India Must Stand Up for Tibet

India's response to the harsh Chinese crackdown on legitimate Tibetan protests in Lhasa and elsewhere has been dispiriting. In parliament the seasoned politician and foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee could only express distress at the plight of the hapless Tibetans. Worse still, Indian security forces swooped down on nonviolent Tibetan protestors at Dharamsala, the principal refuge of the Tibetan diaspora, and incarcerated them for 14 days using India's preventive detention laws, a colonial relic.

India does itself a disservice by not standing up to China over its treatment of Tibet. If India wishes to be considered a great power, it needs to display a greater degree of independence and not kowtow to Beijing. With rapid economic growth, a substantial military establishment and robust political institutions, India should stop behaving in a subservient fashion and forthrightly stand up and defend certain inalienable rights of the Tibetan minority in its midst—rights that should obtain in any humane and democratic state.

New Delhi's reluctance to challenge China over Tibet goes back to Beijing's brutal repression of the Khampa revolt 50 years ago, when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal head of the Tibetans, fled to India. Although China sharply reproved India for providing refuge to the Dalai Lama, India stood its ground. Shortly thereafter, following a breakdown of negotiations over a disputed border, China attacked and defeated India in October 1962. Even though India's army has since been modernized and prepared for mountain warfare, the memory of this rout still haunts Indian military planners and policymakers. That's why, when the Chinese army periodically crosses the border, India responds with anodyne criticism. And why India has been willing to publicly and abjectly reassure China that the Tibetan exiles will not be allowed to engage in any meaningful political activity.

Appeasement might not be a bad policy if it actually succeeded in keeping Beijing satisfied, but it doesn't. There is not a shred of evidence that it has ever moderated Chinese behavior. Whenever Tibetan exiles have engaged in minor protests, Beijing has sternly rebuked India for allowing them to engage in political activities. Faced with Beijing's continued expressions of discontent, New Delhi has rarely missed an opportunity to genuflect before the Middle Kingdom. The Tibetan crackdown is only the latest example.

This humiliating deference undermines India's national interests as a rising Asian power and corrodes its credentials as a liberal democracy. If China can so easily cow Indian policymakers, then India's claims to great power status in Asia, let alone beyond, appear utterly hollow. It shows that Indian policymakers have been, to use a term from the cold war era, Finlandized—constrained by a foreign power. Some policy options cannot even be considered for fear of offending China. India, for example, has had little to say about China's penetration of much of Burma and its ongoing quest for military bases in that country. India has also exercised great caution in pursuing any significant commercial ties with Taiwan for fear of incurring the wrath of the mainland. What does it say about India as a democracy if the authorities harass law-abiding Tibetans who are only engaging in peaceful protests? Such actions are fundamentally contrary to the principles of a liberal democracy that enshrines the right of public political dissent.

It is all but certain that the heavy hand of the Chinese state will successfully crush the demonstrations that have swept across much of Tibet. China is well aware that the great powers will issue some predictable communiqués demanding an end to repression and calling for political dialogue. They are most unlikely to bolster these pious sentiments with any viable actions that would prove costly to the regime in Beijing, such as the imposition of sanctions or the boycott of Chinese goods. India has long, albeit fitfully, sought to uphold human rights both at home and abroad. Today, when it has aspirations of regional and global leadership, it needs to demonstrate the self-confidence to condemn China's repression of its Tibetan minority and to provide comfort to the Tibetan diaspora. Any policy that falls short of these steps amounts to an abetment of China's abject treatment of a disenfranchised minority. If India's political leadership wishes to be seen as the exemplars of a major democratic state with global aspirations, at a minimum it should grant the Tibetans the right to peaceful protest. It should also consider deferring the mostly desultory border talks, which have, in any case, moved at a glacial pace.