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India-China Standoff: Dalai Lama, A Not-So-Secret Weapon

The Narendra Modi government has largely ignored the Tibetan leader, who lives in exile in India, but the country's military leaders now say support for the iconic monk could be the perfect way to push back on China.

The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama
Rahul Bedi

CHANDIGARH — In incessant rounds of official wrangling over attaining long-term leverage to counter China following the border face-off in eastern Ladakh, India has one compelling potential factor that remains either obscured or, at best, mentioned sotto voce: the Dalai Lama.

Astonishingly, there has been no official reference over the past few months to the Tibetan spiritual leader – the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso – whose presence in India has been anathema to Beijing ever since he exiled himself here 61 years ago in 1959. Even "inspired" leaks to an ever obliging domestic media about the government making amends for cold shouldering the 85-year old Nobel laureate in recent years to please Beijing are absent.

Remarkably, most China specialists, retired diplomats, security analysts and military in their public ruminations over the enduring People's Liberation Army (PLA) threat along the line of actual control (LAC), have largely been muted over the Dalai Lama, Tibet, and even Buddhism. For, despite its economic machismo and technical military wizardry, China remains hypersensitive about all three of these issues, viewing them as security, political and diplomatic dangers, despite the long passage of time since the Peoples Republic of China took charge of Tibet in 1950.

Hence, to make no reference whatsoever to either or all three issues, at a juncture when Delhi has little or no durable military, diplomatic or economic heft to deal with Beijing over the LAC standoff, makes it even more paradoxical.

China has ruthlessly "Sinicized," or ethnically, culturally, societally and linguistically dominated Tibet.

Ironically, ever since the LAC crisis erupted in early May, all that Prime Minister Narendra's Modi's government has done is to ban 100 or so Chinese apps, including Tik Tok, and to suspend a handful of railway, telecommunication and road construction tenders.

"For Prime Minister Modi's government to not even mention the Dalai Lama or Tibet at this juncture, when all previous bilateral peace and tranquility border agreements concerning the LAC have irreparably broken down, is puzzling," said a senior retired security official, requesting anonymity. The Dalai Lama is a globally revered Buddhist leader, and if India wants ultimately to forge an international coalition against Beijing's hegemony, the Tibet issue could well prick China's vulnerability from within.

For though China has ruthlessly "Sinicized," or ethnically, culturally, societally and linguistically dominated Tibet for over 70 years and settled millions of Han Chinese in the Himalayan region, it has still been unsuccessful in eradicating veneration for the Dalai Lama from three generations of indigenous Tibetans. Even seven decades after taking control of Tibet, Beijing still continues to deploy commissars across the "autonomous region" to discredit and vilify the Dalai Lama, openly referring to him as a "monk in wolf's clothing" and other, more pejorative appellations.

Beijing's continuing paranoia over the Dalai Lama surfaced palpably yet again in mid-August, after a 42-year old Chinese national was arrested in Delhi on charges of bribing Tibetans from their Majnu Ka Tila settlement in north Delhi, to gather information on the Dalai Lama and his close associates. Security sources told The Wire that China continues to "back" a pool of informants in Delhi, Dharamsala – where the Dalai Lama's headquarters are located – and Karnataka, amongst other places where Tibetan communes are located, to provide its intermediaries information on their venerable leader.

Student agitator's burn an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — Photo: Skanda Gautam/ZUMA

China also continues to agitate apoplectically when Western leaders and businessmen, Hollywood celebrities and other eminent foreign personages visit the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala or elsewhere, or when he travels abroad and meets heads of governments and state. But despite its complex and multifaceted stratagems, including economic measures, to delegitimize the Dalai Lama via proxies and to discredit his government in exile in India, Beijing appears largely to have failed in its hostile endeavors. Still, it continues trying in this interminable David and Goliath contest.

The BJP government's conscious efforts at distancing itself from the Dalai Lama began some weeks ahead of Modi's first informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan in April 2018 and continued up to and beyond the return summit at Mamallapuram that Modi hosted last October, seven months before the PLA calculatedly intruded across the LAC, seizing large tracts of Indian territory and refusing to disengage and withdraw.

