Road to nowhere
Himmat Singh Gill

Tibet: The Lost Frontier
by Claude Arpi.
Lancer Publishers, New Delhi.
Pages 338. Rs 795.

Tibet was indeed a lost frontier during the 19th and first quarter of the 20th centuries. It was known only to a few intrepid explorers who ventured out to this landlocked Himalayan kingdom of the lamas and their cavernous monasteries, perched precariously high on the snowy mountaintops. Today, with all the diplomatic chess boarding and armed military turbulence that has overtaken this once peaceful and religiously oriented land, it would not be wrong to say that a frontier has been lost, but this time to a powerful Communist giant that has merrily trampled all over it without mercy or any regret.

Arpi, who was born in France and is an avid student of Tibet, tells the story of the takeover of this once autonomous land, now a part of China, and the ‘masterly inactivity’ of an Indian leadership under Jawaharlal Nehru, assisted by his blue-eyed diplomat K. M. Panikkar, our man in Beijing.

Arpi traces the winding paths of the three ancient civilisations of Tibet, China and India, which over time developed their own characteristics, and the pacifist and non-violent signature of a Dalai Lama-ruled Tibet, which ironically added impetus to its own dismemberment at the hands of Mao and his party when they took power in China after overthrowing the KMT government of Chiang-Kai-Shek A nuclear-armed Communist China eager to stretch out its reach and boundaries in Asia clearly saw the importance of Tibet in the furtherance of its strategic ascendancy. The author points out very clearly this prophetic assessment when he writes that, “The key to conflict or peace in Asia lies on the Tibetan plateau”.

With the occupation of Tibet in 1950,China sent out an unambiguous message to a newly independent India and the ruling elite in the neighbouring Soviet Union that it harboured political and military designs of a serious kind in this part of the world. The October 1912 the Government of Tibet’s letter to the Viceroy asking for a British representative to be posted to Lhasa and its directions to China to withdraw all its officials and troops from inside Tibet was followed by the Simla Convention of April 1914, where Tibet and the British government agreed to their mutual boundary being along the McMahon Line. With the Chinese representative only initialing and not signing this pact, a vacuum was left wide open for subsequent disputes which in fact came to a head with the attack on India in 1962.The 13th Dali Lama’s prediction that “large insects are eating and secretly injuring small insects” was true in every respect.

Besides the change in fortune that the British had left India and a ‘karma’ that was none too benign to the people of Tibet, it was their added misfortune that an idealist Nehru, sold over Non-Alignment and notions of bringing peace to Asia and the world at large, remained oblivious till the end to the trampling of a buffer neighbour state.

In the meanwhile, Ambassador Panikkar continued to send glowing reports about the growth of Indo-Chinese friendship and Zhou-EnLai’s warmth in relations, and all this suited Nehru to the tick until of course he suddenly learnt in 1951-52 that the Chinese were feverishly constructing the Aksai Chin road, linking Ladakh to Tibet. In Parliament, Prof Ranga lashed out at Panikkar for “professing the friendship not only to China’s people, not only to the Chinese government but to China’s sovereignty over Tibet. This beats anybody and everybody”.

The attention of readers is drawn to the fact that it was in Panikkar’s time that in official government-to-government correspondence, the fact of an Indian acceptance of a Chinese ‘suzerainty’ over Tibet was changed to that of their having ‘sovereignty’ over the Himalayan kingdom, leading to an entirely bigger concession being inadvertently made to the Communists. Rightly does Arpi say that “Nehru did not want (to) take a clear stand” on the question of Tibet as a buffer state.

Arpi even brings out the startling fact that after the occupation of Tibet, there was no food to feed the Chinese troops, and for quite some time on Chinese request Indian rice was sent through the Chumbi Valley trade route on orders of Nehru, with our foreign office being instructed to keep the matter under the wraps.

It was again in October1951, when Secretary-General in the External Affairs Ministry Bajpai cautioned Nehru about the distinct possibility of Chinese “small forces dribbling in” through the many passes on the border and “make(ing) trouble for India”, that the Prime Minister outrightly rejected such a contingency. The author says, “Nehru also felt that large expenditures on the Army would starve the development of the country and its social progress.” Much the same attitude sadly prevails even today in our babudom and political masters, when they are dealing with the Indian Army of today.

Nehru visited China in 1954 and his grandson Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. In between we had the 1967 Nathu-La clash and another one at Wangdung in Arunachal in 1986. Narasimha Rao in 1993, A.B. Vajpayee in 2003 and now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2008, have all visited China, and yet the vexed border question in the northeast along the McMahon Line remains unresolved to this day. It should be clear to any Indian as to why China is keeping this dispute unresolved and open to dispute. And while the Dalai Lama resides in India, a previously independent and autonomous state has been erased from the world map.

Claude Arpi’s well researched and illuminating account of the failure of India’s diplomacy in its very backyard is a tribute to not only the author’s painstaking efforts at getting to the truth (which few Indian writers can be credited with as regards to writing on Tibet), but also marks a plus for the publishers who thought of bringing out this very instructive account. This study vividly points out that the peace-loving people like the Tibetans can no longer hope to remain in a Shangri-la of their own cut off from the prying eyes and their adventurous designs, and that to exist as an independent nation one must fine-tune not only its diplomacy but also be militarily strong enough to send out the right message.