Excerpt from Nehru’s noting 1949
“Whatever may be the ultimate fate of Tibet in relation to China, I think there is practically no chance of any military danger to India arising from any possible change in Tibet. Geographically, this is very difficult and practically it would be a foolish adventure. If India is to be influenced or an attempt made to bring pressure on her, Tibet is not the route for it.
“I do not think there is any necessity at present for our Defence Ministry, or any part of it, to consider possible military repercussions on the India-Tibetan frontier. The event is remote and may not arise at all.”
This was the strategic appreciation that seemed to guide Nehru through the early traumatic years after the Chinese invaded and occupied Tibet in 1950. He seemed to be deeply committed to working with the Chinese in order to bring about a grand Asian revival and Tibet for him was a hindrance in this grand scheme. But in the process, he made blunders on Tibet which that unfortunate country and India too, is still paying for. It is noteworthy that Nehru had over-ridden Nationalist Chinese objections during the 1947 Asian Relations Conference which he hosted in April and allowed Tibet to take part as an independent country and to travel on Tibetan passports, but he did not show anything like the same firmness in approaching the Communists. What made this even more inexplicable is the fact that the Nationalists had been active supporters of the Indian freedom movement, whereas the Communists had had choice things to say about Nehru and Indian freedom.
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They examined and accepted each others’ credentials, thus indicating that all three were participating as equals. The major result for India was the boundary between British India and Tibet – the McMahon Line It also divided Tibet into an Inner and Outer Tibet [with the latter being autonomous, the former not], an issue that still rankles among Tibetans, for it left many Tibetans under direct Chinese administration [interestingly it is these populations who today oppose the Chinese rule on the Tibetan plateau]
In time-honoured and indeed, treaty-bound tradition, the Dalai Lama, now already the [current] Fourteenth, then a teenager, turned to India when the Chinese troops occupied to seek refuge and support in 1950–51. He was preparing to goto the UN to lay out his case [he took refuge in Chumbi Valley a few months after sending his appeal to the UNGA], when the Indian Government decided that it would not sponsor any discussion on Tibet in the UN. As a non-member, Tibet could not bring up the matter in the UN itself. The reasoning of the Indian Government was that there was nothing anyone could do in military terms to help Tibet; further, any discussion in the UN would only antagonise the Chinese and make the situation worse for the Tibetans. Of course, this quite disregarded the fact that Tibet itself wanted the matter discussed at the UN. Further, it emphasised the irony that while India took the Jammu and Kashmir question to the UN, it would not support a reference on Tibet at the UN.
Finally, [tiny] El Salvador agreed to sponsor the discussion. But just as the matter was coming up for discussion at Lake success at the end of November 1950, the Indian delegation informed the UN that they had received word that China was willing to settle the matter peacefully. Hence, said the Indian representative, the matter should be withdrawn from consideration. The British and the Americans accepted the primacy of the Indian role in matters Tibetan and went along. The US archives show that the Americans did try several times to persuade Nehru to do more to help Tibet, including at the UN, but it was not to be – Nehru was more concerned about his role in the Korea conflict.
Lord Curzon was the Viceroy and he declared that “the so-called suzerainty of China over Tibet [is] a constitutional fiction, a political affectation which has been maintained because of its convenience to both parties”. At the end of the expedition, the two sides signed the Anglo-Tibetan Convention on 7 September 1904. Thus, the Tibetans were once more left to fend for themselves in the face of a military attack, without any aid from China. And once again, Tibet entered into a treaty with a foreign power without any role for Beijing. The provisions of the Convention of 1904 also make revealing reading
It was not until 1956 that things began to change, as the ground situation continued to worsen and Tibetan resistance to Chinese occupation grew. For the purposes of this article, however, it is important to emphasise that the matter did finally come up in the UN General Assembly in later years – in 1959, 1961 and 1965. The first of these was confined to the violation of the rights of the Tibetan people, but the second, in 1961, carried a call for the right of self-determination of the Tibetan people. It was a short Resolution, but the operative part is worth quoting from:
Excerpt from UNGA Resolution 1723 of 20 December 1961
“The General Assembly
Considering that these events violate fundamental human rights and freedoms set out in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the principle of self-determination of peoples and nations and have the deplorable effect of increasing international tension and embittering relations between peoples,
1. Reaffirms its conviction that respect for the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is essential for the evolution of a peaceful world order based on the rule of law;
2. Solemnly renews its call for the cessation of practices which deprive the Tibetan people of their fundamental human rights and freedoms, including the right to self-determination;” [Emphasis added].
Tibet-Mongolia Treaty of 1913, under which each recognised the other as an independent country. Although there have been some efforts to deny the existence of any such agreement, the Government of Mongolia made this Treaty public in 1982, at a time when relations between the Soviet bloc and China were extremely hostile. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama had also formally declared Tibet an independent country in 1912 and all Chinese officials, including all armed personnel, had been expelled
India did not sponsor or support either of the Resolutions and the explanation must be Nehru’s continuing commitment to seeking peace at any price with China. It did not work and the war of 1962 brought such humiliation and hurt upon Nehru that it would not be wrong to say that it destroyed his standing in the country and hastened his death in 1964. Notably, however, India did speak and support the next UN Resolution, in 1965, symptomatically, under a new Prime Minister. The 1965 Resolution did not specifically reiterate the call for self-determination, but it reaffirmed the earlier Resolutions and had the support of India, among other major powers. Thus, the UN is committed to giving the Tibetans the right of self-determination, but this will obviously not happen as long as China remains willing to use its veto power in the UN Security Council. Nevertheless the legal position is clear and worth recording.
There is one other issue that needs to be addressed. This concerns the two legal agreements entered into by the People’s Republic of China with Tibet in 1951 and with India in 1954. As to the first, it was always under a cloud because the Tibetan delegation that signed it in Beijing was coerced into doing so and moreover, the seals were forged in Beijing itself. This had to be done because the delegation was not empowered by the Dalai Lama to enter into any agreement on the status of Tibet [the Dalai Lama got the information through radio when he was in Chumbi Valley], but only to negotiate the withdrawal of the Chinese troops. Furthermore, even though the Dalai Lama was persuaded in the end to accept the 17-point Agreement as it has come to be known in history, it cannot be considered binding any more. It was denounced by the Dalai Lama in 1959 after he fled from Lhasa in Lhuntse Dzong, on his way to the Indian border. The International Commission of Jurists examined this denunciation and found in 1960, after the Dalai Lama had been forced into exile, that the denunciation was legally valid and tenable.
ICJ Report on Tibet and China 1960 (excerpt p. 346)
“The view of the [Legal Inquiry] COMMITTEE was that Tibet was at the very least a de facto independent State when the Agreement of Peaceful Measures in Tibet was signed in 1951 and the repudiation of this agreement by the Tibetan Government in 1959 was found to be fully justified.”
As to the India-China agreement of 1954, it was valid for eight years to begin with and lapsed in 1962. This happened in the month of April 1962, when relations between the two countries were extremely tense and war was to break out a few months later, in October. However, since the agreement has lapsed, there is no legal validity to this commitment. Legally, it means that Tibet and India revert to the previous Agreement i.e. the Simla Convention of 1914, which can be considered as a valid Treaty once the regulations of the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement have lapsed. What is noteworthy is that China used to insist on an inclusion in all the Joint documents with India that it should carry a reiteration of Tibet as a part of China. However, since the last two years, this reference is missing.
There is, of course, a question mark on all this in light of the Dalai Lama’s own stated position that he no longer seeks independence from China but only a wide degree of genuine autonomy. This, however, is only a proposal and does not alter the legal status of Tibet. That will happen only when and if a new agreement is reached along the lines suggested by the Dalai Lama among the countries concerned. The Dalai Lama’s quest for genuine autonomy is different from the traditional British definition of ‘autonomy’ in this context, because London wanted responsibility for Foreign Affairs to remain with Lhasa.
This is also the appropriate place to mention that the Dalai Lama is getting on in years and the Chinese have made it clear that they are preparing for a struggle over the succession and his reincarnation. In a reprise of the 1793 effort, they have again laid down their perspective on the reincarnation – something strange for an avowed socialist and atheist state to do. Nonetheless, they have the Panchen Lama under their control and it would be unwise to underestimate their determination to ensure their control over the choice of the next Dalai Lama. His Holiness is, of course, well-versed in the ways of the Chinese and is clearly preparing for the succession. However, the unambiguous status of the current Dalai Lama is a unique asset for Tibet and every effort needs to be made to settle matters within a reasonably short period of time.
In closing, it is worthwhile reflecting upon the Tibet-Mongolia Treaty of January 1913. Both countries recognised each other’s independence. The Mongolians turned to Russia for guidance and protection, the Tibetans to Britain and later India for the same. Mongolia is today an independent country – a condition extracted by the Soviet leaders from Nationalist China and then the People’s Republic, regardless of the fraternal ties between them. Tibet is a country and culture on the verge of extinction, a sorry reflection on the Indian leadership.
About the Author
P P Shukla, IFS — The writer did his Masters from Delhi School of Economics and joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1974. During a career spanning 37 years, he served in Moscow, Brussels, London and Kathmandu, among other places. He served in Delhi twice, including as the Diplomatic Adviser to the Prime Minister from 1996 to 2000. He has recently retired as Ambassador of India to Moscow. He is currently working as Joint Director in the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.
Note by the Author:
The claim that they appointed representatives [who were considered as Ambassadors by the Tibetans] or awarded titles is unconvincing. Britain still awards titles to countries like Australia and even appoints the Governor-General. But no one would accept any claim of British sovereignty over Australia. Besides, China itself was ruled during this period by the Manchus, who were themselves non-[Han] Chinese, so it is questionable whether their territories may logically be considered Chinese. It would be akin to India claiming Afghanistan because the Mughals controlled that territory or Burma because the British did
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