Tibet: Understanding the meaningful autonomy

The doctrine of meaningful autonomy within the People’s Republic of China is full of pragmatism
Leh, Jul 15: President of Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) Thupstan Chhewang welcoming Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama to Ladakh during brief ceremony, at his residence in Leh on Friday.
Leh, Jul 15: President of Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) Thupstan Chhewang welcoming Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama to Ladakh during brief ceremony, at his residence in Leh on Friday. ANI

Question : China is criticising your visit (to Ladakh)?

Dalai Lama: “That’s usual” ( a soft laugh). The Chinese, not Chinese people, some Chinese hardliners, they consider me separatist and reactionary, so all of them criticise me. But, now more and more Chinese realise that Dalai Lama is not seeking independence (from China), but within China, within People’s Republic of China, meaningful autonomy. Develop Buddhist Culture, preserve it, now this aspect, now more and more Chinese (are) really showing interest in Tibetan Buddhism. They realise, some of the Chinese scholars, that Tibetan Buddhism’s knowledge and tradition and that it is very scientific religion..”

These words spoken by the Dalai Lama during his short-stay in Jammu, a little known place in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, while on his way to Ladakh.

There is a need to understand the true spirit of these words and the meaning thereof. The whole Tibetan conflict needs to be understood in the current political world order, and the dynamism that the Dalai Lama represents. The history cannot be written time and again, nor the past is to be visited all the time to live in a frozen state of mind.

Certain truths are irreversible. No attempt should ever be made to hide them with the narratives of the powerful, especially through the use of the military power.

Tibet stands as an example of the troubles it underwent over the decades, since the Chinese invasion of the region, rich with glaciers and unique environment, which was further enriched by the natives who were passionate about their culture and ecology.

A universal truth is that natives alone preserve their ecosystems. The invaders in one form or the other have no interest in preserving the local cultures.

Tibet has experienced this onslaught on their identity, which is intrinsically linked to the sense of dignity, ever since the China invaded the Buddhist enclaves on roof of the world in 1949/50. The invaders never understand or appreciate local sensitivities and sensibilities. Tibet stands as an example of this.

Tibet did not come up overnight. It is in existence since ages, and so are the natives and their decedents. George Orwell had written in one of his works, “ The photo on the mantlepiece and you is that you are the same person.”

In simple words, that the people who lived ages ago and the current natives of the region are the same people, and intrusion and intervention by the outsiders and settlers becomes an unacceptable phenomenon and cause of friction.

The whole doctrine of “meaningful autonomy within the People’s Republic of China” , and the preservation of “Buddhist culture,” is full of pragmatism. This is worth giving a chance.

China needs to decode the doctrine spelled out by the Dalai Lama, and enter into a formidable and result-oriented dialogue. It should understand the sensitivities and sensibilities of the people of Tibet, and the fact that a vast majority of Buddhists in Tibet rally behind their spiritual leader. This is a rare opportunity for Beijing.

In simple terms, the Dalai Lama is pitching for “meaningful autonomy.” This, I understand, is a definition that he has come out with his five-point peace in Tibet pursuit. While addressing the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus on September 21, 1987, he had unveiled his five points:

1. Transformation of the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace.

2. Abandonment of China’s population transfer policy which threatens the very existence of the Tibetans as a people.

3. Respect for the Tibetan people’s fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms.

4. Restoration and protection of Tibet’s natural environment and the abandonment of China’s use of Tibet for the production of nuclear weapons and dumping of nuclear waste.

5. Commencement of earnest negotiations on the future status of Tibet and of relations between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.

The whole phrase of meaningful autonomy gets its contours and contexts from these five points. It means autonomy which is real in words and purpose, not just rhetoric. In his paper, “ Key Concepts of Autonomy”, the political scholar George G Agich, has written: “The term autonomy admits a wide range of meanings which includes qualities such as self-rule, self-determination, freedom of will, dignity, integrity, individuality, independence, and self- knowledge in ethical thought. It is identified with the qualities of self-assertion, critical reflection, responsibility, absence of external causation, and knowledge of one’s own interest; it is also thought of in connection with actions .”

Which of these definitions or elements of it, the Dalai Lama had in his mind while reflecting on the issue is not known as yet, but it does lay a ground for a thought process to get initiated, as it is having portents of a win-win situation for Tibetan Buddhists, China, and also for India.

The moot point here is why did the Dalai Lama distinguish between hardliners and the Chinese people, and it also is not without a purpose that he avoided a reference to the Chinese government. This gains importance as it is the Chinese government that terms the Tibetan spiritual leader as “ separatist”.

The Dalai Lama sent a clear message that he is not a separatist, and he believes in universal peace in which all the people on this planet were brothers and sisters. This declaration about self by the spiritual leader puts Beijing in a corner.

The whole world recognises the Dalai Lama as a man of peace. It is time for China to acknowledge that he has disassociated from separatism. Seeking autonomy is neither separatism nor sedition, as he also underlined that this concept has to be contextualised within the geographical and political map of China.

This amounts to asking Beijing to accept the distinct identity of the people of Tibet. Their ethnic identity, along with their culture is what their dignity stands for. He had drawn lines of convergence.

China will do a favour to itself if it accepts the contours of negotiations and dialogue the Dalai Lama has drawn. It is facing a lot of flak for its repressive policies within the state, and now, after Sri Lanka episode, it is being charged with pursuing debt trap policy for other poor nations which have taken loan from Beijing.

Autonomy is an idea that gels with the democratic aspirations as also gives an assertive inspiration of the realisation of the inner sense of liberty.

The democracy, in itself, is an exercise in overarching autonomy guaranteeing individual’s rights to freedom of thought, expression and action within the constitutional limits, Dalai Lama has tapped that sense of autonomy in which the Tibetans can related and find solace in their individual and collective sense of being self, and part of the bigger sovereign nation.

The sovereignty of the nation travels without barriers to the physical and psychological identity of the region and the people, and in turn the nation at large recognises and accommodates the wishes of the people about their culture, environment and ethos in its bigger self. That’s what I believe the real definition of autonomy is, and should be accepted. It is an idea of conciliation not confrontation.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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