“If I want freedom for my country, I would not be deserving of that freedom if I did not cherish and treasure the equal right of every other race, weak or strong, to the same freedom”

Mahatma Gandhi

Tibet at the United Nations –
 Fresh Strategies for Indian Diplomacy

Shakti, July 1965

The view that Tibet is not to be written off the agenda of contemporary political discussion has been gaining ground steadily during the last few years, and has now crystallised in the move made b y Ireland, Malaysia and Nicaraguay together with the Philippines to bring the Tibetan question for debate before the General Assembly in September.  Previous attempts to bring Tibet within the focus of world opinion were unsuccessful, in that the question was presented as merely one of human rights, and the political aspects bypassed; India’s regrettable role, first in bowing to the unnecessary sacrifice of Tibet, followed by her obstructive tactics at the United Nations was born out of a mistaken view of expediency; a mistake the consequences of which are still appearing in new and ever shifting guises on our doorstep, from the Chinese attack in 1962 to the recent humiliations in Africa.

However, Tibet has refused to die. Geo-politically she is a graveyard to any imperial power, as China is finding to her cost; neither her terrain nor her people submit meekly to the conqueror’s yoke.  In fact Tibet has given the lie to China’s image as the invincible foe; her campaign to subdue Tibet, an unarmed religious country, started in 1949, at the same time as she was involved in the Korean war; the Dalai Lama left Tibet in 1959, and now in 1965 it is still not possible for China to claim that Tibet is an integral part of the mainland.

Tibet would seem to be one of the most important issues that ever came before the Untied Nations and has a bearing upon all the four purposes of the organisation enumerated in Article 1 of the Charter.  It is a matter of profound regret that the issue has been handled in an altogether inadequate manner both at the time it was raised in 1950 and after the dramatic developments of 1959.  the Tibet issue is almost unique in revealing both the strength and the weakness of the world organisation.  The focus of the United Nations has been an important influence in keeping the Tibet issue alive, in raising aspects of intrinsic importance, and in providing an opportunity to answer the counsel of despair that Tibet is a lost cause.  Yet it must be admitted that the United Nations has not been entirely successful in checking distortions and innuendoes in respect of Tibet many of which have been allowed to go unanswered.  The Cold War antagonists cannot free themselves from their dogmatism which prevents them from making a real contribution to resolve one of the most fundamental of international issues.  It is an altogether wrong idea that the Tibetan issue is only a dent nation.  We must understand clearly that the Tibet question has the deepest political character.  The British and to some extent the Americans have unwittingly taken an opportunistic stand.  The nature of their support to the Tibetan cause has been more of a menace.  The Western powers have shown an interest which seeks to grossly underplay the characterisation of the Tibetan question as an international political question.  They give the impression of wanting to exploit its role as a cold-war weapon in their militant strategy against the USSR.  The Soviet Union, on its part, has been unable to shake itself free of the false Stalinist slogans which have thrown its foreign policy on the Tibetan issue into utter confusion. 

India would appear to have a special responsibility to actively reconcile those elements in the policies of the two Super powers which can contribute to the growth of international security through the United Nations.  We must contribute to safeguarding a large area of co-operation between the USSR and the USA.  Unfortunately our attitude to the Tibet issue, does not reflect well on our ability to contribute to the development of new ideas in the field of international organisation.  On the contrary we seem to have pursued a very wrong conception of abdication of international responsibility with sterous results.  Our analysis below will only have served its purpose if public opinion can compel our government to remedy the deficiency in the stand of our delegation at the United Nations to the Tibet issue.

The Tibetan case has been stated with a rare clarity which is readily apparent if only we clear our eyes of the mists of dogma and political superstition.  It is a tribute to the dignity and civilisation of the Tibetan people that although they have been through the horrors of war and genocide, they have not allowed their equanimity to be affected and they have stated their case in restrained language worthy of a great and truthful cause.  It is sheer nonsense to say that the Tibetans have to bend before an inevitable historical process.  The Tibetan case has strength and clarity which once it is widely recognised can be the basis of the most important political decision in the history of the world organisation.

On the recommendation of the General Committee, the plenary meeting of the General Assembly decided by a roll call vote to include the question of Tibet in the 1959 session.  It is not quite clear how in the logical sequence of the anti-colonial tradition of our government, our delegate was instructed to record our stand as “present but not voting”.  It is also significant that in the General Committee it was the South African delegate (notorious for his defence of apartheid) who took the position that however precious might be the traditional values of a people, the suppression of these values could not form the basis of a charge against a state, whether a Member of the United Nations or not, and thus rose to the defence of the Chinese ere’rs.

