New Delhi actually sought to brush off the Chinese murmurs by saying Beijing was creating an “artificial controversy”.
During the past eight days, from a height of 10,000 feet, atop the Indian Himalayas, an 81-year-old Buddhist monk has rattled China as never before. Yes, one is talking of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s tallest leader, who has made a tour of Arunachal Pradesh, choosing to lament the “tragic” situation in his homeland, Tibet, criticise Beijing’s “censorship of the media”, rejecting China’s right to decide on his successor, saying it was for the Tibetan people to take a call on the next Dalai Lama. He made a clear distinction between the regime in Beijing and the Chinese people — the Chinese people are “wonderful and cultured” while the government there is “totalitarian”. Well, the Dalai Lama said 90 per cent of Tibet wants him back there while a “large number of the 400 million Chinese Buddhists, too, wants me”, a direct claim of his mass support back home.
This has been the Dalai Lama’s seventh visit to Arunachal Pradesh since his flight from Tibet in March 1959, and he may have only reiterated most of the things he said, but the tour this time stands out for two reasons. First, Beijing’s response, both before and during the Dalai Lama’s visit has been the sharpest and most confrontationist in decades. Second, New Delhi appears to have gone out of its way to facilitate the monk’s visit with the frontier state’s BJP chief minister Pema Khandu accompanying the Dalai Lama right from his departure from Guwahati on April 4. Inclement weather forced the Dalai Lama to travel by car, undertaking an arduous journey through bad roads with serpentine bends. This, of course, enabled more of his followers to catch a glimpse of their revered spiritual guru as the motorcade stopped by, thereby providing maximum opportunity to the media to engage with him. The result has been more quotes and bytes flowing out of this visit, amplifying its impact globally.
China began by accusing India of “using” the Dalai Lama to undermine Beijing’s interests, ignoring diplomatic semantics, and had even summoned the Indian envoy in Beijing to formally lodge a protest. Beijing upped the ante with foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying saying China “will firmly take necessary measures to defend its territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests”. The Indian response too began on expected lines with junior minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju, who hails from Arunachal Pradesh, saying the Dalai Lama was a guest of India, a democratic nation, and was free to go anywhere in the country. New Delhi actually sought to brush off the Chinese murmurs by saying Beijing was creating an “artificial controversy”. But Mr Khandu took the discourse to an entirely new level with the Press Trust of India quoting him as saying: “China has no business telling us what to do and what not to do. It is not our next-door neighbour. India shares a boundary with Tibet, not with China. In reality, the McMahon Line demarcates the boundary between India and Tibet.”
The Dalai Lama actually is near central to India’s border dispute with China largely because of the 400-year-old Tawang monastery’s links to Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese argue that the Tawang monastery was a subsidiary of the Drepung monastery near Lhasa, one of the three major temples in Tibet. India, of course, considers Tibet an integral part of China while rejecting Beijing’s claims over about 90,000 sq. km (35,000 sq. miles) in Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, Tawang, where the Dalai Lama stayed for five days this time, is just about 40 km short of the McMahon Line drawn up by the British. This line is regarded as the de facto border between China and India. The Chinese do not recognise this boundary “line” because it was created as part of a secret agreement by Britain and Tibet in 1914. Beijing does accept the status quo, and talks, as we know, are on for long to resolve the border dispute.
It is no surprise to see a far more assertive Delhi this time because there is a government that has an absolute majority in Parliament and has proved its strength yet again by winning India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, in the just-concluded elections. The so-called “nationalist” fervour is at its peak in the country at the bidding of a large section of individuals and groups close to the ruling BJP. Moreover, New Delhi has a lot of axes to grind. First, it was Chinese President Xi Jinping himself who cold-shouldered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s request in July 2016 to allow India to accede to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Then, of course, there’s the case of Beijing scuttling the move that would have had the UN censuring Jaish-e-Mohammed kingpin Masood Azhar by not approving sanctions against him.
Now, can China execute its threat of action against India over the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal? Not really. First, 2017 is not 1962. India is strong militarily. Second, India is a huge market for Chinese products and with the balance of trade heavily tilted in Beijing’s favour, market forces would not like the Communist bosses to indulge in any misadventure. And last, but not the least, Beijing cannot afford to push New Delhi to the wall because India can be a key stakeholder in China’s “one road-one belt” policy, by far the country’s biggest foreign policy push. To cap it all, India has many aces up its sleeve, including the Taiwan card, apart from the one on Tibet.
As things stand now, it is only the Dalai Lama who can afford to crack a few jokes. “I am a Marxist, I like its equal system. I’m against Leninism… The next Dalai Lama could be a woman… an attractive woman…” For New Delhi, caution is the word. There is no scope of lowering the guard in the dizzy Himalayan heights. For China, the Dalai Lama would continue to rattle the Communist regime, threatening its image globally, and keep putting spokes in Beijing’s design on the reincarnation issue to pick the next Dalai Lama.