Books

From a Tibetan Adventurer, a Tale of Bravado and Betrayal

In this review essay, timed for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Tibetan Autonomous Region on September 1, 1965, Manoj Joshi looks at the recent history of Tibet and China, and the role India and US played from the sidelines

Cover of 'The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong'. Source: Amazon

Gyalo Thondup and Anne F Thurston,
The Noodlemaker of Kalimpong: The Untold Story of My Struggle for Tibet
Random House, 2015

Gyalo Thondup has had an extraordinary life. He was born in 1929 to a well-off family in the Amdo region of Greater Tibet — now subsumed in part by the Qinghai province of China — a region so poor and rugged that even commodities like soap and candles were a rarity. But he was raised to become the political adviser to the Dalai Lama, his younger brother —  Lhamo Thondup — born in 1935.

Educated in China and married to the daughter of a Kuomintang general, he is fluent in Chinese, Tibetan and English and was the Dalai Lama’s  adviser and interlocutor with foreign leaders like Chiang Kai-shek, Jawaharlal Nehru, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. His journey from his village in Amdo has taken him to Lhasa, India, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States and then back to the compound of the house he lives in today in Kalimpong where he earns his living by making noodles. That is how the remarkable memoir he has written — The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong — came to be named. However, the title of his book gives the unsuspecting reader no inkling about its actual contents.

The Chinese conquest of Tibet was a calamity for the Tibetans — and a disaster for India. This book is  a sad chronicle of the tragedy that followed the Chinese defeat of the Tibetan army in 1950 and the signing of the 17 Point Agreement affirming Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Though the agreement was to enable Tibet to live as an autonomous region, the Chinese took physical control of the country through an invasion in  1951, divided it by hiving off its eastern portion and renaming it the Tibet Autonomous Region of China in 1965. Needless to say, the region has been autonomous only in name.

Tibetan text of the Seventenn-Point Plan signed in 1951

Tibetan text of the Seventenn-Point Plan signed in 1951

In 1959, Chinese misrule led to a major uprising and the Dalai Lama took political asylum in India along with tens of thousands of Tibetans. Chinese repression intensified, culminating in the holocaust of the Cultural Revolution when all its prominent monasteries were sacked and its religious and cultural artefacts destroyed or damaged.

The relations between China and Tibet are a matter of controversy. The People’s Republic of China insists on affirming the imperial borders of the Manchu or Yuan era, but ties in that era were more complex and fluid. There was no “China” and both these were, in fact, foreign empires who ruled over China. However, what matters now is that Tibet is under the firm control of the PRC and there is little chance in the near term that this situation will change. The only change that can come is through negotiation and dialogue and better awareness in China of how shoddily they have treated their minority peoples and culture. This is a lesson that Gyalo learnt the hard way, going through the process of associating with the CIA and Indian intelligence agencies to stoke an insurgency against Chinese rule, failing and thereafter seeking to achieve Tibetan autonomy through dialogue.

The Chinese efforts to transform the hearts and minds of the Tibetans has been a spectacular failure and its rule has been characterised by repeated uprisings — 1959, 1969,  1987, 2008. The protests of  Tibetans that shook China on the eve of the Olympics in 2008 were significant in that not only did they take place in the TAR, but in areas of Tibet like Amdo and Kham which had been assimilated into Chinese provinces and where the Tibetans were in a minority. People who have travelled to Tibet have noted the deep veneration with which they hold the Dalai Lama even now and retain deep feelings for autonomy and cultural freedom.

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India and Tibet are joined at the hip geographically. Their cultural ties are even deeper. Tibet is the abode of Shiva, the greatest god in the Indian pantheon; it is also the repository of a vast trove of Buddhist culture that once prevailed over India and was driven out by Brahminism. No Indian general, barring the unfortunate Zorawar Singh attempted to conquer the forbidding plateau, and, for that matter, none of the numerous invaders that India suffered came through Tibet. There was trade across the mountain passes between India and Tibet; indeed, the shortest distance between Lhasa and the sea was to the port of Kolkata, through which its major supplies were routed till the war of 1962. It is for these reasons that India has been extraordinarily generous and hospitable to the Tibetan refugees and the Dalai Lama. A Tibetan government-in-exile functions from Dharamsala which, however, treads carefully so as not to undermine India’s claim that it does not permit Tibetans to carry out political activities in India.

For a century or so, the British colonialists who drew the boundaries of political India sought assiduously to maintain Tibet as an autonomous region — recognising what they said was Chinese “suzerainty”, rather than sovereignty over Tibet. (It was only in 2008 that Britain abandoned  “suzerainty” and accepted Chinese “sovereignty” over Tibet)  But once a strong Chinese entity re-established its control over the country, such distinctions vanished and Beijing established its control over the region with the iron hand of the People’s Liberation Army. And the Indian political entity now faced a strong central power on its northern borders.

General Cariappa, C-in-C, Indian Army, greets Pandit Nehru at Plaam Aerodrome on the Prime Minister’s return from his foreign tour on November 15, 1949. Credit: Photo Division

General Cariappa, C-in-C, Indian Army, greets Pandit Nehru at Plaam Aerodrome on the Prime Minister’s return from his foreign tour on November 15, 1949. Credit: Photo Division

In keeping with its national interests, India sought to help the Tibetans. A query by Prime Minister Nehru to the Army chief, K M Cariappa about the feasibility of military assistance was met with a firm “no”. But New Delhi did manage to provide some material assistance to the Tibetans resisting the PLA in Kham. Don’t forget, in those days, access to Tibet was far easier through Kolkata and the passes of Sikkim, than from any part of China. Given the size of the Indian army and its commitments in Kashmir, there was no question of taking on the battle-hardened PLA. In a 1954 treaty, India surrendered its historical rights in Tibet, accepted China’s occupation  by recognizing its sovereignty over Tibet without getting any  commitments from Beijing over the Indo-Tibet border, naively believing that “friendship” between two countries would take care of all the problems.

