When dealing with China, the Dalai Lama is a strategic asset to India - Firstpost
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When dealing with China, the Dalai Lama is a strategic asset to India


China has warned India that bilateral ties may suffer "damage" and peace and stability of the border areas could be affected if it allows Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing claims is part of its “southern Tibet”. On October 28, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said, “India's invitation to the Dalai Lama for activity in the disputed areas between China and India will only damage peace, stability of the border areas as well as the bilateral relationship between China and India," adding, India should "refrain from taking any action that may complicate the issue, do not provide any platform for anti-China separatist activities by the 14th Dalai Lama.”

On 28 October, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said, “India's invitation to the Dalai Lama for activity in the disputed areas between China and India will only damage peace, stability of the border areas as well as the bilateral relationship between China and India," adding, India should "refrain from taking any action that may complicate the issue, do not provide any platform for anti-China separatist activities by the 14th Dalai Lama.”

The Dalai Lama is scheduled to visit Arunachal Pradesh in March next year at the invitation of chief minister Pema Khandu. His will be a fortnight-long visit during which he is expected to visit Tawang, Itanagar and the eastern districts of the state. Chinese warning has come soon after its strong protests against the recent trip to Arunachal Pradesh by the US Ambassador to India.

A file photo of Dalai Lama. Reuters

A file photo of Dalai Lama. Reuters

Chinese warning has come soon after its strong protests against the recent trip to Arunachal Pradesh by the US Ambassador to India, Ricahrd Verma, a trip that it viewed as “American involvement in an India-China territorial dispute.” That such an inference is nothing but ludicrous when China is deeply involved in Pakistan-occupied – Kashmir (PoK) is a different matter altogether.

It may be noted that following the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, then only 14-year-old, escaped to India in 1959. In fact, he had entered India through Tawang. And when the Dalai Lama goes there next year, it will be his sixth visit to the town (seventh overall to the state of Arunachal Pradesh), which Beijing describes to be a part of China on grounds that the sixth Dalai Lama was born there in the 17th century. Incidentally, this argument of China is equally absurd. If Mongolia, where the 4th Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso or Yon-tan-rgya-mtsho, was born in 1589, is not a part of China, how can Tawang town (and hence Arunachal), the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama, be a part of China?

In my considered view, it is in fitness of things that external affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup has said that the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet’s topmost spiritual leader, is a "guest of India" and is free to travel across the country, including Arunachal Pradesh where “he has a sizeable following among Buddhists, who would like to seek his blessings.”

It was in 2008 that South Block possibly could not resist Beijing’s bullying tactics to thwart the Dalai Lama’s proposed visit to Tawang. He was denied “the Restricted Area Permit by the Union home ministry”, a rule applicable to all foreign nationals visiting Arunachal. This decision might have been influenced by the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had undertaken “a successful” visit to China that year. In fact, so sensitive was the UPA government to Chinese position on Tawang that even though Prime Minister Singh went to Arunachal soon after his journey to China to show that "the state was an integral part of India,'' he didn't visit Tawang. However, next year (2009), the Manmohan Singh government, emboldened as it was after getting a renewed mandate from the Indian people, allowed the Dalai Lama to go to Tawang during the annual Tawang festival to “mark the half-century of his exile from Tibet.”

Be that as it may, there is now a powerful school of thought in India against the Dalai Lama’s presence in the country. Along with powerful politicians from India’s two communist parties, the likes of former Minister of External Affairs Natwar Singh, diplomat-turned Congress politician Mani Shankar Aiyar, senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, media baron N Ram and columnist Prem Shankar Jha have systematically argued that China has not been able to solve its Tibet problem because of India, which has given the Dalai Lama shelter and kept the Tibetan political and cultural identity alive.

Swamy has argued in his book, India’s China Perspective, that Sino-Indian relations can never become close and friendly unless India’s blind spot on Tibet and the Dalai Lama is removed. He advocates that if the Dalai Lama leaves India or his activities are curtailed, China will be flexible in border negotiations. In fact, the logic is that a “grateful” China will rethink its blind support to Pakistan, which is India’s most problematic neighbour.

These arguments are based on two unstated premises. First, China is much more powerful than India and so it is better to buy peace with Beijing and leave the Dalai Lama to face his own fate. Second, in this bipolar world, China is best suited to challenge US “hegemony” and make the world truly multipolar. So India must be friendly to China.

