Geopoltical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination (South Asia ed. Tibet: A Victim of Geopolitics)
Jabin T Jacob ·       

This thin volume is far more than just about Tibet. It is a masterful exposition of Tibet’s place in international relations using the lens of postcolonialism. Indeed, Anand opens by declaring his intent to challenge the “parochial character of IR” through the engagement between critical IR theories and postcolonialism (p.xiii). A new “post-colonial international relations theory” is the author’s stated aim and it is to achieve this goal, that he uses the example of Tibet, of its exoticization in IR. ‘Exotica Tibet’ – the author’s term for exoticized representations of Tibet originating in the West – is not just about how Tibet is represented but just as importantly about the effect that such representation has had on the identity of the represented.

After a brilliant first chapter that exposes the shortcomings of contemporary IR theory with respect to understanding the non-Western world, the author does a stand-out job in the following chapter of critically examining Western representations of Tibet (the ‘poetics’ of Exotica Tibet). From Hilton to Younghusband to Kipling and from Waddell’s The Buddhism of Tibet or Lamaism to the enduring Western fascination with The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Anand highlights the dominant themes of Western interaction with Tibet and how it has ordered as well as disrupted – just as the Chinese have – Tibet and Tibetan history. One particularly sharp observation is of how increasingly in the West, it is the Dalai Lama who has become the dominant representation of Tibet. (It is therefore, perhaps, no surprise that Chinese attacks of the Dalai Lama have also simultaneously increased in both frequency and intensity over the years.)

Anand does not neglect to address the crucial issue of the competing narratives of the history of Tibet. This is where the geopolitical part of the book comes into play as the author shows how even as there was always a strong political content to Sino-Tibetan relations, it was the British that were the first to frame the whole issue in terms of sovereignty and independence as “Tibet was forcefully brought into the international arena” (p.73). This in turn forced the Chinese themselves to seek to establish firmer control over Tibet, contrary to their practice hitherto, and which process continues to this day. The author points out both the differences of opinion within the British imperial establishment about the status of Tibet vis-à-vis China as also how the ambiguity of its status, supported by Exotica Tibet, also suited British policy. Britain viewed Tibet as effectively independent but at the same time laboured not to offend China and so continued to acknowledge internationally, the latter’s suzerainty over Tibet. Today, meanwhile, sovereignty’s continued importance as a requirement for international legal status means that Tibetans both constantly reiterate their historical claims as an independent, sovereign state as well as try to construct an international identity based on the respect for norms such as human rights, and even environmentalism.

Examining how Exotica Tibet has affected Tibetan cultural and political identity (the ‘politics’), the author reminds us that the idea of Tibet as a single political unit is a recent one (p.92), even as a common culture, a sense of association with a specific territory or homeland and a sense of solidarity have existed for Tibetans to varying degrees, in history. “Tibetanness,” the author points out “is a highly contested and pluralistic identity” (p.97) fashioned out of the dynamics at play between the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharmasala, more radicalized groups within the Tibetan movement, and Exotica Tibet among other factors. The interaction with the West, in particular, has shaped Tibetan strategies and representations of their struggle. While adopting those aspects of this interaction favourable to their cause, Tibetans have also at the same time been affected and shaped by this interaction in their perceptions of themselves. Owing to their dependence on Western support, Tibetans have also found it necessary to sift through their own culture and traditions and to favour certain aspects over others as being more authentic (p.117). That this claim to determine what is ‘authentically’ Tibetan continues to exist outside of geographical Tibet among a small minority of Tibetans, is perhaps an achievement of the Tibetan movement in exile. However, while this has been done in the interests of maintaining a pan-Tibetan identity, it also underplays important sectarian, regional, gender and generational differences which also need to be understood by outsiders and students of the Tibetan movement.

While the author’s research has focused largely on exiled Tibetans, there is a brief attempt to understand the discourse on Tibetan identity within Chinese Tibet, where the majority of Tibetans still live. This Tibet has not only suffered repression over the decades but is also today witnessing tremendous economic and social changes as a result of the reforms and opening up process underway in China. While religion still plays an important role in Tibetan identity within China, there are also attempts to use Chinese law and official rhetoric to fashion new ways of asserting Tibetan identity (pp.95-97).

If there is a criticism that can be leveled against the book, it is simply that while its depth and scholarship mean that there is something in it for everyone, it is also difficult for non-specialists in one area to wade through its multiple discursive layers. In a sense, this is a book that can be unpacked, as it were, several times over, each time catering to a particular area or specialization. However, it is the reviewer’s view that the author actually needs to be commended for not taking the beaten path and forcing his readers to confront complexity and nuance in what are otherwise highly charged debates in international relations. There is much myth surrounding the Tibetan ‘tragedy,’ inadequate understanding of the conditioning role of IR’s European origins, and insufficient effort put into utilizing postcolonial theory to fashion a ‘new’ IR more in sync with the rise of non-Western centres of power in the world and non-Western ways of dealing with global problems.

This work is a valuable addition to both international relations theory and Tibetan studies. A postcolonial IR theory will increasingly gain ground as China and India rise in the international system – it is inconceivable that the rise of any country will not be accompanied by simultaneous innovation in theory and models, that are unique to that country – and will involve “an undoing” (p.2) of a very West-centric IR. Further, while there is a great deal of talk about non-state actors in the international system, these usually refer to transnational corporations or malign entities such as Al Qaeda. However, a whole people-without-a-nation can sometimes engage with the world community and often shape international relations. The Tibetans under their charismatic leader have done just that and there are other examples around the world that have been just as successful or unsuccessful, as the case may be, in engaging the international community. Anand’s work will hopefully become a model for the study of other diasporas or marginalized peoples in terms broader than just their relations to their host and home countries.