Tibet Democracy Day: An Emblem Of Resilience

On September 2, 2023, Tibetans in exile worldwide will observe “Tibet Democracy Day”.


4 min read


Among the Tibetan community, this day is colloquially known as Mangsto Duchen (‘Mangsto’: democracy; ‘Duchen’: occasion). The significance of this day dates back to 1960, a year after China invaded Tibet. Under the guidance of the 14th Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetans initiated a comprehensive democratic process. In this process, an elected body was formulated, comprising 13 elected representatives known as ‘Deputies’. These members represented three exiled representatives each from the three provinces and one each from the four religious schools of Tibetan Buddhism. On September 2, 1960, these first representatives of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile took their oaths in Bodh Gaya. This marked the inauguration of the Tibetan democratic system. In 1963, the Dalai Lama enacted the Tibetan constitution based on the ideals of democracy and universal values. Finally, in 1975, Kashag, the apex body of the Central Tibetan Administration, declared September 2 as the founding day of Tibetan democracy.



Since the inception of the Tibet struggle, India has adopted a cautious approach. Under PM Nehru, India played indifferent to the Chinese invasion and limited itself to just humanitarian assistance. Sticking to its China appeasement policy, PM Nehru recognised PRC control over Tibet. This was done under the impression that China would appreciate this gesture. This bubble of naivety was busted after China invaded India in 1962. Since then, successive governments have adopted a similar approach regarding Tibet. India regards the Dalai Lama as a revered religious leader and an honoured guest, but it does not encourage political activities by Tibetans. Needless to say, India also doesn’t recognise the Tibetan government in exile. Many defence analysts have stated that India needs to recalibrate its Tibet policy vis-à-vis China. The real reason is that China never reciprocated these gestures and often regarded them as a sign of weakness.


After decades of appeasement, it seems India is finally shifting its gears towards Tibet in a subtle manner. This shift became evident in 2014. On May 26, 2014, Lobzang Sangay, the head of CTA (Central Tibetan Administration), was invited to PM Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. It was then continued in 2016, when the Dalai Lama was invited to official events, including the one at Rashtrapati Bhavan. The major turn in the Indian approach came during the Galwan clashes in 2020. For the first time, India deliberately used the Tibet card to unnerve China by deploying Tibetan soldiers on the LAC. Tibet re-emerged as the talk of the town when the Tibetan Special Frontier Force, aka Vikas battalion, carried out a special operation to occupy prominent hilltops south of the Pangong Tso on August 31, 2020. This demonstrated India’s intent to switch its passive Tibet policy in the face of Chinese belligerence.


China’s approach regarding Tibet is the same as it has for the world, one full of perfidy and tyranny. China indeed occupied the landmass of Tibet, but even after 63 years of its occupation, it failed to quell the spirit of Tibet. This germinated perpetual insecurities among the CCP. This could be understood by the fact that even a courtesy phone call from PM Modi on Dalai Lama’s birthday rattled China. After the Galwan clash, this insecurity escalated multiplefold. An expanding partnership between New Delhi and Washington also has a role to play in it. Historically, India and America have collaborated on the Tibet issue, which seems to be getting bolstered in the future as well. Recently, Washington passed the Tibet Policy and Support Act 2020 and also appointed a special coordinator on Tibet.


This outlined the official US policy to ensure the transparent appointment of the 15th Dalai Lama without interference from China. It was a major setback for the nefarious Chinese designs to launch a dummy communist Dalai Lama. Last year, Tibetan leader Penpa Tsering also visited Washington from April 25 to 29, 2022. Growing India-US collaboration, coupled with a proactive approach by both nations, appears to be a beacon of hope for Tibet’s democracy. China knows its vulnerability regarding Tibet and the growing consensus in favour of Tibet. To cover its vulnerability, China often stoops down to its cheap, sneaky tactics. Apart from its verbose statements, it also tried to carry out spy operations targeting the Dalai Lama in India. On December 29, 2022, Indian agencies nabbed a Chinese woman spy from Bodh Gaya. Such futile tactics just depict a growing desperation in China to undermine the Tibet freedom struggle.


A bully understands the language as strength and not appeasement. India should learn its lessons and needs to recalibrate its Tibet policy vis-à-vis China. Of course, it’s not an overnight venture to alter a decade-old policy of passive indifference. India needs to build up its approach bit by bit. First and foremost, India needs to garner support and collaborate with like-minded nations to bring Tibetan freedom into mainstream discourse. The India-US partnership will play a determining role on this front.

Instead of going for an all-out confrontation head-on, India needs to go for a salami-slicing approach. Instead of taking any overt measures, India needs to take small steps and normalise them. This includes the regular participation of Tibetan leaders in official events and constant communication between the government and the Dalai Lama. Outreach programmes for the Tibetan community and strengthening people-to-people contact have to be the cornerstones of this policy. Furthermore, this approach needs to be carried out patiently and incessantly. Like this, India has to overturn its approach and give China a taste of its own medicine.