Why you should care
At just 23, he won over India’s prime minister, securing himself and his people a measure of stability.
The Dalai Lama was just 23 when he was forced to flee his home country, accompanied by a small entourage and eventually followed by thousands of Tibetan refugees. He had been formally recognized as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama at age 4 but had assumed his political duties as a teenager. He was already a leader, and as he and his entourage of 80 traveled from the Lhasa plateau to the Indian border at Chutangmu, someone — probably Indian officers — snapped a color photograph of the young Dalai Lama, his brown boots firmly in stirrups, while a knot of men doff their hats and lower their heads in respect.
He had been forced to flee the Norbulingka, his summer palace, in disguise two weeks earlier, shortly before the Chinese military fired hundreds of artillery shells into the building and declared Tibet an autonomous region of China. Crossing over to the Indian side on March 31, 1959, he was flown to the colonial-era Indian hill station of Mussoorie. Here, the 23-year-old Tibetan reincarnate would meet the 69-year-old Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on April 24, 1959 — and secure a future for his fleeing people.
The minutes of that meeting, preserved in the papers of former Indian Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt, show an inversion of roles as we see them today: The Dalai Lama was the young neophyte and Nehru the elder statesman. In a meeting lasting over three hours, the two spoke through an Indian government translator as there had not been time for a translator to come from the Tibetan side, and His Holiness knew only a smattering of Hindi, and no English.
Yet, the young monk had already displayed canniness in political affairs, deftly dealing with Chinese authorities. Letters he wrote to Chinese government representatives in Tibet immediately prior to his escape were intentionally misleading, he later admitted to Nehru, painting himself as a victim of reactionaries and promising to secretly work with China. Chinese authorities used the letters to claim that the Dalai Lama had been abducted by India and statements he made upon arrival condemning China’s actions had been dictated by Indians.
After the meeting, Nehru spoke to the Indian Parliament on April 27. “Even though he is young,” Nehru said, referring to the Dalai Lama, “I could not easily imagine that he could be coerced into doing something he did not wish.”
For Nehru, the situation with China was a balancing act. India saw China as one of the newly independent nations with whom it had a struggle against imperialism in common. India was one of the first nations to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1950, and officially recognized Tibet as part of China. Nehru had no interest in going to war. But the Dalai Lama’s reports of indiscriminate killings within Tibet and the “sham autonomy” the region had been afforded aroused his sympathy, if not a promise of military aid. “Ultimately if Tibet’s independence is to be achieved,” Nehru told the young Buddhist, “it will be due to its own people’s courage and ability to stand up to suffering.”
Nehru wasn’t alone in refusing to act, and he knew it. In 2019, the Dalai Lama recalled Nehru explaining that the U.S., preoccupied with the Korean Peninsula at the time, wouldn’t risk a fight with China to help Tibet. And his objections weren’t just ideological: India’s military capabilities weren’t up to war with China, particularly not over regional concerns. But eventually, Tibet would play a major role in the monthlong India-China war of 1962, in which China triumphed. But Nehru dissuaded the Tibetans from pushing their cause at the U.N., recognized Chinese sovereignty and urged the Dalai Lama to enter talks with the Chinese.
In the end, the Dalai Lama’s flight and India’s decision to grant him asylum — albeit not in a legal sense — gets to the heart of two nation-building processes in Asia.
Nehru was not offering an intervention. He could and did, however, offer refuge. What came from the Dalai Lama’s meetings with Indian officials, says Amitabh Mathur, former adviser on Tibet affairs to the government of India, was “to keep the civilizational struggle alive, keep their identity alive.” Large tracts of land were given to Tibetans to establish settlements, complete with monastic institutions and schools, to allow them to preserve the religious and cultural foundations of their society. Care was taken that the settlements be in a welcoming climate for mountain-raised Tibetans.
Today, the status of Tibetans in India is nuanced. They are not legally Indian citizens but since 2014, can vote in the country’s elections. They also elect a Tibetan parliament in exile, based out of Dharamshala, which performs administrative functions including taxes and running censuses and places like schools.
In the end, the Dalai Lama’s flight and India’s decision to grant him asylum — albeit not in a legal sense — gets to the heart of two nation-building processes in Asia. India and China are still scrapping over borders, as evidenced by the standoff over a road in Doklam less than two years ago. And China is still violently asserting authority over its borderlands, like Xinjiang, where a recent crackdown on the Uighur minority has raised an international alarm.
Tibetans have not been allowed to return to their territory, but when Nehru let them stay and build a community in India, he furthered their cause. As Nehru would state in the meeting, “the Dalai Lama being in India keeps alive the question of Tibet in the minds of the world.”