India sits pretty in Tawang, Dalai Lama visit rattles Beijing - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 4 April 2017

India sits pretty in Tawang, Dalai Lama visit rattles Beijing

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 5th April 17

The first time the Dalai Lama came to the Tawang tract of Arunachal Pradesh in 1959, he was fleeing Mao Tse-tung’s Red Army after Lhasa and its surroundings had exploded in revolution against communist oppression. New Delhi’s role in the Dalai Lama’s perilous flight and the refuge he was granted in India (which still continues) fanned Chinese suspicions of India’s intentions in Tibet, leading inexorably to war three years later, in 1962.

Harmandar Singh, the young frontier official who received the 24-year-old Dalai Lama soon after he crossed into India, and who escorted him to safety in Bomdila, recalled for this correspondent the experience of accompanying this living God through the Buddhist villages of the local Monpa tribe.

“It was as if I had been asked to escort Guru Nanak through Punjab”, says Harmandar.

Netan Tashi, now retired in Bomdila, was the Intelligence Bureau operative chosen to protect the Dalai Lama once he crossed into India. “Every village turned out to greet him on his way to Tawang. People would stand with bowed heads, outstretched hands offering khadas (ceremonial silk scarves, a token of respect). They would light dhoop (incense) and then prostrate themselves before him. Many would be crying; there was happiness as well as sorrow.”

When the Dalai Lama arrives in Tawang today, he will find the same local anger at China’s treatment of their living God and of countless Buddhist monks across a landscape of defiled monasteries in Tibet.

China sensed that anger when it occupied the Tawang region for a month after the Indian Army withdrew in the 1962 war. The local Monpa tribal populace steadfastly resisted Chinese blandishments and suggestions from their occupiers that the ethnically mongoloid Monpas were more Chinese than Indian.

To this day, as Tibet simmers and occasionally flares into armed rebellion, as in 2008-09, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and a host of security agencies that control Tibet look nervously at a free Tawang, a source of inflammatory thoughts and ideas across the border in India.

Strengthening Tawang as a source of rebellious ideas, is the 15th century Buddhist gompa (monastery) that overlooks the Tawang bowl. While communist China strangulated independent thought in Lhasa’s monasteries --- even the ecclesiastical powerhouses of Sera, Ganden and Drebung --- Tawang Gompa remained beyond communist control. Beijing appoints the heads of Tibet’s monasteries, but the Dalai Lama appoints the Tawang Gompa chief. The current khempo (monastery head) is a Monpa, the first non-Tibetan to have that honour.

Tawang’s importance as a Buddhist centre is further enhanced by its status as the 6th Dalai Lama’s birthplace.

Aware of Tawang’s religious power, New Delhi has avoided provoking China by inviting high profile visitors, especially the Dalai Lama and senior Indian officials. Beijing reacts to all such visits by accusing India of “interfering” with the status of a disputed area.

The Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh several times over the preceding decades, but visited Tawang only in 2009, a full 50 years after his first visit. Now on his third visit eight years later, China has warned that this would “damage ties with India.” Junior home minister, Kiren Rijuji has dismissed this in unusually forthright terms.

China had been similarly prickly about the entry of “a third party” into disputed territory, when US ambassador to India, Richard Verma, visited Tawang in October as a guest of the Arunachal Pradesh government. Six months earlier, the US consul general in Kolkata said the US was “absolutely clear” that Tawang belongs to India.

Yet China sees no “third party” problem with its own entry into the Northern Areas, claimed by India but occupied by Pakistan. Decades ago, China built a major highway through the area, linking China with Pakistan. Now, as part of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, China will execute further major projects there.

Earlier submissive, New Delhi has taken a stronger line on the territorial dispute at least since 2012, when United Progressive Alliance foreign minister, SM Krishna, reacted to a protracted Chinese border intrusion at Daulat Beg Oldi, in Ladakh, by delivering Beijing the reminder that Kashmir is to India what Tibet is to China.

The National Democratic Alliance has been even more forthright, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi inviting to his swearing ceremony the Central Tibetan Administration (government-in-exile) chief, Lobsang Sangay.

