File image of the Dalai Lama | Photo: Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
File image of the Dalai Lama | Photo: Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
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The Tibet issue played a major role in precipitating the India-China war of 1962. There were localised skirmishes along the border, but these began to be seen in a more ominous light by China in the wake of the Tibetan revolt of 1959 followed by the exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to India. The setting up of Indian posts and increased patrolling on our borders were seen as part of a sinister Indian design to subvert Chinese rule in Tibet. The status of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan issue have remained a shadow over India-China relations even though New Delhi has recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and has under-played official relations with the Dalai Lama.

The Tibet government-in-exile is allowed to function at Dharamsala but is not recognised by the Indian government. For China, Tibet is a “core issue” just as Taiwan and Xinjiang are.


Also read: Chinese President Xi calls for building new modern, socialist & culturally advanced Tibet


A changing relationship

During the tenure of the Narendra Modi government, there have been instances of open courtship of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Its ‘Prime Minister’ Lobsang Sangay was an invitee to the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Modi in 2014. The Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Pema Khandu, declared that his state had a border with Tibet and not with China, in 2017.

But after the Modi-Xi Jinping summit in Wuhan in April 2018, there appeared a rethink on the Tibet issue with the Ministry of External Affairs reissuing instructions to government functionaries to avoid public association with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan representatives of the government-in-exile. An international Buddhist conference, which the Dalai Lama had been encouraged to convene, was cancelled. The Tibetans were advised that the 60th anniversary, in 2019, of the Dalai Lama’s entry into India, should be a low-key affair.

The second Modi-Xi summit in Mamallapuram in October 2019 reinforced this trend. The Modi government was signalling that it was prepared to put the Tibet issue in cold storage while advancing bilateral relations with China.


Also read: India’s use of secret guerrilla force SFF in Ladakh signals a larger design to contain China


The wrong card

During the recent clashes between the Indian and Chinese armed forces on the border in eastern Ladakh, the Tibet issue has resurfaced and will add to mutual distrust and suspicion. A deliberately leaked report to the media revealed that the secretive Special Frontier Force (SFF), recruited mainly from the Tibetan community in India, was used in the operations in southern Pangong Tso. One of its soldiers, Tenzin Nyima, died in a mine blast and at his funeral, independent Tibet’s flags were displayed. BJP leader Ram Madhav attended the funeral and tweeted about it. He subsequently took it down, presumably at the behest of the Ministry of External Affairs.

Several commentators were quick to welcome the report on the SFF, no longer secret, as a reminder to China that India still held the “Tibet card” and would be ready to use it to bring it to heel. Like much of the bizarre fantasising that seems to have taken hold in India, this, too, may only heighten mistrust and hostility in Beijing without inflicting any real pain. In any negotiations with an adversary, one should never provoke a confrontation over an issue where the other side has greater equity and stake than oneself. This is clearly the case here. It is also intriguing that this story was highlighted on the eve of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow. At the very least, it would have made his interaction more challenging.

The SFF has been in existence for several years. Its efficacy lies in its rigorous training, high morale and professionalism. It should not have become yet another pawn in a political game to convince public opinion that India has more levers of influence than it actually has. In doing so, the potential efficacy of the SFF has been undermined and Chinese suspicions over India’s intentions regarding Tibet would have been aroused to a new intensity.


Also read: All about Special Frontier Force, the secretive Indian unit in news after Ladakh clash


A crisis of credibility

The tactical use of the Tibetan issue and of the Dalai Lama is both cynical and counter-productive. Ever since his arrival in India, he has enjoyed respect and reverence across the Indian political spectrum as a religious leader. We have consistently maintained the position that he is our welcome guest as a high religious personage and that we do not endorse political activities engaged in by him or the Tibetan community. This has helped manage Tibet as an issue in India-China relations, reducing its salience as an irritant. Unfortunately, this consistent and longstanding position has been severely compromised.

In any India-China border settlement, an understanding over Tibet will need to be arrived at. The best-case scenario for India would be a reconciliation between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese regime, and this seemed possible during the first few years of Xi Jinping’s rule. In our informal conversations with Chinese counterparts, we have conveyed that their assumption of the Tibetan issue being permanently resolved once the Dalai Lama was no longer in the scene was misplaced. In fact, we pointed out, the situation may become even more fraught once the restraining hand of the Dalai Lama was no longer available. The Tibetan community in India, particularly the youth, could become more radicalised.

