India’s restrictions hamper Tibetan movement


photo by Derrick Chang

The 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 freedom.

The 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.

Interestingly, 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.

Tibetans 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 territory. 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.

Though 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.

Tibetans 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.

Since 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