An apparently insignificant announcement concerning Indo-Tibetan relations was made to the press on September 16, 1952, by the Indian Ministry of External Relations. It stated that the 16-year-old Indian Mission in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, would be wound up and replaced by a Consulate-General; but that whereas the Mission maintained direct relations between India and Tibet, the new Consulate-General would be accredited to China. In other words, Indian recognition seemed to be entirely withdrawn from Tibet and thus the period of coöperation between the two countries on a basis of equality came to an end. As the initiation of this cooperation was one of the cornerstones of Indian foreign policy under British rule its termination must be the expression of some basic change in policy; and there is no better way of understanding this change than by recalling briefly the history of Indo-Tibetan relations.
Tibet is bordered by Chinese Turkestan and Mongolia in the north; by China in the east; by Burma, India, Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal in the South; and by India (Punjab and Kashmir) in the west. Bhutan and Sikkim were formerly part of Tibet but are now separate states under Indian suzerainty. Both Tibet and Nepal were under Chinese suzerainty, but whereas the Nepalese threw off Chinese domination, Tibetan efforts to terminate dependence were never completely successful. However, the term Chinese domination calls for explanation. Chinese suzerainty meant at first the overlord-ship of the Manchu Emperors. With their downfall, Chinese Republican influence in Tibet decreased rapidly and Chinese Communist influence was considered a menace in Lhasa long before the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek.
After the establishment of Buddhism and of the Church of the Lamas, Tibet, once a warring nation, became peace-loving and determined to fend off both Western influence and militarism as a means of avoiding international disputes. There is no other example in history of a nation dominated by a religious creed and priestly organization which was so firm in its policy of avoiding the drawbacks of modern civilization, even if this meant foregoing its benefits. Lacking significant armed forces, Tibet had to safeguard her independence by peaceful means; and this in recent centuries the Lamas succeeded in doing with admirable skill and wisdom. Her neighbors had considerable appetites and tried to find their way to Lhasa. Besides China there was Tsarist Russia, who after having established a hold over Buddhist Mongolia thought of further expanding her influence into Tibet. Russia renounced these intentions in 1907, by a treaty concluded with Great Britain. One of the basic difficulties of all intruders was the complete devotion and allegiance of Tibetans as well as of other Buddhists in that part of the world to the Dalai Lama who combined temporal jurisdiction with spiritual power. None of Tibet’s neighbors who had political ambitions was able to overcome the formidable barrier of seclusion, more impenetrable than iron curtains stretched between the pillars of brutal physical force and hostile isolationism.
India’s attitude towards Tibet was different from that of any other country. Gotama the Buddha was of Indian origin and the famous Bodhi tree near Gaya in Bihar, beneath which he sat in contemplation, is still today the sacred meeting place of all Buddhists of the world, whether from Tibet, Burma, Ceylon or Japan. All these countries adopted the great faith of the Enlightened, whereas India, his home country, finally rejected him for the Brahmanical religion.[i] India is still to a great extent Brahmanical, and has not much sympathy or understanding for the Buddhist way of life. In shaping their own ideas about Tibet, Indian politicians could not find much enthusiasm in their hearts, political considerations apart, for “heretic” Tibet,
for which so many British explorers, traders and travellers developed understanding and even admiration. When British rule established itself in India in the nineteenth century, a number of treaties ensured the settlement of all controversial relations on the northeastern frontier. In a treaty between Great Britain and China, concluded in 1890, the former secured recognition of her protectorate over Sikkim. In 1904, Great Britain concluded a treaty with Tibet securing an open trade route frome Kalimpong in India, to Lhasa. Though direct relations were established between thetwo countries, Great Britain recognized Chinese suzerainty over Tibet in 1906. In1910 a British Protectorate over Bhutan was established. Thus India, under British rule, had produced a system of security by which her northeastern frontier could be considered more or less immune against the turmoil of Chinese politics. As shown above, the main elements of this security system were British India’s suzerainty over Bhutan and Sikkim, the free trade route between Kalimpong and Lhasa opened after Colonel Francis Younghusband’s expedition to Lhasa in 1904, and friendly relations with Nepal which ceased to be a vassal state in relation to China. Security on her northeastern frontier allowed British India to concentrate on the more difficult problem of her northwestern frontier bordering on Afghanistan.
In view of the constant Chinese infiltration into Tibet, British India had to consider how to maintain a balance of power there. Any sharp increase of Chinese penetration in Tibet was obviously a threat to British India’s security; while the elimination of Chinese influence from Tibet would obviously have caused a deterioration of Anglo-Chinese relations, provoked again the danger of Russian infiltration, and increased unnecessarily the responsibility of British India in relation to Tibet. Thus the balance was determined by a policy of keeping Chinese influence in check without eliminating it entirely. It was successful for years in keeping the famous Russian agent, Mr. Dorjeff, at a fair distance from the hearts of the Lamas. The policy was not formally laid down, but it found visible expression in the provisions of the Simla Conference in 1914, where representatives of British India, China and Tibet initialed a Convention of which the chief provisions were the following:
- Tibet was to be divided into two parts: Outer Tibet, adjoining India and including Lhasa, Shigatse and Chamdo; and Inner Tibet, including the provinces near China and part of Eastern Tibet.