In Tibet, reconciliation between its people and the Chinese state would be more likely with the blessings of the Dalai Lama rather than in his absence. Both countries, we conveyed, need to have an early and quiet dialogue on this issue and not allow it to become a festering problem for the future. There was receptivity on the Chinese side to these views. However, this waving of the Tibet card, which serves only to irritate and annoy, puts paid to any such engagement on a sensitive issue, with serious implications for the future. It undermines the immense goodwill and gratitude that New Delhi has all along enjoyed with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in India and abroad. The community is disturbed by the manner in which the Indian government plays hot and cold towards it and has become anxious about its future.

The bending of foreign policy issues to serve domestic political ends is proving to be costly for India. The most valuable asset a country and its political leadership possess is credibility with both friends and adversaries alike. When image-making gets unlatched from reality, credibility is the first casualty. And India indeed faces a crisis of credibility.

The author is a former Foreign Secretary, and a Senior Fellow at CPR. Views are personal. 

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55 Comments Share Your Views

55 COMMENTS

  1. SFF was a highly classified force for almost 60 years after it’s creation. This force was used for very specific roles in Himalayan region that is still highly classified in nature. Openly flaunting these forces, specially videos of dancing soldiers, can severely jeopardize the confidentiality and security of these people. ALso, it will give Chinese government another reason to crackdown on Tibetan people even for a little suspicion. Fist, this foolishness happened in Myanmar, they India lost Maldives after continuous warnings from AMericans that if they don’t move, US will. The things that happened in Balakot are highly questionable in nature and no one outside, the close BJP circle officials, have approved the version coming from IAF. These continuous events to support a persona is very dangerous not only for the current institutions but for the future generations as well since this will become a systemic these agencies to get promotion nd positions. The old good people, with knowledge and sense are nowhere to be found and their places are full of bafoons, Similar to US.

  2. I see many Hindus are angry against Chinese bullying of Tibet and of India.

    The same Hindus support bullying of minorities in India, and of small neighbours.

    So Hindus have no credibility and our neighbours think ‘achha hua’.

  3. The author is right, but all the Hindus here are angry and accusing him of defeatism.

    Yet, the original episode shows the defeatist Hindu character. The 56 inch chowkidar of the Hindus said the news the Chinese crossed the LAC and took land was wrong. Those did not happen.

    Either he is right – or that is the biggest example of Hindu defeatism. But even his bhakts know he is fibbing. But the same Hindus do not want to hold their chowkidar accountable -they think public censure of Modi is defeatism and depresses the morale of the Hindus !

    It is this Hindu inability to be be sobre and objective that has cost India dearly. Instead, the Hindus prefer to dream vainly of playing a Tibet card and blockading China in the South China Sea. And in practice, they will not be able to do that. Instead, they will take out their frustration and fight other Indians in the country. They excel in that.

    The author is right to point out that Hindus should not over estimate their capabilities. Shah thought repealing 370 and saying Aksai Chin will be captured was demonstrative of a new Hindu vigour. Most Hindus were deluded and cheered. The Chinese response and the outcome clearly shows India did not have the capability.

    Then, talk of liberating Tibet is even more far fetched. China (with Pak.) is in a better position to break up India as they know Hindus have made India into a combustible tinderbox with their casteism and communalism.

    It is time for Hindus to cut out their false pride and ego, and save India from disaster.

  4. Most pathetic article and even more pathetic analysis. Indian foreign policy at present is the best. We have started using our advantages for our benefits. Some idiots who are Congress or Communists backings, including The Print, who all are paid. It’s not an allegation but something people think, did happen, when Crores came from China on pretext or other. Writing long articles don’t prove your point to be correct.

    • ‘We have started using our advantages for our benefits’ – for example, surrendering land and saying nothing happened.

      Hindu cowardice does not seem to be an advantage for India. Hindus like you should be sent to the LAC to show our advantage.

