By Claude Arpi
2007 is a year of celebrations; not only for India, but for Asia and Europe as well. In August, India will commemorate the 60th Anniversary of her Independence from the British. This week, while Europe observes the 50 years of the Treaty of Rome (which set up a common market between the six first Member States), Tibet remember that 60 years ago, the first Asian Relations Conference was organised in Delhi by the Indian Council of World Affairs. It was the first time that Tibet participated to an international Conference as a separate nation.
Year 1947 saw a new birth for India, “when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance” as Nehru put it.
Probably because the soul of the Indian nation had suffered so much during two centuries of colonisation, the first Indian Prime Minister thought that India should take the lead to unite Asia. Thus was born the concept of a pan-Asian Conference. In January 1946, Nehru had already written to Gandhi: “Almost every country of Asia from the west to the east and south, including the Arab countries, Tibet, Mongolia and the countries of South-East Asia as well as the Asian Republics of the Soviet Union, will be represented by leading men. That is going to be a unique event in history.”
The object of Nehru’s letter was to invite Gandhi to participate in the function; he eventually accepted.
At the end of 1946, a rumour circulated in Lhasa that a delegation of the Tibetan Government would be invited to India to attend the Conference.
Hugh Richardson, the Representative of British India in Lhasa, handed over the official invitation from the Indian Council of World Affairs to the Tibetan Government. He advised the Tibetan Foreign Office that it would be a good opportunity for them to show Asia and the world that Tibet was de facto an independent country.
When the news was confirmed, Teiji Tsewang Rigzing Sampho and Khenchung Lobsang Wangyal, the nominated leaders of the delegation began their preparations for the long journey to represent Tibet at the Conference.
At that time they thought that the main topic of the Conference would be the border delimitation. In any case, they wanted to be ready for any eventuality and be able to present their own position.
They collected seven boxes of original documents relating to the Indo-Tibetan borders, including the original Simla Convention documents. They thought that they could eventually claim back some parts of the NEFA (today Arunachal Pradesh) and perhaps also Darjeeling, Kalimpong.
Soon after the Tibetan New Year, sometime in early March 1947, the delegation including two other members (the son of Teiji Sampho, Tenzin Dhondup), two Geshes and two interpreters departed from Lhasa carrying presents for all the Indian leaders in their luggage.
They journeyed first to Dromo in the Chumbi Valley, where they were joined by a messenger of the Kashag bringing a Tibetan flag that they were requested to hoist during the Conference. They then proceeded to Gangtok and Calcutta. It was the flag of the Tibetan Army hoisted on the barracks in Lhasa.
In Calcutta for the first time they heard about the Chinese protest against their representation at the Conference. The Chinese had objected saying that they would represent Tibet and that it was not necessary to have a separate delegation of Tibetans. Very disturbed, the delegation sent their servants ahead to Delhi to check if the Chinese had succeeded to have their invitation cancelled and if their accommodation was still being kept. On receiving an assurance from the Indian Government that they were still very much invited to the Conference as a separate delegation, they proceeded to Delhi.
They probably did not know that their presence had been discussed at the highest level of the Government, with K.P.S. Menon writing to Sarojini Naidu about the Chinese delegation wanting the Tibetan representatives to be listed as Chinese representatives. Nehru himself replied to Menon a few days before the beginning of the Conference: “Unable to understand Chinese attitude to Asian Conference when Conference Organisers have fully explained the position which is in no way injurious to Chinese interests. Non-official cultural conference cannot be expected to consider political niceties. We are unable to say whom Tibetans represent till they come.”
Once in Delhi the delegation called on the Prime Minister designate who immediately told them that the Conference was not a political conference and that they should not present any papers on the border dispute. The delegates nevertheless explained in detail “the independent status of Tibet for thousands of years, its political and religious development since King Songtsen Gompo and the spiritual and temporal rule of the Dalai Lamas.”
The Tibetan leaders assured Nehru that they would not be the first to raise the border issue but that they would “not remain a silent spectator if the Chinese did”.
Later, they called on Sarojini Naidu, Sardar Patel and Gandhi who told them privately that a brochure on the proceedings of the Conference would be published and that it was the best way for the Tibetan delegates to demonstrate their independence. This brochure would be distributed all over the world. Gandhi also told them that “though he was not wise and well educated, he had the experience of an old man, therefore he would welcome their questions.”
One of these questions was about the closing of Tibet to foreigners. Gandhi replied that they “should allow people from outside to visit Tibet and at the same time send Tibetans abroad to see the world.” He further told them that just as the Tibetans follow Buddhism, many people around the world follow different religions “which teach the same thing for the good of humanity.”
When they left they promised to send him an English or Hindi translation of some teachings of Lord Buddha but as one of the delegates said later, “unfortunately, we were not able to fulfil his wish as within a few months he was assassinated.”
To each of these leaders, the delegation presented a letter from the Regent and rich gifts that they had brought from Tibet.
The plenary session of the Conference was held in Purana Qila. The leaders of each of the thirty-two delegations were sitting on the dais behind a plate with the name of the country and the flag of the country. Tibet had its own flag with the snow-covered mountains and the two snow lions representing the dual powers of the Dalai Lama. There was a huge map of Asia behind the delegates on which Tibet was shown as a separate country.
