TIBET: A Lost Cause?
How do you destroy people? You take away their culture. And how is that done? You take away their language, their history, and their very identity. How would you do that? You ban their books and desecrate all monuments of national and cultural importance. Sounds familiar, right? Yes, that’s what you kept reading about what China has been doing in Xinjiang province against Uyghur Muslims. But these tactics are not just concentrated in Xinjiang but are part of a broad and brutal doctrine often called “Sinicization.” This policy is the core of China’s oppression tactics against its ethnic minorities. The idea is to alter the ethnicity and cultural DNA of its minorities and impose an artificial Chinese Han culture. Religion and language are two key pillars of this policy. Proselytization through coercion and the prohibition of native languages are the primary objectives of this doctrine.
In the current geopolitical scenario, the West and China are at loggerheads, sparing no stone unturned to censure each other. Following suit, the western media has been highlighting Chinese human rights violations in Xinjiang for quite some time now. But on one side, where human rights violations in Xinjiang get the spotlight, the same in Tibet get glossed over. Somehow China’s atrocities in Tibet get swept under the rug by the global media for reasons best known to them. And this crime of indifference by the world has further augmented China’s savagery in Tibet. To do justice to the plight of Tibetans, in this article we are going to highlight China’s brutality against its culture and its people.
TIBET : FROM AUTONOMY TO A COLONY
Beginning in 1950, the communist-totalitarian state of China invaded Tibet, eventually occupying the entire region by 1959. Before 1950 and after the fall of the Qing dynasty, Tibet was a de facto independent nation. It had its own currency and postage and also maintained international relations based on its own policies. Tibet claimed three provinces (Amdo, Kham, and Ü-Tsang), but only controlled western Kham and Ü-Tsang. After winning the Chinese civil war in 1949, Mao Zedong set the goal of unifying the “five nationalities” as the People’s Republic of China under the Communist Party of China. According to Mao, Tibet was China’s right-hand palm, with five fingers on its periphery: Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunanchal Pradesh. After coming to power, Mao ordered his army to capture Lhasa and presented a seventeen-point agreement. The agreement stipulated that in return for Tibet becoming part of China, it would be granted autonomy.
The 14th Dalai Lama Fled Tibet.
Without any backing from the world, in August 1951, the Dalai Lama sent a telegram to Mao accepting the agreement. The delegates signed the agreement under duress, and the future of Tibet was cemented. Between 1951 and 1959, there were a series of protests in various parts of Tibet. Finally, a full-scale revolt broke out in March 1959. The Dalai Lama was forced to flee as the uprising was crushed by Chinese troops. On March 31, 1959, he began a permanent exile in India, settling in Dharamsala, where he established a shadow Tibetan government. Since then, China’s invasion and occupation have directly caused the deaths of more than 1.2 million people or 20% of the six million people living in the country. In addition, more than 99% of Tibet’s 6,000 temples, monasteries, and shrines have been destroyed or stolen, causing the loss of hundreds of thousands of priceless Buddhist texts.
HAN-IFICATION AND CULTURAL GENOCIDE OF TIBET
The term “Han-ification of Tibet” refers to the process of cultural assimilation and demographic alteration that took place in Tibet. This has primarily started since the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China in 1951. This process involved the migration of Han Chinese people into Tibet, the suppression of Tibetan language and culture, and the imposition of Chinese political and economic systems. Under Chinese occupation, the CCP has implemented policies aimed at integrating Tibet into the larger Chinese nation-state. This involved the establishment of a large military presence in Tibet and encouraging Chinese migration into Tibet. As a result, the Tibetan population has become increasingly marginalised within their own land. Native Tibetans have become second-class residents in their own land, with Han Chinese people accounting for a significant proportion and state support.
China Built Tibet Peaceful Liberation Monument, Potala Square, Lhasa in 2009 celebrating the People’s Liberation Army entering Tibet.
