India’s restrictions hamper Tibetan movement

Now China
will predictably crush the latest challenge to its dictatorial rule


 photo by Derrick Chang

statement from India’s Ministry of External
Affairs that the 100,000 Tibetan refugees scattered across the country are “expected to refrain from political activities” that might compromise their host
country’s relations with China
has dimmed hopes of reviving one of Asia’s
oldest self-determination struggles. A fortuitous convergence of timing between
the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising and China’s upcoming
showpiece Olympic Games had created a unique space for Tibetans aspiring for

spontaneity with which Tibetans took to the streets simultaneously in Lhasa and in India shows that the
long-suppressed but proud people were aware of this conjunction of events and
the spotlight it offers. Against incredible odds, Tibetans on both
sides of the border mobilized to challenge China’s assault
on their religion, environment and economy. The idea was to shame Beijing before
its Olympic jamboree could showcase the idea that it is a perfectly harmonious
and peaceful great power.

India’s rebuttal of
political activities by Tibetan refugees was synchronous to China’s harsh crackdown on the tumult in Lhasa. If the refugees
and their oppressed brethren in Tibet
acted in unison without any masterminding by the Dalai Lama’s office, the governments
of India and China reacted
in parallel without any overt deal. New Delhi’s
arrests of Tibetan marchers and Beijing’s tanks patrolling on
Lhasa’s streets
convey the same meaning: Tibetans are disenfranchised.
Refugees are refugees in the first place because their rights are in peril in
their home countries. Once they receive asylum in host countries, they are required
to doubly desist from political action. Tibetans are caught between a rock and
a hard place – hounded at home and de-politicized in exile.  

are the classic playthings of the China-India relations calculus. Over a course
of 60 years, their rights have been reduced to the cultural sphere by the
harshness of international diplomacy. Undoubtedly, preserving Tibetan culture
is of utmost importance for maintaining the group’s identity and sense of
oneness. But by quarantining Tibetan energies solely to the cultural realm,
the spirit of reclaiming Tibet
as an independent entity from Chinese clutches is being extinguished. If a
group’s right to its preferred way of life is defined merely in terms of
freedom of religion and worship, then it becomes theoretically possible for it
to survive without territorial claims.

India’s treatment of Tibetans
has been crucial to keeping their culture alive, but New Delhi’s policing of political acts by
the refugees serves to reinforce the burial of their
If Tibetans can pray and earn their keep in India,
the quest for regaining Chinese-occupied Tibet loses its sharpness over
generations. The fear that second and third generation Tibetan refugees in
India will assimilate into the great Indian melting pot and lose sight of the goal of
winning back Tibetan territory has exercised the minds of the community’s
leadership in Dharamsala. Yet, with their hands tied by host country
restrictions, all they are able to do is to keep the flame of culture alight. 

Tibetan refugees in Western countries have managed to sustain a more overtly
political agenda by networking with human rights organizations and sympathetic supporters,
the locus of Tibetan refugees lies in India. Out of the 131,000 Tibetan
refugees worldwide, the vast majority of reside in India. There are barely 7,000
Tibetan refugees in North America and only 3,000 in Europe.
The collective protests and appeals that the Tibetan diaspora outside India have
generated over the years is a tribute to their never-say-die attitude. They
make up for the shortage in numbers with excellent public relations campaigns
that attract media attention and celebrity endorsement.  However, the enforced silence of the largest
concentration of Tibetans is a dampener. If the heart of a Diaspora is gagged,
the limbs flail and rant in vain.

China’s military grip on Tibet was consolidated
with the completion of the Qingzang railway in 2005, an engineering marvel that
enables the rapid movement of Chinese troops and civilians into and
out of the region. Should the occupying Chinese forces prove insufficient for
quelling riots and revolts by Tibetans, Beijing
can send backup battalions by rail to crush what it labels
“criminal activities.” Lhasa may burn for a few
days, but it will eventually be brought to heel by the Chinese
People’s Liberation Army because Beijing
has prepared
the infrastructure for such contingencies.

in Lhasa, Sichuan
and Gansu did surprise the Chinese authorities with their protests, but a long wave of “pacification” is bound to follow as Beijing mops up the embarrassment.
The response of the authoritarian Chinese regime to threats to its control over
Tibet, Xinjiang or anywhere else has been meticulously practiced. The state security
apparatus will arrest and detain hundreds of suspected organizers of
the rallies that rocked Lhasa.
The post-Tiananmen Square round-ups and disappearances of activists were so
harsh and clinical in the 1990s that the state effectively
eliminated further protests.

Tibetans are seemingly immune to both Maoist doctrine and Han
nationalism, truncheons are the only weapons China has to counter Lhasa-type
upheavals. Chinese clubs will rain down on instigators and innocents alike for
months to come, so that the the Olympic carnival can pass without
further contretemps. As to the Tibetan refugees in India, they will be left chafing at
the statecraft that hindered their historic plunge.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher at
the Maxwell School
of Citizenship at Syracuse University. He can be contacted at


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