While on Tibet, India and China beg some comparisons

April 12th, 2008 - 11:01 am ICT by admin  

By Amulya Ganguli
The old colonial scene of a restive people opposing a repressive regime is again being enacted in Tibet. There are other similarities as well. For instance, there is a charismatic figure symbolising the “struggle”. The emphasis on non-violence also recalls Mahatma Gandhi. Like the Mahatma, the Dalai Lama does not bear any ill will towards the putative oppressors. The Tibetan spiritual leader only wants China to grant full autonomy to his country.

The Nobel laureate has even threatened to “retire” if his followers indulged in any violence, much like the Mahatma after Chauri Chaura. In 1922, Gandhi withdrew his non-cooperation movement against the British when a police station in Chauri Chaura in Uttar Pradesh was burnt down by protestors, killing 23 policemen.

But these are not the only points of resemblance between what happened during the Indian independence movement and the current events on the Roof of the World with their wide impact on the outside world.

Like the British in the earlier period, the Chinese are probably nonplussed about an uprising by groups of unarmed people which is giving Beijing so much adverse publicity.

It is evident that all of China’s military and economic clout is not enough to put a lid on the unrest and make the rest of the world accept its case.

Beijing is aware that a Tiananmen Square-type crackdown will only exacerbate the situation, arousing storms of protest round the world which will make it nearly impossible to hold the Olympic Games.

Yet, it is unthinkable for a totalitarian country to let an agitation continue without check lest the upheaval expose its feet of clay and encourage other disgruntled elements, like the Muslims of Uighur, to come to the fore.

The British did not face this dilemma because of their more open system. It was possible, therefore, for the viceroy to “parley on equal terms”, as Winston Churchill said in dismay, with a “half-naked fakir”.

Although another viceroy, Lord Wavell, regarded Gandhi as “exceedingly shrewd, obstinate, domineering, double-tongued … (with) little true saintliness in him”, the diatribe was not as vicious as the Chinese description of the Dalai Lama as “a wolf in monk’s robes, a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast”.

Because of their democratic tradition, going back to the Magna Carta of 1215, the British were aware that even a subjugated people had their rights. The Chinese lack such an accommodative tradition, having passed directly from the regime of emperors and warlords to the equally authoritarian communist rule.

In such a society, an opponent has to be crushed, whether he is someone who was once a part of the ruling group, like Liu Shao-chi, or an outsider, like the Tibetan pontiff. There was no question of negotiating with him in a spirit of give and take.

A comparison with South Africa under apartheid is more appropriate. As Nelson Mandela says in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”, Gandhian tactics were not possible with the racist regime.

“In India”, he writes, “Gandhi had been dealing with a foreign power that ultimately was more realistic and far-sighted. That was not the case with the Afrikaners in South Africa. Non-violent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do. But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end. For me, non-violence was not a moral principle, but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon”.

For the Dalai Lama, however, non-violence remains a moral principle, which he is unwilling to abjure even if some of his young and impatient followers are not keen on doing so.

For the Chinese, it must be highly disconcerting to realise that the morality of a lone adversary can be so powerful. They have never dealt with any such event in their long history, which is replete with battles within the country, including with the Tibetans, and with invaders.

It is a classic case of the Yogi and the Commissar, or David and Goliath, where the former with his belief in the rightness of his cause can put the crude strength of an adversary at a disadvantage.

What has compounded the problem for China is that unlike at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre two decades ago, it has taken pride in opening up the country to demonstrate its spectacular economic progress, which was to be showcased in the Olympics.

The lifting of what was once described as the bamboo curtain has meant not only inviting investors but also tourists and journalists. But now Beijing is learning how a closed political system is at odds with an open economy in the age of the worldwide web.

If the Olympics are to be a success, it has to allow tourists and journalists. And if they come into the country, they cannot be kept away from Tibet.

But that’s not its only disadvantage. Beijing must have also realised that a totalitarian system will never win the wholehearted support of the international community, especially when it is pitted against a group of people who are perceived to be held down by force.

This is where the comparison with Kashmir and the northeastern region of India, as argued by the Indian communists, breaks down. For all the harsh measures which India has taken in these two regions, it remains an open society, with independent institutions, including the judiciary, a free media and active non-government organisations. In addition, elections are held at regular intervals, leading to the change of governments.

None of this applies to China. Besides, as a group of letter writers to The Hindu newspaper pointed out, Mao Zedong said in 1952 that there were “hardly any Han in Tibet”. But in 1985, there were 2.5 million Chinese in Qinghai, the renamed eastern Tibetan province of Amdo. By the year 2000, only 20 percent of the population there was Tibetan.

“This demographic engineering undermines the comparison you (The Hindu) draw between Tibet and Kashmir”, says the letter written by, among others, Shashi Tharoor, Ramachandra Guha, Dilip Simeon and Mukul Kesavan. “Article 370 disallows non-state subjects from buying land; and it is to allay Kashmiri anxieties that New Delhi has not granted autonomy or separate statehood for Ladakh and Jammu”.

Similar restrictions on buying land remain in the northeast and also in the tribal-dominated regions in the heart of India.

A democratic system not only draws the sting from any criticism of repressive measures but also shows the way to defuse tension in potential trouble spots. In contrast, China’s totalitarianism has become an albatross round its neck.

(Amulya Ganguli is a writer on current events. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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