On the intervening night of August 29th/30th, Indian Army successfully thwarted the pre-emptive transgression of PLA troops into the Southern Bank of Pangong Tso and occupied all the strategic heights in the region. This development together with another PLA bid to intrude into Chumur sector foiled by Indian security forces gave New Delhi upper hand at the negotiation table. Till now, India and China military officials held six rounds of talks to deescalate tensions across LAC but countries barely made any progress.
Acting swiftly on the intelligence reports, India mobilised troops and proactively beat China at its own game. Along this propitious development, the death of a Tibetan soldier Company leader Nyima Tenzin in a landmine explosion during the patrolling along the eastern Pangong Tso belonging to Special Frontier Force (SFF22) or the Vikas battalion has grabbed immediate attention. The song of Establishment 22 of Vikasi battalion which exuded sense of gratitude of Tibetans towards India, and their burning desire to liberate Tibet has become talking point among strategic affairs enthusiasts. Tibetans consider India which offered them refuge as their second motherland.
The incidents of supreme valour and courage displayed by this special force in chasing away the PLA troops deserve a special mention. Also, it is time to delve into the origin and conception of these elite forces. On November 14th, 1962 a week ahead of Chinese cease fire announcement, BN Mullick, Director General of Intelligence Bureau conceived an idea of stalling the Chinese aggression and liberating Tibet by training and developing a 5000-strong Tibetan guerrilla force. Worn-out and dejected, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought America’s financial assistance and technical expertise of CIA to train the forces. After an initial spurt of enthusiasm, the honeymoon with CIA ended and India eventually built a Tibetan force under the supervision of Maj Gen Sujan Singh Bhan nicknamed, “Mad Singh”. Krishna Menon and Lt Gen BN Kaul supported the concept of guerrilla force for covert operations.
With the approval and support of Dalai Lama and his brother Gyalo Thondup after roping in Tibetan military leadership, recruitment and training of the Special Frontier Force (SFF) commenced. Also referred to as Establishment 22, the number 22 comes from the 22 Mountain Brigade served by Maj Gen Bhan. The SFF22 was initially conceptualised to serve as the special military establishment of Tibet comprising of Tibetans exclusively (now it has an additional battalion of Gorkhas). The plan initially was to engage with Chinese forces with the help of Indian Army to liberate Tibet. But under intense international pressure to maintain peace, military conflicts were abandoned. While the SFF 22 wasn’t used as planned, trained to be mountain forces, based in Chakrata (100km from Dehradun), they were soon deputed for border patrolling.
SFF works under the control of IB or currently the R&AW. It has ranks and promotions just like the Indian Army. It has been part of elite missions like installing nuclear-power sensor ELINT atop Mount Nanda Devi in 1964. Under the guise of Mukti Bahinis during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War SFF 22 inflicted devastating losses on enemies. They hold the Siachen Glacier heights and were part of Kargil war 1. Though their sacrifices aren’t officially acknowledged they guard the treacherous mountainous passes. They were the major force in Operation Blue Star in 1984 and soon developed into primary counter-terror elite forces. The units which consist of SFF are referred as Vikas Battalion. What has been striking about Tibetans is their attachment towards India and ubiquitous antipathy towards China.
In the latest border escalations, IA and SFF 22 have been instrumental in consolidating India’s position. While stellar display of courage of Tibetan battalion is a badge of honour for India, forced to withdraw its forces, China must be riled up with Tibetans in India. Incidentally China’s insecurities stem from their inability to win over Tibetans. A series of visit by high-level Chinese officials to Tibet in the aftermath of the border stand-off rightly highlights the insecurities of Beijing.
Clearly, the ongoing Indo-China border standoff and the tumultuous Sino-US relations brought to fore discussions on Tibetan autonomy. Through brutal crackdown of dissent and voices of democracy with the National Security Law and scuttling Taiwan’s global elevation under “One China Policy”, China has single-handedly spurred the Sino-scepticism. China’s despicable disregard towards human rights is no longer a secret. Nations are no longer willing to buy China’s ludicrous defence of justifying incarceration of Uighur Muslims as countering extremism and terrorism.
