India’s New Tibet Card Or Just A Nudge To China?

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The Dalai Lama at a public event in New Delhi on Thursday.

NEW DELHI: “When the Chinese criticise me, I am more concerned about their anger, their state of mind.” That was the Dalai Lama taking a swipe at China during an address on ethics at New Delhi’s India International Centre on Thursday. But to many of those present (ranging from Delhi’s beautiful people to diplomats and the intelligence community), his not-so-subtle digs at the Chinese were secondary to the presence of government officials sharing the dais with the Tibetan spiritual leader.

The event was hosted by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, a prestigious government think tank. Also present was sitting BJP MP Dr Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, chairman of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. There was also NN Vohra, a former J&K governor who now heads the India International Centre.

As the Dalai Lama waxed eloquent on ethics, the chinwag among some of the ex-officials (and journalists) present was whether the government was sending some new signal to China. Why was the Indian government reaching out to the Tibetan spiritual leader after studiedly ignoring him? Could there be a new Tibet policy in the offing?

SNI caught up with some China-watchers late in the evening to figure out if there was any deeper meaning. Prof. Madhu Bhalla, a China academic, advised caution. “If there is any signalling Delhi is doing, its full shape will only emerge over time,” she said.

She pointed to the flip-flops in government policy towards the Tibetans, lending to confusion and lack of clarity. The government has ignored the Tibetans; there was the shabby treatment meted out to the Karmapa who remains in exile; then the foreign secretary’s “infamous letter” in February last year to all ministries, warning them against participating in any Tibetan function (the idea was that the Modi-Xi Jinping summit in Wuhan goes off smoothly).

But the government has also acted otherwise. In March last year, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav and Mahesh Sharma, Union Minister of State for Culture, were in Dharmshala to mark 60 years of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India.

There was some furore over Madhav’s remarks which were interpreted to mean that the Tibetans in India should return to their homeland. But what he actually said was nothing of that kind: “We appreciate your desire to go back to your motherland and we wish you all the luck. This desire must not vanish. Till then India is your home. India is the land of the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.”

Perhaps the government is trying to shore up its position, given the visit to Dharamsala last month of U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. His tweets hinted at a closer engagement with the exiled Tibetan community, bulk of whom live in India.

One tweet went thus: “Inspired and deeply moved after meeting his holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in India. He is living testament to the power of religious freedom to overcome hate, division and intolerance.”

The second tweet took direct aim at China without naming the country: “(The Tibetans) are a beacon of hope for religious freedom for all. They have not only endured but defied attacks by those who sought to revise, restrict and erase their unique heritage.”

Weeks after Brownback’s visit, a resolution in the U.S. Congress called for a “genuinely autonomous Tibet” and recalled “the deep bond the American and Tibetan people”.

There could be a roundtable between members of Congress and the Dalai Lama to discuss peaceful resolution of international conflicts. The U.S. has also urged a UN role in the Dalai Lama’s succession, which triggered an angry response from China. Read with the recent U.S. censure of China for incarcerating thousands of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang and legislation targeting China on Hong Kong, it would appear Washington is determined to bring every diplomatic gun to bear on Beijing.

So coming back to Thursday’s event in Delhi, it could be that South Block wants to ensure that even as the Tibetans engage with the U.S., India does not lose ground. One could fault this stance for being reactive but as was mentioned earlier, India’s policy towards Tibetans in the country has never been clear. But it is dazzlingly clear to policymakers that China’s adversarial posture vis-a-vis India is not going to change any time soon. The pinprick on China delivered on Thursday may be just that, a pinprick, but it’s a reminder to Beijing that India can play stronger cards if it wants.

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