The principle of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet was recognized, but China was to observe strictly her limited position as a suzerain. Suzerainty implies that internal sovereignty is vested in the vassal state; in other words China could not, according to the Convention, infringe upon the internal jurisdiction of the Dalai Lama’s Government. On the other hand, suzerainty means no external sovereignty in the vassal state. Thus the Convention implied the right of China to conduct Tibet’s foreign affairs, with the exception of British India’s direct rights in Tibet, essential to the mutual balance in the Indian-Chinese-Tibetan triangle.
Great Britain declared that it had no other aspirations in Tibet, and in particular none for territorial expansion or aggrandizement.
The division of Tibet into Outer Tibet and Inner Tibet implied the predominant interest of British India in the former and of China in the latter. India always enjoyed the natural security afforded by the Himalayas. The passes leading from the Tibetan plateau into Sikkim and India are important trade routes. Noninterference of China in Outer Tibet best secured freedom of movement on these routes. Thousands of Tibetan traders used to arrive in India yearly over these passes to sell wool, hides and medicinal herbs in exchange for other goods. Thus the firm establishment of the Dalai Lama’s jurisdiction in this part of Tibet served the twofold purpose of promoting Indo-Tibetan trade and security of the northeastern frontier of India. British India was allowed to have her trade agents in Outer Tibet and later also established a Mission in Lhasa.
In Inner Tibet the Chinese were to keep certain internal rights, including responsibility for the maintenance of order.
Finally, the Chinese were to maintain a representative, called Amban, in Lhasa. As mentioned above, the Amban was later matched by the presence of the British Indian Mission to the Dalai Lama.
One of the tasks of the Simla Conference was also to define the northeastern frontier of India, particularly between Tibet and Bhutan, the vassal of British India where Chinese penetration remained a continuous threat.
Two days after the Convention was initialed, the Chinese Government refused to sign it. The British then informed China that they considered the Convention as in force between themselves and Tibet. A few weeks later the First World War broke out and Tibetan affairs were duly shelved. But the principles of the Simla Conference remained a reliable guide to British Indian policy in Tibet, based as it was on genuine friendship and on a mutually respected balance of power by which no more would be given to or withdrawn from either China or Tibet than was inherent in the balance itself.
Tibet was obviously to serve as a buffer state without giving up its autonomy in its own internal affairs. It was also obvious that British India’s action was dictated not only by British Commonwealth interests but by the natural requirements of any future Indian policy, whether connected with British rule or not. Problems of security and trade aside, there was also an increased need after the First World War for vigilance against the Bolshevist penetration which Chinese soldiers tended to import into Tibet. Communism was always less popular in Tibet than in India and Nepal, the reason being that the Dalai Lama’s Government was, and still is, primarily spiritual, abhorring physical force as a means of leading people to happiness and salvation.
The need for India to play an active part in protecting her security and interests in the northeast is all the greater today because of the strongly imperialist policies adopted by Communist China and the U.S.S.R. The ostensible objective of the Chinese invasion of Tibet is the “liberation” of the Tibetan people. But in fact Mao Tse-tung has assumed the expansionist rôle formerly played by the Manchu Emperors. In other words, Tibet in Chinese eyes is once again a province of China, composed of the present Tibetan territory plus all the areas which originally were Tibetan and later were lost to India or Nepal. Years ago, Tibet owned all of Sikkim down to Siliguri in India, including Darjeeling; it also owned Bhutan, now an Indian vassal state, and had Nepal as a protectorate. Nepal discontinued her quinquennial missions to Peking only about 40 years ago, and shook off Chinese suzerainty.
Thirty years ago, Sir Charles Bell, one of the greatest experts on Tibet, made clear in his work, “Tibet, Past and Present,”[ii] that if the Chinese should disturb the Tibetan balance of power as laid down in the Simla Convention, both Nepal and India would be threatened. He also expressed grave concern about the future of the system of security initiated by the British in the event that India were to become independent. He foresaw that with a transfer of power from the British to an independent India the Simla policy would automatically break down, since, he thought, independent India whether through lack of interest or lack of firmness would not support Tibet against Chinese imperialism (yellow or red). In such circumstances Tibet would have to break away from the Indian environment, and Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim would find it difficult to continue in friendly partnership with India; for when the inhabitants of these countries saw that India had abandoned the effort to maintain a balance of power in Tibet, and had assumed a passive attitude there, they would be tempted to turn to China of their own accord. One of Sir Charles Bell’s practical recommendations for delaying Chinese penetration in Tibet was to prevent Chinese agents from entering that country through India. He also noted that the lines of communication direct from Peking to Lhasa are highly inadequate and emphasized that if ever Chinese troops and officials succeeded in seizing Tibet the export of rice or other food grains and supplies to them through India should be prevented. It is significant that at the present time all Chinese missions enter Tibet via Calcutta and Kalimpong, and that Tibetan missions to China do not travel from Lhasa direct to Peking but take the same roundabout route by way of Kalimpong and Calcutta.
