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Nehru responsible for partition? How to read the Dalai Lama's comments

The Dalai Lama seems to have joined the “open season” declared by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) against India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. This was apparently because Nehru did not concede to Gandhi’s supposed request to make Mohammad Ali Jinnah the first prime minister of Independent India. A move that he said could have forestalled the Partition.

Gandhi scholar and historian Dilip Simeon has corrected the Dalai Lama (https://dilipsimeon.blogspot.com/2018/08/his-holiness-forgets-himself.html). Simeon reminds us that the Gandhi Plan was for Jinnah to take over as prime minister in the interim government which would rule only till the British left. Gandhi hoped to curb communal violence if the interim government under Jinnah would disband the Muslim National Guard and all private armies, while it would allow the Muslim League to campaign non-violently for Pakistan. The context of Gandhi’s proposal and why it was not backed by Mountbatten or by Nehru and Patel have been discussed threadbare by historians and students of Partition.

Although the Dalai Lama later apologised “if I have said something wrong”, why did the Tibetan leader join the RSS and the BJP in blaming the Congress and Nehru for the “sin of Partition”?

The Dalai Lama was replying to a student about the importance of overcoming emotions to avoid taking wrong decisions. By way of illustration he said “Mahatma Gandhiji was very much willing to give prime ministership to Jinnah. But Pandit Nehru refused. I think Pandit Nehru was a little bit self-centred: ‘I should be prime minister’. If Mahatma Gandhi’s (wish) materialised, Indo-Pakistan (would have been) united. Pandit Nehru, I know very well, very experienced person, very wise, but sometimes mistakes also happen.”

Could this be read as an attempt to curry favour with the current regime by targeting Nehru?

The Dalai Lama’s overture comes at a time when the Modi government has isolated him, denying him communication with its decision-making machinery. The last meeting that the Dalai Lama had with Prime Minister Modi was in September 2014, before the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. In February this year, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale wrote to Cabinet Secretary P K Sinha advising him to ensure that government officials and leaders did not attend events featuring the Dalai Lama.

India has, in fact, steadily eroded the cause of Tibetan independence to improve ties with China. As early as 2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee issued a joint declaration with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, on his visit to Beijing. Reiterating India’s support for “One China” policy, on Tibet the declaration also said: “The Indian side recognises that the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is part of the territory of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and reiterates that it does not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India. The Chinese side expresses its appreciation for the Indian position and reiterates that it is firmly opposed to any attempt and action aimed at splitting China and bringing about "independence of Tibet".” (http://in.china-embassy.org/eng/zygxc/wx/t22852.htm).

India thus recognised curtailed geographical boundaries for Tibet which had historically included Inner Tibet (present day Sichuan, Yunnan and Qinghai provinces). It also helped advance Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh as a southern state of Outer Tibet (http://www.idsa.in/node/712/1782).

In this overall context and against reports of declining health of the 83-year-old Dalai Lama, comes sensational news from a Japanese news agency that a compromise has been reached between India and China. The report alleges that Prime Minister Modi has struck a bargain in his meeting with Chinese President Xi that India will not accept any more Tibetan refugees, in return for a partial border settlement with China (https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-Relations/India-uses-rumor-of-Dalai-Lama-s-ill-health-to-mend-China-ties).

Under these circumstances, the Dalai Lama could be forgiven for being destabilised about where he stands in India’s calculus and whether India needs him at all.

The ageing Dalai Lama must be apprehensive that once he is absent from the scene, it will be a field day for the Chinese. He is aware that the Chinese could choose their own child reincarnate to succeed him, which would seriously undermine the institution of the Dalai Lama itself.

The Dalai Lama would also be aware that the 17th Karmapa, 33-year-old, Ogyen Trinley Dorje from the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, could well emerge as an alternative leader of the Tibetan diaspora.

The Karmapa escaped to India at the age of 14 in January 2000. However, he seems to have become disheartened with India treating him as a Chinese agent. He was not allowed to educate himself in the teachings of his sect in India, nor buy land to set up his own monastery, and was subject to severe travel restrictions. He left for the US last year, ostensibly for a medical check-up. Although he keeps promising to return to India, no one is sure whether he will.

All these destabilising factors might have together prompted the Dalai Lama to attack Nehru to please the reigning political deities of India. But can he afford to be insensitive to the sensibilities of a larger constituency of Indians who respect his leadership of the Tibetan struggle? Would they begin to wonder whether the Dalai Lama has not been “a little bit self-centred” in escaping from Tibet and leaving ordinary Tibetans to face the wrath of the Chinese?

What if, like Nelson Mandela, he had chosen to lead the struggle from within Tibet and faced imprisonment if necessary? Most of those who ran away from Tibet in his wake might have stayed back and led a more effective struggle for Independence if they knew that their leader was present among them, even if in a Chinese jail.

History is full of “what-ifs”. That is why people with vast public influence like the Dalai Lama must familiarise themselves with the history they want to comment on – especially when referring to someone like Nehru, who bore the wrath of the Chinese by sheltering him when he was barely 24 years old, as well as nearly 100,000 Tibetan exiles in India.
The writer is a journalist based in Delhi

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