NEW DELHI - Tawang, a tiny outpost sandwiched between Myanmar, Bhutan and Tibet
in the lush forested state of Arunachal Pradesh in the Himalayan foothills, is
governed by India but claimed by China.
Tawang is very close to the Chinese border, just a few kilometers from Bumla,
the nearest border post. It is at Bumla that army officers from India and China
meet for routine border post meetings every three months. Chinese army officers
and civilians on the other side also cross the border on August 15 every year
to attend celebrations of India's Independence Day. The Indian side, too,
reciprocates by sending a delegation each year to the other side on October 1,
China's National Day.
The region has frequently changed hands amid chaos, such as in
the late 1940s during the birth of communist China and after the 1947
independence of India from British India. The last upheaval was in 1962 during
the Sino-Indian War, when Chinese troops briefly overran the Himalayan town and
its surrounding areas, which are known today as part of the Indian state of
Tawang has once again drawn international attention to the territorial dispute
between India and China - the world's two most populous countries - which are
now both nuclear-armed and competing for world power status. The recent visit
of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, to the region was played up by media as
a three-sided contest between New Delhi, Beijing and the Tibetan government in
exile, which is based in India.
China slammed the Indian government for allowing the Dalai Lama to visit
Arunachal, an area with a Tibetan culture that Beijing claims as "Southern
Tibet". While New Delhi did not seemingly yield to Beijing's protests, India
did expel all foreign journalists from the region.
China's anger stems in part from a territorial dispute over Arunachal Pradesh
that can be traced to about a century ago. China claims sovereignty over the
region and refuses to recognize the so-called McMahon Line, a border drawn by
India's British colonial rulers in 1914 that gave Arunachal to India. China
also occupies a part of Kashmir claimed by India. Despite 13 recent rounds of
talks between the two countries on the border dispute, no agreement has been
The indigenous inhabitants of the area are the Monpas, who had always kept a
distance from the Tibetans of the plateau, despite sharing religious and
cultural values. Inhabitants in their 60s in the area of Tawang have the
distinct experience of living under four national flags - British, Tibetan,
Chinese and Indian.
Chinese scholars argue that the Monpas' interests would be better safeguarded
with China, and that only the Monpas can decide their future. So Monpas
perceptions and opinion of India remain important for the future of Tawang.
In the past, Monpas tribes were unhappy subjects of often oppressive Tibetan
rulers. Today, the fortunes are reversed - Tibetan rulers are now viewed as
persecuted and many have had to flee the country - while Monpas are free
citizens of India. It seems few want to live under Chinese or Tibetan rule,
though they all revere the Dalai Lama as their religious leader.
Tawang has a special status in Tibetan Buddhism. Its monastery is one of the
largest and oldest of the dominant Tibetan Gelupga sect, which is near the home
of Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama born in 1683 - a leader particularly
beloved by the Tibetans and the native Monpas. The present Dalai Lama, they
believe, is a reincarnation of Tsangyang Gyatso, who was a Monpas and the only
Indian Dalai Lama. "It is very important to remember that India, too, once
produced a Dalai Lama," says Wangchu, a local Monpas, claiming that the sixth
Dalai Lama's blessings keep Tawang safe.
"Because of the recent border tensions and the Dalai Lama's visit, we had some
fear of the Chinese. But there is nothing happening there, Tawang is of India
and not of China. And this is what the Dalai Lama cleared during his first day
here - he was almost surprised by China's claim over Tawang" said Tsering
Lamho, a Monpas woman who serves in the Arunachal Pradesh state government.
During his first day at Tawang, the Dalai Lama said, "The then [1960s] Chinese
government declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew. Now the Chinese have
got different views. This is something which I really don't know. I am a little
Tsering Tsomu, a 10-year-old Monpas girl said, "We are delighted that His
Holiness has come here. My family tells that I am lucky being blessed by the
Dalai Lama and I hope that his visit will bring about lasting peace to Tawang
and the state as a whole."
"The Indian flag is all over the town because this is India. As well as the
Tibetan flag because His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the highest Tibetan spiritual
leader, is coming," said Guru Tulku Rinpoche, head of the Gaden Namgyal Lhatse,
popularly known as Tawang Monastery.
"He stayed here for a few days when he fled from Tibet 50 years ago. He was
here three more times, the last being in 2003. But this time is special, in
view of China's unwarranted objections," said Phupten Tenzin, a local Monpas
tribal who runs a souvenir shop.
Some Tibetans living in exile in Tawang say they still hope for the day when
they can return to Tibet with the Dalai Lama.
