India is willing to snub the Dalai Lama to please China

In the spotlight.
In the spotlight.
Image: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne
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On March 17, 1959, a 23-year-old Buddhist monk disguised as a soldier fled Tibet, travelling for three weeks across the Himalayas before reaching the border with India. Since then, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, has run a government-in-exile from India, which is also home to some 95,000 Tibetan refugees.

So, to mark the 60th year of his arrival, the Dalai Lama and his Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) had planned a series of events this year, starting March 31. “Tibetans will thank India for promoting its rich ancient culture and unique identity, assuring the viability and sustainability of Tibetan leadership and Tibetan communities..,” the CTA said in an invitation sent out in January.

But the Narendra Modi government, it appears, would have none of this fanfare and festivity, lest it displeases China. Beijing, of course, considers Tibet an integral part of its territory and views the senior monk with barely concealed disdain.

On Feb. 22, India’s foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale wrote to cabinet secretary PK Sinha asking “senior leaders” and “government functionaries” to stay away from the CTA’s events, the Indian Express newspaper reported.

“The proposed period will be a very sensitive time in the context of India’s relations with China. Participation by senior leaders or government functionaries, either from the central government or state governments, is not desirable, and should be discouraged,” Gokhale, who previously served as the Indian ambassador to Beijing, wrote, according to the Indian Express.

Sinha then sent out a directive in a similar vein to central and state government bureaucrats, the newspaper reported.

The Dalai Lama and the CTA seem to have received the message.

Two major events they planned to hold in New Delhi have now been either shifted out or scrapped. A large rally that was to be organised at Delhi’s Thyagaraja Stadium on April 01 will now be held in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, where the CTA is based. This rally, which was to be attended by the Dalai Lama, was specifically mentioned in Gokhale’s note to Sinha. An inter-faith meeting at Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial at Rajghat scheduled for March 31, too, has been cancelled.

“There was no direct message from the government to call off the commemorations, but it was conveyed to our leadership that perhaps these events should not be held in Delhi,” Tsering Dhondup, spokesperson of the Dalai Lama’s Bureau, told The Hindu newspaper.

Diplomatic relations between New Delhi and Beijing have been rocky in recent months, particularly following last year’s military standoff in Doklam, bordering Bhutan. The border face-off in the Himalayas lasted nearly two months before the two countries agreed to pull back their troops from the disputed area.

The neighbours may now be looking to mend fences, with a number of upcoming high-level meetings scheduled, including those during prime minister Modi’s trip to China in June for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit. Foreign secretary Gokhale was himself in Beijing last month, holding talks with Chinese vice-foreign minister Kong Xuanyou. He also met foreign minister Wang Yi and state councillor Yang Jiechi.

Already, there are murmurs of discontent and hurt within the Tibetan community, but the official position remains pragmatic. “Some people may be disappointed,” Ngodup Dhongchung, representative of the Dalai Lama in Delhi, told the Hindustan Times newspaper. “But we are guests of India. Indian people have been very generous to us. We understand the compulsions.”