The Orphans of the Sino-Indian War: 50 Years Later, What Next for the Tibetans?

Posted on October 19, 2012


Late last month, more than four hundred Tibetans met in Dharamsala, the northern Indian hill town that hosts the Tibetan government-in-exile. Before a portrait of the Dalai Lama, they sang the Tibetan National Anthem and remembered Tibetans who died protesting Chinese rule. And while the Dalai Lama himself remained absent from the meeting, having given up his political powers last year, he casts a long shadow.

A Tibetan exile participates in a Flame of Truth march in New Delhi, India, Monday, Oct. 15, 2012.

Ever since he fled to India in 1959 after an unsuccessful uprising against Beijing, the question of Tibet — and exiled Tibetans — has loomed large over India-China ties. While India provided shelter to the Dalai and his followers, they have no political rights in the country and live as refugees with a stay permit despite the fact that the Indian state doesn’t officially recognize refugees. This generosity, as India clarifies often, was out of respect for the Dalai Lama and his spiritual eminence.

Many in China, however, deem this as meddling in its internal affairs. As early as in May 1959, Mao Zedong, a top Chinese leader, in his “The Revolution in Tibet and Nehru’s Philosophy” had accused Nehru of encouraging Tibetan rebels. And as recent as last year, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hong Lei had said China opposes “any country that provided a platform to the Dalai Lama” whom they consider a separatist. Last year, China also canceled border talks with India in protest over a speech by the Dalai Lama in New Delhi. That may be a rote, predictable gesture at this point, but it speaks of an intractable problem dogging ties between the two Asian giants. “The issue of Tibet is a core issue between India and China,” Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, told TIME.  “We want India to have productive relations with all its neighbors including China.”

That sentiment carries special resonance now as the two countries mark on Oct. 20 the 50th anniversary of the Sino-Indian border war of 1962. The month long war, which was won decisively by the Chinese, was a bitter, humiliating blow for the Indians, whose meager defenses were woefully unprepared for the rapid advance of Beijing’s forces. The conflict saw Chinese soldiers attacking across the disputed McMahon line, a boundary drawn through the Himalayas and its rugged, sparsely populated foothills in 1914 by British colonial authorities and Tibetan officials—thus a border which Beijing refuses to recognize. China’s desire to secure its hold over Tibet played a significant role in its decision to raid into India; Beijing unilaterally declared a ceasefire Nov. 21, 1962 and withdrew from much of the land it conquered save the strategic barren territory appended to Kashmir known as Aksai Chin.

While the dispute remains frozen over glacial passes and rounds of border talks yield pitiful results, the narrative of India-China ties has moved on. The last ten years have been shaped by growing, significant economic links. In 2005, the two countries agreed to a “strategic and cooperative partnership” after a meeting between Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and Indian PM Manmohan Singh. Last June, Chinese vice premier Li Keqiang proclaimed Sino-Indian ties to be the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century. “India and China are not in competition,” Singh said in 2009. “There is enough economic space for us both.”

But where does Tibet fit into this picture? China’s annoyance at India sheltering the Dalai Lama has surfaced regularly, and India has often made concessions to its trade partner’s sensitivities. In 2009, Beijing raised a stink when the Dalai Lama wanted to visit Tawang, a historic monastery town in Arunachal Pradesh—a state the Chinese still claim as “Southern Tibet.” While New Delhi didn’t stop him, it restricted coverage of the event by not allowing foreign journalists to accompany him to the country’s remote Northeast. In 2011, the Chinese consulate in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata sent a written protest when the governor of West Bengal met the Dalai Lama while he was in the city on a speaking tour, ruffling feathers in India. “They have no business doing that publicly,” Sangay says referring to the written protest. “That’s interference in India’s sovereignty and internal matters.”

hina disagrees. According to Beijing, the Dalai is a terrorist with a separatist agenda. “I do not think that China’s protest against the Dalai’s movements for ‘Tibet Independence’ in India is interference in India’s internal matters, but just on the opposite that if India allows Dalai to engage separatist activities in India is interference in China’s internal affairs,” Wang Dehua, Director of the Shanghai-based South Asia Research Center at Tongji University told TIME. “The so-called autonomy of Tibet, [that] the Dalai Lama claims to be seeking is actually the independence of Tibet, which is definitely forbidden.”

Predictably, despite recent visits from high profile Chinese dignitaries, including President Hu Jintao and defense minister General Liang Guanglie, the issue of Tibet continues to be a point of tension. According to observers China still fears that India will leverage the might of its more than 100,000 Tibetan exiles on its soil and fuel tension in Tibet. “The Tibet issue is one of China’s historical fears,” says C. Uday Bhaskar, former director of the New Delhi based think tank, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. “But India has never used the Tibet card”—in a fragile geo-political neighborhood, New Delhi knows better than to use its small leverage in a contest it can’t win.

