Barring the last 58 years or so, Tibet had always been a buffer between China and India. The influence of both these countries on Tibet had been immense, as a result. The books of Lopsang Rampa made us believe in the 30’s and the 40’s of the last century that Tibet was a mixing bowl of ancient Buddhist learning and magic, bent on opening the third eye of wisdom on the world. But what is, or was Tibet like, especially that hub of all recent agitations, Lhasa?
Tibet is indeed a virtual seat of spiritual and religious consciousness. Lhasa houses the Potala, which was once the winter palace of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists in exile in India since 1960, who heads a Tibetan government in exile at Dharmasala. The Potala is part fortress, part prison, part holy shrine of Lamaism.
The Jokhang temple in Lhasa was first built by the Tibetan king Songtsan Gambo in the middle of the seventh century, and has been damaged and repaired several times through the centuries. It was listed by the State Council of the People’s Republic in 1961 as an ancient monument for special protection. That, however, did not save it from heavy damages during the Cultural revolution.
We learn that king Gambo, who is also said to have founded the Potala, is credited with introducing Buddhism into Tibet, having reportedly been converted by his Chinese and Nepalese wives, both Buddhists. While the monarchy died out a few generations later, appears that by the eleventh century secular power was also in the hands of a number of Buddhist communities.
Many of the earliest Indian gurus who came to preach in Tibet were greatly influenced by tantras. Some of the first classics to be translated into Tibetan were consequently Tantric texts. This undercurrent of Tantrism, together with survivals from Bon shamanism, give the Buddhism of Tibet much of its unique flavour.
One figure, the great Tsongkapa, who died in 1419, stands out in the history of Tibetan Buddhism. He was a reformer par excellence. The spiritual leadership passed on after him to a series of high lamas. Mongolia, in the meanwhile, had been converted to Buddhism. Eventually, with the help of the Mongolian princes, secular power was concentrated in the hands of the Dalai Lama, whose seat was Lhasa. The Panchen Lama, whose seat was the Zashilumpo monastery in Shigatse, had no secular power, but a spiritual position second only to that of the Dalai Lama. A complex pantheon of Buddhas, Bodhisatvas and Lamas can be seen in all the great temples and monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism even today.
Things began to change after 1950. That year the Chinese dragon hurtled down on tibet like the proverbial juggernaut. Soon the Dalai Lama, then a young man in his twenties, had to leave Potala in haste and seek shelter in India. The Panchen Lama, apparently, did not oppose the occupation and was not dislodged from his seat. This dilemma among the Tibetans, whether to accept or oppose the Chinese swoop has given rise to an ambivalence in the Tibentan stand that has perhaps been detrimental to the Tibetan cause in the wider context of global sympathy. This dilemma was also apparent in the Indian handling of the initial situation. Thirsting for a bigger-than-life world image, Nehru played the perfect friend-of-all Indian, host to the Dalai Lama, and almost in the same breath categorically acknowledging Tibet as a ‘Region’ of China. Thankfully the official agreement in this regard expired long since and has not been renewed after the shattering sixties. Our first Prime Minister had perhaps thought that Tibet would be fodder enough for the fiery dragon, and it won’t turn its red eyes on India too. Whom was he trying to convince by assessing the Maoist take over of Tibet as an event heralding a new era of Asian renaissance? He did not stop at that and signed a border agreement with China that totally compromised the status of Tibet. Did Nehru dream that China would take India as more than a willing partner in that ‘Asian Renaissance’? Was his Goa adventure a feeler of sorts to judge the attitude of our mighty neighbour? What he and his intellectual Defence Minister failed to realize then was that the occupation of the ‘buffer’ Tibet had changed the equation between China and India once and for all. Nehru’s dream of a ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ in the new dawn of Asian Renaissance was shattered by the resounding Chinese slap of October 1962. What followed was a shameful chapter in India’s political history.
What was the nature of the famous ‘Asian Renaissance’ in Tibet? How did the precept ‘Ahimsa Paromo Dharmo’ and the concept that power lies in the barrel of a gun co-exist peacefully and flourish? A good number of Tibetans did believe that the rubbing of shoulders with the Chinese would usher in the modern era in Tibet. They were tired of the monastic dispensation. But it was clear right from the beginning that the Chinese would have to deal with some measure of dissension in Tibet.
