In March this year, an unprecedented series of demonstrations erupted across Tibet. Forty-nine years after the escape of the Dalai Lama into exile following their country's takeover by China, Tibetans were united in their demands. They called for the return of their leader, but more surprisingly they also defiantly declared Tibet's independence. Both the Beijing government and the exile establishment in Dharamsala were taken by surprise at the extent and passion of the uprising. China, predictably, blamed the insurrection on the Dalai Lama.
In an effort to counter China's accusations, the Dalai Lama repeatedly reiterated his position: that he had given up asking for independence, that he only wanted 'genuine autonomy', and that he was not behind the demonstrations. During his first trip outside India after the uprising in Tibet, he met with a group of Chinese journalists in Seattle. To them, he emphatically declared, "We are not seeking independence. We are happy to be a part of the People's Republic of China."
Earlier in the year, in January, during a visit to Drepung Monastery in the Tibetan refugee settlement of Mundgod in Karnataka, the Dalai Lama addressed a gathering of pilgrims from Ladakh, Spiti, Kinnaur, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. He told them, "Should the culture and the people of Tibet, the Land of Snows, face a catastrophe, then the responsibility of preserving, at any cost, this world heritage, this pristine spiritual lineage of Tibet, which is in the tradition of the ancient university of Nalanda, will rest with you, the trans-Himalayan people living in free countries."
These two statements by the Dalai Lama underpin the historical contradiction of Tibet's relationship with her two giant neighbours. Politically, China has always had more influence on the internal affairs on the high plateau; but culturally and spiritually, the Tibetans have always looked south, to the land of the Buddha, for inspiration and spiritual succour. Realpolitik demands that the Dalai Lama try to find some accommodation within the People's Republic of China. But reality suggests that the long-term survival of Tibet's spiritual traditions and political hopes may lie with people of the trans-Himalayan regions, in India, Nepal and Bhutan.
The exodus of Tibetan refugees to these trans-Himalaya rimlands following the Dalai Lama's escape in March 1959 provoked a veritable religious renaissance in these areas, where Tibetan Buddhism has traditionally been practiced. One reason for this was the fact that the majority of Tibet's senior lamas, representing all four sects of Tibetan Buddhism, had also come into exile. Another was the emphasis that the Dalai Lama placed on rebuilding Tibet's monastic tradition in exile.
This project has been remarkably successful. Before 1959, for instance, Drepung Monastery was Tibet's largest religious institution; but five decades of Chinese control have now reduced it to a shadow of its former self. It is in its exile avatar, in Mundgod, that it flourishes, with over 3000 monks in residence. The Dalai Lama's visit there in January was to inaugurate a new assembly hall, considered to be the largest in the Tibetan Buddhist world. The monasteries in exile have become beacons of learning and spiritual practice, attracting not only monks and nuns from the entire Himalayan rimland, but also Tibetans escaping from Tibet, desperate to receive the religious education denied them at home.
There are other reasons why Tibet's future hopes may lie south of the border. Last year, China announced a new regulation, the so-called Order Number 5, which stipulated that henceforth all reincarnate lamas would need to be approved by the state. This can only be interpreted as a pre-emptive move to ensure that China controls the next Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama himself has said that if he dies in exile, he would definitely not be reincarnated under Chinese control. Most Tibetans take this to mean that he will be reborn among the diaspora; but this has also sparked speculation among his non-Tibetan followers, from the trans-Himalayan regions all the way across to Mongolia and the Russian Buddhist republics of Buryatia and Kalmykia, that the next Dalai Lama might be born in their midst. This is not such a far-fetched notion: the fourth Dalai Lama was Mongolian, and the sixth was born in the Mon Tawang area of what is now Arunachal Pradesh. As the most potent symbol of Tibet's national identity, a Dalai Lama born as an Indian or a Nepali or a Bhutanese citizen would dramatically affect the dynamics of China's control of Tibet, and its relationship with its Southasian neighbours.
For the past 50 years, India has also been home to Tibet's government-in-exile. Although it has not been officially recognised by any country, it has functioned effectively as a parallel government, and has conducted an ongoing experiment in democracy. Most importantly, under the leadership of the Dalai Lama, it has kept the Tibet question alive, and served as a symbol of hope for the majority of Tibetans who live under Chinese rule. If the government-in-exile can genuinely work towards fulfilling its democratic aspirations, it would be an inspiration for the people of Tibet, even when the present Dalai Lama is no longer there to lead it.
The seventh round of talks between the Dalai Lama's representatives and the Chinese government has recently ended in stalemate, with both sides demanding that the other show more sincerity. Meanwhile, China has stepped up its policies of religious and political repression in Tibet, even as its campaign for the colonial transformation of the plateau continues unabated. As Tibet's very identity as a nation comes under threat, could it be that its traditional links with Southasia – links that have only deepened since the China occupation – hold the key to its long-term survival?