India’s Tibet Dilemma

In India, the meaning of democracy, secularism and freedom has taken different interpretations according to the whims, fancies and conveniences of the State. Almost every time the Government of India takes a ‘perceived’ unconstitutional step in order to further its own interests, it tries to justify its actions under the blanket of almost ludicrous interpretations of the powers bestowed upon it by the Constitution. This is exactly what has happened to the Indian state’s reaction to Tibetan protesters in different parts of the country.

With the Beijing Olympics approaching, the world’s eyes are on China. It is quite natural then that those who want to protest against China’s ‘illegal occupation of Tibet’ and its abysmal human rights record- including reminders of the massacre in Tiananmen Square and continuous imprisonment and harassment of monks in Tibet- will step up their campaign this year. Since Friday, as monks took to the streets of Lhasa in the most vicious protests against Chinese rule in Tibet since 1989, India has kept quiet, calling it an internal matter of the Chinese. None of the troubles in China concern New Delhi, which has taken the official position that Tibet is a part of China. But it doesn’t have to kowtow to Beijing by cracking down harshly on peaceful Tibetan protest on Indian soil. As groups of more than hundred Tibetan exiles undertaking a march from different parts of the country, who say they want to cross over into Tibet, have been taken into custody, one really wonders if the notions of democracy and freedom has remained the same for the Government at the centre hell bent on pleasing its Chinese counterparts.

The Indian authorities, of course, can’t permit these protesters to cross the border without valid travel documents. But they had barely begun a planned six-month march to Tibet when one of these groups was asked to confine their movements and activities inside the Kangra district. They were then arrested in the Dehra town, which is actually inside Kangra district. The arrests came a day after Beijing lodged a strong protest with the Indian government over the march. Today, Chinese Premier Wen Jibao publicly patted India’s back for its tough stand on ‘anti-Chinese activities on the Indian soil and the malicious intentions of the Dalai Lama’. I do hope Mr. Pranab Mukherjee is listening! Or is it another ploy of the Government to please the Left, already miffed about the Nuke Deal.

The marchers have broken no law. In recognition of the tenuousness of the charges against them, three Indian citizens as well as nine others who marched along with the Tibetans- from countries such as US, UK, Germany and Poland- have been released. Crime cannot be graded according to nationality, but of course New Delhi (or the Government seated there) thinks otherwise. The ministry of external affairs has intoned that no ‘anti-China’ activity will be permitted from Indian soil. It is an authoritarian trait to describe any protest as anti-national. India is a democracy. That principle isn’t worth suspending just because Beijing is offended. Neither has it paid much dividend. Beijing’s response to India’s whole-hearted backing of Chinese claims on Tibet and Taiwan has so far been meager: recognition perhaps of India’s claim on Sikkim, but not a settling of the boundary question in its entirety. China still continues to claim Arunachal Pradesh.

It won’t hurt if New Delhi were to tell Beijing that while it fully recognizes Chinese claims over Tibet, it wouldn’t jail people who think otherwise. After all, it doesn’t do so even when people speak out against the policies of the Indian government. It should also reverse a recent trend of cracking down on peaceful Tibetan protests more harshly than before. Otherwise it would seem that in India, democracy is subjective to the concerns and suitabilities of the government in power.

Anupam Dhar

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