- On 30th January 1959, Dalai Lama had arrived in India after perceiving the increased threat to his life
- India happily provided every kind of support to the spiritual leader and his 80,000 followers
- India’s support for Dalai Lama drew ires from China which accused it of meddling in its internal affairs
Sounds unbelievable at the current juncture of the time, but for a major part of human history, the relationship between China and India has been cordial. It’s only during the last 6 decades that the two countries have been grabbing each other’s necks. The seeds of this conflict were sown in 1959, when India provided refuge to Dalai Lama, the topmost figure in Tibetan polity.
Hot and Cold days of the 1950s between India and China
The 1950s is one of the weirdest decades for the India-China diplomatic relationship. In the aftermath of the world war and newly gained political independence, both the countries needed each other. So, the decade aptly started with ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ (Both China and India share brotherhood bonds). However, soon it transformed into a full-fledged conflict which led to the 1962 war.
Other than China officially denying McMahon Line as the legal boundary between India and China, the Communist nation also claimed its sovereignty over the Aksai Chin region. While India was trying to diplomatically solve the issue, India’s support for the Tibetan spiritual head Dalai Lama ended up becoming another thorn in the possibility of the Sino-India partnership.
Just like how China falsely claims sovereignty over some Indian territories, it also asserted that Tibet should be under its administrative control. However, the Tibetans were not willing to accept China’s authority. For them, their Dalai Lamas have historically been their guiding force and they wanted the then Dalai Lama to guide their polity as well as their personal lives.
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China’s clash with Tibet
Even though China asserted its claim on the territory in 1951, it guaranteed that it wouldn’t tinker with the existing political and social setup. But, Tibetans were not convinced, and slowly thousands of Tibetan rebels were up in arms against the Chinese state. The slow guerilla warfare had started but it did not turn into a full-fledged war. China wanted to quell this resistance.
One obvious solution was to take the Dalai Lama under their control. If they had managed it, the Tibetans would lose a guiding force. But, it was tough to capture him with force. So, the Chinese tried a diplomatic route to mold the young Lama into Communist ideology, which would eventually favor them.
On 10th March 1959, Chinese officials invited the Dalai Lama to witness a dance performance from a Chinese troupe. It was perceived as a suspicious change in stance by Tibetans. Their suspicions were deepened by the fact that the Dalai Lama also received a message inviting him to Chinese military headquarters without his security apparatus.
The Dalai Lama’s advisors advised him to leave Tibet and escape to some other safe place. On the 17th of March, Dalai Lama along with his Cabinet Ministers, soldiers, mother, and younger sibling decided to leave Tibet. He was dressed up as a soldier and cleverly went unidentified through the crowd in Lhasa.
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Dalai Lama was untraceable for two weeks
It took two weeks of a treacherous journey for the Dalai Lama and his followers, both with him and away from him, to succeed in defeating the Chinese spying apparatus. For two weeks, neither the Chinese nor the world knew where the Dalai Lama was. The Tibetan monk would only travel at night to escape the eyes of Chinese loyalists en route to his trip. During the day, the Tibetan government in exile (Dalai Lama and his followers) would stay in lamaseries, tiny villages, and various other undetectable or unsuspicious places.
Back home, the Chinese government imposed a curfew and killed more than 2000 Tibetans for allegedly supporting their spiritual head. China also dissolved the Tibetan government. But, they were not able to trace the Dalai Lama. In its 1959 edition, The Time Magazine wrote, “Rumors floated about that the holy leader was screened off from the view of Chinese planes by mist and low clouds conjured up by the prayers of the Buddhist holy men.”
Dalai Lama sought asylum in India
India was the first country that got the first glimpse of the Tibetan head after he went missing. Barely a few days’ treks away from the McMahon Line, the Dalai Lama sent an emergency letter to Jawahar Lal Nehru, asking for asylum.
His letter read, “Ever since Tibet went under the control of Red China and the Tibetan Government lost its powers in 1951, I, my Government officers and citizens have been trying to maintain peace in Tibet, but the Chinese Government has been gradually subduing the Tibetan Government. In this critical situation, we are entering India. I hope that you will please make the necessary arrangements for us in the Indian territory. Confidence in your kindness.”
India was happy to oblige and provided him with full state protection and all other facilities. He reached India on March 30 and settled down at the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh. Later, 80,000 more Tibetans followed him into Indian territory.
China will always leverage it against India
Though India did take a humanitarian route by providing shelters to Tibetans, it turned out to be a diplomatic disaster. During the 1950s, India and China did have a border dispute, but they remained by and large dormant. India giving shelter to the Dalai Lama turned out to be the final nail in the coffin of declining India-China relations. China accused India of clearly interfering in its domestic affairs.
Read more: ‘Build a fortress, attack Buddhism,’ China is afraid of losing Tibet as India, the US, Taiwan stands with the Dalai Lama
From then on, India-China relations kept going downhill, which eventually contributed to the 1962 war between both Asian giants. Even to this day, the Tibet issue is working as a bedrock of enmity between India and China. No matter how much both countries build on other aspects of bilateral ties, China is never going to forget the Tibet issue.