The Tibetans recently took a major decision in their 60-year freedom struggle by re-adopting Independence as the alternate goal of the freedom struggle. The decision taken at the “Special Meeting” called by the Dalai Lama himself in Dharamsala, the capital of the exiled Tibetans situated in the North Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, was a historic one though its nuanced importance is little understood outside.
I was one among the minority participants both by being a youth and my political stand — demanding independence, as opposed to the majority who keep independence in their heart but speak for autonomy as professed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The 560 delegates from refugee camps all over India and 19 other countries along with more than 17,000 opinions from inside Tibet made this the biggest-ever Tibetan conclave to discuss the future of Tibet.
This year’s Tibetan people’s uprising and the violent clampdown by the Chinese government, and the failure of the dialogue process for the much hoped for “Genuine Autonomy” made the Tibetan leader call this gathering using his power as the head of state according to article 59 of the charter of the Tibetan government in exile.
The agenda before the meeting held between November 17 and 22 was to discuss “The Tibetan cause in the light of recent urgent crisis in Tibet and the international scenario.” It expectedly boiled down to the usual debate between Rangzen (Independence) and Umey Lam (Middle Path). And, as was expected, while reason was on the side of Rangzen, the majority was with the Middle Path. The Dalai Lama asked the Tibetans to discuss with open mind. This debate can be compared to the debate between the proponents of “Poorna Swaraj” and those who were satisfied with “Home Rule” during the Indian freedom struggle. As the date of the meeting drew nearer the Dalai Lama added more to the confusion by saying that he was losing trust in the Chinese government, though he still trusted the Chinese people.
The meeting was going to be a true test of Tibetan democracy, the only baby the Dalai Lama has been nurturing since 1960 after coming into exile. Would the Tibetan people go with their leader or vote for a solution with their own mind? Seeing a dead end I went to the Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile and the Prime Minister. I went to the private office of His Holiness also, to seek clarification of his stand, otherwise the meeting would end up giving another round of applause to His Holiness, and everything would go back to square one; His Holiness asking people to make the decision and the people placing the responsibility back on His Holiness.
As delegates started arriving in Dharamsala from different places, it was like a family gathering; my former teachers from school, classmates and familiar faces drove up the hill in jeeps, buses and some even arrived by air. More than the delegates, there were around representatives of 120 international media who kept themselves busy catching every other Tibetan in the twin streets of Mcleod Ganj for their opinions.
The 560 delegates were distributed into 15 groups after the first day’s inaugural ceremony. When we talked and listened to opinions that had been collected from refugee camps most of which are in India, I realized that their opinions had been collected before 25 October, when His Holiness made the first public statement saying that his trust in the Chinese government was becoming thinner and thinner. Since October 25 many political changes had taken place: not only the statements of His Holiness but the eighth round of talks with the Chinese government had failed; even before the delegates said anything in Dharamsala, the Chinese government declared at a press conference in Beijing their rejection of our memorandum for autonomy. This led to a battle in the media with the delegates proclaiming that Beijing must own up the responsibility for the failure of the talks.
After three days of discussion, when our group met on the fourth day to compile our resolutions, our group leader, a celebrated academician based in the US, called for a referendum. I put my foot down and strongly argued that we had not come here to compete on our political stands, but to collect opinions and seek practical recommendations with which the Tibetan struggle could move forward. Then one Middle Pather quoted the guidelines of the meeting requiring every resolution be passed either by unanimous judgement or vote by majority. Now the problem with democracy is that the minority is less than equal, and therefore has nowhere to go. A young girl from Switzerland said if the people were to decide by voting she would refuse to sign the resolution.
We may be talking methods of finding solutions but it was still a debate between Independence and Autonomy. I intervened to remind everybody that both the Prime Minister and the Speaker had said at the time of calling the meeting that there would be no voting or raising of hands to arrive at decision and added that the meeting could not go on like this if they insisted on a referendum, and the purpose for which the meeting had been convened would be defeated.
A serious crisis was at hand. During the tea break I went looking for the Prime Minister and the Speaker. Later we all agreed to send all the recommendations except the facile ones like making a golden throne for the Dalai Lama. When we came out I found out that most independence advocates had done the same trick and the Middle Pathers had allowed it.
When all opinions got collected, and the group leaders met to work out a final resolution, the true test of Tibetan democracy was at hand. The Dalai Lama had expressed distrust in the Chinese government but had not withdrawn his Middle Path policy. Therefore, the choice was still between the Dalai Lama’s Middle Path or Independence.
Then, exile government circulated the result of opinions secretly collected inside Tibet. Out of 17,393 people, 8,246 said they would follow whatever His Holiness says, while 5,209 voted for Independence, and 2,950 supported the Middle Path.
The Meeting resolved to follow the Middle Path as a public mandate but decided to suspend with immediate effect, sending delegations to China, as Beijing did not reciprocate appropriately to the dialogue process. If, in the short period they continued their policy of not responding to our efforts to find a negotiated solution, we would reinstate Independence as the goal of the Tibetan struggle and demand the right of Self Determination. And it would be us who would what “short period” would be.
The eight-point resolution received five standing ovations and brought tears in the eyes of many delegates as we rose to sing the Tibetan National Anthem, we felt once again reunited for one common cause under one leadership. Whatever we spoke for was all for the freedom of Tibet and our main concern was for our brethren inside Tibet who are living under Chinese occupation. The exile government and the people will now be more active in our non-violent struggle and stop being conciliatory. We will now be more confrontational and aggressive, but we are unanimous in our resolve in maintaining our struggle non-violent.
As the meeting came to an end the Prime Minister Prof Samdhong Rinpoche delivering a unique thank-you speech said: “The Chinese government this week tried to put pressure on India to stop this meeting, and the Indian government pretended as if they didn’t hear it. We want to express our deep gratitude to the people and Government of India.”