India in Political Cul De Sac

M.L. Sondhi

The Statesman, 16 January 1989

Before reviewing the various aspects of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’s China visit, it might be appropriate to remind ourselves that the “fundamental change” in Sino-Indian relations claimed by the official side extends to only three areas.  First, the establishment of a working group on the boundary question, and of a joint group on economic relations and on science and technology.  Secondly, achieving a psychological breakthrough by bringing to an end an era of confrontation.  Thirdly, the fact that the two countries have resolved to contribute to peace and stability in Asia and the world as a whole.

In the context of both national political attitudes and international diplomacy, it would, however, be a serious misinterpretation to claim that the two countries have transcended their deep-rooted differences on the border question and have overcome their competing interests in other areas which affect the logic of war and peace.  There is no concrete basis for the euphoria being expressed in a section of the Press which is echoing the prosaic stuff of platitudes found in the joint communiqué.


Mr. Gandhi’s planning process for the visit was clearly faulty.  No meaningful effort was made to achieve even an inter-ministerial consensus with the result that no credible assessment of the threat to India has emerged apart from the routine exercises by the intelligence community.  The need to enter into negotiations only when the outstanding issues are ripe for settlement cannot be overemphasized.  Much needed to be done to assess India’s vulnerabilities and capabilities.

Instead of consulting multiple sources of information and improving India’s operational readiness for a proper summit, those political elements were consulted which were inclined to discount or even dismiss the ‘need for formulating principles of protection from China’s claims.  Although the External Affairs Ministry claims to have studied the main issues extensively for the past two years, a new factor entered the topographic map with which Mr. Gandhi was exploring the diplomatic horizon.  Soviet moves for détente with China led to fearful fantasies in South Block.  The ebb and flow of action and reaction on the prospects of summitry were also affected by electoral prospects in the minds of the Prime Minister’s advisers.

A pro-China image could be used to manipulate the evaluations of the CPI and the CPI (M) and to achieve a demonstrative “peace” policy.  This meant visualizing diplomatic strategy only in the dimension of a side-show to the conciliatory diplomacy between Moscow and Beijing, or as an operational method for domestic gains.  Unfortunately the broad setting of international politics has been ignored and there has been no effort to optimize national policy goals.  The diplomatic and strategic predicament of the Soviets in Afghanistan and earlier that of the Americans in Vietnam should have suggested that the normative index of progress in Sino-Indian relations is ultimately related to the Chinese evolving a commonsense solution to their substantive clash of interests with India by coming out of their diplomatic and strategic predicament in Tibet.  The Americans found their momentum for military success checked in Vietnam, and the Soviets have also discovered the mirage of their military strength in Afghanistan.

It is a major fallacy of Rajiv Gandhi’s diplomacy that he has exaggerated the resilient strength that the Chinese in Tibet derive from the verbal edifice of “sovereignty-suzerainty” which India constructed in the Panchsheel days.  Instead of helping the Chinese to discover the inner reality of the logic of over-extension of military power – as the Soviets and the Americans have discovered – Mr. Gandhi appears to have recommended a course of action to the Chinese which will result in perverse tactical, operational and theatre strategies in an era of declining imperial systems.  Instead of helping the Chinese to come out of their strategic predicament, Mr. Gandhi’s so-called sense of realism is an actual distortion of international reality.

In an article in the Pacific Community (October 1976) published from Tokyo, I said that the Chinese should convert Tibet from a bridgehead of conflict to a symbol of hope and of an enduring and congenial relationship with India.  As one who started an academic discussion in the direction of peace diplomacy and a less hostile attitude towards China, I find Mr. Gandhi’s consignment of Tibet to a new Dark Age puzzling and alarming.  I think it is counter productive to make false conjectures, favourable or unfavourable, about the Chinese leadership.  What is needed is a patient effort to bring into common focus the national security practices in China and India and prepare the way for an alternative conceptualization which can help both countries to live in peace.

Fruitful Soviet-American summits took place when the time was ripe for them and, as Mr. Gorbachov pointed out, both sides became convinced that a new and constructive way of political thinking was essential.  The dissonance of the Beijing summit with new political thinking is quite evident from the blatant denial by both India and China of opportunities to the Tibetans to fulfil their political and cultural needs in their homeland.  Mr. Gandhi geared his conduct to tactical moves and did not achieve a constructive exchange of opinions on the Dalai Lama’s five point peace plan which can be the basis for coordinated actions essential for the achievement of a just and durable peace in Tibet.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi had followed a dual policy on the Tibet issue.  She endorsed the continued existence of the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile at Dharamsala without formally recognizing it.  She avoided adopting any stand which would be anti-Chinese at the polemical level.  While brandishing the Beijing summit as a turning point, New Delhi has retreated from the earlier position without any assurance that the Chinese will exercise restraint in Tibet.  Chinese propaganda will undoubtedly give great attention to the commitment that the Tibetans will not be allowed to carry on any political activity in India.

