The neglect of Tibet by South Asia’s intellectuals is insensitive and ignoble. Even if they were to ignore the Tibetans in exile, what of the Tibetans within Tibet?
The 10th of March 1996 marked the 37th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation of their country. Tibetans and their supporters almost all over the Western world organised demonstrations, lectures, seminars, exhibitions and other activities to highlight the plight of their homeland.
Thousands of French, Italians, Germans and Hungarians converged on the Chinese embassy in Brussels to protest human rights abuses in Tibet and to demand Tibetan independence. Similarly, hundreds of Americans protested outside the Chinese embassy in Washington DC. In 25 European countries, 593 mayors flew the Tibetan national flag atop their city halls, and the cities of Berkeley, Montreal and Vancouver made similar gestures. People in countries as far apart as Russia and New Zealand expressed their support for the Tibetan cause.
In South Asia, however, the scene was quite different. As has been the case for several years, India, home to the largest number of Tibetan refugees, did not allow the demonstrators anywhere near the Chinese embassy in New Delhi. In Nepal, authorities arrested 100 Tibetans and five Nepali human rights activists who had planned a march to the Chinese embassy on 19 March.
Tibetan demonstrations were not allowed in any of the other South Asian countries. Apart from Bhutan, it is not even certain if there are any Tibetans or supporters of Tibetans in those countries.
Unlike their counterparts in the West, South Asian intellectuals, with a few isolated exceptions in India, have never tried to urge their governments to help, or even to look into the situation of, the Tibetans. Indeed the general belief amongst the intelligentsia in the region appears to be that Tibet is not worth bothering about. The noteworthy exception to this rule seems to be those who have been trained in the West, for example Pico Iyer and Aung San Suu Kyi, to name two of the better-known personalities.
One reason for this intellectual apathy at Tibet´s very doorstep is, obviously, China´s power. Indian politicians and intellectuals have not forgotten the humiliating experience of the 1962 border war with their northern neighbour. They do not wish to go through a similar experience again. Although some Indians have said they will fare much better the next time, even if they do, the costs would be staggering. Hence, it is best to do as little as possible to offend the Chinese.
Supporting Tibetan independence is not as important as maintaining peace in the region. Such is the intellectual and diplomatic justification. Tibetans try to point out—without much success—that similar thinking on the part of the first prime minister of India resulted in the country losing Tibet as its northern border and gaining China in its place, which later provided the basis not only for the 1962 debacle but also the continuing political uncertainties in the region.
The other countries in South Asia have even less reason to support Tibet: they are much smaller than India and have that much more reason to fear an angry China. Pakistan, for its part, sees much more gain in openly supporting the People´s Republic vis-a-vis Tibet, and this is what it has consistently done whenever the question has cropped up during the annual United Nations discussions on human rights in Geneva. No Pakistani intellectual is ever known to have criticised his government on this count.
Democratic, Colourful India
One reason intellectuals in India proffer for keeping away from the Tibetan independence movement is their claim that many of the exiles are much better off and have no desire of returning to Tibet even if it does become independent. So why bother, goes the argument. As recently as 5 April, Batuk Vora wrote in The Times of India: “Many of the new generation Tibetans do not want to return to Tibet under any circumstance, after having been born, grown up and enjoyed their life in democratic and colourful India.” For this and other reasons, Mr Vora comes to this conclusion: “Both Beijing and New Delhi have tremendous opportunity to develop their ties independent of cold warstyle politics. The Tibet issue should not cause any break in this development.”
Mr Vora did not cite reasons why young Tibetans refugees prefer India to Tibet, but some earlier writers on this theme have done so. They have said that Tibetans have forgotten their own culture. How so? Because they wear jeans, like pop music and Hindi films—when they should be serving as monks and spending their time meditating in monasteries.
Wherever this view of Tibetan-ness originated, it certainly does not coincide with the one held by Tibetans themselves. It only goes to show how much research work Indian commentators put in on their subject before making lofty pronouncements. For, judging from a study of Tibetan exiles since they have been allowed to visit their homeland in the late 1970s, it seems clear that at least 50 percent will return to a free Tibet, at least 25 percent may choose to have a foot each in Tibet and their current domicile, and perhaps 25 percent will not return at all, except as tourists.
These projections might be a bit off, but it does not matter. Right or wrong, such figures have nothing to do with the movement for Tibetan independence. There are only about 130,000 Tibetans in exile. There are about six million Tibetans in Tibet. How can one argue that because many of the former do not want to return to a free Tibet, all of the latter should also be denied that right?
It is the Tibetans under Chinese who are undergoing untold suffering. It is the Tibetan culture and Tibetan identity in Tibet that the Chinese are forcibly trying to Sinicise. The cause of Tibet is the cause of the Tibetans in Tibet. The Tibetan independence movement remains valid even if not a single Tibetan exile wishes to return to a free Tibet. Western intellectuals, by and large, have understood this fact.
Some Indian intellectuals, meanwhile, are reported to be bitter with the Tibetan exiles for their (the latters´) infatuation with Westerners and neglect of Indians. One gets the impression that such critics think Tibetans pay huge sums of money to Westerners to support their cause. The truth is that the Westerners attend Tibetan lectures or participate in Tibetan demonstrations on their own initiative and at their own expense. Thus, it is they who end up spending huge sums of money to be counted as Tibet supporters.
There are, of course, exceptions to all generalisations. Some of the Tibet supporters in the West are thought to be in it purely for personal gain, financial or otherwise. Similarly, Tibetans are fully aware of the presence in India and Nepal of some genuine supporters who, if and when the time is right, will be there to support the Tibetan cause. One wishes one could say the same applied for intellectuals in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.