By Aashish Khullar
Amidst the somber realities of Tibet and its people, a Harvard study group grapples with the politics of reincarnation, a clash of world orders, elections in exile, and the importance of identity.
Have you heard of Tibet? Probably yes. But can you find it on the world map? Probably not.
Herein lies a central tenet of today’s global political economy, underpinning the incumbent world order. It delves into a question far beyond its immediate context. The world has many more nations than there are nation states. Both sovereignty of states and self-determination of peoples are included in the UN charter.
Not only does the fate of the Tibetan people depend on how this irony evolves, so does that of many around the world. The Tibetans want to be Tibetans, but the Chinese government wants them to be Chinese.
The script is not new. Governments assert control. People long to preserve their autonomy. Can there be a happy ‘in-between’?
The peer-organized “Tibet Study Group” at Harvard Kennedy School wrestled with this and more. For me, it was the find of the spring semester of 2023. It explored the in-between, that delicate space where cultural identities intersect with power dynamics. The discussions traversed a fascinating tapestry interwoven by history, politics, spirituality, rebirth, and even game theory. It started with a cultural and political history, continued into the intricacies of contemporary issues, and finally, tried to imagine the future. And to add to it all, there were several fascinating anecdotes about the Dalai Lama himself.
Taught by the first and now former Prime Minister of Tibet in exile, Lobsang Sangay, the group was a rather refreshing experience. Professor Lobsang’s approachable vibe, candor, and command over the subject make for a thrilling ride. Moreover, his enthusiasm to engage and create dialogue is unmatched.
At its core, the discussions dive into the paradox of self-determination and sovereign assertion. In a world order dominated by nation states, it is a contest between fundamental ideas about how to organize society. We are reminded that the world existed before the invention of nation states. And in this world, as with today, people lived in communities, traded across the globe, advanced knowledge, addressed disease, made social progress, gossiped, and even fought with each other.
This begs the question, do modern nation states have the magnanimity to allow and enable the flourishing of more ancient ways of life while respecting universal human values? In this case, can “socialism with Chinese characteristics” hold space for Tibetan society to organize and evolve around its spiritual beliefs?
This tussle between self-determination and sovereign assertion, and thus, autonomy and assimilation, spans the use of language, access to natural resources, ways of practicing Buddhism, and even controversy on when, where and if the Dalai Lama will be reborn.
The issue of reincarnation is one of the most fascinating and unique basis for a political disagreement anywhere. For generations, the person bearing the title of the Dalai Lama has served as the political and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. Since the establishment of a democratic government in exile in 2011, the current and 14th Dalai Lama has relinquished his political office yet remains the spiritual leader. Every Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of the previous one, and must be found by a formally constituted search committee of followers based on cues offered by them before their rebirth.
This has been the process since the first Dalai Lama. The Chinese government now disagrees, offering its version of the process centered on names picked from a golden urn. The crux of the matter is simple. The Tibetans want to continue to self-organize and follow the process, as has been done for generations, but the Chinese government wishes to select someone to inoculate more loyalty to them. Whenever the time comes, it will be a political tussle creating larger geopolitical consequences. Countries will deliberate over which Dalai Lama to recognise. The US Congress already has a policy on this.
Another absolutely intriguing learning has been that of understanding a ‘democracy in exile’: a government ruling while not inhabiting its land, and its citizens spread across the world. The idea seems confusing, exciting, peculiar, and cool at the same time. I had to check and make sure I was reading the correct material. It is indeed true. The Tibetan government in exile does exist. It holds elections, and its candidates engage in debate. Citizens across the world, including those here in Cambridge, cast votes and pay taxes. The parliament functions, ministers hold ranks, and government employees run schools. Yet they have no state.
While the physical offices of the government are in Dharamshala, India, where the Dalai Lama also lives, it engages with citizens across the world. Ironically enough, as per its charter, this government will cease to exist once a settlement of autonomy is reached between the Tibetan people and the government of China.
Autonomy is not the same as separatism. The official stand of the Tibetans (through the Dalai Lama and the government in exile) seeks what they call ‘genuine autonomy’ within the current borders of China, and not a separate sovereign independent nation state.
Central to the relatable urge to live freely and practice their way of life is the strength of the Tibetan identity and its spiritual beliefs. In my understanding, the Tibetan ethic is humble yet proud… peaceful yet firm. Add to this their reverence for the Dalai Lama- and you have an ancient culture of resilient people. Their cause does not seek conflict but asks for harmony. Prof. Lobsang’s and the Tibetans’ position openly calls China a great civilisation, asserts that the Chinese people are their peers, and highlights that the disagreement lies with specific policies of the Chinese Communist Party. This nuance, grace and calm are rare and refreshing in today’s increasingly polarized politics. Many around the world and across political spectrums have a lot to learn from this politics of composure, compromise, compassion, and strength.
The study group met every few weeks and included light reading. While the format and the pedagogical approach were traditional, at no point did the engagement feel even mildly dull. Given the professor’s background, one could justifiably imagine that the study group would have quickly morphed into a Tibet advocacy session, but this is furthest from the truth. The group was open to all, and the readings systematically included dedicated sections on the ‘Chinese perspective,’ the ‘Tibetans perspective,’ and ‘other sources.’ The Chinese perspective was represented by either formal documents of the Chinese government or national news outlets.
The group became so popular that students, including those from China, requested the addition of office hours. A study visit to Dharamshala and a meeting with the Dalai Lama were also planned for those who were interested. Many went and had an enriching experience.
At the same time, in the spirit of critique, as with any undertaking, there are areas of improvement. Presentation time could be reduced, and discussion time increased. More active links with other such movements around the world could be made to provide a more global context. And finally, a guest speaker more aligned with the Chinese government could be invited. Who knows- this might just create momentum for progress?
Finally, in striving for agency over its way of life, this ‘nation denied’ is asking big questions with even bigger implications. It is not just about how we organize ourselves, but also about how we want to live. This deserves our attention and our most profound introspection.
(Views expressed are his own)
The author is a graduate of the MC/MPA program at Harvard Kennedy School, where he was also an Edward S. Mason fellow. He previously worked in the UN ecosystem for 10 years. His work focused on intergovernmental negotiations, interagency coordination, and stakeholder engagement, specifically on sustainable development, peace and security, and emerging issues. He is currently a fellow at the Royal Society of the Arts in the UK.