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As Dalai Lama turns 83, Indian wariness post-Wuhan overshadows Tibet’s future

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Amid a rising China and in the backdrop of the ‘Wuhan truce’, a honourable solution on Tibet for all sides seems more difficult.

New Delhi: The Dalai Lama escaped the heat and rain in the plains to the pleasanter climes of Leh to celebrate his 83rd birthday Friday with devotees, even as the political temperature in Delhi remained firmly in favour of telling the Tibetan leadership-in-exile to remain exclusively engaged in its spiritual activities.

The Dalai Lama’s representative in Delhi, Ngodup Dongchup, told ThePrint that there has been no request from the Prime Minister’s office to meet His Holiness Dalai Lama since he came to power in 2014.

Ngodup was referring to the absence of a formal request, as Tibetan sources admitted that the Tibetan spiritual leader had met the prime minister soon after he came to power in 2014, but late in the night, with none of the Dalai Lama’s aides present.

Over the last six months, however, the line from Delhi has become much tougher, as the government seeks to rebalance its relationship with China.

The Dalai Lama meets Ladakhis dress in traditional dress | Tenzin Choejor/
The Dalai Lama meets Ladakhis dress in traditional dress | Tenzin Choejor/

Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s letter in February telling the Tibetan government-in-exile to cancel all its programmes in the capital and elsewhere has not only left the Tibetans with red faces but also upset several China-watchers.

Ashok Kantha, a former ambassador to China and director of the formidable think-tank, the Institute of Chinese Studies, told ThePrint, “If by diminishing contact with the Tibetan government-in-exile the government thinks it can change the behavior of the Chinese, then that will be counter-productive.”

China-watchers point out that the terms of engagement of the “Wuhan truce,” a term coined by former foreign secretary and China hand, Shivshankar Menon, describing the meeting between Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping, must be clarified.

And that engagement with the Tibetans must increase, not decrease.

“As the Dalai Lama ages, it is even more important for India to be continually engaged with the Tibetan community, to get an intimate sense of what His Holiness is thinking,” a government official told ThePrint.

But Tempa Tsering, a close aide of the Dalai Lama, expressed his happiness over everything the Indian government has done for the Tibetan community over the decades.

“We understand that the Indian government has its own national interests to protect, which is why there is not much that they can do in the international arena,” he told ThePrint.

Among the most important issues, the anonymous official said, is the delicate matter of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.

Where will it take place? In Tibet, where the Dalai Lama was born and still considers home? In India, where he has lived for 59 years in exile? Or elsewhere in the world, where the large Tibetan diaspora is hugely influential?

In several interviews over the years, the Dalai Lama himself has only added to the confusion. ‘His reincarnation may be a woman’, he once said. Another time he remarked, ‘There may be no reincarnation at all. The institution of the Dalai Lama could end with me.’

Jabin Jacob, associate editor of the ICS’s ‘China Report’ pointed out that if the “reincarnation is born as an Indian citizen, then obviously the Indian government will have a responsibility of protecting his rights as an Indian citizen. That would definitely send a strong message to the international community. A citizen is a citizen regardless of being a Lama or not.”

A senior Tibetan monk in Delhi, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explained the sensitivity of the task of finding a reincarnation in the age of social media.

“The process of finding the reincarnate is very subtle and performed by experienced lamas. The head lama leaves instructions and indicators about his reincarnate which his followers have to find. These lamas have to verify the consciousness of this child, it is no easy task,” the monk told ThePrint.

Former foreign secretary and China-watcher Shyam Saran said the time is now to discuss all these issues and that China needs to understand that it will only gain if it discusses the issue of Tibet with all interested parties.

“His Holiness the Dalai Lama has a large following internationally and if they negotiate with him over Tibetan autonomy they automatically gain the support of these people,” Saran told ThePrint.

If the Chinese appoint a Chinese Dalai Lama after His Holiness passes away, the Tibetans will not accept him as their leader, Saran added.

“We do not regard the Chinese appointed Panchen Lama as legitimate but respect him because of the title his name holds,” Thupten Lama told ThePrint.

But the Communist Party of China, growing stronger by the day under the leadership of Xi Jinping, shows no signs of holding any talks at all, under the aegis of its International Department or through any other channel.

Even a conversation around the Dalai Lama’s Middle Path, first raised by him as long back as 1989, has led nowhere. Over the last several years the Tibetan spiritual leader has spoken generously about the achievements of the Communist Party in raising the material achievements of the people.

He has, in no uncertain terms, insisted that the people of Tibet are part of China, and that there is no question of the people believing in a temporal authority, like in the institution of the Dalai Lama.

All the Tibetan spiritual leader has asked in return is for Beijing to concede that, historically, Tibet’s geographical boundaries did not coincide with those of the People’s Republic today. And that the Tibetan people should be allowed to retain their spiritual and religious traditions.

But the Chinese have repeatedly replied by denouncing him and calling him a “splittist” leader.

The Dalai Lama enjoying his birthday celebrations in Leh | Tenzin/Choejor
The Dalai Lama enjoying his birthday celebrations in Leh | Tenzin Choejor/

Meanwhile, the character of the Tibetan community in India, about 1,50,000 people, is changing. Several Tibetans are now born in India, which means they are also Indian citizens. Several are leaving India for the West, with US, Canada and Europe being preferred destinations.

Even the elected Tibetan prime minister-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, is an American citizen, although he was born in India.

Ngodhup, the Tibetan representative-in-exile in Delhi told ThePrint that in the last 10 years or so about 10-15,000 Tibetans have left India for other countries. But he put this down to economic reasons, “just like what other Indians are also doing.”

Despite everything, Tibetan refugees living in India are happy with all the facilities the government has provided for them. Thimbuk, a 72-year-old migrant living in Delhi’s Majnu Ka Tila, a corner of Tibet in the capital, says that he likes being in India and it has become his second home.

Thimbuk came to India almost 60 years back and finds life in India very comfortable.

The Central Tibetan School in Majnu Ka Tila held a function to commemorate the Dalai Lama’s birthday Friday, just like it does every year. Children performed traditional dances. The Tibet House on Lodhi road in the heart of Delhi — inaugurated by His Holiness in 1965 — held an interfaith prayer ceremony, where representatives of different religions prayed for the long life of His Holiness.

Tibetan students perform during a function to celebrate the Dalai Lama's birthday at Majnu Ka Tila in New Delhi | Abhishek Sharma/PTI
Tibetan students perform during a function to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday at Majnu Ka Tila in New Delhi | Abhishek Sharma/PTI

After 59 years of living in exile, some Tibetan refugees wonder if they will ever get to see their own country again. Some still hope, despite all the troubles. Others believe India can and should “do something.” They just don’t know what.

All are agreed that China’s rising power makes an honourable solution for all sides even more difficult.

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  1. As a layman who has no information of or any idea of the Politics that is at play between the nations particularly India, China and other satellite countries around it but who has friends in Tibetan communities and particularly youth whose love and longing for their country does not seem to have diminished a bit, India has not been able to be seen to stand by them thus alienating them despite the fact they are born and are brought up in this land. Since Modi Sarkar has come to power which is led entirely by the dictat of RSS even in international matters it is trying to be closer to China only to get it away from Pakistan and in this process India is going to lose both sides. The article is very much in detail and elaborates the situation finely and for which the editor and writer deserve to be congratulated.

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