How does the Chinese government deal with dissension in its own country? In his Foreword to the 1990 edition of ‘From Heaven Lake’, a book that was first published in 1983, Vikram Seth gives almost agraphic description of what had happened at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in 1990:
‘1989 marks the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, the 70th anniversary of the great May 4th student-led movement in China, and the 40th anniversary of Liberation. (It was in 1949 that China had become a Communist country). In April this year Hu Yaobang, a political leader groomed by Deng (Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s political successor) to be his successor and Students who gathered in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing to express their sorrow began to ask for political reform, for an end to corruption, for greater freedom of speech and of the press, for the rule not of power and nepotism and influence but of equal laws, They asked for a dialogue with the government and were refused. They demonstrated peacefully, nonviolently, restrainedly, and were told that they were immature and that the government would not budge. Three thousand students began to fast for their beliefs, and as they grew weaker the general population of Beijing swung behind them in sympathy. The government was terrified of losing control but entirely unwilling to compromise. Referring constantly to the need to deal sternly with ‘tiny minorities of counter revolutionaries who have misled the students and the citizenry,’ it clamped down with martial law. This was quite ineffective, since it was unpopular even with locally stationed divisions of the People’s Liberation Army, Deng, faced with such dissension, first made sure that he had consolidated his position as head of the Military Commission. And then, when the numbers in Tiananmen Square had with the passage of time dwindled and would very probably have continued to do so, instead of letting things take their natural course, the authorities decided to show their might. On the night of June 4, they ordered reliable sections of the People’s Liberation Army to move their tanks and rifles and bayonets and machine-guns in to break down the barricades and clear the square. The firing of salvos into crowds, the crushing to death of unarmed students by tanks, the indiscriminate slaughter of bystanders, in fact the entire operation was marked by a deliberate and sickening viciousness.’
That was in 1990. In 2008, while making preparations for the coming Olympics the Chinese authorities allowed six labourers, who had accidentally fallen into a pit, to be pounded into a living burial there as things would get slowed down if the work was stopped. Such is the measure of Chinese concern and dignity for human lives ! No wonder the Dalai Lama had to flee ‘the Tibet autonomous region’ by the nineteen sixties
March 10, 1959, saw the ‘Tibet Uprising day’. In early 1990 there were nonviolent protests against Chinese rule on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s forced flee from Tibet. March this year saw another such movement. In between there had been many. Needless to say that all these movements were crushed by the Chinese authorities with brutality unprecedented and inhuman.
Meanwhile Mao, himself a Han, made a large Han population settle in Lhasa and other important Tibetan inhabitations. Seth recounts in his book how in 1982 the Han population in the urban areas of Lhasa was more dense than the Tibetan one. There was systematic Maoisation everywhere. Young Tibetans were encouraged, if not actually forced, to learn Chinese. The so-called Cultural Revolution left hundreds of Tibetan temples, including the Potala, either ravaged or damaged.
The eve of the Olympics has rightly been chosen by the Tibetans as the time to voice their protests. Other countries are responding and there have been protests in sympathy in France, in Germany, in Britain, in Australia, and in the U.S.A. during the march with the Olympic torch. Bush has exhorted the Chinese authorities to have talks with the Dalai Lama and willy-nilly, the reds have apparently agreed to sit with the saffrons. Only India has remained behind. Only India made the march with the Olympic torch in Delhi a totally impregnable affair. Right from the days of Nehru to the days of Sonia and Singh India has been seen to soft pedal the Chinese issue. Is there any earthly reason for that?
Recently, during his interview with Karan Thapar, India’s former Defence Minister George Fernandez identified China as India’s political enemy number one in the present situation. One does not have to go far to search for the reasons. It is common knowledge now that China has evil designs on Arunachal Pradesh. It has started construction on its side of the Stillwell read connecting Arunachal with its Yunna province through Myanmar. Roads built in Tibet now come dangerously close to the Indian Border. China controls the original base of many Indian rivers that originate in the Tibetan plateau. It has constructed a dam at the head waters of the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra to divert their waters to its parched provinces of Xingian and Gansu, thus aggravating India’s water woes.
In a recent article in the journal of the People’s Liberation Army the columnist calls India ‘arrogant’ and says, ‘The present situation is just like in 1962. . . . It (India) is on the same old path of confrontation with China.’
The signs are ominous. It is no time to appease the Chinese. Instead the Tibet issue should be used as a handle to expose Chinese territorial ambitions in this part of the globe. It is by quietly reopening the Tibet annexation issue and China’s subsequent failure to grant autonomy to the Tibetans despite an express pledge in this regard that India can begin its campaign to counter the red dragon. Arise! Awake, O India!