Given the political and economic stakes, both sides are likely to grudgingly preserve the status quo, at least for now. “There is a certain trend of animosity [in China] towards India, which is continuous,” Mohan Guruswamy of the Observer Research Foundation says. “And we have to live with that just the way they have to live with our growing friendship with other countries and the Tibet issue. 1962, however, will never happen again.”


50 years after October 1962

October 20 this year marks the 50th anniversary of the surprise Chinese military attack on Indian Army positions along the contested and undemarcated Sino-Indian border and the event has been differently recalled over the last fortnight in both countries. The human loss on both sides was not insignificant: India lost as many as 1,400 troops, China had a casualty figure of over 700. Politically, this war marked the end of the Nehru era in India, while it enabled Chairman Mao to consolidate his own position in the Chinese politburo.

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, right, shakes hands with Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan Prime Minister in exile, after Sangay gave an official statement marking the 53rd anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule on March 10, 2012, in Dharamsala, India

For India, this war remains atraumatic and humiliating experience and the recall is tinged with the indelible scars of the defeated subaltern. Thus, while Beijing is able to take a more detached view of 1962, it is also true that, collectively, China is yet to get over the trauma of the Japanese military annexation and related brutalities that preceded World War II.
While the scale of the violence and subjugation are not comparable, the tragic 75th anniversary of the ‘Rape of Nanking’ that began on December 13, 1937, will be observed later this year and, from all accounts, China has not been able to forget or forgive that traumatic experience.

Yet, it is undeniable that the much-heralded Asian century, which is the leitmotif of the 21st century, will be shaped by the texture of the triangular orientation between the three major Asian powers – China, Japan and India – and their relationship with the US.

Globalisation and the complex trade and economic interdependency that currently prevail precludes the possibility of the major powers taking recourse to impulsive military action against each other. While this hypothesis was tested to tipping point during the recent China-Japan standoff over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, it is a tenet of international relations that the behavioural pattern of states often goes against the grain of theory and the conventional probability index – and October 1962 is case in point. The Indian political leadership was stunned by Mao’s ‘slap’.

To his credit, after the 1962 war concluded a month later in November – as suddenly as it began – with a unilateral Chinese withdrawal, PM Nehru admitted in Parliament, “We have been living in an unreal world of our own creation.” Paradoxically, this make-believe world in relation to China was the creation of the imperial and abrasive certitude of Nehru and Krishna Menon in matters pertaining to China that could not be critiqued or objectively reviewed.

In hindsight, it may be averred that India’s institutional capacity to make an informed assessment about China’s intent and evolve a prudent proactive policy was woefully inadequate. The central question after 50 years is whether this lacuna has been appropriately redressed. The answer, alas, is in the negative.

However, October 1962 had a silver lining in that it revealed the Nehruvian folly of pursuing grandiose politico-diplomatic objectives without acquiring comprehensive national power across the board. Furthermore, the dismissive derision that Nehru had for the military as an institution and the rank political interference in matters military – manifest in the choice of Lt Gen B M Kaul to manage the war – were progressively remedied during the Indira Gandhi years – culminating in the spectacular 1971 military victory that led to the creation of Bangladesh.

Yet, the same Indian national security edifice was ‘surprised’ in Kargil in 1999 and later in Mumbai in 2008. The collective response ranged from denial to disbelief to a less-than-integrated reactive approach – recall, for instance, the army-air force dissonance in 1999 and the inability to harmonise Centre-state responses as Mumbai was under dramatic siege in 2008.

China will remain India’s most critical interlocutor in the years ahead and the need to have a stable and equitable bilateral relationship is unexceptionable. What is to be determined is the framework against which the two Asian giants will balance their aspirations and anxieties.

While strategic restraint has been the operative characteristic since the Jiang Zemin-Narasimha Rao period, there has been no dearth of tactical provocation and covert revisionism by Beijing through the Pakistani conduit. China is on the cusp of its once-in-a-decade top leadership change and on November 8, the transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping will begin.

India and China need to evolve a matrix wherein their legitimate interests as derived from the compulsions of the 21st century are equitably and ethically accommodated wherein neither side is compelled to adopt a posture of belligerence or extreme deference. Such equipoise has remained elusive for 50 years and the challenge for the leadership on both sides is to remember history objectively and not be trapped in its bitterness.

It may be pertinent to invoke Susan Sontag, “Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself…but history gives contradictory signals about the value of remembering in the much longer span of a collective history. There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.”

China, India and, at a remove, Japan have to reconcile their recall of a traumatic past as they chart their future.

Uday Bhaskar