Dalai Lama calm in the eye of a storm
By Saransh Sehgal
TAWANG, Arunachal Pradesh, India - Ignoring Chinese protests, India allowed the
Dalai Lama to travel on Sunday to the monastery town of Tawang in the disputed
state of Arunachal Pradesh, which lies on India's Tibetan border. There, the
Tibetan spiritual leader in exile was greeted by thousands of pilgrims who had
braved long treks and icy temperatures to see him.
The Dalai Lama's visit comes amid rising tensions between India and China over
the sovereignty of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing refers to as "southern
Tibet". To avoid infuriating Beijing, India has been reluctant in recent years
to allow the Dalai Lama to travel to Tawang - the second-holiest city in
Tibetan Buddhism after Lhasa, Tibet's capital, in the Tibet Autonomous Region
Beijing has said the Dalai Lama's trip is an attempt to promote
independence for Tibet, a region that accounts for about one-sixth of Chinese
territory. "The Dalai Lama is a liar ... He is always involved in activities
that undermine the relations between China and other countries as well as
ethnic separatist activities," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said at a
news briefing last week in Beijing.
The Dalai Lama has made previous visits to Tawang, but these merited little
response from China, Vijay Kranti, editor of a newspaper for the Tibetan exile
community in India, told the Los Angles Times. He said China's reaction had
turned this visit into a bigger deal than it otherwise would be. "The Dalai
Lama's best advertising agency is Beijing," Kranti said.
Beijing has become more sensitive and critical of the Dalai Lama's activities
since bloody anti-government riots erupted in Lhasa in March 2008, marring the
lead-up to the Beijing Summer Olympic Games. Since then, the Chinese government
has put diplomatic pressure on foreign leaders to not meet the Dalai Lama or
let him engage in high-profile political activities.
The Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) flagship newspaper, the People's Daily,
in unusually aggressive rhetoric, attacked India in mid-October as "a previous
victim of colonialism and hegemony [that has] started to dream about developing
its own hegemony".
As countries - including the United States - suffer the effects of the global
financial crisis, many seem be shying away from the Tibet issue so as not to
offend China. India, however, appears to be taking a firmer stance by allowing
the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang.
But analysts say the Dalai Lama visit is India's way to show its firm grip on
Arunachal Pradesh. China and India have held 13 rounds of boundary talks since
2007 over the disputed area. But these have stalled due to China's claim of
sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh, while India - which still sees its defeat
in the brief border war in 1962 as a national humiliation - does not want to
relinquish a single inch of land.
India claims that China has illegally occupied 43,180 square kilometers of
Jammu and Kashmir, including 5,180 square kilometers ceded to Beijing by
Islamabad under the Sino-Pakistan boundary agreement in 1963. China accuses
India of possessing some 90,000 square kilometers of its territory, mostly in
Economically and in geopolitical stature, China and India - the world's two
largest countries in terms of populations and land areas - have risen fast in
recent years. While trade and economic ties between China and India are
growing, bilateral competition is also on the rise. One's decline could benefit
the other's rise.
Wary of a growing Chinese presence in South Asia, New Delhi may see the Tibet
issue as a way to limit China's influence in the region. With United States
President Barack Obama about to start his first official visit to Asia,
including China, now could be a good opportunity for New Delhi to play the
Tibetans in exile were greatly disappointed when Obama refused to meet the
Dalai Lama during his visit to Washington last month. Canadian Prime Minister
Stephen Joseph Harper (who will also visit China in December) and Australian
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also declined to meet the Dalai Lama when he visited
their countries this year.
With India defying Beijing, Tibetans in exile now hope Obama will not only keep
his promise to meet the Dalai Lama after his Beijing trip, but also bring up
the Tibet issue during his talks with Chinese leaders. Indian politicians would
enjoy seeing the US put pressure on China on this issue, and New Delhi
certainly does not want Beijing and Washington to grow closer.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao,
on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in
Thailand last month that "the Dalai Lama is our honored guest; he is a
religious leader". Indian Minister for Indian External Affairs S M Krishna also
said that the Dalai Lama was free to visit any part of India.
India's decision to allow the Dalai Lama visit has been generally welcomed by
Tibetans in exile. Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, the prime minister of the
Tibetan government in exile, based in Dharamsala in India, gave a brief
interview to Asia Times Online shortly before the Dalai Lama set off for his
Asia Times Online: Would you like to comment on the Dalai Lama
Samdhong Rinpoche: India's stand on the Dalai Lama is wonderful,
exemplary and a model for the rest of the world.
ATol: Would you say India is braver than other nations in defying
Beijing, in regard to the Dalai Lama issue?
SR: Yes, I agree with your view. As I said before, India stands
for truth, and truth has unparalleled strength.
ATol: Do you think India's stance provides a lesson for world
leaders, especially Obama's China diplomacy?
SR: Any action which is based on truth and principle always gives
lessons to humanity, including [world] leaders.
Tenzin Norsang, the joint secretary of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) - the
most radical Tibetan group explicitly seeking Tibet independence, had a
"India is using the Dalai Lama as a political tool to deal with its own issues.
By letting the Dalai Lama visit the disputed territory, India is making clear
its position that that Arunachal pradesh is Indian territory," he said.
"However, India's bravery towards China will definitely give world leaders a
lesson, since everybody is now turning from democracy towards communism [as a
result of the global financial crisis]. It surely is a lesson with long-term
effects. In these changing times, India has become braver than others in not
letting China bully us," added Norsang.
A young monk named Sherbu from Tawang Monastery, who saw the Dalai Lama on
Sunday, described it as the "experience of a lifetime." "He waved back at us
and I consider this to be a blessing for me and the people here."
Sherba Lama, a Tibetan who trekked to Tawang from a distant border village to
attend the Dalai Lama's religious discourse, said, "He is our god, he is the
living Buddha. A glimpse of the Dalai Lama charges you with spiritual power."
At the Dalai Lama's prayer meeting, Kiran Rijiju, leader of the Indian People's
Party and a former member of the Indian parliament, said, "It's a
socio-religious visit. Our neighbor [China] should not try to politicize his
holiness's visit. He has come here to spread the message of peace and harmony.
We want to live in peace and revive our trade links with Tibet."
It may be growing trade links between India and China - both members of the
BRIC bloc along with Brazil and Russia - that has kept a lid on the simmering
Despite verbal criticisms, Beijing has so far refrained from taking any
substantial action over the Dalai Lama's Tawang visit. Chinese officials have
also recently played down reports of tensions between the two countries, with
some saying the tension was created by the Indian media.
New Delhi has barred foreign journalists from traveling to Arunachal Pradesh to
cover the Dalai Lama's visit, which analysts have seen as a concession to
The Dalai Lama has also played down the significance of his visit. "My visit
here is non-political," he said on his arrival. "There are a lot of emotions
involved here," he said. "When I escaped from China in 1959, I was mentally and
physically very weak. The Chinese did not pursue us in 1959, but when I reached
India, they started speaking against me."
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be
reached at email@example.com .