By Bhavna Singh
It would be China’s worst nightmare come true if two of its most explosive domestic trouble-makers were to turn into a united menace. The Tibetans and the Uyghurs have for long battled against the repressive policies of the state in their struggle for autonomy and cultural preservation, albeit separately. In a rather exceptional fit of courage, the Indian government issued a visa to Isa Dolkun, which would have allowed the leaders of these two movements to meet on Indian soil – only to withdraw it two days later in an even more embarrassing turn of events. India definitely wanted to project that it will not kowtow to the rules set by other international players and would protect its national interests at all costs. However, India appears to have played the Uyghur card quite prematurely and to its disadvantage.
For one, neither the Uyghurs nor the Tibetans have much in common in their struggle against the Chinese state. In conversations with the Tibetan leadership-in-exile (2011), it was obvious that they wanted to differentiate their non-violent struggle from the violent struggle of the Uyghurs, since that is their raison d’être for international recognition and support, which makes it difficult to reach common ground between the two. It is not sure whether the Tibetan leadership has revised its stance in recent times as without the non-violent argument its own rationale and legacy could come to be questioned. So this could merely end up as a figurative gesture suggesting common talks between the two parties instead of something substantive actually materialising out of it. Unless of course the Uyghurs have decided to learn a lesson in democracy and peace from the Tibetans and turn their violent protests into a non-violent struggle. The sad part for India is that China already “knows” this.
Secondly, the fact that China has already managed to register Isa Dolkun as a terrorist on the UN-Interpol list will only make it easier for China to make a case that India is supporting ‘anti-China’ activities from its soil. By which means it could legitimately put on hold all the diplomatic overtures that have so far been made: on the border row as well as in the military and technological fields. Third, the recent Sino-Indian bonhomie on the economic front, which had more to India’s advantage since China was offering to complete various projects at a more competitive price than offered by most Western countries, would be poorly affected by the turn of the events. India should deeply consider the factor that the West is no longer sharing technologies to the extent it was doing previously, making China the better option, though more disturbing in the face of the US$ 48.68 billion trade deficit that India has with China. India should therefore make some efforts to the contrary or at least woo the West for better investment.
Moreover, the entire discourse surrounding the granting of the visa was itself completely flawed. While some officials were quick to declare that it was a tit-for-tat for China’s “stonewall” to declare Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, the visa had actually been granted much prior to that incident. The Indian establishment could have easily let the Uyhgur leader pass if not for the ‘upping the ante’ argument. Again, the withdrawal of the visa was cited for completely meek reasons: “That India was not aware of Isa Dolkun’s status as a terrorist on the Interpol.” This reason could have easily been brought to the front and face-saving measures implemented once the deed had actually been done. Other reasons that cvould have been cited: it was simply for “academic or democratic concerns” or it was meant to “help the Chinese state by making the Uyghur struggle less violent”- just the same kind of cover-up that the Chinese tell India about the South China Sea and various other things they do.
In addition, the Indian establishment should have really pondered what could have been the outcome of this kind of coalescence between the Dalai Lama and the Uyghur leaders. China has often objected (previously) to the meeting of these two parties (Uyghur and Tibetan leaders) elsewhere around the globe as well as in the mainland, so it is no big deal if India is doing the same. China’s response to the Indian gesture would have obviously depended on to what extent it perceived this move as a ‘provocation’, which was not much since the issue did not even warrant local coverage in the Chinese media, or perhaps the Chinese knew that India would not take the risk. It is only hoped that the Indian establishment deliberates more cautiously before getting into any further foot-in-mouth situations and learn some tricks in deception and the art of “Chinese balderdash” to protect its own national interests.
* Bhavna Singh
PhD candidate, Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU
Email: [email protected]