The communist party has also sought to suppress Tibetan cultural and religious practices, such as the traditional practice of Buddhism, which has led to widespread protests and criticism from human rights groups. The government has also imposed Mandarin Chinese as the primary language of instruction in schools and restricted the use of the Tibetan language in official contexts. In fact, in order to whitewash the brutal history of the invasion of Tibet, in Chinese historiography it is known as the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, and the Dalai Lama is considered the colonizer. This was an attempt to erase the collective memory of the native Tibetans. In the name of the cultural revolution, between 1966 and 1976, more than 6000 monasteries were looted and destroyed. Monks and nuns were forced to evacuate their monasteries to “live a normal life,” with those who resisted being imprisoned. Those imprisoned were tortured or executed.
Temples were destroyed and Buddhist statues were burned during the Cultural Revolution.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) committed several human rights violations in the garb of eliminating “the three evils of separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism.” A report by Amnesty International in 1992 charged the CCP with various atrocities and human rights violations. This included arbitrary arrests and ill treatment of political prisoners, including torture, extrajudicial executions, forced abortions, and sterilization. People were forced to burn prayer flags depicting Tibetan culture and to remove pictures of the Dalai Lama from monasteries. In 2019, the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy published a report. The report stated that the Chinese police and surveillance teams moved into monasteries and villages to monitor Tibetan residents. High-tech facial-recognition software and careful monitoring of digital spaces were deployed to suppress political protests against the increased clampdowns on civil and political rights. As a result of such a stringent clampdown, at least 156 Tibetans have self-immolated.
INDOCTRINATION OF YOUTH
Under CCP’s cultural assimilation program, schools issued warnings to parents that students should not be attending classes at monasteries. This includes the prohibition of engaging in any religious activity. Non-compliance was subjected to severe punishment, including the loss of government welfare and subsidies. To further the state’s policy of cultural indoctrination of children, special boarding schools were established. Tibetan children were picked up from their homes and placed in these boarding schools across China, well outside Tibet. The objective is to sow the seed of Chinese communism in the minds of children at a very nascent stage. In these boarding schools, children were kept under 24/7 surveillance, away from their families, and forced to undergo intense indoctrination. During these sessions, children were taught rosy tales about the Communist Party of China and the glory of its leaders.
As per the recent UN report, around 1 million Tibetan children have been separated from their families and placed in these boarding schools. These children had to undergo a compulsory education curriculum in Mandarin with no access to traditional or culturally relevant learning. This policy of indoctrination is not only limited to education but also targets job opportunities. The Chinese government mandates Tibetan government job candidates to disavow any allegiance to the Dalai Lama and support government ethnic policies. This includes pledging allegiance to the communist party, promoting its ideology, and exposing and criticizing the Dalai Lama.
IMPLICATIONS FOR INDIA
India has always been very defensive on the Tibet issue. Since its independence, Indian policymakers have never given the required attention to what’s happening on its northern border. Due to this policy paralysis, India has suffered greatly in the past. Indeed, India provided safe haven to Tibetan refugees, but apart from that, it never took any proactive measures. One significant step taken was forming a secret Special Frontier Force (SFF) comprised of Tibetan soldiers. SFF recently came to public attention after successfully capturing key heights during the Galwan standoff, outmatching the PLA. But now it is high time for the Indian establishment to take a proactive rather than a reactionary approach towards it. China has built an extensive road and rail network to exert greater control over the population and improve regional security.
Historically, Tibet has served as a buffer state between India and China. After its invasion, China moved right next to the Indian border. The Chinese presence, supplemented by heavy infrastructure, has had enormous security implications for India. It is now imperative for India to use the Tibet card to pressurize China with the support of Tibetans in exile. India must also garner support from like-minded nations like the US and Japan on the Tibet issue. Fortunately, India has started taking steps in the correct direction by boosting border infrastructure and standing up to Chinese aggression. India should also use its goodwill to raise its voice against the Sinicization of Tibet, which continues unabated. It is in India’s larger geopolitical interest that Tibet becomes independent or has high levels of autonomy.