  5. It is this kind of cowardice that let the Chinese come right on the borders of India and threaten India’s sovereignty. People like him are the Trojan of China dressed up in Dhoti and Congress topi but with the heart of China inserted firmly in their mindset. You have been licking the dirty arse of China for 50 long years by your slavish loyalty to communist China by sacrificing Tibet, yet what have you achieved? China is still breathing down your neck and nibbling away your territory and you are still peddling the same excuses and dastardly submission that has been your service to your masters in China. You and your ilk are cowards of the lowest denomination and disgrace to India!

    • The chowkidar has shown the typical Hindu cowardice. He visited China 18 times, touched Xi’s feet, he coined an acronym STREANH for the warmth of India-China relations, and when China took land, he said nothing happened. He is the worst Hindu leader since Vedic times !

  6. No wonder, previous wrong policy by these corrupt babus towards China is still being pursued by hook or crook. CCP money is never short if you support them. If India played Tibet Card two decades ago, the PLA never would have popped up at India’s door step. Now PLA is claiming whole more lands and India spending crores of rupees to safe guard the border. These operatives still have soft corner with China and support their nefarious design.

    • Modi said China did not take any land, so are you saying he has a soft corner for China and is shielding them ? He has pledged he is the Hindu chowkidar.

  7. This is a blatantly anti india article. Looks like paid China article. Sad to see such artciles in democratic India where freedom of apeech and press are misused

  8. If Modi government raises issue of Tibetans or Uighuyrs, Kashmir will not be India’s internal problem anymore.

    So far Modi has not even mentioned China, so I don’t think he will take any further steps to escalate the situation between the two countries. Jaishankar has always spoken the line that India does not interfere in other countries internal problems. Why else was Madhav’s tweet taken down ?

    The posturing in media regarding SFF and Tibetan cause is only for the domestic audience so as to project his nationalist image.

    Representing 1.3 billion people, Modi has good reason to be very careful regarding how his moves are observed internationally not just in China.

  9. Such a biased report. He is a stooge. Print needs to see the facts before publishing such mockery. Let China declare war on India. The End game is near for CCP.

  10. What a disastrous and twisted article by the respected writer. Why is he pandering to the Chinese sensitivities. If the Chinese can openly violate the one India policy by calling Arunachal Pradesh as south Tibet why can’t we play the same card with them.

    • why can’t we play the same card with them ?

      Because India will get a bigger beating, and RSS, Bajrang Dal and other Hindu soldiers would not be able to avert it.

  11. Modi’s foreign policy is driven by a mix of dadagiri diplomacy and teenage testosterone!! And that’s further pushed to the edge by the Doval doctrine, which says that we’ll meddle in each others affairs till the end of time!! This doctrine is not based on creating a solution, rather on continuous festering wounds for both parties!!

    India’s foreign policy is in a shambles, and Modi cannot blame anyone but himself! This article is a superb analysis, but I’m sure this wisdom will be lost on the duds that head our foreign outreach! So the flip flops will continue, and we’ll remain isolated in our neighbourhood. Our brand value, built over millennia, will be eroded in a matter of years just to further the BJP’s anti-national agenda of divide and rule plus distract and rule!!

    • Most pathetic article and even more pathetic analysis. Indian foreign policy at present is the best. We have started using our advantages for our benefits. Some idiots who are Congress or Communists backings, including The Print, who all are paid. It’s not an allegation but something people think, did happen, when Crores came from China on pretext or other. Writing long articles don’t prove your point to be correct.

  12. The commentor seems to have taken money from China for publicity, or Chinese may be aware of some of his scandals through their espionage. He sounds so low in confidence about the changing Indian foreign policy. Trust needs to be mutual. And yes, Tibet is not China. When India will not be neighbors with China after the independence of Tibet, there will be no need of the current policy with China.

  13. One thing I agree with is that Tibet is the key to the solution. India shares a border with Tibet, not China. However, India policy has been to ignore Tibet until now. The author makes some bizarre claims. So, the Tibetan people are disturbed by the Tibetan issue being highlighted? The Dalai Lama was going to drive a rappraochment between the Tibetan people and China? The Indian Govt has no choice now, it has given up 1000sqKm of territory to the Chinese now. This is because of a passive border management strategy. It worked OK in the 70s, but not in the past decade where China was taking aggressive plans to develop Tibet and connect it with Central Asia. At the very least, this government and governments of the past needed to do was take on an aggressive defensive posture.

