Indian troops including Tibetan Special Frontier Forces in a file photo. Image: AFP via Getty

MUMBAI – In the tiny Indan mountain town of Choglamasar, a senior ruling Bharatiya Janata Party politician’s presence at the funeral of a Special Frontier Force (SFF) soldier sent a subtle but clear message to China.

The fallen soldier, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, 35, was on the vanguard of an August 29 Indian mission that gave India possession of strategic heights in Ladakh’s Pangong Lake area that overlook China’s positions, effectively nullifying the advantage Beijing had achieved through its initial incursion in the Himalayan area.

The solemn ceremony, draped in both Indian and Tibetan flags, was broadcast across India and transmitted a symbolic reminder of the role ethnic Tibetans, descendants of those who took refuge in India after China invaded and occupied the Tibetan plateau in 1950, play in India’s elite SFF border units.  

In a since-deleted tweet, the BJP leader Ram Madhav wrote, “Let the sacrifices of such valiant soldiers bring peace along the Indo-Tibetan border”, a no-doubt deliberate use of “Tibet” rather than “China” in referring to the two Asian giants’ contested border regions.

New Delhi would not say if the public display of solidarity with Tibetans represented a policy shift or was merely a signal to China that their current border troubles at Ladakh could be extended across a wider high-altitude geography, a strategic ace up the sleeve some analysts refer to as India’s “Tibet card.”

Indian officials are as a rule reticent about the nation’s secretive SFF forces and their ethnic make-up. China officially denies knowledge of Tibetans-in-exile playing any role in the Indian armed forces, though Beijing openly lambasts those who support calls for Tibetan independence from Chinese rule.  

Official estimates suggest that almost 85,000 Tibetans are living freely in different parts of India. Tibetans in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, however, face a high degree of state control over their lives and livelihoods, increasingly akin to the situation faced by ethnic Uighurs held in “vocational” camps in China’s western Xinjiang province.

A pro-Tibean protest in India in a file photo. Image: Agencies

In 2019 and 2020, Beijing introduced new policies to promote the systematic, centralized and large-scale training and transfer of ethnic Tibetan “rural surplus laborers” to other parts of Tibet and further afield Chinese provinces, according to a recent Jamestown Foundation report.

In the first seven months of 2020, Beijing had “trained” over half a million Tibetans through this policy. The scheme encompasses Tibetans of all ages, covers the entire region and is distinct from the coercive vocational training of secondary students and young adults reported by exile Tibetans, the report said.

The labor transfer policy mandates that Tibetan farmers are subjected to centralized “military-style” vocational training, which according to state reports aims to reform “backward thinking” and includes training in “work discipline,” law and the Chinese language.

The training regime is supervised by People’s Armed Police drill sergeants, and Tibetan trainees are required to dress in military fatigues, the Jamestown Foundation research said.

In China’s censored context, It’s not clear how much resentment these policies have engendered across Tibet. Over the decades, Indian leaders have avoided being seen as supporting or aligning with the cause of Tibet, despite serving as host to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama for over 60 years.

Beijing considers the Dalai Lama, a darling of the West and Nobel Peace Prize recipient for his non-violent resistance to China’s annexation of Tibet, as an enemy of the state.

But some wonder if Tibet’s peaceful resistance could begin to take a harder tack, particularly as Western powers including the US articulate new support for Tibet’s cause in the context of a wider new Cold War against China.

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama prays during a long-life prayer offering dedicated to him at Tsuglagkhang Temple in McLeod Ganj, India, on September 13, 2019. Photo: AFP/Lobsang Wangyal

Some suggest that peaceful struggle could shift after the Dalai Lama’s death, particularly as China bids to pick his holy successor. The Dalai Lama, who has been based for decades at the Indian mountain town of Dharamsala, has said any candidate handpicked by Beijing would be illegitimate.

Geographically and strategically, India could be key in funneling support to any new Tibetan resistance. China’s Tibet takeover was a well-crafted strategic move vis-a-vis India, a design Chinese leaders had even before the communists took over in 1949.

The annexation gave China access to a massive reservoir of freshwater, copious natural resources and 2.5 million square kilometers of sparsely populated land.  Known as the “Water Tower of Asia”, at least 10 large river systems emerge from the Tibetan plateau, providing water to 45% of the world’s population across East, Southeast and South Asia. 

