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When Dalai Lama was talking about asylum in India, Nehru almost fell asleep

In The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life, Alexander Norman writes about the time the Dalai Lama came to India to discuss asylum, but Nehru had already made up his mind.

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From the moment he set foot in the country until the day he left, eleven weeks later, the question at the forefront of the Dalai Lama’s mind was whether to return to Tibet, or was now the moment to seek asylum abroad? There were strong feelings in both directions among those closest to him. In favor of staying in India were his older brothers Gyalo Thondup and Jigme Norbu—the first already based in India, the second having flown in specially from America. Sitting up with them until midnight, the Dalai Lama recalled, “Their views really shook me.” Phala, too, the Lord Chamberlain, together with one of the former tsit tsab, took a similar line. On the other side were the four members of the Kashag and, less vociferously, the two tutors, while the representatives of the Three Seats were firmly in favor of returning to Tibet. Also of importance was the opinion of the people of Tibet, who could be assumed to favor his return. For them to be without the Dalai Lama was to be bereaved. 

From Sikkim, the Precious Protector flew to Delhi, where his first engagement was to lay flowers and a kathag at Rajghat, in honor of Mahatma Gandhi, whose memorial stands there. The experience affected him profoundly. “It was a calm and beautiful spot,” he later wrote, “and I felt very grateful to be there, the guest of a people like mine who had endured foreign domination.” 

The next few days in Delhi were occupied with official receptions at which he was greeted by almost every dignitary in the capital. Not only was the Dalai Lama still nominally a head of state, but also the Tibetan leader was something more than a mere political figure. For many Indians he was an avatar, a holy man without compare. Though they did not share his religion, they nonetheless eagerly sought darshan of him: a blessing and a glimpse of the divine.


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While he was in Delhi, the Dalai Lama met with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, who was en route to a number of other Asian countries. As the Dalai Lama wrote in his autobiography, he found Zhou “as full of charm, smiles and deceit as ever.” Besides telling the Tibetan leader of Mao’s recent decision to delay reforms indefinitely in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Zhou assured him that if the Dalai Lama would care to accompany him back to Beijing, Chairman Mao would be glad to see the Precious Protector again and to allay in person any fears he might have. As for Gyalo Thondup and Jigme Norbu (both of whom Zhou clearly suspected of agitating for the Dalai Lama to seek asylum abroad), should they happen to be short of funds, the Chinese embassy would be happy to supply the Dalai Lama with money to give them — though it would be better if he did not disclose its source. This last was a strange remark. For all his guile, it is clear that Zhou was a less astute judge of character than his adversary. 

Notwithstanding Zhou’s assurance that there would be no reforms in the Tibet Autonomous Region, it left untouched the question of what was to happen in Kham and Amdo. The violent struggle now firmly under way there was certain to continue. 

From Delhi, the Precious Protector traveled to Bodh Gaya, where, to his delight, he was able to spend several days conducting ceremonies at this, the most sacred of all Buddhist pilgrimage sites. A speech he made at this time is remarkable for its prescience. Noting that in one of the sutras, or scriptures, there is a prophecy made by the Buddha that 2,500 years after his parinirvana —or passing beyond suffering—the dharma would flourish in the land of the red-faced people, he explained that some held this to refer to its spread in Tibet, “but one scholar has interpreted otherwise. According to him the prediction refers to Europe.” What the Dalai Lama could not have imagined at the time was that it would be he, more than anyone else, who would bring this about. Instead, his attention was focused when, on the last day of his stay at Bodh Gaya, unexpected news came that Zhou would be returning to Delhi the following day and sought an urgent meeting with the Tibetan leader. 

