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Tibet: India's local politics

Instead of directing outwards, debate about Tibet in India is pointed inward.
Kanishk Tharoor
17 March 2008

All politics are local, according to the cliché. If the saying needed much more in its ballast of truth, one need only look at a recent spat in the Indian parliament. The main opposition parties in the Lok Sabha – the lower house – walked out today in furious protest over the government's refusal to take a firmer line on unrest in Tibet. Violent demonstrations in the capital Lhasa over the weekend had brought the Himalayan region once again beneath the global spotlight. Opposition politicians wanted the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to clearly condemn China's actions in Tibet and push for United Nations intervention in resolving the demands of Tibetan dissidents. The ruling coalition only managed to "express its concern", prompting the exodus of MPs. It would be a bit too hopeful, however, to read in today's parliamentary histrionics much more than domestic point-scoring.

After all, as one foreign ministry representative pointed out, India's Tibet policy has changed little since the failed uprising of 1959 which brought the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees into ongoing exile in India. While supporting the Dalai Lama and backing "non-violent" and "peaceful" political transformation in Tibet, New Delhi has done little to internationalise the Tibetan cause (with one eye, of course, on the lingering crisis in Kashmir) or to bring the force of international institutions to bear on China.

Ever since its humiliating losses to China in the 1962 war (the countries' only major clash), India has treated its looming neighbour gingerly, even as Beijing equipped Pakistan with military and scientific hardware and continuously undermined India's position within south Asia. This is even more unlikely to change now that China and India both harbour global ambitions and are wary of "balancing" each other to the west's advantage.

Why, then, did opposition MPs beat their chests about Tibet when their parties, if in power, would have done little different? Why did members of the Bharatiya Janata Party – a party linked to pogroms targeting India's minority Muslims – rail against the "cultural genocide" of minority peoples in China? The answer is local. Conspicuous in its relative silence in today's discussions was the Left Front, a bloc of communist and other leftist parties that give external support to India's ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance. All is not well with the Left-UPA fraternity, with a serious feud threatening to scupper the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Left accused the UPA of selling India short and pandering to the United States, still disparaged as "imperialist" in many quarters of Indian public opinion. Yet, the Left is seen by many as happy to lean towards China. Many of its parties maintain strong links with Beijing and, upon occasion, attempt to ape China's heavy-handed development strategies (as occurred recently with such controversial effect in the prospective establishment of a Chinese-style "special economic zone" in Nandigram in communist-ruled West Bengal). Some members of the Left dismiss their UPA counterparts as "pro-American", while the latter brand the former "pro-China". Such rhetorical tags matter less in their substance than in their power to firm the impression of ideological fissures between the Left and the UPA.

Thus the issue of Indian policy on Tibet has fallen into the opposition's lap as a crowbar to pry the Left and the UPA apart. If the opposition succeeds in making Tibet a serious issue in parliament, further strain will be placed on the Left-UPA alliance, as the stubborn silence of the communists will wrestle with the reluctant, moralising concessions of UPA MPs. Instead of directing outwards, debate about Tibet in India is pointed inward.

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