The Tibetans immediately ran into the heavy UN bureaucracy. The first objection was that Tibet was not a member of the UN. Worse, the UN wanted to refuse the message because it had originated from outside the country of the appellant.13 According to the UN rules, an appeal could not be received unless it originated from the country of the appellant. India, UK or the United States knew very well that for technical reasons,14 all official documents/communiqués from the Tibetan Government had always been issued from Kalimpong in the past. This time the big powers remained quiet.
On November 15, it was the tiny state of El Salvador which requested the UN Secretary General to list the Tibetan appeal on the Agenda of the General Assembly.
But very few states15 were ready to stand by their professed ideals and defend the rights of small peace-loving, oppressed nations. Worse was to follow.
The Chinese Revolution in 1911, which dethroned the last Manchu Emperor, snapped the last of the sentimental and religious bonds between China and Tibet. Tibet thereafter depended entirely on her isolation, and occasionally on the support of the British in India for her protection.
Meanwhile, on November 12, Shakabpa declared in an interview in Kalimpong: “I have received intimation from Lhasa about the Tibetan Government’s appeal to the UN.” And when asked, “Does Tibet seek independence?” he prudently answered that:
“Tibet is a peaceful and religious state. China attacked us from four or five directions while negotiations were going on regarding relations between Tibet and China. Our appeal to the UN is that the Chinese forces be made to withdraw to the Sino-Tibetan boundary demarcated by the river Drichu.16 The second question does not arise at present since we have to settle the first question of withdrawal of the Chinese forces from Tibetan territory.”17
One can often note the Tibetan reluctance to state their objectives in a direct manner. Did the Tibetan government dream that the Chinese, at that point in time, would withdraw and begin negotiations?
The Indian Reaction
On November 14, The Hindu stated:
“According to informed quarters here, India is expected to extend her general support to Tibet’s case before the Security Council.
The UK and the US, according to diplomatic quarters here, are also expected to support the Tibetan appeal.”18
Two days later in New Delhi, The Hindu announced: “Mr. N. Gopalaswami Ayyengar, India’s Railway Minister, said today that India would support before the UN, Tibet’s case against China.”19
In Lhasa on November 17, in the midst of preparations for the proposed discussion of the Tibetan issue in the UN, the Gods spoke through the Nechung State Oracle in Lhasa: “Make him King”. Thus Tenzin Gyatso was enthroned and became the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
Our appeal to the UN is that the Chinese forces be made to withdraw to the Sino-Tibetan boundary demarcated by the river Drichu.
The Tibetan Foreign Office nominated a delegation including Surkhang, Ngawang Gyaltsen and Trunik Chhenpo Chhombay to plead the Tibetan cause at the UN. It is not clear what happened to the delegation, but they never reached the seat of the UN. If they had, it would have certainly made a difference, but no one was interested in helping the Tibetan delegates reach New York!20 Certainly not Nehru, nor His Majesty’s Government, for this might have brought an unwanted clarity into the convenient confusion.21
The British Position
The great powers, in particular the United Kingdom and India, were in a different dilemma. It had always been advantageous for the British to keep the legal position on Tibet as vague as possible, but times were changing.
With the UN becoming an important world body, new rules were framed and the old vague colonial definitions had to be fixed in black and white: either a state was independent or it was not. No state could claim to be simultaneously under the suzerainty or vassalage of another state and yet be fully autonomous.
According to the UN rules, only a ‘state’ could make an appeal to the General Assembly. Was Tibet a ‘state’ for the British Government?
Surprisingly, after consulting legal experts His Majesty’s Government accepted the fact that Tibet was a separate state. However, the Foreign Office wanted to further study the meaning of ‘suzerainty’. The legal cell of the Foreign Office finally concluded that two factors had to be taken into consideration:
- Whether the treaties concluded by a suzerain state were ipso facto concluded for the vassal; and
- Whether war of a suzerain was ipso facto war of the vassal.
On both counts, it was obvious to the British Foreign Office that Tibet was an independent state.
The British Representative in the UN was requested not to mention the legal position taken by the British Government. The Representative’s brief was that though they had to be prepared to accept that Tibet is a separate state in case the matter came to the General Assembly, the British strongly favoured a mild action. For London the question remained: what will India’s position be?
Till mid-November the position of the Government of India was clear: India would not sponsor the appeal but would support it if raised by any other nation. Then India’s position began to vacillate.
Here we should remember that Nehru must have had the Kashmir issue in his mind; he had become quite disillusioned about the effectiveness of the UN. He wrote: