We could just blame it all on the British. In Simla in 1914, Sir Henry McMahon gave his name to the boundary line between India and Tibet over which the 1962 Sino-Indian War would later be fought. But is McMahon really to blame? The 1913-1914 Simla convention was about imperial aggression in Tibet. The Chinese did not like the British “forward policy” in Tibet, nor did the British like Chinese claims to Tibet. The Tibetans wanted to firmly declare their independent status vis-a-vis both British India and Republican China. Each of the three countries sent a delegate to India to settle such issues as Tibet’s political status, the posting of diplomats in Tibet and its boundaries with India and China, but at first the Chinese wanted the discussions to be bilateral. As they explained to the British in an official letter, they did not want their delegate to suffer “the indignity of having to sit at the Conference table as the mere equal of a Tibetan”.
Eventually, the Chinese agreed to trilateral discussions, authorising their delegate to negotiate as equals with McMahon and Tibetan delegate Lonchen Shastra. Most issues at Simla were dealt with relatively smoothly, but delineating boundaries proved next to impossible. The Tibetans didn’t like British proposals for the Tibetan-Indian border, and neither the Chinese nor the Tibetans liked the “compromise” boundary McMahon proposed for Tibet’s eastern border with China. Nonetheless, the Tibetans signed the Simla Treaty. The Chinese didn’t, stating disagreement with the boundary settlement as the reason.
The inability to delineate the Tibetan-Chinese boundary proved an obstacle time and again for Tibet, and later for India. Two years after the British “quit” India, Mao Tse-tung birthed the People’s Republic of China (PRC). One of his first acts was to “liberate” Tibet from feudalism and imperialism. What Mao called liberation, Tibetans called invasion. Tibetans first attempted cooperation, then rose up in arms against the Chinese, and eventually in 1959 the Dalai Lama escaped to India where he, the Tibetan government-in-exile, and over 1,00,000 Tibetans remain today. Meanwhile, the PRC incorporated Tibet into its polity, partitioning and reorganising its territory into several Chinese provinces: Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and the Tibet Autonomous Region. Ironically, at the historical moment of European decolonisation and as India gained her independence, Tibet became a colony of a Communist empire.
China was not the only empire to cloak itself in anti-imperialist rhetoric during the Cold War. The US did the same, and it is also part of the story of 1962. In 1956, the People’s Liberation Army began aerial-bombing Buddhist monasteries in eastern Tibet. For many Tibetans, this was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. They founded a grassroots citizen’s army to defend their religion, families and leaders, all the way up to the Dalai Lama. Eventually, they received training and assistance from the CIA, established a military base in Nepal, and made military raids and intelligence-gathering missions in Tibet from both India and Nepal. Prior to 1962, these soldiers were from the Tibetan citizen’s army, Chushi Gangdruk. Immediately after the war, however, in conjunction with the CIA, the Indian government created its own Tibetan military unit, the Special Frontier Force, as part of the Intelligence Bureau, and later the Research and Analysis Wing. The Chushi Gangdruk ceased military operations in 1974, but the Special Frontier Force still exists today in India, defending among other things the contested Tibetan border.
Who are the Tibetan soldiers of the Special Frontier Force? Tibetan refugees. Most of them were born in India, the children and grandchildren of the Tibetans who escaped into exile in 1959. They do not have citizenship in India, but are instead organised as members of the Dalai Lama’s community in exile. Until 2011, the Dalai Lama was the political and religious head of this community, just as he had been in Tibet. In 2011, however, he resigned his political powers, and turned the leadership of the Central Tibetan Administration over to a democratically elected leader. Yet, while the current leader of the Tibetan community is Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay, the Dalai Lama is still paramount for the community and for Tibetan relations with both India and China.
He is the centre of the Tibetan community, the person to whom Tibetans look for guidance in all things. What the Dalai Lama says and does, and what he does not say or do, matter immensely to Tibetans. In that Tibetans take him not only as a political and religious leader, but also as an enlightened being, a reincarnation of Chenrezig (or Avalokitesvara), the deity of wisdom and compassion, they give to him a faith and a belief and a trust unparalleled in other relationships. An example of this has been Tibetan acceptance—sometimes begrudging—of the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach to Sino-Tibetan relations, including his proclamation that the Tibetan struggle was to be a non-violent one.
Tibetans have lent the Dalai Lama their support in an almost unconditional way. Instead of violent protests, they organise hunger strikes, they demonstrate outside the Chinese embassy, they conduct marches and hold letter-writing campaigns. In exile, some of this pushes the boundaries of what the Dalai Lama calls non-violent. Hunger strikes, for example, he considers violence against the self. Nonetheless, via his person and his position he commands the respect and the devotion needed from Tibetans to keep the community coherent and united. Will a series of democratically elected political leaders be able to do the same? And how will relations between Tibetans inside and outside Tibet continue to take shape over the next few years?
Since 2009, 54 Tibetans have self-immolated. They have poured kerosene onto and into their bodies and lit matches, setting themselves on fire. Most have done so in Tibet, but some have immolated in exile. Those who have left records of their intentions call for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, of independence for Tibet, and speak to the frustrations of life as an occupied people. The first Tibetan self-immolator, Thupten Ngodup, did so in Delhi in 1998 after Indian police forcibly removed six Tibetans on Day 49 of their hunger strike unto death. Ngodup was a veteran of the Tibetan Special Frontier Force. He had defended the McMahon Line for India. He, the Dalai Lama, and millions of Tibetans inherited McMahon’s mess in more ways than one. But there are many responsible parties; McMahon alone is not to blame. Tibet’s conservative government was not able to successfully establish its international boundaries. Nehru’s independent India inherited British imperial treaties that favoured Britain, but not always India. The US’s Cold War politics compelled covert support of Tibetan military and intelligence missions along the Sino-Indian border. And, following the lead of successive Chinese regimes that tried to lay claim to Tibet, Mao Tse-tung finally incorporated it into China, even convincing over a billion Chinese that Tibet had “always been a part of China”, but not persuading several million Tibetans of the same. Those Tibetans matter.
Now is a critical time for Tibet—2012 is not just the 50th anniversary of the Sino-Indian War, but also the most intense period of political protest in Tibet since 1959. In protesting Chinese rule, Tibetans are speaking directly to each other. In protest, in poetry, in music, and in flame, they call to each other: to unite, to move forward together, to envision and create a new future. Not a historical project of blame, but a political project of change. India, China and the world would do well to take note.
(The author is associate professor of anthropology, University of Colorado Boulder, and a historian specialising in Tibet)