DHARAMSALA, India - Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao's closed-door meeting
with the Dalai Lama and talks with officials of the Tibetan government in
exile, during her July 10-11 weekend visit here, has prompted speculation that
New Delhi plans to play the Tibet card with China.
It was Rao's first visit to Dharamsala - home to the exiled Tibetan spiritual
leader and his followers since 1959 - after she became foreign secretary last
year. The visit came shortly after the Dalai Lama celebrated his 75th birthday
on July 6.
Officially, the foreign office of the Tibetan government described Rao's visit
"as a courtesy visit to the Dalai Lama". "Rao called on His Holiness the Dalai
Lama and the two discussed issues of
common interest," said Tenzin Taklha, a spokesman for the Dalai Lama. Taklha
refused to give details of the meeting.
However, according to India's DNA (Daily News & Analysis), Rao conveyed the
Indian government's concern to the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan officials that
they should exercise restraint in their comments about China so that
India-China relations do not suffer. Rao requested the Dalai Lama and the
Tibetan government in exile not to go overboard while "making observations
Rao, who met the Dalai Lama and Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the
Tibetan government in exile on Sunday, July 11, briefed them on recent
India-China talks. India was worried that the Dalai Lama's remarks could spoil
India follows a one-China policy and recognizes Tibet as a part of China. China
has often criticized India for allowing Tibetan refugees to engage in political
activities on its soil. Last year, New Delhi allowed the Dalai Lama to visit
Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state that China claims as its territory.
The Dalai Lama usually describes India's position on Tibet as "over-cautious".
In this view, New Delhi seems wants to play the Tibet card to please Beijing in
hope of warming up ties between the two countries.
Still, China slammed Rao's meeting with the Dalai Lama. At a regular press
conference in Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang
said it hoped India would abide by its commitment not to allow exiled Tibetans
to conduct anti-China activities.
"China has expressed its position clearly to the Indian side over this [the
Tibet] issue," Qin said when asked about Rao's meetings with the Dalai Lama and
Tibetan officials. "The Indian government has expressed on many occasions to
China that it recognizes Tibet Autonomous Region as part of the People's
Republic of China and it would not allow exiled Tibetans in India to conduct
anti-China political activities. So we hope India could abide by its
commitments on Tibet-related issues and properly handle all the issues," he
Other analysts believe New Delhi wants to play the Tibet card to kill two birds
with one stone: a goodwill gesture to tone down the Dalai Lama's anti-Beijing
rhetoric, and leverage in negotiations with China on sensitive issues.
Noticeably, Rao's weekend trip to Dharamsala came less than a week after
India's National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon's July 3-6 visit to
As Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's special envoy, Menon held talks with
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and State Councilor
Dai Bingguo, who is also China's chief negotiator with India on their border
disputes. The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that some sensitive issues
were discussed during the meeting.
Moreover, Rao's meeting with the Dalai Lama also came soon after China
announced a nuclear deal with Pakistan under which it will supply Islamabad
with two reactors.
"Whenever there is a perception of China crossing the red lines of core,
sovereignty related issues, we react by activating the Tibet card," Srikanth
Kondapalli, a China expert at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi,
told IANS (Indo-Asian News Service).
"This is shadow boxing. It's a way of signaling to Beijing India's displeasure
over some recent issues like [China's decision to issue] separate visas for
Kashmiris," he added.
Officials from India’s external affairs ministry in New Delhi refused to
comment on the Rao-Dalai meeting. Even the Dalai Lama's office maintained
Rao's visit was kept away from the media, like earlier visits by her
predecessors Syam Saran and Shiv Shankar Menon. Professor Samdhong Rinpoche,
the prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, also said was simply a
routine courtesy call.
During her meeting with the Dalai Lama, Rao reportedly focused on issues
related to Tibetans living in India, their frustrated movement to gain autonomy
from China, and issues related to the security of the Dalai Lama.
Tibetans in exile are gearing up for parliamentary elections next year, with
analysts suggesting that the next prime minister will bring in new policies and
take a new tack in negotiations with Beijing. Currently more than 120,000
Tibetans refugees reside in India. Interestingly, Rao also met Tibet hardliners
who uphold "Rangzen" - full independence for Tibet, which goes against the
Dalai Lama's Middle Way policy that demands greater autonomy for Tibet under
New Delhi believes this hardline sentiment could grow much stronger,
particularly after the Dalai Lama, who is 75, passes away.
Radical Tibetans greeted the Indian foreign secretary while asking the Indian
government to review its policy towards Tibet. They wrote in a memorandum that
they owed to Indian government the revival of Tibetan life in India and the
"resurrection of international awareness and confidence within the struggle".
Tenzin Tsundue, a prominent young Tibetan independence activist, and other
Tibetan signatories to the memorandum, believe that independence is the only
goal. "Only an independent Tibet can guarantee the survival of the Tibetan
people, our culture and the nation. The 2008 uprising in Tibet is a clear
public mandate that the Tibetans in Tibet are willing to even die, but not live
under Chinese colonial rule."
The memorandum said: "Whatever may be the policies being held by His Holiness
the Dalai Lama and the exile government; we believe very strongly that the goal
of the struggle cannot be anything less than Independence."
The Tibetan government in exile seemed happy with the secretary's visit. "By
and large the visit went very well and we are very happy with that," said
Migyur Dorjee, cabinet secretary of the Tibetan government in exile.
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be
reached at [email protected]