Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Tibet: The Last Months of a Free Nation: India Tibet Relations (1947-1962) Part I

Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Tibet: The Last Months of a Free Nation: India Tibet Relations (1947-1962) Part I

Article excerpt

Claude Arpi, Tibet: The Last Months of a Free Nation: India Tibet Relations (1947-1962) Part I, (New Delhi, 2017, VIJ Books), Pages: 468, Price; Rs.1295 (HB)

It is one of the ironies of history - and of geography as well - that our knowledge of our neighbour, Tibet, is composed of shreds and patches, heavily borrowed from Western sources (Tibet as Shangri-La, a remote, inaccessible and exotic wilderness); or skimpily outlined in our imagination through our Buddhist connections (Tibet as a Buddhist sanctuary and centre of Buddhist archives and traditions); or through the saga of Tibet's so-called Living God, the Dalai Lama who, following the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950, sought refuge in India in 1959; or, in more ominous terms, through our realisation that China, which traumatised us with its victory in its 1962 war, simultaneously transformed a quiescent Tibet-India border into a fractious China-India one.

Claude Arpi painstakingly traces this debacle in a book that anyone interested in the omissions and commissions bedevilling the Tibet issue will find revealing, instructive and, not least, depressing. This first volume covers the period 1947 to 1951; three further volumes are to cover respectively 1951-54, 1954-57 and 1957-62. Arpi's research centres in the main around Indian documents which, despite our obsolete rules that tend to prevent access to important government archives even to genuine scholars, he has managed to obtain and study alongside interviews with some of the players involved. In addition, he quotes some relevant Tibetan and Chinese material as well, although these, given the problems associated with accessing such material, are understandably far less in number.

As a prelude, Arpi traces the history of the triangular British India-Tibet-China series of contacts emanating from the overall British strategic posture towards the end of the nineteenth century that called for securing the India-Tibet border as a protective buffer for the Empire. Traditionally, Indian trade relations with Tibet, dating back several hundred years, were reinforced during the British Raj times by small military escorts in Tibetan trading posts like Gyantse, Gartok, and Yatung. Towards the close of the nineteenth century, the British authorities felt the need to further systemise this practice and, through a show-of-strength expedition to Tibet by Francis Younghusband, persuaded the Tibetan authorities to sign an agreement in 1904 that gave the British exclusive trading and mining rights in Tibet. It is notable that China was not involved in these negotiations, although a separate understanding with it ensured police protection for Indian traders in Tibet. This was followed by the Anglo-Tibet Agreement of 1914 - notable once again for China not being a signatory - which further formalised India-Tibet trade relations, at the same time fixing the McMahon line as the boundary between the two countries. Against the backdrop of long-standing trade contacts between India and Tibet, these two agreements confirmed the freedom which Tibet enjoyed in its foreign relations; and to the extent that weak central governments in China left Tibet to its own devices, Tibetan independence was an established fact notwithstanding sporadic Chinese territorial claims over the Himalayan state.

The scene in Arpi's book now shifts to 1948, when the Indian Ambassador to Chang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang China, K. M. Panikkar (the erstwhile historian and advisor to some princely states in pre-independent India) writes to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to say that the newly-victorious Communist Government in Peking headed by Mao Zedong is likely to "take a forward policy" in respect of Tibet; that independent Tibet would actually be India's benefit; and that it would, in this context, be useful to recall that "Chinese sovereignty over Tibet has not been recognized by us" (p. 60). A year later, Nehru confirms what becomes the accepted and customary formulation for India with regard to China's claim to Tibet, namely that, in Nehru's words, "India has always recognized the suzerainty of the Chinese Government over Tibet, but Tibet is considered an autonomous unit and India's dealings with Tibet are on that basis" (p. …

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