Nestled in the shadow of the mighty Dhauladar range, the quaint town of Dharamshala is home to picturesque deodar and pine trees, glittering crystal lakes, and aromatic tea gardens. Carefully dotting this beautiful landscape are sturdy European-style buildings, churches, and attractions, forming a lasting colonial imprint on the spiritual dwelling. However, despite this entrancing background, a tourist’s eye is still caught by the bustling crowd along the town streets. Particularly, by the red, orange, and yellow speckles making their way slowly through the masses.
Usually, these colours indicate the strong presence of Buddhism prevalent in multiple other northeast Indian cities. However, in the upper reaches of this particular town, these colours stand for resistance; resistance led by the Dalai Lama against the brutal Chinese colonisation of Tibet.
A Brief History of Tibet
The history of Tibet is as convoluted as its political status. Although China claims a centuries-old sovereignty over the Himalayan region, Tibet has enjoyed periods of complete independence over its internal affairs for a greater part of its history.
Primarily owing to its geographical terrain, the congeries of different lordships in the region had been sheltered from significant foreign interference. However, this period of alienation ended in the 7th century with the beginning of the “Spu-rgyal’s Tibet”. The royal lineage of the Spu-rgyals (rgyal meaning “king”; and spu, though uncertain, may refer to divine manifestation) oversaw a rapid military expansion of the kingdom, which brought Tibet to the notice of its neighbours and a state of almost constant warfare. By the 9th century, Spu-rgyal’s Tibet had become a significant power in Central Asia, controlling the region of Greater Tibet, parts of Nepal and India, the Silk Route states, and briefly even T’ang China.
However, soon after reaching its zenith, the Tibetan Empire fell into a tumultuous period of frequent fragmentation, invasions, and political upheavals — but more importantly, the empire entered a period overseeing the introduction of Buddhism. Although Buddhism had previously made brief appearances in the socio-cultural landscape of Tibet, its influence over the politics of the region was cemented in the 11th century with the founding of several Buddhist monasteries with close relations to the nobility. The Mongol conquest of China in the 13th century further strengthened this influence by establishing a patron-priest relationship with the Sa-skya monastery. This became the first form of theocracy in Tibet, with the “Sa-skya Lama” serving as the viceroy of Tibet on behalf of the Mongol Emperor. Though this rule eclipsed in 1368 due to an internal rebellion, Buddhism continued to proliferate throughout the Tibetan plateau leading to the evolution of the distinctive Tibetan identity we know of today.
A different form of the patron-priest relationship was revived in 1578 between the Mongols and the Dge-lugs-pa sect of Buddhism, giving birth to the institution of the Dalai Lama (Oceanwide leader), which survives even today. The Dalai Lama became an important figure in the Tibetan culture, being regarded as the embodiment of a spiritual emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. The succession of the Dalai Lama is maintained by the discovery of a child, born soon after his death, into whom the spirit of the deceased is believed to have entered. In 1642, the then Mongol Emperor – Güshi Khan – enthroned the Dalai Lama as the spiritual and political leader of Tibet and himself took the role of military protector. Under the joint rule of the Dalai Lama and the Mongol kings, Tibet was consolidated into one nation.
After a brief war in the late 1710s, Mongolian influence from the region was entirely removed by Chinese forces. Chinese influence remained in the form of ‘ambans’ (representatives of the Qing Empire in Tibet) and a small garrison that maintained peace within the region and protected it against invasions. With the decline of the Manchu dynasty, Tibet also gained greater control over its defence. Although it did continue to acknowledge the nominal suzerainty of China, Tibet was in all practical sense independent since the late 18th century.
Escalation of Sino-Tibetan Tensions
All this changed when the geopolitical importance of Tibet increased in the early 20th century. Tibet became a necessary buffer state between British India and the expanding Russian Empire. With the need to secure Tibet’s borders against Tsarist Russia, Britain agreed to officially acknowledge Chinese suzerainty over the region through a treaty signed in 1906 without Tibetan participation. Following soon after was increased Chinese involvement in the area and the first Chinese attempt at using force against the Tibetans. In 1910, the 13th Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India.
This show of aggression permanently soured Sino-Tibetan relations. At the start of the Chinese revolution of 1911-1912, the Tibetans rose against and expelled the Chinese enabling the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet in mid-1912. For the next 39 years, Tibet functioned as a de-facto independent state, although China refused to recognize this status.