The General Assembly however, went on to adopt a resolution which while reflecting some consciousness of the responsibility of the United Nations, did not provide a sense of direction for political action.  It gave no promise of helping the Tibetans to achieve co-existence in this troubled world.  Let us look for a moment at the failure of Indian foreign policy at a moment when we had a historic opportunity of committing ourselves to the wholly untenable position that we had merely inherited the British position vis-à-vis Tibet.  We stated with meaningless repetition that Tibet was under Chinese suzerainty.  We are thus ourselves responsible for helping China to intimidate us.  We collaborated with China, unmindful of our own interests and of the truth of the matter, to convert the old fashioned notion of suzerainty, which logically implies autonomy, into the modern legal concept of sovereignty.  The legitimate interpretation of the position we had inherited was that we were under an obligation not to recognise Chinese suzerainty as the Chinese had failed to perform their part of the obligations toward Tibet.  By some rare kind of mental gymnastics we took a stand which was just the opposite of what was warranted by the facts known to our government.  By our default we failed to serve our national interest as well as the cause of justice.

When the Tibet issue first came up in the United Nations, the Soviet Union, it should be remembered was Stalin’s Russia.  The cult of personality was at its height and perpetrating the worst crimes that schev exposed at his historic 20th congress speech.  It was the period when isolation and physical violence were the only factors used to hold the Soviet bloc together.  It is no wonder that the Soviet Union representative argued that the question was within China’s domestic jurisdiction.  But the problem looked very different in 1959 to Soviet eyes.  As a matter of fact the Soviet representative might well have waited for a cue from India.  The Indian representative, however, made it clear that the Indian government was opposed to the discussion of the Tibetan item even in 1959.  On learning the Indian point of view the soviet delegate is hardly to be blamed when he expressed in well worn cliché language that the Tibetan issue was within the domestic jurisdiction of China and the issue was a manoeuvre in the Cold War.  It can be imagined readily that the Soviet Union would not have made this statement if India, which is known to be opposed to the Cold War had presented the Tibetan case.  Suffice it to observe here that India made no attempt to help the Soviet Union to reject its earlier Stalinist thesis on Tibet.  We also made no effort to evoke the feelings of the Asian and African countries by bringing to them a realisation that the fate of Tibet might well be the fate of any of the other Afro-Asian countries.

It seems plain enough that the Soviet Union was the victim of its own stand in 1950.  The efficacy of our stand would have been to point out at least two important aspects: (a) that Tibet had enjoyed de facto independence during long historical period; (b) that Tibet achieved independence six years before Czechoslovakia, Poland and Finland.

Soviet interests could be determined by a careful and logical study of their action in agreeing to the neutralisation of Austria and their preparedness to negotiate over the ‘German Democratic Republic’ up to 1956; the operative criterion in their construction of policy is not the finality of territorial acquisition.  The USSR does not make any secret of the fact that it would welcome the downfall of the regimes in non-Communist countries but political events do not show that the Soviet leaders have authoritatively laid down what part of the world should be coloured red.  The important lesson to be learnt from the Hungarian revolution is not that the Soviet intervened militarily but that they were prepared to reject old concepts of their own domination over Hungary, and the Western powers missed an opportunity by their utter failure to parallel the events with any purposeful move which would have maintained the symmetry of military-cum-political power between the Western and Eastern blocs while allowing the introduction of a regulated measure of diversity – the emergence of a neutral Hungary.

So it seems plain enough that the Soviet bloc plea of domestic jurisdiction is of limited validity and essentially a development from the Indian inability to pose the issue as one of attack upon the independence of an Asian state.

The colonial powers (Belgium, France, Spain and the United Kingdom) understood this position perfectly well.  Their weakness is the consequence of a dichotomy of purpose, between upholding the principles of international order and the preservation of their ill-gotten colonial gains.  These countries did their best to obscure the Tibetan case.  The British delegation in particular produced arguments which were mostly peripheral to the main issue.  In a manner characteristic of the “perfidious Albion” the British delegate expressed his sympathy for the Tibetan people but doubted the competence of the Assembly to pass a resolution.

The Tibetan case has actually two unique features:

1.                   It cuts across the traditional cold-war pattern.  It is not “East” vs. “West”, if only India would pose it in terms of anti imperialism and disengagement.

2.                   The recovery of freedom by Tibet will not harm the strategic interests of either of the two Super-powers if it is guaranteed a neutral status by India, China and the USSR.

Whatever the mistakes in the past, the Indian delegation can compensate for the betrayal of political principles by pointing out that the Tibetan issue does not arise out of the tragic condition of a large number of refugees; on the other hand it is a genuine political issue which is free from the East-West cold war entanglement, on which the USSR and the USA are not directly I conflict and upon which they can imaginatively construct their policies to break the spell of the black magicians of Peking. The practical result of such an attitude on the part of the Indian delegation would lead to the restoration of the historic role of the two Super powers as the co-policemen of the world community.  The parochial concept of “domestic jurisdiction” would give place to a determination to use the United Nations to “unite our strength to maintain international peace and security”.

The Editorial Board would like to take this opportunity to extend its greetings to his Holiness the Dalai Lama on the occasion of his 31st birthday on July 6th.
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