"We have always longed to see our own homeland, our dear Tibet. It is just
across those mountains. But since that is not possible at the moment, at least
we can get the blessings of our great leader," said Gyelpo, whose parents
escaped from Tibet to India in 1959.
As when he visits elsewhere in the world, the Dalai Lama's presence drew
thousands of Buddhists from within and outside India during his tour. At Tawang
and other local towns, Bomdi-la and Dirang, people turned up with their entire
families to hear his discourses.
"We'll follow him wherever he goes. We'll go to Tibet only if he goes there,"
said Yeshe Jamyang, 77, who fled Lhasa along with the Dalai Lama in 1959 and
later served in a special force of Tibetans raised by India that saw action in
the 1971 India-Pakistan war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. The Dalai
Lama spent 10 days at Bomdi-la during his escape from Tibet.
At Tawang and Dirang, a number of Nepalese and Bhutanese Buddhists were present
at the Dalai Lama's congregations early this month. "The Dalai Lama is our
supreme god," said Nima Tamang, a Nepalese Buddhist, as she rushed to listen to
the Tibetan leader with her husband and children.
During his visit, the Dalai Lama asked the community to work for removing evils
like superstition and bring "positive change" in society. "Let us be Buddhists
of the 21st century, acting as harbingers of positive change," he said, also
extolling the virtues of Buddhism and saying there was a need for introspection
so that reforms could take place at the individual and community levels.
"Tawang's political significance is what makes it important, said Jambey Tashi,
a local lawmaker. "Besides, many look at Tawang for direction when it comes to
preserving Tibetan culture and heritage."
"There is nothing Chinese here, so there is no need to see us differently,"
said Tashi Rapten, a Monpas who came to see the Dalai Lama from Lumla, another
village. "The Dalai Lama is our living God, we feel happy and lucky to see and
get his blessings."
"His Holiness' visit to Tawang is all sacred and nothing political. Tawang can
never be Chinese, though it used to be dominated by Tibet. Beijing's protest is
baseless, all of a sudden China wants Tawang. I think Tawang is important for
tourism and that may be the reason China wants it now," added Rapten. "For us,
being born here means we are pure Indian."
Many residents in Tawang say incidents such as last year's crackdown in Tibet
have only hardened their resolve to protect their culture and religion. "We
hear about the atrocities in Tibet, the repression they [China] are carrying
out," said R Neema, a local doctor. "But Tawang will try to sustain what China
seeks to destroy in Tibet."
When asked whether he thought Tawang should be a part of greater Tibet that
enjoys greater autonomy, Neema said that Tawang was now India's region, adding,
"It is more Tibetan in culture and nature here in a free country than Tibet
itself under Chinese domination."
However, some Monpas feel neglected by the Indian government in terms of
development. They also believe that their tribal identity has been deliberately
diluted. Seeing what China has achieved across the McMahon Line has made them
feel they are on the wrong side of geography.
Lamho, who lives in Tawang town, said, "All we hear is developments on the
other side of the border, we feel bad at heart, as if our [Indian] government
is sleeping, New Delhi should do something. It would not only develop us but
also keep the Chinese away".
However, Tenzing Tsetan says "India is our only hope". "In our demonstrations,
we always shout, 'Tibet Ki Azaadi, Bharat Ki Saraksha', which means,
'Tibet's freedom is India's security'. It is in India's interest to support the
Tibetan cause. They shouldn't be afraid."
Many Tibetans and native Monpas in Tawang fear the succession of the Dalai Lama
as they believe China will use it as an opportunity to suppress the Tibetan
cause. Tibetans allege that China has imprisoned the Panchen Lama, recognized
by the Dalai Lama, and propped up its own Panchen Lama to divide Tibetans. "We
can't rule out the possibility of such interference by Beijing in the selection
of future Dalai Lamas," said a monk from Tawang.
It is not only the Tibetan spiritual leader's age - he turned 74 this year -
but the possibility of China interfering in the selection of future Dalai Lamas
and India's desperate efforts to maintain a balance between Beijing and
Dharamsala that have begun to worry followers of Tibetan Buddhism.
The local Monpas and exiled Tibetans in Tawang fear that their god-king, the
Dalai Lama, will never visit again due to his advancing age, busy schedule or
shifts in New Delhi's policy.
Lama Tashi, a composer of religious hymns who was once nominated for the Grammy
awards, says he is not sure whether the Dalai Lama will set foot here again.
"He's an international figure and has a hectic schedule. One never knows if he
will visit again as his trips have to be cleared by all levels," Tashi said.
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be
reached at[email protected] .