Two members of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) summited dissents to its recent substantive report on India. One from Gary Bauer is understandable. Bauer currently serves as President of American Values, a conservative think tank, and was Washington Director of Christians United for Israel Action Fund. The Church of North India and the Indian Baptists have their task cut out for them in educating Bauer on the state of freedom of religious practice for Christians in India.

The note of dissent to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) recent substantive report on India by its Chairperson, Dr. Tenzin Dorjee, a US citizen of Tibetan origin, is at first sight, inexplicable. Pro government media in India has given it important play while thundering against the USCIRF and echoing the outraged response of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs: we see no violations, we hear of no violations and we do not deign to recognize factual instances of violations.

Dorjee’s averments ring hollow. Reputed US publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post have emphasized the fact that anti-minority positions enjoy state patronage in India today. If only Dorjee had read the numerous reports of the US based Human Rights Watch on the situation in India! The Tibetans place great reliance on Human Rights Watch reports on the situation in not just the Tibetan Autonomous region but also in areas of historical Tibet that have been merged with the adjoining Chinese provinces. The reports are highlighted in all of their international lobbying.

The perplexing note of dissent requires close scrutiny. There are at least three important strands of enquiry.

Firstly, Dorjee’s appointment as a Commissioner in 2016, and as of June 2019, as chair of the USCIRF itself, is problematic. The US Congress needs to formulate stricter criteria for these appointments. While Dorjee might be an authority on Tibetan issues, it is evident that he lacks a sound legal understanding of extant international law on religious freedom.

The appointment was made by Nancy Pelosi, the accomplished Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Her powerful support to the Tibetan cause is laudable. However, a well- networked representative of what is principally a solidarity movement may not necessarily have the wherewithal to understand the nuances of international law pertaining to religious freedom.

Secondly, it is clear that the note of dissent seeks to address an Indian official audience rather than an international and US audience reflecting the mandate of the USCIRF. Set up by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) the USCIRF “sought to elevate the fundamental human right of religious freedom as a central component of U.S. foreign policy.” Dorjee could have taken heed of the US State Department’s excellent annual reports on the human rights situation in India. He could have also taken into account the findings of various bipartisan Congressional visits to India in the recent past.

The Indian Government has been on the back foot for a few years in its relations with not just the Islamic world but a slew of democratic governments as well. In January 2015, then President Barack Obama while in New Delhi cautioned India not to stray from its constitutional commitment to allow people to freely “profess, practice and propagate” religion. March 2016 saw the House of Lords in London express concerns on religious freedom in India. In December 2016, US Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom David Saperstein echoed these concerns during a ten-day visit to India In December 2019, the Swedish King and the Foreign Minister on an official visit to India took up the issue of Kashmir and expressed their disquiet on human rights issues in India. The European Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief had also raised these concerns in 2017.

Others who made their concerns known – Turkey, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, a committee of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) , and most recently, Kuwait . The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has also expressed its concerns on religious freedoms in India.

Secondly, many in the diaspora-raised Tibetan leadership discount the importance of Tibetan Muslims – about three per cent of the Tibetan population and important enough to be recognized as Tibetans by the Chinese. Their significance in the past was magnified many times their number as they controlled the trade routes to Nepal, Kashmir, Kashgar and Xingjiang. Historically they had the best of relations with Tibetan Buddhists. Folklore has it that the Dalai Lamas sourced their meat from halal Tibetan Muslim butchers.

Before the fall of the Qing dynasty in China, in addition to the Chinese Ambans based in Lhasa, the Tibetan Muslim traders were the best readers of the tea leaves on Chinese policy across the trans- Himalayan region. The Tibetan Muslim trader enjoyed a unique position in East Turkestan, now known as Xinjiang, as well as for British India. Unlike the Hui Muslim, successive Tibetan and Chinese administrations did not discriminate against them in the same measure as they did with other ethnic minorities.

The small Tibetan and Uighur populations in Kashmir still live together in the Yarkand Serai in Srinagar even though the old Silk Route that brought them there petered out in the icy deserts of Ladakh after the 1962 Indo China war.

It is evident that the attitude of the Tibetan leadership in exile in India slowly sought to distance itself from Tibetan Muslims since the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). An important public inkling of this was when a representative of the Tibetan Muslim community in Kashmir was pointedly not invited to a major international meeting organized by a US-based organization, Citizen Power for China, assisted by the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy and Students for a Free Tibet in April 2016. The individual had held an important position in the Department of Information and International Affairs of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in India for over 15 years.

The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, predecessor of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, was a late comer to the Tibetan cause. It was only in July 1959 that it put in the public domain a resolution on Chinese atrocities in Tibet and the presence of armies on the borders. On the other hand, the then Socialist Party had, as early as November 1950, published a resolution that held that the Chinese invasion of Tibet was an act against all of Asia. However, the Indian Socialists soon marched into oblivion, and the Hindu Right took over.

It was only in September 2011 that an influential, conservative Hindu think tank, the Vivekananda Foundation, in New Delhi suggested a more aggressive foreign policy on Tibet. In 2014, when the then head of the Vivekananda Foundation became the Indian National Security Advisor in the Narendra Modi led government, among the guests at Prime Minister Modi’s inauguration was the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay.

In 2017, during the Doklam confrontation, India permitted Sangay to hoist the Tibetan flag on the shores of the Pangong Tso lake on the border with Tibet in Ladakh. The pinpricks to China continued. Also in 2017, the Dalai Lama only for the second time was allowed to visit Tawang in the north eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. China considers and calls it ‘Lower Tibet’ and has a longstanding claim to it.

However, the institutional Indian foreign policy establishment was able to apply the brakes. In 2015, it prevailed upon the BJP leadership to cancel the meeting of Mr. Amit Shah, then President of the BJP, with the Dalai Lama in May 2015.

In March 2018, South Block once again signaled to Chaoyang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry, that they had reestablished control on India’s China policy.

Two planned events – an interfaith prayer led by the Dalai Lama and a “Thank you, India” observance organized by the Central Tibetan Administration – were cancelled abruptly.

The Tibetan leadership since then has been humming, “Outsider, that’s me”.

Dorjee’s note of dissent must be seen as a Tibetan gambit to the Indian foreign policy establishment, that not just the Tibetan in India but the diaspora has its uses.

It is nobody’s case that the Chinese administration in Tibet is benign. But as AG Noorani, India’s acute diplomatic and legal commentator wrote in a seminal essay on Tibet in 2009: “Why not try old-style diplomacy in quiet earnest, away from the public glare and focused on specifics, eschewing the hideous jargon of our times?”

Ravi Nair heads the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre