September 07, 2009

A Consulate in Lhasa

Is China Really Serious About Improving Ties With India?Claude Arpi

http://www.thestatesman.net/page.news.php?clid=3&theme=&usrsess=1&id=267498

Jujian Hua, a director at the Tibet's Foreign Affairs Office, recently made a startling declaration: "India can set up a Consulate in Lhasa". He kindly added: "That depends on India." Jujian told an IANS correspondent: "The local government (of the Tibetan Autonomous Region) attached great importance to trade, culture and tradition, including tourism."

A day later, the Indian government clarified that it had never approached the Chinese authorities for permission to open a Consulate in Lhasa. An official said that there was no question of discussing this issue with China: New Delhi had no plans to open a Consulate in the Tibetan capital.

In the not too-distant past, India had more than a Consulate in Lhasa; it had a full-fledged Mission till the end of 1952. India had inherited several rights and privileges in Tibet from the 1914 Simla tripartite conference (between British India, Tibet and China).

Apart from the Mission in Lhasa, there were three trade marts managed by Indian Agents posted in Gyantse, Gartok (Western Tibet) and Yatung (in Chumbi Valley near the Sikkim border). These Agents were entitled to a military escort. The Post and Telegraph service, a chain of rest-houses and the principality of Minsar (near Mt Kailash) were also under the Indian government's control. Over the years, all this would be `offered' to the Chinese, without any compensation or even trying to get a fair settlement of the border issue.

Ideologically, the first Indian Prime Minister was not comfortable with what he called `imperialist sequels'. He realized, however, that these `privileges' were useful for trade, as was the McMahon Line, delineated in Simla, marking the border between NEFA and Tibet.

After the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950, the Indian government found it increasingly difficult to retain these facilities on the ground. Visitors, traders and officials from India began to be unnecessarily harassed or put to hardship.

In the summer of 1951, KM Panikkar, the Indian Ambassador to China, came to Delhi for consultations; by that time he was already fully in love with the Communist regime in Beijing. Nehru too was convinced that the future of India lay with the East: "For the first time, China possesses a strong Central Government whose decrees run even to Sinkiang and Tibet. Our own relations with China are definitively friendly." However, Nehru had to admit that there were some differences of perceptions. The Mission in Lhasa was one of them. On 3 November 1951, when asked about this during a press conference, Nehru remarked that the Mission would continue to remain there.

A few months later, when questioned again on the same subject, Nehru vaguely answered that the Mission was dealing "with certain trade and cultural matters more or less [sic!]". He added that technically the Mission never had any diplomatic status. This was not true since the British and later the first Indian Representatives definitely had the status of a full-fledged Mission till autumn 1952.

During the same press conference, the Indian Prime Minister declared that he was not aware of "any infiltration of Chinese troops in India." Rumours were afloat about Chinese incursions through the UP-Tibet border (today Uttarakhand) as well as through the Ladakh-Tibet border. The first Chinese surveys for the Sinkiang-Tibet highway cutting through the Aksai Chin occurred at that time (Nehru was informed by LS Jangpangi, the Indian Trade Agent in Gartok).

In June 1952, Nehru had become prudent: "the status of the representative in Lhasa has never been defined for the last thirty years." The Prime Minister pointed to the changed circumstances: from an independent country, Tibet had become a country under Beijing's effective suzerainty: "China is now exercising its suzerainty". Nehru explained that as Tibet was no longer an independent country, the decision had been taken to demote the diplomatic relations between Tibet and India: the Indian Representative in Lhasa would soon be re-designated as a Consul-General. During the same month, the smart Zhou En-lai told the gullible Indian Ambassador in China that he "presumed that India had no intention of claiming special rights arising from the unequal treaties of the past and was prepared to negotiate a new and permanent relationship safeguarding legitimate interests."

Not only did the Chinese offer nothing to India in exchange for her generosity, but Delhi accepted to open a Chinese Consulate in Bombay. Unbelievable! In a cable to Panikkar, Nehru stated: "We would naturally prefer a general and comprehensive settlement which includes the frontier." But he did nothing more. A few months later, Panikkar, who had been transferred to Egypt, wrote: "The main issue of our representation at Lhasa was satisfactorily settled… there was no outstanding issue between us and the Chinese". Again no reference was made to the border issue.

Richardson, the last Head of the British Mission in Lhasa, saw this development quite differently: "That decision adroitly transformed the temporary mission at Lhasa into a regular consular post. But it was a practical dimension of the fact that Tibet had ceased to be independent and it left unresolved the fate of the special rights acquired when Tibet had been in a position to make its own treaties with foreign powers and enjoyed by the British and Indian Governments for half a century."

In April 1954, the `born-in-sin' Panchsheel Agreement was signed. Though the status of the Consulate-General and the Trade Marts was confirmed, all the other privileges were surrendered. Over the years, the situation became more and more untenable for the Indian officials. After the Dalai Lama took refuge in India in 1959, the Chinese authorities constantly harassed the staff of the Consulate and Trade Marts. When the Panchsheel Agreement lapsed in April 1962, there was no point in renewing it. The Trade Marts were closed and China asked the officials to vacate the premises. As the building in Yatung belonged to the Government of India, the Chinese even asked India to take the building away. This became the subject of prolonged correspondence between the two governments.

On 3 December 1962, the Ministry of External Affairs sent a stern note to its Chinese counterpart: "The Government of India has decided to discontinue the Indian Consulates-General at Lhasa and Shanghai from 15 December, 1962, and to withdraw their personnel manning these Consulates-General. The Government of the People's Republic of China are requested to take reciprocal action on the same date in regard to their Consulates-General in Calcutta and Bombay." Since then, there has been no Indian representation in Tibet. As for the proposal sent by the Chinese to reopen the Consulate in Lhasa in the near future, one could ask: what is the point?

It was recently reported that traders using the centuries-trade route crossing into Tibet at Lipulekh-la have only imported a few lakhs of goods this year. The business over Nathu-la is not flourishing either (Rs 9 lakhs in July after a two-month lull) and the pilgrims to Kailash-Manasarovar do not need a Consulate to reach the holy mountain. Beijing probably wants to `balance' the negative reports in the press about the deterioration of the bilateral relations with Delhi. A more effective (and sincere) action could be to stop their nearly-daily infiltration of troops (and more recently of a helicopter) into Indian territory.

And if China is really serious about an improvement of its relations with India, the traditional border posts in Demchok (Ladakh) and Bumla (Arunachal Pradesh) could also be reopened. This would definitely benefit the people on both sides of the LAC. But Beijing does not seem to be ready to accept the present LAC in Arunachal and Ladakh.

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