    At this point, India needs to hold the line and make it very expensive for China to push India around. This will discourage any further misadventures. Addressing the Tibet problem jointly comes as a second step once China realizes that India isn’t going to be an easy pushover. India has a poor record of driving influence indirectly when there is active interference, (see Afghanistan and Bangladesh). Aggressive Defense is the only path forward else India risks losing more land like in Bhutan’s Doklam. Whether in a school or in geo-politics, the only way to fix a bullying problem is to fight back.

    Timing is great as well with the world looking to take on China. It’s time to eke some gains, solidify our position for the inevitable talks that will come.

  14. You know when we try to justify the outrageous behaviour of the Chinese by saying that such and such thing are its “core issues”.. that sounds very defeatist…. all countries have their “core issues”. Between China and India, if China can trample all over India’s core issues, no Indian should even think what are the “core issues” for China….. its all relative in diplomacy…. agree?

  15. Indian diplomats are the one under performing in the whole world. They are govt employees and very lazy to improve their skills. We saw what happened in us embassy about the employee who have maid.

  16. It seems the writer is scared of the Chinese. China uses deception as a tool everytime. It has changed it’s stand that it doesn’t recognize Arunachal as a state of India. The government is doing the right thing in bringing out the Tibet issue against the stubborn chinese. Also the SFF person sacrificed his life for India and deserved to be recognized.

  17. Author’s view is a symptom of malice plaguing the entire bureaucracy.

    Dragon over the past 70 years has rubbished the mcmohan line, occupied Indian territories, continues to claim Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal, built infrastructure in gilgit baltistan, provide support to Pakistan.

    A common sense conclusion which can be derived from these facts is that Indian policy has failed and needs reorientation and disregards the threats posed by adversary to the region and India in particular.

    SFF is a political step and a message in that direction and needs to be supported with military, diplomatic and economic means with larger strategic objective of regional stability, tranquility and peace.

    It’s time to get past what will dragon think, what will happen to relationship is a defeatist, slavish and apologetic mindset which our bureaucracy must be freed from.

  18. Does your master China care about India’s core interests? They sponsor the terrorist state of Pakistan. They instigate riots and arm north-east insurgents. They support terroristan in UN.
    Thank god people who will sell India’s interest are out of the current government. India should not care two hoots about the back-stabbing chinese, and use every tool to pay back these slimes in their own coin. Too far India has become defensive, because of such sold out advisers, who never cared about Indian civilizational interests OR its core security. OR they are also with them?
    Thank God Modi Government could see through such compromised bureaucrats.

    • ‘Thank God Modi Government could see through such compromised bureaucrats.

      Modi said no land was taken, you worship him, so what is the issue with China ? There is no issue.

  19. I disagree with this article completely. China is openly supporting Pakistan and arming it and now trying to nibble away our territory. It is ridiculous for you to argue we should keep quiet or low key about Tibet or any issue that might irk China. People such as yourself (diplomats) have got India into this situation where we keep hoping for diplomatic breakthroughs while China continued to get more and more aggressive militarily and violate bilateral treaties.

  20. As much as I respect Shyam Saran, I disagree with him on his view on recent change in India’s Tibet Policy. What have we achieved in the past fifty years by being over-sensitive to Chinese concerns? Why do we need to still play on their terms? We are dealing with an expansionist power ruled by a Dictator. The CCP doesn’t follow the One India policy, why should we follow One China policy. Xi Jinping was hosted just last year in India and we got backstabbed just six months after it. They have been violating every agreement with India. They have been the aggressor in all the skirmishes. You might be an experienced diplomat, but the Chinese have taken you for a ride in their “informal” meeting with you. The time has come for a radical shift in India’s China policy. Not only, Tibet, but we should also recognize Taiwan as well. We should also support Hong Kong. We need to urgently shed apologist tendencies and let them taste their own medicine.

