The author conceived ‘Imperial Games In Tibet: The Struggle for Statehood and Sovereignty’ eight years ago and delivered it over a period of five years, as I learnt from him during a morning walk. He is blessed with lucidity of style and brevity, a rather rare combination these days.

I read the book practically non-stop despite the names of places and persons in China, rather difficult for many non-Chinese readers to recall easily.

The central thesis is that Tibet deserved independence as a state and lost it because of the imperial games played by China, Britain, and Russia- Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union. The role played by independent India also comes under scrutiny.

The introduction is followed by 12 chapters, with the last termed appropriately an epilogue. The historical overview in the introduction recounts briefly the genesis of “The Great Game” between Russia and Britain played out in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tibet.

As far as Tibet was concerned London wanted to prevent Russia from gaining any undue influence there. Therefore, London invented ‘suzerainty’ of China over Tibet and later asserted that China had sovereignty over Tibet. Lord Curzon as Viceroy had a different approach, but London practically overruled him.

The author narrates the rather complex history of Tibet in chapter 1 titled “Tibet: Monastic Heights”. In Tibet they call their country “Bod”. The word ‘Tibet’ comes from ‘Tubbat’, a term used “by Tibet’s “neighbors -the Turks, Iranians, and Arabs”, possibly derived from ‘To Bo’ which can be translated as Upper Tibet.

The Chinese call it ‘Tufan’ and Indians call it ‘Tibbat’. The reader would appreciate the meticulous approach of the author.

The Tibetan calendar starts from127 BCE, the date of accession of the first king-Nyatri Tsempo. Buddhism was introduced by King Songtsen Gampo who attacked northern India and defeated King Arjuna of Kannauj.

Arjuna had succeeded Harshavardhana, a famous patron of Buddhism. During Harshavardhana’s reign the famous Chinese Buddhist scholar Xuanzang, known in India as Hiuen Tsang, had come as a pilgrim to India.

Arjuna was antipathetic to Buddhism and during his reign Wang Hiuen-Tse , a Buddhist scholar sent by the Chinese Emperor and a 31-member team were killed. That was the provocation for King Songtsen Gampo’s attack. We conclude that Buddhism reached Tibet in the 7th Century CE.

Tibet’s contact with China also occurred in the 7th Century CE by way of a matrimonial alliance. While Tibetans acknowledge that Buddhism came from India, we should note that the Chinese claim that it was a princess from China married into the Tibetan royal family who brought it to Tibet.

China claims to have had contacts with Tibet from time immemorial, even though proper evidence is lacking.

Chapter 7 “Britain and Tibet: Forcing Trade” starts with the skirmishes between British India and Bhutan, after the 1757 Battle of Plassey. Tibet claimed that Bhutan was its tributary state. Thus started the interface between British India and Tibet.

Governor General Warren Hastings sent his Scottish private secretary George Bogle to Tibet primarily to explore trade possibilities. He met the Panchen Lama who promised to transmit the proposal for trade to the emperor in Beijing as China had forbidden Tibet from dealing directly with foreign powers.

Panchen Lama went to meet the emperor, caught smallpox, and died in China. We do not know whether he got permission to do trade with British India.

Chapter 9 “An Independent Tibet” gives an in depth account of the 1913-1914 Simla Conference that begat the McMahon line, named after Lt. Col Henry McMahon who as foreign secretary led the delegation of British India.

The reader would note that despite Tibet’s determined efforts neither Britain nor China took seriously Tibet’s claim to Independence. If recognition by peers is an essential ingredient of Independence, Tibet was not independent even though the Chinese had been expelled in 1912 following the fall of the Manchu dynasty.

The most interesting part of the book is how independent India addressed the crisis in Tibet following the attack by the People’s Republic of China. There is a general impression that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru could have done more to help Tibet retain its independence. The author does not fully support that impression.

China moved its troops into Tibet in October 1950. The author draws attention to the internal discussions in Delhi and the famous letter dated 7th November 1950 from Deputy Prime Minister Patel to Nehru. Patel described China’s action as “little short of perfidy’ and pointed out that India had let down Tibet. Nehru wanted to sit down and discuss the matter with Patel. Unfortunately, Patel breathed his last on 15th December 1950 before they could meet.

Much has been made of this letter in the literature on Inda’s foreign policy in the Nehru years. The gist of the criticism of Nehru’s policy has been that he was a starry-eyed idealist whereas Patel was a sturdy realist with a firm grip on the ground realities.

Let us listen to Foreign Secretary Maharajakrishna Rasgotra who joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1949. He was present at the creation of the service. In his book, A Life in Diplomacy, he says that a good deal of what Nehru did about Tibet had to be kept secret, not even put on file, and if Patel had known all that Nehru was doing, “perhaps the latter’s famous letter” would not have been written.

Rasgotra believes that the letter was drafted by Sir Girija Shanker Bajpai, Secretary General of the Ministry of External Affairs. This reviewer was personally told by Sir Girija’s son, Ambassador Katyayani Shanker Bajpai, that his father drafted the letter.

It is well known that India did not support Tibet’s application to join the United Nations as a member-state. What is not generally known is that, as Rasgotra points out, Nehru had sent two special envoys to Tibet, the first immediately after India became independent, to persuade the members of the Kashag- the ruling council- to apply for United Nations membership.

The envoys spent weeks in Lhasa, to no avail. Nehru did not take into confidence India’s representative in Lhasa, an Englishman.

The key question is: What could India have done to save Tibet from China’s aggression? Ambassador Vinod C. Khanna says in commenting on this book, “Debates will continue about the manner in which Nehru handled the problem but the question remains: Would any other decision by him have prevented the takeover of Tibet by the very determined and powerful China?”

We all know that the Indian army defending Jammu & Kashmir was in no position to take on the People’s Liberation Army. There is a record somewhere, I cannot recall right now, that when asked by Jawaharlal Nehru, General Cariappa, the Army chief, made it clear that he could not spare more than two battalions.

Ambassador Sinha has made an irrefutably strong case for Tibet’s right to Independence. Let us hope that this book will be read in China and that at least in the republic of letters there will be a consensus for Tibet to regain full autonomy, if not Independence.

The imperial games at the cost of human rights and the right to self-determination of a people must be curbed. Who knows, one day Tibet might be independent.

Imperial Games In Tibet: The Struggle for Statehood and Sovereignty


Macmillan, New Delhi, 2024

287 pages, Rs.599

Ambassador K. P. Fabian served in IFS from 1964 to 2000. His latest book is ‘The Arab Spring That Was And Wasn’t’ commissioned by Indian Council Of World Affairs. Views expressed here are the writer's own.