New Delhi: No one has really noticed it happen. But the movement for an independent Tibet is more or less finished. It is not dead. Independence movements never die. But the Tibet movement has no chance of revival within this generation. Tibetans can take heart that a generation no longer means twenty-five years and could be ten or even as modest as seven years. But even this minimum period of waiting has to be endured if Tibetans set store by their movement. What’s suddenly gone wrong with the Tibet cause?

Ironically, when the world, and especially the United States and India, were helmed by liberal and moderate leaderships, the Tibet movement gained in strength. Barack Obama and Manmohan Singh had put China on the defensive with respect to Tibet. It is a misnomer to think that moderate and liberal leaderships encourage hard line on the part of totalitarian states. In some cases, they do, and force has to be met by force; but mostly moderation and liberalism provide minimum purchase for totalitarians to launch counter-strikes. Even totalitarian leaderships have to have domestic support to act tough abroad. Threats cannot be manufactured out of thin air and they cannot sustain for long even if it were possible to do so. That era ended with Hitler and Stalin and Mao.

Like all states, China also has a yawning gap between the leadership and the people. In a normal situation the Chinese are unlikely to be nationalistic and jingoistic. The outside powers that chiefly trigger adverse Chinese responses are the United States and Japan. India traditionally has not featured in the list of top three or four powers from which China apprehends significant threats. This being the situation, China could not effectively counter the Dalai Lama’s movement till its backers were moderate, liberal and likable. Anything requires a rigid surface for purchase. Try walking on air or water. But once the United States and India elected hard line leaders like Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, the Tibet movement started to weaken without anyone noticing it. It is truly surprising that the Dalai Lama did not read the warning signs early. The Dalai Lama’s best course would have been to convert sizeable sections of the Chinese population to the Tibet cause. But nationalistic demagogues in the United States and India have destroyed the Dalai Lama’s Chinese constituency. Nothing stays permanent to be sure. But any early revival of the Tibet movement could be safely ruled out.

The tragedy of all this from the Tibetan perspective is that the perceived threats to China from the United States and India are not quite real. China most fears US-India collusion but this is not going to happen now or ever. The US has vast and deep economic and trade linkages with China whose disruptions will hurt both sides. Equally, India will not collude with the United States against China. The Indian establishment does not trust the United States; the sentiment of Non-Alignment runs too deep in policy-making circles; and it makes no strategic sense to depend on a major power situated thousands of miles away to counter another major power right on the border. Moreover, India lacks the defence preparedness to confront China. This is an open secret.

All the same, a strange and grotesque thing has happened. The Narendra Modi government has been issuing open threats to China while all the three services face a situation of varying degrees of armament gaps. China has taken these threats seriously without bothering to check their substance. It has made the alleged collusive threat from the United States and India central to its response. This, in turn, has fed into Chinese nationalistic and jingoistic narratives, and its major casualty has been the Tibet movement. The United States has further fuelled the fire by formally designating China (alongside Russia) as its adversary; by playing the Taiwan card; and by deploying ABMs in South Korea which could render China vulnerable in the guise of countering North Korea.

Perhaps it is too late to reverse the situation. After Doklam, relations between India and China are not the same. Recovering goodwill and restoring confidence will take months and years. Sensibly for once, the Indian government as sent an advisory to all wings not to celebrate the flight of the Dalai Lama to India sixty year ago. Tibetans also should keep the celebrations low key to prolong their movement and ought privately to be thankful for the Indian government’s detachment from them. China rapidly is expanding its geopolitical footprint and will overstretch itself sooner or later. New opportunities will open then for the Tibet movement to reach its rightful conclusion.