Dalai Lama sought refuge three years before uprising, claims biographer

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 March, 2009, 12:00am

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The Dalai Lama wanted to defect to India as early as three years before he ultimately fled there in 1959 after a failed armed rebellion against Chinese rule, a historian and veteran journalists in India say.

His plan to go to India in 1956 did not come about because then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused to grant him asylum. Sino-Indian relations at the time were strong and Nehru was unprepared to antagonise premier Zhou Enlai, with whom he had strong personal rapport.

'In the mid-1950s, India reverberated with slogans such as 'Hindi-Chini bhai bhai' meaning 'Indians and Chinese are brothers',' said Inder Malhotra, a former diplomatic correspondent. 'The two nations were so close during the period that former premier Zhou Enlai visited India three times in two years.

'As communist China tightened its grip on Tibet, New Delhi was kept informed by its consulate in Lhasa about ominous post-1950 developments there, but it adopted a hands-off policy.'

In 1956, the Maha Bodhi Society, a religious organisation dedicated to Buddhism, invited the Dalai Lama to attend celebrations in India marking the 2,500th birth anniversary of Lord Buddha.

Authorities in Beijing initially refused to give the Tibetan spiritual leader permission for the trip, but they eventually cleared it. It was arranged for the Dalai Lama to go to India under the 'guidance' of the Chinese ambassador. He was also told to boycott the celebrations if representatives from Taiwan were invited.

Zhou personally requested the Dalai Lama take with him a relic of the famous Chinese monk Xuan Zhuang, who laid the foundations for the spread of Buddhism when he returned to China in AD640. Zhou sent the relic - a piece of skull - to be part of a memorial to the monk in Nalanda, in Bihar, northern India.

After delivering the relic, the Dalai Lama, then 21, met 67-year-old Nehru and bluntly told him that he did not want to return to Tibet.

'I explained to Nehru that all my peaceful efforts had so far been failures,' the Dalai Lama would later tell biographer Michael Harris Goodman. ' But from India I could tell people all over the world what was happening in Tibet, and try to mobilise their moral support for us, and so perhaps bring a change in China's ruthless policy ... I told him I wanted to stay in India until we could win back our freedom by peaceful means.'

Nehru said he would do nothing to aid the Tibetan cause and advised him to go back.

According to Goodman, 'the interview ended with Nehru promising to discuss the matter with Zhou Enlai - a situation the Dalai Lama would rather have avoided'.

Zhou and the Dalai Lama met three times in India between November 1956 and January 1957. During the meetings, Zhou promised to ease the situation in Tibet and urged him to go back.

Malhotra said: 'In those days, Nehru was courting China.

'He was following a policy of 'see no evil, speak no evil' regarding Red China. So the Dalai Lama made no headway.'

Significantly, Zhou warned the Dalai Lama not to visit Kalimpong on his return, describing it as 'an international base by the United States and others to undermine Chinese influence in Tibet'.

But a defiant Dalai Lama spent a month in the north, in Kalimpong in Darjeeling, and Gangtok in Sikkim, home to thousands of Tibetan exiles, before making his way to Lhasa in February 1957 through the Nathu La pass.

Experts now believe Nehru had a change of heart three years later for three reasons: the emergence of territorial disputes straining Sino-India relations; escalating unrest in Tibet; and mounting pressure from the US and Britain for New Delhi to 'take on China headlong' over Tibet.