of the Tamil citizens in Sri Lanka. These are but a few examples.


India must seize the opportunity that has opened up today to review and recalibrate its policy on Tibet. The decision of the Dalai Lama to abdicate his political responsibilities and hand them over to a democratically elected ‘Kalon Tripa’ is a momentous development in the history of Tibet. It reflects the profound wisdom and foresight of the Dalai Lama.

Felicitations are due to the new Kalon Tripa, Dr. Lobsang Sangay. I have followed his articles, speeches and interviews with great interest and admiration. It is also fortunate that the Tibetans today have in addition to their supreme spiritual guide, the Dalai Lama, two young leaders from the next generation: the 17th Karmapa and the Kalon Tripa, Dr. Lobsang Sangay.

Let me conclude by offering a few suggestions for the action India needs to take as a part of a bold new policy on Tibet.

  1. Removal of restrictions on the activities and movements of the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa. All directives in place must be withdrawn which require political leaders and senior officials not to be seen in public with the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa. It is an affront to India’s sovereignty that such restrictions are in force to accommodate the wishes of another country. The Dalai Lama and the Karmapa deserve our deepest respect as internationally acclaimed sprintual leaders.

    There should also be an end to the suspicions and reservations that a section of our establishment has against the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa. There were powerful voices in the Indian establishment in the 1950s and 1960s that the Dalai Lama should be sent back to Tibet. There are segments of our establishment today that are keen to accord the same treatment to the Karmapa. I am pleased that the external affairs department prevailed in offering asylum to the Karmapa when he turned up in Dharamsala a decade ago. I am convinced that it was the right thing to do.

  2. India must identify completely with efforts to preserve Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism. When Buddhism was virtually wiped out from India, the land of its origin, the Tibetans undertook to nurture this rich heritage over the centuries. The time has come for India to reciprocate this gesture.

    I hope that the Dalai Lama can be persuaded to take the leadership in bringing the scattered schools of Buddhism in India under a common umbrella. On a personal note, as a Vice President of the Maha Bodhi Society of India, I am keen on seeing this success.
    I would also like to see the Dalai Lama being closely associated with the Nalanda University Project. It is hard to appreciate that he is being kept at arm’s length fearing the reactions of another country.

  3. It is time to remove the refugee tag from the Tibetans who have opted to make India their home. Those who are inclined to be Indian citizens must be granted citizenship without going through harassing procedures.

    Tibetans must be given the same privileges as the citizens of Nepal and Bhutan.

    Young Tibetans of Indian origin should be encouraged to form Indo-Tibet friendship societies or associations which will promote the awareness of Tibet among the Indian public.

  4. Reciprocity must be the guiding principle hereafter in India’s response to Chinese demands on the status of Tibet.
  5. India must not hesitate to express concern over the violation of the human, cultural and religious rights of the Tibetan people, not only in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but in other states with significant Tibetan population.

    This should not be seen as a challenge to China’s sovereignty but as a part of India’s continuing advocacy of the rights of vulnerable communities across the world.

  6. India must publicly and vehemently oppose the construction of dams on the Brahmaputra / Yarlang Tsangpo which would divert its waters away from India and Bangladesh. This should be taken up by India both bilaterally and at appropriate global forums.
  7. India must be equally firmly in expressing concern over the ecological damage caused by the unrestricted development projects in Tibet. It is the source of 10 major rivers and numerous glaciers which provide sustenance to two million people in Asia.

I am pleased that the Kalon Tripa, Dr. Lobsang Sangay has appealed to the world to recognize the historic role of the Tibetan people as the guardians of the environment of the Tibetan plateau.


In conclusion, let me recall to you a statement made by Pundit Nehru in the Indian Parliament on 27 April 1959. He declared that India’s policy on Tibet was guided by three elements: (1) India’s national security (2) friendship with China, and (3) Autonomy of Tibet under Chinese suzerainty.

We may blame Pundit Nehru for errors of judgment on Tibet, but his triple formulations is as valid today as it was five decades ago. Friendship with China is a desired goal but it cannot be allowed to override our concerns for Indian security or Tibetan autonomy.

Published Date: 25th September, 2011

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