By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
New Delhi, March 17 – He seems to be like many other Westerners – fascinated by Tibet’s mystical aura, follower of the Dalai Lama like Hollywood star Richard Gere, and an ardent, if naive supporter of the political freedom of Tibet.
But it does not take long to learn that British author Patrick French may be fascinated by Tibet, “captivated by the charismatic Dalai Lama”, but is not naive about the politics of the Tibet Question.
He has been to Tibet twice, first in the 1980s, and then again in 1999, met the Chinese and the Tibetans, and gives a realistic picture of the situation in his new book, Tibet, Tibet, published by Harper Collins, and which is being launched today at the British Council centre here.
Tibet, Tibet is technically the second book on the mystery land by French. The first one was a biography of Francis Younghusband (written in the early 1990s), the British administrator who played the colonial game of establishing British interests in Tibet to thwart China and Russia in the “great colonial game”.
But French does not consider his new book is a sequel to the Younghusband biography. He considers Tibet, Tibet to be a separate venture, which captures his two-decades-long intellectual and spiritual engagement with Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism.
French has also written a book on Indian freedom struggle, called Liberty or Death in 1997, which recaptured in a brisk and lively narrative the course of Indian nationalism.
In an interview with Gulf News, French explained his Tibetan connection, and talked of his perceptions and perspective of the troubled question of Tibet.
Is Tibet, Tibet a sequel to the earlier biography of Francis Younghusband, the man who dragged Tibet into modern history?
Tibet, Tibet is a separate book. My book on Younghusband was more a study of British colonial policy, though it dealt with Tibet. The new book is exclusively about Tibet, and is a combination of history, memoir and travelogue.
What attracted you to Tibet? Is it the mystical aura that surrounds the place?
There was certainly the romantic element. I was 16 years old when I met the Dalai Lama, and I was captivated by his charismatic personality. And Tibetan Buddhism has influenced me a great deal. I have incorporated many of its principles in my belief system. But it did not remain at that. I went to Tibet in the 1980s, and I discovered the harsh reality about Tibet’s politics, the climate, the Chinese political domination and the plight of the Tibetan people.
When did you visit Tibet?
I went there for the first time in the 1980s. And I visited again in 1999. I went there from Hong Kong, and with the help of interpreters at various places, I talked to Tibetans, to the Chinese. One of the interpreters helped me with the Lhasa dialect. Another helped on the Chinese side.
Is it true that all Buddhist monasteries are closed?
The monasteries were closed soon after the Chinese invasion in 1959. But the monasteries still exist, though they are closely monitored by the Chinese officials and Chinese Communist Party workers.
But one of the sad things I learned in Tibet was the persecution of Lhasa Muslims. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, the Chinese destroyed many copies of the Holy Quran, the genealogy lists and the land records of the Lhasa Muslims. They also desecrated the burial grounds of the community.
What do the Chinese feel about Tibet today?
Most young Chinese are indifferent to the question of Tibet. But in recent years, there is a revived interest among the affluent young in southern China. They look to Tibet as a land of romance and mystery, and there are many popular novels being written about the lust and gore of imaginary “savage and noble Tibetans”!
I have also met an older generation of idealistic Communist Party workers who had spent long years in Tibet and tried to bring modernity and development to the remote land. But there are few of them today.
Is it not the case that in the late 1940s, Tibetans made claims over Sikkim, and believed in an extended Tibetan kingdom?
In the 1940s, the Tibetan administration was living in a fantasy land. They were unaware of the Chinese communist revolutions, nor did they have any connection with the Indian freedom movement. It was also the time when the 13th Dalai Lama, and the present Dalai Lama was as yet a child. The Tibetan administrators then made unrealistic claims.
What do you think of the interest shown by Western celebrities in Tibet?
I think it is part of the celebrity cult. Many of them are romantically drawn towards Tibet, but they are very naive when they talk of Tibetan freedom. They think in terms of a Hollywood film where they believe that Tibetan freedom can be won by Hollywood-style intervention.
Do you think that Tibetan freedom is a realistic option?
I think it is politically unrealistic, and those who believe in it are naive.
Is there a strong Chinese connection with Tibet?
Yes, very much so. During the 17th century, the Chinese emperor bestowed the rare robes of dragon claws only to the Emperor’s son, to the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and the prime minister of the Chinese kingdom.
It is the British, then, who tried to create the myth of Tibetan independence?
Certainly so. The Simla Convention of 1914, in which the British recognised Tibet, was not ratified by the Chinese. The McMahon Line drawn under the convention is an imaginary line, and it does not correspond to the international boundary.
Did you ever feel the need to convert to Tibetan Buddhism? Or was it something that you resisted?
I have internalised a lot of Tibetan Buddhist principles. But I never felt the need to convert. Tibetan Buddhism is not a declaratory religion. And when I see Westerners wearing all those religious beads, I do not feel the need for that kind of religion.