Separately, the United States, which had sought to prevent the victory of the PLA in China and fought it in Korea, sought to open a new front against China through Tibet. The CIA’s predecessor, the OSS, had already made a connection in Lhasa, but now, with the victory of the PLA in the Chinese civil war, they were looking for other ways to hit China. Contact was established through the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, Thubten Norbu and simultaneously, the Kolkata consulate, through its vice-consul, a CIA officer, began to develop contacts with the Tibetan aristocracy via Sikkim, then an Indian protectorate. The story is told in considerable detail in Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison’s The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet and by one of the CIA officers, John Kenneth Knaus, in Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival.

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Gyalo became the primary conduit of the CIA effort in Tibet, as well as an important interlocutor with India. Conboy and Morrison’s account, as well as that of Knaus’s, bring out the pathetic quality of that effort. Before 1962, India was complicit by permitting overflights of aircraft based in East Pakistan, dropping teams of Tibetans into their homeland. After the 1962 war, India got more actively involved and created Establishment 22, which supported the effort through a Tibetan group in Mustang, Nepal. The effort had little or no impact on China, if anything, it only served to deepen Beijing’s suspicions of India. However, following the election of 1968, the Americans shifted course as Kissinger sought to turn the Soviet Union’s flanks by befriending China. So, in 1969, the US abruptly stopped their Tibetan programme and the effort slowly unraveled.

Establishment 22 was used by India for some operations in Tibet and later against Pakistani forces in the Bangladesh war. It still exists in a truncated form as the Special Frontier Force.

Gyalo’s account is suffused with a sense of guilt. Had the Tibetans not sought Indian and American assistance, would the enormous suffering they subsequently faced at the hands of the Chinese been lessened? There is also a sense of bitterness  that after initially agreeing to give the Dalai Lama asylum in India in 1956, Nehru reneged,  taken in by Zhou Enlai who had dashed to India fearing such an eventuality. Naturally, there is no good answer to that. What has happened, has happened. And its unlikely that Mao, whose policies killed tens of millions of his own countrymen would have been any kinder towards Tibet.

What is interesting from the Indian viewpoint are some of the revelations Gyalo makes. He points to divisions in India’s bureaucracy, noting that he was  advised by Foreign Secretary T N Kaul to talk to the Soviets for help after the Americans dropped out, while the head of RAW, R N Kao was appalled by the suggestion. There is a ring of truth in this because through the Cold War and all the ups and downs in India’s relations with the US, the intelligence services of the two countries maintained a cordial and sometimes close relationship. He also speaks of the Indian effort to sabotage any effort on the part of the Tibetans to make a deal with China in the early 1980s. These were the same people who prevented a possible border settlement between India and China at the time.

There is also an interesting account detailing how Indian intelligence may have been involved in a plot to change the succession in Bhutan — which was foiled by the  premature death of King Jigme Dorji in 1972. A Tibetan consort of the old king, Ashi Yangkyi, was allegedly involved in the plot. Gyalo, who was then living in Hong Kong, was accused of masterminding the conspiracy. When he rushed back to India and sought to set the record straight through a press conference, he was strenuously opposed by Indian intelligence officials. In 1974, it may be recalled, skilfully manipulating a popular movement against the Chogyal of Sikkim, RAW succeeded in securing the accession of that protectorate into the Union of India.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Gyalo’s account relates to his dealing with top Chinese officials. In 1979, almost coincidentally with the visit of Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to China, Gyalo visited China again, this time for a meeting with China’s pragmatic new supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.  It was during this visit that Deng told Gyalo that “except for independence, everything is negotiable,” an offer which evokes Narasimha Rao’s promise to the Kashmiris, that when it came to  autonomy, “the sky is the limit.”

Sadly, that has not happened, either in Tibet, or in Kashmir. Incidentally, that was the period in which Deng offered India a border package which would essentially freeze the Line of Actual Control. Unfortunately, the Cold Warriors in New Delhi rejected the proposal which now stands withdrawn.

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Tibetan negotiations with the Chinese went on in the early 1980s, first through Hu Yaobang, the new General Secretary of the CPC, later with Yan Mingfu, various proposals were discussed, including a return of the Dalai Lama, but eventually the talks collapsed in 1989 when China itself made a radical change of course following the Tiananmen events. Gyalo also describes an encounter with Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, who was in charge of Tibet after Yan Mingfu was sacked.

Gyalo’s voice and his views are not being heard for the first time. He has, in the past, been interviewed by researchers writing on the events of the time. A memoir is also a place to set the record straight, as Gyalo does, with regard to charges that he embezzled money from the Mustang operation, or, earlier, from the bullion that the Dalai Lama brought with him from Tibet.

Age plays tricks with memories, especially when remembering frenetic events which took place 50 or 60 years ago. Indeed, in an afterword, his own co-writer, Anne Thurston, questions several portions of the narrative. In  p. 277 he writes of a “Mr Nair” the head of the “research division” of RAW  who urged him not to talk to the Chinese in 1988. But if it’s Sankaran Nair who he is talking about, he is mistaken. Nair headed RAW for a brief period in 1977 had retired subsequently and was High Commissioner to Singapore at the time of the purported conversation. But memoirs are memoirs which must be looked at warts and all.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

Credit for featured image of Potala Palace: Michael Rehfeldt/Flickr CC BY 2.0