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At first sight, there is nothing wrong with Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s request to the Cabinet Secretary requesting him to send out a directive asking senior government officials to stay away from events aimed at marking the start of the Dalai Lama’s 60th year of exile, in particular a large public event in New Delhi on 1 April.
India has, for long, insisted that it permits the Dalai Lama refuge in India on humanitarian grounds and also because of his revered status as a religious leader. The Tibetans, the government of India insists, are not permitted to carry out any political activity in the country. Attending the 60th year celebrations may or may not qualify for this, but the government is within its rights to advise its officials.
The foreign secretary’s letter was sent on the eve of his visit to Beijing on 22 February. He noted that the coming months were a “very sensitive time” for bilateral relations. This June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to visit Qingdao in China to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit. But unconfirmed reports suggest that the Prime Minister may make an official visit as early as April. That would explain the "sensitive time" point.
The reality of how India has dealt with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees is more nuanced. The Modi government, in particular, has not been above using the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama as instruments for signalling its own China policy.
In 2014, among the guests to Prime Minister Modi’s inauguration was the Sikyong or head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay. Last year, in the midst of the Doklam standoff, India permitted Sangay to hoist the Tibetan flag on the shores of the Pangong Tso lake on the border with Tibet in Ladakh.
Beginning 2016, relations between New Delhi and Beijing have been tense. China’s hold on listing Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar under the UN Al Qaeda-Taliban sanctions committee was one reason. The second was its refusal to support India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
On both issues, instead of quiet diplomacy, New Delhi chose to try and shame Beijing with strong public statements that put the latter’s back up. Later in 2017, the two sides had their most serious border confrontation, but one which involved Chinese transgression of the Sino-Bhutanese border at Doklam.
New Delhi was not above using the Dalai Lama’s access to signal its displeasure with Beijing. In December 2016, the Dalai Lama visited the Rashtrapati Bhavan and shared a dais with the president on a function to honour Nobel laureates. Early in 2017, the Dalai Lama was permitted to visit Tawang, the first time since 2009.
What infuriated Beijing was that he was received by Chief Minister Pema Khandu and the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju.
A History of Tense Relations With China
The man who dealt with these issues as the Indian Ambassador in Beijing was Gokhale himself, and he is keenly aware as to how bad relations with China have led to an imbalance in India’s global posture. Ever since he became foreign secretary, there has been an effort to restore some equilibrium both in the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle-East.
India and China have shifted their stand on Tibet over the past 70 years. Conscious that India lacked the capacity to take on China in Tibet, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to negotiate Tibet’s autonomous status and encouraged the Dalai Lama to sign the 17-Point Agreement which effectively recognises Chinese authority over Tibet.
Given the Dalai Lama’s status as the temporal and religious authority of Tibet, when he came away to India, his government ministers accompanied him, and so the establishment was, in a sense, a Tibetan government-in-exile, though it was formally called the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The terms used by the Tibetans for their council of ministers in Lhasa, Kashag, is still used, and its leader, the Kalon Tripa, served under the Dalai Lama. In 2011, the Dalai Lama gave up his temporal authority and the political authority was transferred to the Kalon Tripa, whose title was changed to Sikyong, currently Lobsang Sangay, who functions as the president of the CTA.
But the title was the same as regents took when the Dalai Lama was a minor.
In his very first meeting with Dalai Lama after his escape and exile in India in April 1959, Nehru made it clear that he could not act as the head of a government in exile in India. Since then, India has allowed Tibetans to protest against visiting Chinese leaders, it has encouraged Tibetan leaders to make their political statements outside the country, but it has also allowed the CTA to function.
China’s Rising Power
Whatever may have been Chinese intentions when they signed the 17-Point Agreement, they changed by 1959. Perhaps spooked by a CIA covert war against them in Tibet, they cracked down with great brutality and the Dalai Lama was lucky to manage his escape from Tibet. Over the years, the Chinese have, at times, reached out to the Dalai Lama, and at times termed him a “dangerous separatist”, “demon”, “splittist” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Currently, however, they take the most negative view of anyone interacting with him, even though he has clearly signalled that he accepts Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and is seeking only autonomy.
So extreme is the Chinese view that they have even declared that his reincarnation should be as per Chinese instructions and subject to their approval. They believe that his visits to Tawang may be a prelude for his reincarnation to take place there in the famous monastery which had been established in accordance with the wishes of the 5th Dalai Lama in 1680.
As Chinese power has grown, so has their ability to ensure that the Dalai Lama is not received by any foreign leader. Today, only the Americans are willing to meet him; his last meeting with President Obama being in June 2016. Despite everything, Prime Minister Modi is yet to have had an official meeting with Dalai Lama.
Discretion, it is said, is sometimes the better part of valour.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)
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