  21. Mr Shyam Saran….I have never seen a bigger slave than u…its better u take early exit from these discussions…
    India will prefer to be defeated than to be a perpetual slave..
    Its unimaginable how much damage u have already done being in IFS…
    Hope u will have some spine in ur next life..
    Jai Hind

  22. Author learnt foreign policy under Congress.
    1) His Psychological fear of China is clearly visible in his concern about irritating China.
    2) Next hallmark is his third worldist view of India, as a weak power, where all confrontation is to be avoided even at the cost of losing territory.
    3) Finally, he is Nehruvian non aliginist. He is the architect of India’s anti Quad argument. He is seen as instrumental in weakening Quad as long as he was in power, and since through arguments.
    He is old school, India needs to move past him.

  23. You are great scholar i personally learned many new things from you article that how our diplomates been dealing with Chinese but definitely not agree with India played a wrong SFF card actually we don’t have many option left to deal with a country like Chins which doesn’t believe on any rule base, we know that we may lack on many front against China specially on economy we don’t match at all but if don’t stand up against China they will never stop and will come up with other area to suppress you. Having said that I couldn’t agree more than your last sentences ” When image-making gets unlatched from reality, credibility is the first casualty. And India indeed faces a crisis of credibility”

  24. Mr.Shyam Saran is a typical congress era MEA bureaucrat who pussyfoots around. This was how our foreign policy was managed in the past. Be soliticious to others’ concerns while they walk all over us. If China expects India to be sensitive to their Tibet concerns, they China must also stop hobnobbing with terrorist-State Pakistan and encouraging them to export terror to India. China must also show sensitivity to the present position of Arunachal Pradesh in India. China must also stop needling India with periodic incursions. China must also show inclination to settle border dispute with India once and for all.

    China has got away rather easily with occupation of Tibet, with none inthe world condemning China and India throwing in the towel. It is time to raise Tibetal issues as human rights violation in the international forums, needle China using every opportunity on the Tibetan issue. Tibet was a buffer zone between India and China. Nehru’s inaction brought omnious Chine right into our door.

    This kind of timidity and pussyfooting will play right into the hands of Chinese Communist Thugs.

  25. I think it is high time that we start be behaving like an independent nation governed by Parliament approved principles and not shivering in pants at the mention of China any case China has been harassing us without regard for our sensitivities. We will be bullied even if we declare Tibet to be part of China.
    Let us boldly declare our intentions and stand by our principles. That will silence the Chinese. Let us behave as a nation.

  26. Kind of a very pathetic analysis.

    We have in the past tried to not play the Tibet card, so as to maintain cordial relations. What did we get in return?

    We consider Kashmir, Ladakh, Arunachal to be integral parts of India. China has always overtly thrown Arunachal being South Tibet in our face. They have stopped sanctioning of terrorist handlers in Kashmir and organisations on behest of Pakistan. They consider Kashmir to be a negotiable issue but not Tibet? They have problem with us reorganizing our territory and constructing infrastructure in our controlled territory, yet they build projects after projects in PoK.

    Why should we bend over in our foreign policy to placate them, when they have shown no regard for your our interests?

  27. Mr. Saran , if the other country is flouting all d previous agreements, why should India keep the onus of not picking it’s enemies pain points ? Because off these nehruvian ideology diplomats that we r facing this issue. He will never answer why he couldn’t force China to settle boundry issue if they built trust with China by keeping silence on Tibet.
    Other expert like Mr. Braham Chelani argued that because we let go Tibet issue ,we hv lost leverage with China and I tend to agree with him.
    With China u hv to show strength and hit him where it pains then only he come on negotiation table. West closed its eyes on Tieanman square massacre, HK intervention , China didn’t relent . Finally now US put trade sanctions, sent navy in South China sea , he is backing off in Taiwan..

  28. It is because of this .man….that we are partly in this mess today…one of the disasters to have hit bharat…that is this man….
    And he still vomits nonsense…

  29. What sort of article is this! As per this article India simply has no options, because whatever reciprocal actions India takes will be wrong (as per this article). Does the writer mean to simply keep mum even if the Chinese cross LAC and grab lands? In my opinion, the presence of more than 75000 Tibettan refugees in India is a big issue. India should have continuously raised it since these people came here. India shouldn’t have suppressed the actions of these refugees just to make the Chinese happy. This shows that the old administrators like Shyama Sharan were scared by the Chinese. It’s a pity.
    It is high time India raised the Tibettan issue strongly with the Chinese and also the UN. As China acquired Tibet, it had to take responsibility of the Tibettans too.