Ironically, Modi began his first term as prime minister in May 2014 by inviting Lobsang Sangay – the head of Tibet's so-called government-in-exile – to his swearing in ceremony. In July 2017, Sangay was allowed to stage a photo-op with the Tibetan flag at Pangong Tso in Ladakh. Also in 2017, much to China's ire, the Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh which China claims as its own as part of "southern Tibet."

But this tenuous, outwardly affable relationship with the Tibetan spiritual leader would shortly end. In March 2018, seven weeks before Modi met Xi in Wuhan, the Tibetan community was summarily denied permission to hold a major celebration at a prominent Delhi stadium to commemorate their leaders 60th year of exile in India. Several senior Indian officials and dignitaries had been invited to the event, but at the behest of the Ministry of External Affairs, the then cabinet secretary P.K. Sinha curtly directed them all not to participate.

The event was hurriedly shifted to Dharamsala, and as explanation Ngodup Dhongchung, the Dalai Lama's representative in Delhi, tactfully declared that though some Tibetans may have been disappointed, they remained India's guests. Consequently, he called on his Tibetan compatriots to understand India's compulsions in withdrawing official permission to hold their celebratory function at Thyagaraja Stadium in Delhi, an irony that was not lost on anyone.

Younger Tibetans among the 95,000-odd exiles living in India in some 40 formal settlements and dozens of informal communities, conveyed their collective displeasure at the "personal humiliation" meted out by India to the Dalai Lama, by stopping the stadium event. Many claimed that it had been called off at China's behest as Delhi was "cozying" up to Beijing by isolating the Tibetan leader in exchange for financial and strategic inducements that mysteriously never materialized.

Exiled Tibetans celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's Nobel Peace Prize — Photo: Sumit Saraswat/Pacific Press/ZUMA

In recent weeks, however, a handful of retired security officials have publicly voiced support for the Dalai Lama, but as some of them told The Wire, the Central government was "equivocal and unformulated" in its response to their counsel.

Former Research and Analysis (RAW) China specialist Jayadeva Ranade, who currently heads the Centre for China Analysis in New Delhi, for instance, declared that the Dalai Lama needed to appear publicly on the same platform as Indian ministers and officials to indicate support for the Tibetan leader. He stated that the Dalai Lama, who epitomized Buddhism the world over and remains well disposed towards India, could well have a positive multiplier effect in Delhi's dealings with China.

Former national security adviser M.K. Nayaranan went even a step further. Writing in The Hindu,he declared that with a view to appeasing China in recent years, India had "distanced itself from the Dalai Lama which has, without doubt been a mistake" that needs rectification. Restoring the Dalai Lama to the same level of eminence (like earlier) in India's official thinking "should be an important plank in India's anti-China policy," the former NSA added.

Other security officials and diplomats also privately conceded to The Wire that it was now incumbent upon the government to "course correct" and make amends' for abruptly marginalizing the Dalai Lama over two years ago to placate Beijing. They added that reconciliation was all the more critical with regard to the Dalai Lama's reincarnated successor, whose selection has now been deemed the latter's sole responsibility and who, in all probability will eventually operate from India.

Beijing cares little that the person it anoints will lack legitimacy with millions of Buddhists globally.

Meeting in Dharamsala last November, senior religious leaders representing four schools of Tibetan Buddhism had unanimously authorised the Dalai Lama to choose his successor. The three point resolution at the conclave declared that "the authority of decision concerning the way and manner in which the next reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama (ie the 15th Dalai Lama) should appear, solely rests with this Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama himself."

If the Chinese government, for political reasons chooses its own candidate for the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan people will not recognize and respect that nominee, declared the resolution with clinching finality. Expectedly, the authorities in Beijing have categorically rejected this religious declaration and will proceed, as it has frequently stated, to undermine the 14th Dalai Lama's succession by nominating someone aligned to the Communist Party of China. Beijing cares little that the person it anoints will lack legitimacy with millions of Buddhists globally, including those inside Tibet, further rupturing a battered society already rent asunder by cultural subjugation.

Under the circumstances it's a dead certainty that the 15th Dalai Lama will certainly not be from China; all else being equal, it's also inevitable that he or she will be based in Dharamsala which, over six decades, has become synonymous with the Tibetan community in all respects. Hence, say analysts, there is nothing to be gained by the Modi government treating the aging Dalai Lama disparagingly, or by boxing him into a corner – especially in a nebulous and protracted situation like the present standoff in Ladakh.

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