India’s position on Tibet came under the spotlight last week with a single birthday message.
On July 6, prime minister Narendra Modi surprised Tibet and China watchers with a tweet that he had called the Dalai Lama to wish him on his birthday. Coming from India’s highest political office, the tweet was much more than a greeting, it signalled a subtle but important shift in India’s Tibet policy that could have implications for its ties with China as well as the future of Tibetan Buddhism.
“Spoke on phone to His Holiness the @DalaiLama to convey greetings on his 86th birthday. We wish him a long and healthy life.” Said Modi.
This is not the first time Modi has wished the Dalai Lama. In fact, according to officials, Modi has greeted him every year. But this was the first time Modi’s greeting was made public. It came bang in the middle of the worst military stand-off between India and China that has already changed the long-term contours of Indian foreign and strategic policies.
Dalai Lama is not only the tallest Buddhist leader in the world, for Buddhists, he is the personification of the Avalokitesvara. His reincarnation — or not — will determine whether the world can save Tibetan Buddhism from the Chinese Communist Party.
Since 2007, China has declared that re-incarnation of the ‘living Buddhas’ (Dalai and Panchen Lamas) was a matter for the Party. By the order of Decree No 5, China’s State of Religious Affairs Bureau said reincarnations would only be valued if they are approved by the state.
Dalai Lama himself has stated that he, and not the Chinese, would control his re-incarnation. There have been times when he has hinted that he may not re-incarnate, but millions of Tibetans look to him for leadership, spiritual and temporal.
“One thing I want to make clear: As far as my own rebirth is concerned, the final authority is myself — no one else — and obviously, not Chinese communists!” Dalai Lama had said back in 2011. He has suggested he will live until he is 113 years old, that his re-birth could happen in a “free” country, like India.
“China considers Dalai Lama’s reincarnation as something very important. They have more concern about the next Dalai Lama than me,” said the Dalai Lama to Reuters. “In future, in case you see two Dalai Lamas come, one from here (India), in free country, one chosen by Chinese, then nobody will trust, nobody will respect (the one chosen by China). So that’s an additional problem for the Chinese! It’s possible, it can happen.” Claude Arpi, China and Tibet expert, recently quoted the Dalai Lama as saying that he may not “re-incarnate” but “emanate”, that is, manifest himself in another person close to him, while he is still alive.
The Chinese know that. They care less about the Dalai Lama than about subduing Tibet, with the aim of Sinicizing it and integrating it more completely into Han China, guiding “Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to socialist society”.
They have already tried to do it with the Panchen Lama — the young boy disappeared after being named by the Dalai Lama in 1989. The Chinese installed a person of their own, who has little credibility among Buddhists. But China, particularly under Xi Jinping, is hell-bent on complete control of Tibet, which will not happen so long as the Dalai Lama, with his power, exists outside.
China has issued three White Papers on Tibet in the past decade alone. All emphasise Chinese control over this sometimes-renegade province.
The new Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) issued by China in March detailed plans spend $30 billion to build infrastructure in Tibet, including new expressways and upgrading the present ones which go all the way up to India’s borders. In recent weeks Tibet’s first fully electrified rail corridor extending from Lhasa to Nyingchi in the southwest Is already operational, and could bring high speed trains, as well as troops, within three hours to the Indian border. It has raised concerns even more in New Delhi. China is rapidly connecting Tibet to the rest of the country and equally rapidly militarising it. This is as much in the western sector and Aksai Chin as it is in the eastern sector.
India has often toyed with the idea of “playing” the Tibet card with China, and every time desisted. But China’s actions of 2020 — a deliberately planned military incursion into eastern Ladakh — may have tilted the balance for India. For the first time, India publicised that it had used the Special Frontier Force (SFF) commandoes during a military action to take Kailash Range in southern Pangong Tso August 29-30, 2020.
But India has other, important reasons to facilitate and guide Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. India is home to the largest cohort of Tibetan refugees (though reducing) in the world. A post-Dalai Lama scenario needs to be guided by India, so as to reduce the possibility of extremism in the Tibetan ranks.
Second, India has itself revitalised its own Buddhist heritage — with over 200 monasteries and thousands of monks and a concerted attention to Buddhist conferences to provide platform for evolving Buddhist thought. India cannot leave the future of Buddhism to either China or chance.
In fact, as India fights to stabilise the border conflict with China, its stand and actions on Tibet will be very important. Tibet is not Taiwan. It has rapidly been elevated — for geopolitical, cultural and ecological reasons — as one of India’s more important interests. They all run through the Dalai Lama.
For India, therefore, its important to state that it will throw its weight behind whatever re-incarnation decision is taken by the Dalai Lama.
In this, India has been preceded by the US, which passed the Tibet Policy & Support Policy Act by the Trump administration in 2020, which has been continued by the Biden administration. It essentially seeks to support Tibetans and Dalai Lama from Chinese interference. Nancy Pelosi, US Speaker who piloted the legislation said, “The US Congress, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, House and Senate, has fought to hold China accountable and to support the Tibetan people, including with the Tibetan Police and Support Act, which is now law. And we will continue to take further strong action to support Tibet.”
Given India’s geographical situation, New Delhi will have to adopt more subtle measures. But as China watchers here ask, its about time India articulated a clearer Tibet policy.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.