Let us now look at events in the last two years in the light of the above warnings and recommendations.
The Chinese invasion of Tibet started at the end of 1950. It embraced at first only part of what the Simla Convention had designated as Inner Tibet. At the end of December in that year the young Dalai Lama left Lhasa and moved to Yatung in the Chumbi valley, only 15 miles from the border of India, thereby making clear that he was ready to become an exile in India, as his predecessor had done 30 yearsbefore. As soon as this happened the Chinese invasion stopped and Lhasa remained temporarily free. The next development was that a delegation of the Tibetan Government was invited to Peking. On arriving there they were told that Chinese military headquarters would be set up in Lhasa, and when they protested they were informed that Tibet had become a province of China and that they would do well to recognize the fact. Then a treaty was submitted to them for signature. They first said they would take it to Yatung and ask the Dalai Lama for instructions, but under pressure they were forced to sign immediately. One is reminded of the procedure applied by Hitler in 1938 to the unfortunate President of Czechoslovakia, and later to other victims.
After signing the treaty the Tibetan delegation left Peking and travelled back to Lhasa via Calcutta and Yatung. Meanwhile the Chinese had captured the Dalai Lama, with the help of a few bribed lamas, and brought him to Lhasa. For some time the Chinese generals in Tibet worked under the cloak of the Dalai Lama’s authority; but having consolidated their power in the first half of 1952 they forced the Dalai Lama to dismiss all his supporters in the government and remain completely isolated. Furthermore, the Panchen Lama, next in importance to the Dalai Lama, was brought to Lhasa as his rival. When the two became friends theywere again separated. Finally the Chinese Government invited India to withdraw her Mission from Lhasa in order to destroy the last trace of Tibetan independence.
The Indian Government has now complied with Chinese wishes and sent a Consul General to Lhasa who is accredited to China and not to Tibet. Thus with a stroke of the pen India relinquished the old policy of security in the northeast, worked out during years of effort and negotiation. Indian public opinion is as yet unaware of the historical consequences of this move.
The Chinese penetration of all the previous dependencies of the Chinese Emperors is likely to increase. The exact sequence of events cannot be foreseen, but it seems that Nepal is already involved in serious internal troubles (not without Communist participation) and that Communist pressure in Sikkim, Bhutan and Darjeeling is increasing.
India, whatever her motives in abandoning a genuine Indian policy as initiated under British rule, has to wake up to the reality on her northeastern frontiers and to events which are likely to follow. Tibet is now definitely behind the Iron Curtain and news as to what is going on beyond the Himalayan passes is scanty. It is, however, certain that the Chinese are building a strategic road from Lhasa to the frontier of India and Sikkim. This is the same track along which Colonel Francis Younghusband’s army pushed in more primitive conditions in 1904 from India toLhasa, and there is no reason why it could not be used for aggressive purposes in the other direction. Accounts of Younghusband’s expedition mention the significant fort of Phari on the track below the peak of Chomo Lhari. The Chinese are reported to be building near the old fort a modern fort located in Galingk’a. They are also reported to be building, with the help of Soviet experts, several air bases all over Tibet, one at Lhasa and one on the plain between Lake Manasarowar and Lake Rukas, which is only 300 miles from New Delhi. It has been officially admitted by Indian politicians that there are Chinese military detachments stationed all along the Indian frontier. There are also rumors of atomic experts conducting investigations in uranium deposits in southern Tibet. The Chinese have printed a geographical map of China in which Bhutan and Sikkim are shown as part of China or Tibet. The matter has been recently discussed in the Indian Parliament and is, in spite of Chinese denials, a serious cause for anxiety. It is difficult at the moment to separate reliable evidence from hearsay. However, one thing certain is that the previous intercourse between India and Tibet has come to an end and that India has found herself close up against the Iron Curtain.[iii] In case of armed conflict, a southward Communist thrust might take place in the first instance from China and Tibet into Burma. Even so, considerable Indian armed forces would be immobilized on the Himalayan passes and south of them. If these passes and the adjoining strategic areas are not adequately defended, another Communist thrust could, in case of war, follow from the north and east directly into the plains of India.
Whatever the future, the period of balance of power by political manœuvring is over; and if physical force is behind the unbalance it can be opposed only by physical force. A former Congress President emphasized in a speech in the Indian Constituent Assembly that compulsory military service would be one of the bestsafeguards of independence. Its purpose, in the first instance, would be the creation of a strong and efficient army and, moreover, the strengthening of national discipline essential to face hard facts.
[i] “The Religion of Tibet,” by Sir Charles Bell. New York: Oxford, 1931, p. 21.
[ii] New York: Oxford, 1925, p. 241.
[iii] When Tibetan children and students who were studying in Indian schools and colleges went home for their holidays in Tibet, they were unable to return to India.