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The way forward for India’s policy on Tibet

Niranjan Jose

Tibet is one of the ‘three Ts’ that modern day China is most sensitive about (the other two are Taiwan and Tiananmen). Chinese authorities have clamped down on Tibetan monasteries by forcefully evicting monks and demolishing monastic residences, most notably, the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Sichuan. In Tibet, even a simple act such as possessing the Dalai Lama’s photo is a crime. Anyone found with the Tibetan national flag can be charged with the highest crime of separatism. Tibetan Buddhists, along with the Uyghur Muslims, are one of the most marginalized religious communities in China.

Beijing has discreetly gone about scotching the resistance out of Tibet, populating it with the Han Chinese to a point where the demographics in the region are altered in its favour. According to the Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organization (UNPO), there are six million ethnic Tibetans and 7.5 million Chinese in the Tibetan region. Beijing has also poured large amounts of money, and industrial and educational facilities into Tibet, resulting in the erasure of the Tibetan way of life and production.

Over the centuries, Tibet's linguistically, ethnically, and culturally distinct territory had flourished under the suzerainty of Chinese emperors. Tibet was first incorporated into China as a protectorate in 1903 during the Qing dynasty. After the fall of the dynasty, the Dalai Lama expelled all Chinese nationals from Tibet and enjoyed a period of de facto independence. This all ended with an invasion led by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1950 after rounds of fruitless negotiations. 

In 1951, the Dalai Lama signed the Seventeen-Point Agreement, the first formal document that acknowledges China’s sovereignty over Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s authority, which was also meant to signal the start of a peaceful coexistence. However, heavy-handed Chinese rule led to multiple revolts across Tibet in the 1950s, eventually culminating in a large-scale uprising in Lhasa. In 1959, the Dalai Lama was forced to escape to India due to Chinese threat of execution. 

Indo-Tibetan Relations

Former Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru offered to provide Tibetan refugees with full support to settle in India until their return. In the northern Indian district of Dharamshala, Nehru set up a government-in-exile, much to the annoyance of China. Indeed, Beijing’s suspicions of Indian expansionism are considered to be the 'primary motivation' for the aggressive invasion of India by China in 1962. India only recognized Tibet as part of China in 2003.

In 1960, the first-ever Tibetan exile settlement, Lugsung Samdupling, with nearly 3,000 acres of land, was established by the Government of Mysore (Karnataka), making it the state with the largest number of Tibetan refugees. The Indian government has also established special schools to give free training, health care, and scholarships for Tibetans. There were also a few medical and civil engineering seats reserved for Tibetans. With a stay permit that is administered through the use of the Registration Certificate (RC), renewed every year or half-year, Tibetans can also continue to reside in India.

India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention of 1951, nor does it have a law specifically covering the 200,000 refugees that are presently being sheltered, including Tibetans, Sri Lankans, Afghans, Bangladeshis, and Rohingya. By law, they are all regarded as foreigners. While China has criticized India's stance on rehabilitating Tibetan people, it has earned support from international bodies and human rights organizations. 

History of the Special Frontier Force

India formed the military unit of Tibetan refugees, known as the Special Frontier Force (SFF), just after the 1962 war with China to carry out secret operations behind Chinese lines. Similar to the U.S. Special Forces, every member is trained as a Para-Commando and functions secretly with the Indian Army. The original SFF cadres were recruited from amongst the fabled Khampa warrior refugees, originally from Tibet’s rugged mountainous Kham region, who for centuries were the bodyguards of successive Dalai Lamas. 

At the time of its rise in the early 1960s, President John Kennedy seized upon the SFF as a potential ally to undermine Chairman Mao Zedong’s control over newly occupied Tibet. In 1964, the SFF began their airborne training at Agra, later transferring to their own ‘dedicated’ facility at Sarsawa, near Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh where it still operates

Consequently, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of America joined hands with India's Intelligence Bureau and Research and Analysis Wing to train SFF personnel as a lightly equipped and armed guerrilla force in mountain craft, rock climbing, infiltration, sabotage, and warfare. The CIA equipped the SFF with M-1/2/3 sub-machine guns and continued training the Tibetans until the early 1970s when Delhi’s relations with Washington soured under President Nixon who began cozying up to China after his first visit to Beijing in 1972. The CIA association thus ended.

The Dalai Lama 

The current Dalai Lama was born in 1935 with the name Lhamo Dhondup, in an ethnically Tibetan village in, what is now, the Qinghai Province in China. He has been recognized by the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism as its spiritual leader, and the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama, since 1940. For the past 60 years, since the failed 1959 uprising, he has lived in exile in India.

The Dalai Lama remains at the centre of any Tibet-related discussion. He is respected by Tibetans as the leader who provides a moral compass and spiritual guidance, but is demonized by the Chinese government as an “anti-Chinese and Tibet separatist element” and the cause for negative media coverage about Tibet. In the West, the Dalai Lama is often praised as a sophisticated messenger for Tibetan Buddhism, and the Nobel Committee awarded him its Peace Prize in 1989 in recognition of his non-violent approach. However, by suggesting that his next reincarnation might 'come from India,' the Dalai Lama has thrown a spanner in the works. 

The Chinese government, predictably, has dismissed this claim and maintains that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama 'must follow Chinese law.' In 2016, President Xi revealed his five-year plan for religious affairs to "sinicize" all faiths and conform beliefs to Chinese principles. Under this regulation, administrative offices in Tibetan monasteries will be managed by Communist cadres and monastics will be pushed to have extensive training under the "Four Standards" scheme and to become "patriotic religious professionals." 

While a serious obstacle to productive Sino-Indian relations, India has offered protection for thousands of Tibetan refugees. Compared to the longstanding Indo-Tibetan culture that has persisted over centuries, the 60-odd years of Chinese invasion is small. This association furthers the prerogative of India to help the Tibetan people regain their homeland.


India’s policy on Tibet suffered a lack of focus over the past decade because New Delhi did not want to offend Beijing. While there have been periodic and isolated symbolic acts by India, unless backed by purposeful policy and substantive actions, symbolism alone is dangerous and can be counterproductive. The time has come for India to review its approach towards Tibet. 

India needs to follow a two-pronged strategy, one to reinforce its defensive strength while enhancing the interests of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama and the democratically elected Central Tibetan Administration. India could play the 'Tibet card' with China, potentially by using ambiguous terms on the status of Tibet, issuing stapled visas for Tibetans (as China does for Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir residents of India), and steadily increasing involvement with the Tibetan government in exile. India, being the country culturally closest to Tibet and having given refuge to Tibetans, can take up the cause of Tibet. 

This will change the dynamics within Asia and other countries may be slowly compelled to come out in support of Tibet. Tibetans are thoroughly committed to the philosophy of non-violence and this may achieve international support. India has supported Tibet tacitly so far, the need is to come out in the open and show the way.


Niranjan Jose is a law student pursuing BBA LLB from National Law University Odisha (NLUO), India. He is a national level debater with a keen interest in International Relations. 



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