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Sikkim border row: China accuses India of playing 'Dalai Lama card', but has it really?

Even as the Sikkim border standoff between India and China continues and the Indian Army readies for the long haul, the Narendra Modi government on Wednesday allowed the Tibetan government in exile — on the eve of the Dalai Lama's 82nd birthday — to perform rituals on the shores of Ladakh's famed Pangong Lake along the disputed boundary with China and pray for the long life of their leader according to a report in The Economic Times.

File image of Dalai Lama. Reuters

File image of Dalai Lama. Reuters

China reacted sharply. In an editorial published in the state-run Global Times on 9 July, Beijing warned New Delhi to refrain from playing the 'Dalai Lama' card:

"When the Indian government attaches great importance to its relationship with China, it keeps a tight grip on anti-China political activities on its soil. However, when it is dissatisfied or has conflicts with Beijing, the Tibet card is played up. But India may overestimate the influence of Tibetan exiles. With the rise of China and as Tibet becomes better off, Tibetan independence runs counter to the will of Tibetans. The space for Tibetan separatists has been largely squeezed as more Western countries have snubbed the Dalai Lama. The Tibet card is gradually losing its value. If New Delhi is pulling the strings of the Tibetan exiles' political act of flag-hoisting, it will only have burned itself." 

But has India really played the Dalai Lama card? Some would argue that it has and the timing is suspicious. After all, the two countries have been engaged in a standoff for the past three weeks after a Chinese army's construction party attempted to build a road in the Sikkim sector of the border.

While India has claimed the area is under its jurisdiction, China has said the area "undoubtedly" is located on its side of the border as per the 1890 Sino-British Treaty.

And the Dalai Lama has long since been a thorn in China's side. He most recently angered them by joking that some Chinese hardliners were missing parts of their brains.

However, a closer examination of India's relationship with the Dalai Lama seems to prove otherwise. As this Firstpost article points out: "The Dalai Lama, as a young man, challenged China. His rebellion was put down swiftly and he fled to India and set up a government in exile. Though China has long accepted the one-China policy, Delhi welcomed the Tibetan monk and set him up in Dharamshala, albeit forbidding him from indulging in any political activity."

The Firstpost article further points out that although the Dalai Lama recently visited Arunachal Pradesh, it wasn't his first visit. In fact, the Manmohan Singh government allowed the Tibetan leader to travel to Arunachal as recently as November 2009. And despite loud protests from China before the visit, things settled afterwards and soon it was business as usual.

Why the conflict over Pangong Lake and Sikkim?

India and China differ on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which passes through the Pangong Lake. India has accused China of illegally occupying a part of the lake, at the eastern end of which lies Tibet.

The lake saw conflict during the 1962 war. The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) personnel on boats often cross the LAC and intrude into territory claimed by India, The Economic Times reported.

Of the 3,488 kilometres-long India-China border from Jammu and Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, a 220-kilometre section falls in Sikkim. Doka La is the Indian name for the region which Bhutan recognises as Dokalam, while China claims it as part of its Donglang region.

China has suspended the annual Kailash Manasarovar yatra, claiming that this was due to the border standoff and alleging that the Indian troops had crossed the Sikkim section of the Indo-China border.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Jul 10, 2017 20:12 PM

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