Another political upheaval took place in 1949 following the communist takeover in China when the Chinese heralded the “liberation” of Tibet. In October 1950, Chinese troops entered and took control of eastern Tibet, overwhelming the poorly equipped Tibetan troops. An appeal by the 14th Dalai Lama to the United Nations was denied while support from India and Britain was not forthcoming. In the absence of international aid, a Tibetan delegation summoned to Beijing in 1951 had to sign a 17-point agreement dictated by Chinese authorities. It professed to guarantee Tibetan autonomy and religion but also allowed the establishment of Chinese civil and military headquarters at Lhasa. Tibet was slaughtered and officially incorporated in PCR. A large part of Tibet’s Kham province was incorporated into China’s Sichuan province and another portion into Yunnan. A new Chinese province called Qinghai was also created with the bulk of Tibet’s Amdo province and a part of Kham. The remaining part of Amdo was incorporated into the Gansu Province. With only a little part of Kham and the central province of U-Tsang left, Tibet was reduced to a shadow of its former self.
Smouldering resentment at China’s failure to uphold the terms of the agreement and the strain on the country’s resources from the influx of Chinese soldiers and civilians erupted as several popular uprisings from the year 1956 onwards. In March 1959, the uprisings culminated in massive demonstrations in Lhasa. In response, China began brutal suppression of the protests, which led to the death of around 87000 Tibetans in the Lhasa region alone. On 28 March 1959, China dissolved the Government of Tibet and all notions of Tibetan Independence were erased.
The Dalai Lama was forced to flee his palace in Lhasa with his ministers and followers. The 23-year-old disguised himself as a soldier and embarked on a dangerous journey to seek asylum with the Chinese Army at his heels. His group travelled like ghosts at night to evade the Chinese military until they reached Arunachal Pradesh. In response to his request, India offered to provide sanctuary to every refugee and permitted the establishment of a Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala, provided the Dalai Lama abstains from political protests against China from within the Indian territory.
Position of India in the Tibetan Issue
Even before its independence, India had recognized the autonomy of Tibet and maintained close diplomatic ties with the nation. However, a stark change in India’s foreign policy towards Tibet took place in 1954 with the signing of the Sino-Indian Agreement when India formally accepted Tibet to be a region of China.
Although Dalai Lama’s arrival was warmly welcomed, India’s attitude towards Tibetan autonomy remained unchanged. Despite facing heavy criticism from its press, the Indian government continued to regard Tibet as a part of China even after the Sino-Indian War of 1962.
The Centre’s official relations with the Dalai Lama have remained ambivalent ever since. For a large part, the government maintains slight contact with the spiritual figure. However, occasionally India evinces close ties to the Dalai Lama. The government is all too well aware of the adverse consequences of its relations with the Dalai Lama over India’s relations with China.
The situation in Lhasa is much different from the peaceful scene witnessed in Dharamshala. Since 1959, over a million Tibetans have been mercilessly killed. With the Chinese policy of resettlement of Chinese to Tibet, Tibetans have become a minority in their own country. Mandarin has been made the official language. Compared to pre-1959 levels, only 1/20th of the monks are still allowed to practice under the government’s watch. Up to 6,000 monasteries and shrines have been destroyed. Famines have appeared for the first time in recorded history, natural resources are devastated and wildlife is depleted to extinction. Tibetan culture comes close to becoming a distant memory.
There is no freedom of speech, religion, or press in Tibet today, and arbitrary dissidents continue.
It’s a rare occasion to find Dalai Lama in Dharamshala. Visitors often have to book an appointment well in advance to be able to meet him. Soon after he arrived in India, the Dalai Lama began visiting international leaders and forums to champion the cause of Tibetan independence.
On 4th March 1988, the Dalai Lama enunciated the Tibetan demands in public while addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Known as the Strasbourg Proposal, it underlined his moderate approach towards a resolution. Giving up the earlier demands for complete independence, he now proposed ‘genuine’ autonomy for Tibet under the Chinese Constitution. This has been referred to as ‘the Middle Path’ and has remained the official position of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
However, all attempts at negotiations are one-sided as China remains adamant in its argument and refuses to entertain any dialogue on the issue of Tibet’s independence. In 2020, Beijing attempted to strip away the last of Tibet’s freedom by assuming complete control over finding the Dalai Lama’s 15th reincarnation.
The international position on this issue has been mainly in Tibet’s favour. Numerous Tibet Support Groups (TSGs) have sprung up which have helped create increased awareness about the situation in Tibet and generate worldwide support. Many countries, too, have taken political action in favour of an autonomous Tibet. However, the question remains whether China would relent to all this international pressure or continue to exercise its supposed authority over Tibet.