Despite this diplomatic success, the Chinese will prove no more successful than they did in the past in controlling pro-Tibet protest in India.  There is simply no way in which Mr. Gandhi’s government can prevent Indian citizens, including those who are ethnic Tibetans and have close ties of sentiment and religion with the Dalai Lama, from expressing their condemnation of Chinese atrocities in Tibet.

Even if Mr. Gandhi wishes, he cannot coordinate his policies on Tibet more closely with the Chinese as long as India remains a full-fledged democracy with the fundamental right of Indian citizens to respond to human rights violations.  It may well turn out that as we enter a generally calmer international climate, with even South Africa moving to more rational ways, Tibet will become much more of a social dynamite for China and will be the obvious target of the worldwide human rights movement.  Whatever the frantic responses of the Chinese to the increasingly unstable situation within Tibet, total control over the political forces in India working for Tibetan rights will never be achieved.  It also remains to be seen how Mr. Gandhi will make his unguarded remarks and the inclusion of restraint on pro-Tibetan activity in India intelligible and acceptable to Parliament.

Instead of breaking the logjam on the Himalayan military strategic problem, Mr. Gandhi has left the field open for the Chinese to increase their megatonnage of nuclear explosive and the number of their missiles in Tibet.  Colonel R. Rama Rao in the excellent study “Defence at Bearable Cost” has pointed out that “China is tightening its grip on Tibet and raising its force strength along India’s frontiers.  Indian air space and ground defence are regularly being monitored and the Sino-Pakistan axis against India remains firm as ever.  Although Chinese leaders seem to desire normalization of relations with India, they are consolidating their hold on Tibet and over the Indian territory in Aksai Chin occupied by them by force in 1962.  Despite the earnest efforts being made by Indian leaders, it is difficult to see how normalization in relations can be restored till Indian territory under China’s forcible occupation is returned to India as a gesture of friendship.  Till then India will do well to be cautious and be prepared to deal with intrusions from the north.”

One wonders whether the Prime Minister was speaking for the Indian regime as a whole when he tried to oversimplify the complexities of the Sino-Indian relationship.  By referring to Tibet as an internal matter of China, was he not taking the country into a political and strategic cul de sac?  The savagery of Chinese misrule over Tibet did not prevent the Chinese leaders from demanding an assurance from India of non-interference in Tibet.  The whole question of Chinese iniquities in Tibet was ignored and the Chinese secured a limited victory by pinning the Indian side down on the question of anti-Chinese activities by Tibetans in India.

This limited victory will, however, not lend itself to the implementation of policies which Beijing may have in mind.  It will not be unreasonable for the present Indian Government, or a successor government made up of the present Opposition, to make it clear to its Chinese counterpart that the foundation for a peaceful, cooperative and stable relationship between the two countries can only be laid in terms of the conceptualization in the Dalai Lama’s five-point peace plan.

The Chinese position on Tibetan political activity in India is a very parochial view of an enduring cultural and spiritual relationship between Indians and Tibetans which spans several centuries.  The political activity in India to which the Chinese object is not anti-Chinese, nor does it aim to overthrow the regime in Beijing.  


The time has, however, come when, following the example of Sakharov, Tibetans-in-exile and their Indian supporters begin openly to endorse Chinese dissidents who are working to liberalize the Chinese polity.  The Chinese leaders would thus be obliged to bear in mind that the political forces operating in India to which they object are not different from those forces which are working in Chinese and Soviet society to promote glasnost and democratization.  The change in Tibet is inevitable, but it could proceed peacefully if, instead of driving Tibetans to drastic steps, the Chinese are prepared to re-examine the terms on which their negotiations with the Dalai Lama should proceed.  It is futile for the Chinese to expect that Indian public opinion will disclaim all interest in the state of affairs prevailing in Tibet.

The challenge before Indian diplomacy now is to circumvent the errors of interpretation in the Tibetan dimension of Rajiv Gandhi’s statecraft and to evaluate afresh the risks, costs and benefits in relation to the evolving agenda of Sino-Indian relations.  We do not need another meaningless summit to address these crucial problems.  Appropriate lessons should be learnt from past mistakes.

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