  30. With all due respect that he deserves, one can still argue against the view presented here by Mr Shyam Saran.
    1. Is a popular government not in its right to twick it’s diplomatic policy with changing reality.
    2. Do we believe that the Chinese sovereignty over Tibet an irreversible thing.
    3. Does Mr Shyam Saran believe that keeping the death of the SSF soldier in mine blast was easy or desirable or was it diplomatically more beneficial to use it as a psyops tool to counter an enemy who is way ahead in hybrid warfare games.
    4. Having witnessed the Tiananmen square massacre himself does he think that the Chinese public opinion is permanently emasculated that it can never overthrow a repressive regime.
    5. For a moment assuming that the Chinese dream can lull the Han majority in quiet submission to the CCP repression, does the learner diplomat think that the non Han Chinese like the Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchus and Uighyr are equally eager to share the Chinese dream of reasonable prosperity.
    6. If the learner diplomat thinks it was wise to warn the unavoidable neighbours of how the Tibetans may react after the eventual death of the Dalai Lama ; then what makes him think that any counterview that there are Tibetans willing to die today for the free Tibet dream is less diplomatic.
    7. I am not a Modi bhakt and won’t stop criticising his government for underplaying the Chinese incursion in April and May nor will I forgive him for downplaying the Covid19 pandemic in January and February and most part of March but he has every right to chart his own China policy and decide whether to expose the SSF if he thinks it can ignite hope in the minds of the Tibetans on either side of the border or use it as a tool to belatedly assure his country that ultimately he has indeed woken up to the reality that friendship with , CCP government ruled China is more a chimera than a realistic policy.

    We have had enough of fat bottoms diplomatese across the LAC, let us see if the Hindu supremacist has a different solution. After all the democracy has elected him till 2024.

    If Shyam Saran was still in service would he have offered the same argument? I very much doubt that.

    He should enjoy his pension now.

  31. Another congress chaplus. All they want is to defeat modi, even if it means China winning. The happiest people after PAF when Abhinandan was shot were congress walas and their cotrie like this guy. They have mismanaged indias international policy so long that we don’t have one real friend. To satisfy Gandi’s domestic compulsions for mozzies these people didn’t allow us friendship with western world. The east had no need of a poor country as friend anyway

  32. Tibet issue should have all along linked to Chinese imaginary claims in Laddakh, HP, Utrakhand, Sikkim n Tawang on quid pro quo basis.
    In fact India has had disastrous foreign policy all along. We never had trained foreign policy minds, we were not bothered about securing our borders from the word go, unlike China, Pakistan, even Nepal.
    We were busy in establishing hollow democratic high moral grounds rather than securing our borders n defences cum armaments.

  33. A brilliant article and his phrase “bizarre fantasizing” describese exactly the state of unreality that a lot of our nation , media and politics is wallowing in. A timely rebuke to Ram Madhav’s false bravado, Also a reminder that on the ground , the Tibet card doesn’t count for much and will not help us in negotiations or military action. Deserves to be published in all Indian languages.

    • fool is the only word for this editor…no wonder india was scared to stand up to Chinese bullying .
      Tibet is not small land, Tibet can stand by itself, china occupied to rob its resource, not to develop…Tibet is 10th Largest country in world and has worlds best fresh water rivers…..why Nehru gave up the birth right of Tibetan land to Communist regime which only knows to kill and Plunder

      • ‘fool is the only word for this editor…no wonder india was scared to stand up to Chinese bullying .’

        It is not the editor who did not stand up to China, it is the chowkidar of the Hindus who was caught napping and who afterwards did not take responsibility. Why are you not angry with the chowkidar, why are you venting anger at the newsman ?

  34. Nice little article of ‘views are personal’, criticism of the Government and subtle messaging on the need to handle China with kid gloves.
    But… what’s your proposed alternative solution? Can’t find it in the little article.

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