At once the Dalai Lama sent a message to one of the young Tibetan government officials who had remained behind in Delhi. He was to leave immediately for the northeastern hill town of Kalimpong, where he was to discharge the medium of the Nechung oracle from his Scottish mission hospital bed, where he was being treated for arthritis, and bring him to Delhi the very next day. This was a tall order, given the distances involved and the as yet underdeveloped state of regional air links. Nonetheless, in spite of delays necessitating some frantic negotiation with airline officials and a frosty reception from the other passengers when they finally took their seats two hours after the scheduled departure, the Nechung medium and his two attendants successfully made it back to Delhi on time. It subsequently emerged that his advice was that the Precious Protector should now seek asylum.


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Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama himself had fared less well. Arriving in Delhi by train earlier that evening, he had been hijacked by the Chinese ambassador. Without informing his Indian counterparts, the ambassador met the Dalai Lama at the train station and escorted him to his own car, which drove directly to the Chinese embassy. Meanwhile the rest of the Tibetan entourage took their seats in cars provided by the Indian government. The Tibetans arrived back at Hyderabad House, where they were quartered, aghast to find that they had mislaid their precious cargo. Only after frantic telephoning was the Dalai Lama finally located and retrieved from the Chinese embassy, where he had al- ready had the first of what was to be several meetings with Zhou Enlai. It was a stunning diplomatic coup on the part of the Chinese. 

These encounters with Zhou surrounded a critical meeting with Nehru at which the Precious Protector sought to determine the prime minister’s attitude toward a formal request for asylum. The Indian leader made clear his determination not to make any commitments that would harm India’s relationship with China. Indeed, so fully was his mind made up that he barely attended to what the Precious Protector had to say: “At first he listened and nodded politely. But . . . after a while he appeared to lose concentration as if he were about to [fall asleep].” 

The Dalai Lama explained that he had done all in his power to make the relationship with China work, but that he was now beginning to think it might be better to remain in India rather than return to Tibet. This evidently brought Nehru to his senses. He understood what the Tibetan was saying, he assured him, “but you must realise . . . that India cannot support you.” His advice was rather that the Dalai Lama should hold the Chinese to the terms of the Seventeen Point Agreement and speak out forcefully when they failed to do so.


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At his subsequent meetings with Zhou, the Dalai Lama gave no indication that he was considering applying for political asylum. Indeed, the (Chinese) transcripts of the meetings have him dutifully speaking in the first-person plural when referring to Chinese government policy in Tibet. Yet it is clear also that the Chinese premier was well aware that the Tibetan leader had been making inquiries. He cautioned the Dalai Lama that, if he stayed in India, he would be in political exile. “At first when you say something bad against us as strongly as possible, you will get some money. The second and third time, when you do not have much to say against us, you will get small sums of money, and in the end they will not have money to give you.” 

The opposing voices of the Nechung oracle and the Chinese premier were deeply unsettling, and when he left Delhi a few days later in the company of the Panchen Lama for a month-long tour of the country, the Dalai Lama was still in a quandary. 

This excerpt from The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life by Alexander Norman has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. I have not read the book, but any book about Tibetans refuge in India will be incomplete if it does not have the name of Maurice Friedman – Swami Bharatanada- as Gandhiji used to call him…. his contributions to India are immense, but like a true Sage , he lived a life unobtrusively.

  2. I really feel that Nehru did make a mistake in showing kindness to this ungrateful man, who calls himself a great Saint. The writer is an extremely biased ordinary person. Not worth reading.

    • You a Chinese lackey undressed !.We have plenty of corona viruses around here sitting in strategic positions and serving their masters,misusing our liberal democracy.

  3. This shows why His holiness Dalali Lama is treated by Chinese Communists so badly.
    Despite of giving refuge & security to Tibetan culture,there is so much disguise to Nehru.
    Really Communists are more pragmatic in approach than Nehru who ultimatelyost his life & fame in defense of such people.
    Now,this person should not be given any more reverence or shelter. & same should be viewed to its supporters who are flourishing on this sacred soil.

  4. Reflects of times we are in. Even those who received much from India and Nehru of his days have found reason to come out now and mock him. Obviously header of the article is designed to match this political correctness.

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