In December, President Pranab Mukherjee evoked Beijing’s ire by inviting the Dalai Lama to Rashtrapati Bhavan for a literary function.

In November, one of the claimants to the disputed post of 17th Karmapa --- the head of the Kagyu sect of Buddhism --- also visited Tawang, accompanied by an Indian government official. Buddhist leaders’ visits invariably acquire an anti-China flavour.

In what appears an action-reaction dynamic, Beijing has, in recent years, aligned itself openly with Pakistan. Since 2016, it has obliged Islamabad by blocking India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group; and opposing the inclusion of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief, Azhar Mehmood in a list of UN designated terrorists.

In the military realm, Beijing has strengthened arms supplies to Pakistan, including fighter aircraft, warships and submarines. China is building up Gwadar Port, on the Makran coast, as a potential naval base.

Even so, Beijing is clearly rattled by the Dalai Lama’s visit. Unlike the 2009 visit, which was a four-day religious tour, the current visit is a high-decibel, ten-day affair, without the fig leaf of a “religious event”. Beijing’s concern is evident from a threat from the armed separatist Assamese group, United Liberation Front of Asom, warning the Dalai Lama not to speak against China.

New Delhi’s response is increasingly robust. It has strengthened military deployment on the Sino-Indian border, and PLA patrols often find themselves at the receiving end in patrol confrontations. Border infrastructure is being strengthened, including the construction of airfields and roads. Beijing has called for restraint on the proposed first rail link to Arunachal Pradesh.

Even so, India can hardly match China’s infrastructure build up in Tibet. Besides a series of road and rail links radiating to the Indian border, the 13th Five Year Plan for the Tibet Autonomous Region refers to construction of a new airport in Lhuntse county (Lhunzi Xian), close to the Arunachal border.

Notwithstanding New Delhi’s muddled approach to the border region, it continues to enjoy equities that China cannot lay claim to. Noted Tibetologist, Matthew Akester, tells Business Standard: “History aside, India’s claim to Tawang district rests on its record of benevolent governance there since the 1950s --- something China cannot credibly claim for its rule of Tibet in the same period. Rather than competing with China’s infrastructure binge, it is the strength of popular democracy and local autonomy that must be built on for a progressive solution to the border issue.”

For now, Beijing insists that India must cede Tawang to China in any border settlement. From the 1950s till 1983, China offered an “east-for-west” settlement, with Beijing accepting the territorial status-quo in Arunachal Pradesh on the basis of the McMahon Line; while India would accept the territorial status-quo in Ladakh, with minor exchanges in the relatively insignificant central sector. Since 1983, however, Beijing insists that India must make “territorial concessions” in the east as well. It is clear that China means to have Tawang. 


  1. India is increasingly losing friends in the world. It is needling China, Russia is keener to be friends with China than India, and now US too is no longer ready to keep a 'hands off' policy with respect to the Ind-Pak region. While our claim of sovereignty is valid, such losing of support is not good. Sri Modi was earlier very active in foreign affairs, but lately has switched completely to domestic affairs. He needs to maintain balance. Whatever the faults of UPA, it kept the borders quiet.

  2. I think it's very obvious that the tibetans have moved beyond the spiritual guru. Even the dalai lama had stated that he maybe the last one.

    The han could not some talk to the dalai lama while he is alive and once he is gone, they will have no one to talk to. IMO, the han lost tibet the day they invaded it. Tibet will most likely be a theater in WW3 and that is what the han fear the most. This is likely what compels them to enter into pakistan/afghanistan/iran which they think can prevent the coming partition of china.

  3. @Alok Asthana: "Whatever the faults of UPA, it kept the borders quiet."

    Pusillanimity behind the fig leaf of peace is still pusillanimity, no matter how eloquently you put it. The China policy cannot be to not to have a policy or vacillate over building infrastructure, political systems all out of fear of offending the neighbour who cares two hoots for your national interests.