The pro-China lobby in India downplays the fact that while China promotes a multipolar world, it is not interested in a bipolar Asia. True to its theory of being the Middle Kingdom, it will not allow another pole, whether India or Japan, in Asia. Historically speaking, China has done everything possible to halt the growth of Indian influence and dent India’s eminence. This policy toward India will continue whether or not New Delhi appeases Beijing on the Dalai Lama issue.

On the other hand, by continuing to shelter the Dalai Lama and his followers, India stands to gain more. First, his presence adds to India’s standing in the global community as a democratic country, given the Dalai Lama’s innumerable powerful supporters around the world. It strengthens India’s credentials for offering political asylum to democratic leaders escaping and fighting oppressive authoritarian regimes.

Secondly, India cannot just sever its historical and cultural links with Tibet to please the Chinese. A closer look at geography, ancestry and royal dynasties reveals close ties between India and Tibet. India is bound with Tibet, as two of the holiest Hindu shrines, Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar, are located there. Tibet is also the source of four great rivers that flow into India. The Dalai Lama has periodically pointed out that the Tibetans are descendants of Rupati, king of a south Indian kingdom who escaped to Tibet with his subjects after the epic Mahabharata War. As for the king of Tibet, it is believed that around 150 BC a prince of the Magadha Kingdom (present-day Bihar) escaped to Tibet after being exiled from his kingdom. Tibetans named him Nyatri Tsenpo and made him their king, and so began the Tibetan royal lineage.

In fact, recently I came across the text of the talk that Lhasang Tsering, a prominent Tibetan-activist, had delivered way back on 17 March 2000 in Mumbai as part of the week-long ‘Festival of Tibet 2000’ organised by the Friends of Tibet (INDIA) and Tibetan Youth Congress. The title of his talk was ‘India’s Tibet: A Case for Policy Review’. Tsering, who is a strong advocate of Tibetan independence (and in this he differs with the Dalai Lama, who is talking of genuine autonomy within, not separation from, Communist China), says that he would prefer Tibet becoming “India’s Tibet” to being “China’s Tibet”.

Let me quote from his Mumbai-speech: “I have often wondered why India doesn’t stake its claim on Tibet. Between China — which seeks to exterminate the Tibetan people and to wipe out Tibetan religion and culture; and India —which gave Tibet the Buddha Dharma and has helped to save Tibetan religion and culture — there is no doubt; India has the greater claim. It is like the story of young Prince Siddhartha who saves the swan his cousin Prince Devadatta has shot. The claim of the latter rests on the grounds of having shot the swan. On the other hand, Prince Siddhartha— the future Buddha — stakes his claim on the grounds of having saved the life of the wounded swan. The King rightly awards the swan to Prince Siddhartha. In today’s world of realpolitik and spineless world leaders, we could hardly hope for such a decisive verdict. Nevertheless; even if only as a diplomatic exercise, why doesn’t India file a case in the International Court of Justice and also raise the issue in the United Nations to stake its claims over Tibet? In the first place, India gave Buddhism to Tibet — the life-force of Tibetan life and culture. Today India has rendered crucial assistance and helped to save Tibetan religion and culture. If Tibet must belong to either of its giant neighbours, then surely, it should be to India — which has helped to save Tibet; and not China — which seeks to destroy Tibet.”

I am not going into the merits or otherwise of Tsering’s thesis, but the fact remains that whether it was Britain until 1947 or the former Soviet Union until 1990, the recent history of international relations suggests that other countries have always considered Tibet as belonging to “India’s sphere of influence.”

Finally, and most importantly, the presence of the Dalai Lama and his innumerable assertions supporting India on the boundary disputes strengthens India’s claims of territorial rights during negotiations with China. Let it not be forgotten that had Tibet been under Chinese "suzerainty" as was the case throughout history (The Chinese say that Tibet became a part of the Chinese empire when the great Mongol Genghis Khan annexed most parts Tibet in the early 13th century. Taken to its logical conclusion, one could argue that China is a part of Mongolia and does not deserve to exist as an independent nation), and not under its sovereignty as has been the case since the 1950s, the Sino- Indian border dispute would have been resolved a long ago. The Dalai Lama has been on record saying that he recognises the McMahon line as the border between India and Tibet.

Considering all this, the Dalai Lama is a strategic asset to India.

First Published On : Nov 1, 2016 12:22 IST

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