In January, strengthening the Tibet Policy Act-2002, US House of Representatives successfully passed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act (HR 4331) with a bipartisan supermajority vote now awaits the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approval to become a law. Notable policy statements of the bill include- Tibetans reserve exclusive rights in aspects of education, culture, religion, language including the selection and veneration of the 15th Dalai Lama, Chinese complicity or involvement in installing Dalai Lama chosen by Beijing will be deemed as gross violation of Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Bill approved the Middle way approach of Dalai Lama which seeks autonomy for six million for Tibetans in Tibet, hails the self-governance and democratic institutions of Tibetan governments in exile. Takes serious note of the ruthless environment degradation by Chinese administration and mandates establishment of consulate at Lhasa 4.
With Sino-US ties going South, the US is steadily raking up contentious issues with China. In March, the US signed the TAIPEI Act strengthening Taiwan’s alliances, rallied for Taiwan’s WHO membership, halted extradition treaty with Hongkong, announced sanctions on officials involved with humanrights abuses in Xinjiang province. Taking serious cognisance of restricting access of foreigners to Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), US announced sanctions on the senior Chinese officials under the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018 on Dalai Lama’s 85th birthday eve 3. The World is now aware of China’s brutal oppressive actions in Xinjiang. There is a growing clamour about China replicating similar strategy in Tibet.
To sinicize TAR, CCP’s approved, “Regulations on the establishment of a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress in the Tibet Autonomous Region” bill which came into vogue in May 5. China introduced similar bill in Xinjiang before largescale detention of Uighur Muslims. The seemingly innocuous nomenclature of the bill, approves indoctrination of Tibetans, ensures gradual obliteration of cultural and religious identities of people, demands strict loyalty and adherence to the dictum of Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since its annexation in 1959, China ruled Tibet with iron fist and strangulating their freedom further, on a state visit to Nepal in October 2019, Xi secretly signed an extradition treaty mandating the return of Tibetan immigrants.
After making the compulsory display of Chinese flags on monasteries, in a latest clandestine campaign, China ordered the destruction of Tibetan flags and even the poles that hold them 6. China has slowly stepped up brutal crackdown of Tibetan under the COVID cover.
Tibet is pivotal for China’s expansionist agenda. Given its vast deposits of minerals and natural resources including water strategic importance of Tibet can’t be over emphasised. Since the Indo-China border standoff, Tibet witnessed three major visits-On July 9th, Wang Yang member of Politburo standing committee and Chairman of People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee, fourth in the line of hierarchy visited Tibet. During his three-day visit, he called for “efforts to be centred on safeguarding the China’s unity and strengthening ethnic solidarity, resolutely combatting separatism, forestalling and defusing major risks and challenges and continuously consolidate the foundations of long-term peace and stability in Tibet” 7.
This was followed by Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua, (Xi Jinping’s heir-apparent) visit on Aug 3rd. Having served in the region, Hu visited remote parts of Tibet. At the height of simmering tensions, on Aug 14th, Wang Yi, State Councillor, Minister of Foreign Affairs, paid a rare visit to Tibet and met leaders of TAR 2. Underscoring the importance of security and stability for the overall development of China, Yi urged leaders and diplomats to work together during these challenging COVID times. He highlighted poverty alleviation reforms, infrastructure development and progress made by the region under the BRI under the Xi’s regime. As a signal to India, Wang Yi visited the Tsona County, north of Tawang district in Arunachal Pradesh to remind India of 1962.
With larger plans of encircling and containing India, unleashing his totalitarian program on Tibet on 29th August, addressing the seventh Central Symposium on Tibet Work Forum (TWF), President Xi emphasised the need for safeguarding the border security of Tibet as a priority 8. Held every five years, TWF unveils plans for Tibet for the next 5-10 years. Spelling out his agenda, he called on China to “build and impregnable fortress” to maintain stability, educate the people to combat separatism and advocate a socialism infused Tibetan Buddhism.
Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) President Dr Lobsang Sangay called Xi’s Tibetan policy, “misguided” and “unrealistic”9. In the past six decades, China left no stone unturned to trample the religious, cultural of Tibetans. Besides demolishing the Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar, the largest Buddhist religious institutions, China evicted the Buddhist scholars, monks and incarcerated them in prisons. Beijing launched re-education program to indoctrinate Tibetans with communism.
2020 Freedom House ranked Tibet as not free (score of-1 on scale of 100), Civil liberties (3), political rights (-2) and placed just above Syria 10. The repressive and hard-line policies of China have claimed 154 Tibetan who self-immolated themselves as a mark of protest. For the past five decades, China developed dual purpose infrastructure in Tibet in the pursuit of consolidating the veritable “Five Fingers” envisioned by Mao. Historically India and Tibet shared a demilitarised border. With thousands of standing troops and extensive militarization Tibet is now a conflict Zone.
Tibet has been an independent country always proud of Indian heritage. The first king of Tibet Nyatri Tsenpo, son of royal family related to Buddha’s family was from India ruled over Yarlung Valley, which is cradle of Tibetan civilisation. In 5th century, Buddhism entered Tibet from India. For several centuries, Tibet has been a strong military power in central Asia. Tibet always had cultural and religious relationship with India. India never claimed any part of Tibet in exchange for providing religious teachings to Tibetan Kings.
In 13th century Genghis Khan occupied large swathes of land including China and Tibet. But Mongol as a patron-priest relationship with Tibet as Mongolian Khan sought religious preaching from Tibetan Buddhist Lamas and eventually embraced Buddhism. During the 18th and 19th centuries owing to sudden deaths of Dalai Lamas (9th, 10th, 11th, 12th) before they reached the age of twenty, promising military support, China began to interfere in Tibetan affairs. After the fall of Qing dynasty, Tibet expelled all Chinese officials in 1913. Around the same time, British dispatch Francis Younghusband to Lhasa. The British signed the Shimla Agreement on July 3rd 1914 with Tibet and granted autonomy. Claiming Tibet to be integral part of China and pledging to liberate Taiwan, Hainan and Tibet, PLA forces invaded Tibet in 1950. Influence by advisors KM Pannikkar Ambassador to China and VK Krishna Menon with leftist-leanings, in a haste to recognise the Communist regime in China, Nehru played a second fiddle to China and disregarded India's interests 14
Now, in a show of marked brazenness, undermining the religious sentiments of Buddhists, Jains and specially the Hindus China began deployment of surface to air missile at the holiest mountain range of Kailash Mansarovar. This move of extolling the Communism which considers religion as opium of masses is bound to trigger immense backlash among the believers all religious and will heighten anti-Chinese sentiments in Tibet and India.
CTA elections held every five years is scheduled for 2021. Making an electoral pitch for the position of Sikyong (Prime Minister), the first woman candidate Gyari Dolma urged India to “abandon its cautious approach” and recognise “Tibet as an occupied land”. Though she supported the Middle Way Approach, appealing to young Tibetans she sought “self-determination” 11. Adding that “no country has been as kind to Tibetans than India. It’s our Guru”, she prodded India to back Tibet.
It is high time and as pointed by Claude Arpi, a Tibetologist, in lieu of friendship with China, Prime Minister Nehru refused to standby Tibet exhorts that India must correct the “Mistake of Century”. Nehru admitted, “We cannot save Tibet, as we should have liked to do so, and our attempts to save it might bring greater trouble to it. It would be unfair to Tibet for us to bring this trouble upon her without having the capacity to help her effectively” 12.
Aside cancelling contracts, banning over 200 apps and tightening the FDI route, India must take on China which has been raising Kashmir issue at the UN at Pakistan’s behest and stonewalling India’s permanent membership to UNSC. China, an active member of Uniting for Consensus (UFC) headed by Italy and popularly called Coffee Club comprising of four members including Pakistan and Turkey has been stalling reforms of UNSC on the pretext of negotiations. India along with members of G4, Brazil, Germany and Japan 13. For all the havoc wreaked upon by China at the border, India has several cards and Delhi must play the Tibet now.
- Claude Arpi- The Fate of Tibet: When Big Insects Eat Small Insects.
Image Credits: Business Standard