The nationalist Chinese delegation strongly objected to the presence of the Tibetans and the display of the map. They said that they were the only ones authorized to represent ‘The Tibet’s part of China.’ Some say that the organizers accepted to remove the map in order to avoid a show down, though Tenzin Dhondup Sampho, the son of the Tibetan leader, said this was not the case.
Nehru in his welcome speech said that he was welcoming the delegates and representatives from “distant Asian countries and from our neighbours, Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma and Ceylon to whom we look especially for co-operation and close and friendly intercourse.”
In his opening speech, Teiji Sampho told the delegates: “our Tibetan Government received an invitation to join the Asian Relations Conference. We are a country which administers its subjects on the basis of religious aspirations. And specially Tibet had friendly relations with India from ancient times….”
After the inaugural session, the participants were divided into small groups to discuss various subjects. It appears that it was during these sessions that the Chinese delegates tried to prove that Tibet was only a part of China and hence they were the true representatives.
One incident is worth mentioning here. One day, the Chinese Ambassador in India invited the Tibetan delegation for a dinner and during the course of the evening, he tried to bribe them.
He told them first that the Chinese Government was looking after the Tibetan interests; the Nationalist Government had already taken up the problem of some lost Tibetan territories in Mon (Tawang district of NEFA) and the case of the Indo-Tibetan border in NEFA area with the Americans, the British and the new Indian leaders.
It was true that the Chinese had already taken up the matter of Mon with the British Government, but it was not a proof that Tibet could not on its own take up its problems with British India. The Chinese Ambassador told the Tibetan delegation: “We Chinese feel that it is better that you let us talk and handle this border issue. It will be more effective and more influential if we talk about it.”
Later on, during the dinner, the Chinese delegates told the Tibetans that the Chinese Government had sent Rs 10,000 (a huge sum in 1946) for each of the leaders and Rs 5,000 for each of the other members of the delegation. This money was supposedly for the expenses during the Conference. They were told that they could collect their money in a day or two.
The Tibetans politely refused saying that their Government had already provided for the expenses and that they had more than enough money. They also thanked the Chinese delegates for showing their concern for the ‘lost Tibetan territory in Mon’.
They made clear to the Chinese that they had been told that the Conference would not discuss the border issue, but if the matter came up for discussion they would certainly argue their case themselves as they had come prepared for that. The major problem of the undefined borders between China and Tibet was not touched that evening. But the story was not finished.
A couple of days later, a Chinese official came to meet the Tibetan delegates at their residence and told them that they had received a message from Chiang Kaishek saying that he absolutely wanted the Tibetans to take the money.
Again, Sampho had to politely refuse, but the Chinese official could not accept this refusal and most probably fearing for his own head if he returned to the Embassy without having handed over the money, he requested Sampho to send a personal telegram to Chiang informing him that he was refusing the money. It was done and perhaps the official’s head was saved.
Before leaving, Sampho had one last meeting with Nehru to thank him, saying that the Asian Relations Conference had a very great significance for Tibet. The Indian leader is said to have retorted that it ‘was their biggest gift to Tibet.’
Although the Tibetans considered it a political and diplomatic victory for their cause, it is not clear even today what the exact purpose of the Conference was. It was most probably only an occasion for the newly liberated nations of Asia to meet together and see how they could ‘expand their relationship beyond London’. It was most certainly a way for Jawaharlal Nehru to show that he was soon to be the new leader of a free Asia.
Nehru gave one of his idealistic speeches: “Peace can only come when nations are free and also when human beings everywhere have freedom and security and opportunity. Peace and freedom, therefore, have to be considered both in their political and economic aspects.”
The main interest of the Asian Relations Conference for the Tibetans is that early in 1947, all the Indian leaders and the interim Government of India recognized Tibet as a separate and independent nation. A few months earlier, Nehru had responded to a telegram of congratulations from the Tibetan Government on the occasion of the formation of the Interim Government by saying: “My colleagues and I are most grateful for your kind message. We look forward with confidence to the continuance and strengthening of the close and cordial relations which have existed between our two countries since ancient times.”
Indeed Tibet was still free and living in peace in its splendid isolation, but not for long!
And when the delegation returned to Kalimpong they were given the disturbing news from Lhasa that Tibet was close to a civil war due to the power struggle between the previous Regent Reting Rinpoche and the present one, Taktra Rinpoche.
They were requested to remain in Kalimpong for some time to help confiscate some of the properties of the former Regent Reting.
It was indeed a bad omen that inside Tibet, the religious leaders were struggling for power when outside Tibet there was a possibility for Tibet to be recognized as an independent state.
Ironically, though the official purpose of the Conference was in Nehru’s words: “How to terminate foreign dominion, direct or indirect, and to achieve freedom to direct their affairs in accordance with the will of the people concerned,” a fully independent nation, Tibet was to be colonised three years later and worse… by an Asian power. And nobody in Asia moved when the ‘crime’ was committed.