China’s invasion and annexation of Tibet sparked guerilla campaigns running from 1956 through 1962 that futilely tried to regain independence from Beijing. As Chinese forces eventually quelled the uprising, and the Dalai Lama and his followers escaped to India’s border state of Himachal Pradesh, south of Ladakh.

That set the stage for China and India’s 1962 short but bloody border war, which China won and leveraged to occupy Aksai Chin in northern Ladakh, the region where tensions have recently spiked. China also moved into India’s Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing still claims, representing a potential next front in their conflict.

Research shows that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) helped India train Tibetan refugees to become part of a special force, the forerunner to today’s SFF, after the 1962 war. The US’s normalization of ties with China, in 1978, was predicated in part on a Beijing demand that America stopping supporting Tibetan resistance forces.

The SFF and its Tibetan fighters have a valiant fighting record for India. The SFF played a crucial role around Chittagong in operations that helped defeat Pakistan’s eastern wing in 1971 and create Bangladesh. SFF fighters also contributed to the 1999 war that dislodged Pakistani forces who had occupied heights in western Ladakh’s Kargil.

It’s, of course, a moot point if Tibet can ever regain independence from China, though clearly many Tibetans living in exile still hold out hope several decades after Beijing’s initial invasion.

Map: Facebook

Tibetan disaffection has grown coincident with Chinese repression and forced Sinicization of Tibetan-Buddhism culture, according to Lobsang Sangay, president of Central Tibetan Administration, who spoke on a webinar organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank on September 28.

Sangay said China’s policy and objectives in the region have always been consistent from former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s time initial years as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party.

“He who holds Tibet dominates the Himalaya region. He who dominates the Himalaya region threatens the Indian sub-continent. He who threatens the Indian subcontinent may well have all of South Asia within its reach and with that all of Asia,” Sangay said, citing a Mao speech from the 1940s.

He said China’s frequent intrusion in different parts of its southern border is not as puzzling as many Indians think. He again cited Mao, who had once said, “Tibet plateau is like a palm. We have to occupy the palm and the five fingers are Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal Pradesh in India.’’

Current Chinese President Xi Jinping has said the stability of China depends on the stability of Tibet. As recent as 2008, China’s Central Military Commission ranked Tibet as its most critical sovereign challenge, ahead of even Xinjiang and the self-governing island Taiwan, said Sangay.

It’s not clear if or how India may opt to play its “Tibet card”, but taboos on mentioning Tibet are breaking down. Some suggest New Delhi could start to lend its voice to calls for Tibetan autonomy and democracy, echoing Western critics, after remaining reticent for years to avoid irking Beijing.

Indeed, that could change as India joins more firmly with the US, Japan and Australia in the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a budding alliance focused on containing China’s rise, including in the Indian Ocean region. Tibet is becoming a focal point in that geostrategic calculus.

On October 14, the US named Robert Destro as its new Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, a position left vacant since 2017. He will be tasked to “lead efforts to protect unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity of Tibetan community, and press for human rights to be respected.’’

Tibetans in China in a file photo. Image: Getty Images via AFP

“The US was concerned with [China’s] repression of the Tibetan community, including lack of meaningful autonomy, the deteriorating human rights situation in Tibet areas and severe restrictions on Tibetans’ religious freedom and cultural traditions within China,’’ US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a statement.

Within a day, Destro had met Sangay inside the State Department, a first for the exiled president of Tibetan Autonomous Region. Sangay said simply “History is made today.”

Conflict in the Himalayas and potentially inside Tibet, analysts say, would distract Beijing’s strategic attention and divert its military resources from other crucial theaters, including the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.  

Some have cynically suggested India could even provide Tibetans with clandestine military training and even arms to launch cross-border raids inside Tibet to create a new theater of instability for Beijing, similar to the previous insurgent situation before the US normalized ties with China.

There, of course, is no indication such a move is on New Delhi’s drawing board, even amid the sky-high tensions in Ladakh. But India is now signaling to China for the first time in years that playing its long-held “Tibet card” is at least a strategic possibility.