  4. @Anonymous - What you say is a point of view. Others may say that making preparations in infrastructure is fine, but going out and actively fingering someone is not. This is exactly what Nehru did in 60s. What is the basis of our love for Dalai Lama as against our love for Indian lives. Why, for God's sake, is India keen to pick a fight when she should be building her economy?

  5. Ajai, thanks for writing this article. You have noted some well-known constructs in our local geopolitics. In trying to estimate the trajectory of the local geopolitics, a few recent developments are worth highlighting pertaining specifically to PRC, in order of importance,
    1) PRC blocks India's entry to NSG.
    2) PRC does not approve of reforms to the UNSC.
    3) PRC has enhanced military alliance with Pakistan to negate our response in PoK.
    4) PRC vetoes India's move to designate a known-terrorist.
    5) PRC threatens India on SCS issue over UNCLOS.
    6) PRC threatens India on Dalai Lama & Tawang.

    Given this openly negative attitude towards India, it is worth understanding India's actions and options thus far,
    1) India still does not publicly paint PRC negatively (similar to Pakistan).
    2) India still hopes for bilateral trade as means of positive diplomacy.
    3) India still is not adequately prepared for border conflicts.
    4) India still hasn't understood the importance of manufacturing.
    5) India still fears encirclement by PRC using our neighbors! such as Nepal, Bangladesh, SriLanka and Maldives.
    6) India still does not seem confident in its partnership with Vietnam, Mongolia, Myanmar, Indonesia. Other than defence equipment there is no vision and impetus on collaboration/partnership for bilateral trade or regional Economic grouping such as BRICS with these nations.

    It it this very problem of under-confidence among Indians that prevents India from pursuing complex initiatives and convincing others to join us in our vision.
    Here are our options,
    1) Pursue complex initiatives boldly w/o regards to consequences (Manned SPACE missions, Clean Air, Rapid Transportation and easy connectivity to remote areas particularly NE via Myanmar, Article 370, High Tech Manufacturing, Robotics, AI, Population control irrespective of faith, Overhaul Justice system to dispense cases swiftly)
    2) Roti, Kapda aur Makaan was the slogan of yesteryears (although we haven't achieved much there). Make a new meaningful slogan "Har Ek Samaan, Mera Bharat Mahaan" (Everyone is same in status, which makes us great). Be it gender inequality or economic disparity, such conditions should be eliminated to make India Great.
    3) Make it abundantly clear to PRC, the Nukes are not for Pakistan, but reserved for them.
    4) Don't loose focus on core development objectives due to spoilers by PRC & Pakistan. Let Military govern the borders and Civilians govern the development objectives. In event of conflict, unconditionally support Military.
    5) For Military, pursue your enemy to the finish, especially Pakistan.
    6) With regards to trade, achieve reduction/elimination of trade deficit with PRC, If cannot then stop importing completely (no more trade).
    7) Listen to our neighbors concerns and requirements and strive hard to resolve all issues, such as done with Bangladesh. At the same time make our concerns visible and transparent to our neighbors. Don't via for influence or get into a contest with PRC over influence. It seems our politicians/thinkers lack fundamentals on building relationships. Shed local Indian attitudes while dealing with neighbors or anybody else. Grow up!

    As a final note, storm clouds are gathering over the horizon both WEST and NORTH, we MUST *not* squander TIME on petty issues affecting our preparedness. This time STRIKE and STRIKE HARD with all might, spare no efforts.

    The biggest flaw I see with PRC, is that, they have let their pride govern their senses, for which they will suffer.

    Looking at the belligerence of PRC, I truly hope that they listen to the ancient wisdom of the Buddhists and the message of Peace espoused by his holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet.

  6. Alok Asthana Ji - Please read Bhagwad Gita to help clear your views. It is the duty to resist evil and wrongdoing, when it is obviously so. Taking care of the economy is also our duty at the same time. Derelictions of either duties is against self-interest.

  7. @Anonymous -I am not important but I want my PM and FM to use concepts of Chanakya, Game Theory and plain strategy than Gita. And, BTW, you are misquoting Gita, as many do these days.


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