A victim of its times
The mystique Tibet has always held amongst Western commentators is well chronicled. Despite posing great challenges to modern communication systems, Tibet has inspired the mystical notion of Shangri-La, accentuated by the 1930s novel, Lost Horizons and numerous other movies. Tibet, as the book says, had entrenched itself into the West’s imagination as a ‘peaceful and tranquil place informed by reason and the miracle of self-discovery’. In more recent times, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun have captured the West’s imagination on these lines, albeit with a touch of realpolitik.
Cambridge academics, Lezlee and Stefan Halper, in their insightful foray, go onto to argue that despite Tibet’s long-standing cachet with the West, the Himalayan region has been unable to prevent Beijing’s drive towards ethnic reconfiguration of Tibetan society, where complex religious traditions have been systematically dismantled. The events captured through this book have primarily been through the lens of the western world.
There are no half measures when it comes to critcising the Chinese establishment’s treatment of what is now known as Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). ‘As China seeks a leading role in global affairs, the reality of its mistreatment of the Tibetan people has clashed with Tibet’s reified place in the western mind’. Such a perspective is consequently followed by, ‘the result is revulsion at the deconstruction of a culture, and dismay with a leadership that permits such excess.’ The situation has clearly deteriorated, in the light of recent self-immolations. However, current geo political realities and China’s central role is establishing them have left such critiques with no sting or weight.
It is geo politics that has been the bane of Tibet’s struggle for recognition as an independent country. Based on recently declassified documents, the book explores personalities and geo political calculations, post World War-II that was to allow the People’s Liberation Army to establish a vice-like grip on the region on October, 1950 and the years that followed it. The failures of those who were deemed to be Lhasa’s friends, is further highlighted in the light of the tragedy we witness today. US President Harry Truman in 1947 had promised to stand by ‘free peoples resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure’.
However, America’s paranoia against the spread of communism, led them to an alliance with Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) leader, Chiang Kai-shek, who was adamant that Tibet was an integral part of China. ‘It is one of history’s greatest ironies, anti-communist supporters of the failing Chinese nationalist cause would prevent the US government from supporting Tibetan independence, due to objections by Nationalist China’, the book notes. Sticking to US’s minimal intervention, it is now common knowledge that the CIA ran clandestine operations 1957, where they trained Tibetan resistance fights and air dropped them into the region. These operations went on till the ‘70s, with no real success and it was brought to a gradual halt after Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-tung established détente in 1972.
Despite having close historical, cultural and commercial ties with India, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru saw China as a strategic priority. He did urge the Chinese establishment to resolve their differences with Tibet amicably. However, he was not willing to go out on a limb for Tibet’s independence. Pakistan’s growing proximity to America, further strengthened his convictions about establishing ‘stronger’ geo-political ties with China, which culminated in the signing of the Panchsheel agreement in 1954, which according to UK’s last envoy to Lhasa, ‘amounted to the countersignature by India of the death warrant of Tibetan independence’. China’s occupation of Tibet was to have disastrous implications for Nehru in the future.
The historical narrative is fleshed out with great intrigue and speed. The latter aspect isn’t bogged down by fascinating descriptions of characters in all shades. As a story that resonates personally, there are many poignant anecdotes. As Chinese forces advanced into Tibet In 1950, HH The Dalai Lama fled and took refuge 12kms away from the Indian border. In a string of events, not known to many, the US government for many months had covertly promised the Dalai Lama support for the Tibetan resistance. He was urged to seek asylum and officially rebuke the agreement signed by the Tibetan delegation (under duress) and the Chinese government in Beijing, which acknowledged Tibet as an integral part of China.
Afraid to consign the Tibetans to a prolonged war against the Chinese army, HH Dalai Lama took to divine intervention. He wrote on two slips of paper, one for exile and the other for returning to Lhasa. Each slip of paper was rolled up into two separate dough balls and these objects were then shaken inside a bowl in front of a statue of the Buddha. The ball that came out pointed him towards a return to Lhasa, which he went on ahead with.
The Dalai Lama was eventually forced to flee in 1959 and take refuge in India, from where he forged an image of a global leader and still remains one of the few meaningful interlocutors that China could hope to enter negotiations with. However, the chances that Beijing would reach out to HH Dalai Lama remains grim, with paranoia forming the basis of the national discourse on Tibet.