China’s Dalai Lama obsession!
All is not well between India and China. India boycotted China’s mega Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and used strong words to explain why it chose to stay away. The Chinese had reached out to India to attend the event, but New Delhi remained unconvinced. It raised the issue of sovereignty and the debt burden that would fall on countries who chose to be part of BRI. India used strong words to criticise a project that the Chinese have been deeply invested in since 2013. India perceives BRI and a key project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that links Pakistan’s Gwadar port with Kashgar in China, as threats to its sovereignty and security. It sees China’s muscular assertion to be a world power by reviving the ancient Silk Route as an attempt to ride over its domestic troubles and also those with its neighbours. Nothing epitomises this more than its attempts to neuter the Dalai Lama-led Tibetan Buddhist liberation movement that has been a thorn in its side ever since he escaped from Lhasa in 1959. India, who provided shelter to Tibetan refugees, has lived uneasily with China ever since. It has fought one war and engaged in many violent skirmishes. For years, there was tranquility at the border accompanied by robust trade between the two countries, but one thing that did not change was Beijing’s hostility towards the Dalai Lama and his community in exile, located in Dharamsala and other parts of the country. His very presence reminded the Chinese of what could go wrong in the event of political turbulence. They have worked hard to diminish his stature and the influence he exercises on Tibetan Buddhists. In Lhasa, it is a moving sight to see many Tibetan villagers gaze at the Potala palace and pray for the Dalai Lama’s good health.
China’s growing global profile has seen its political leadership make unreasonable demands from its allies regarding the Dalai Lama. Mongolia was humiliatingly made to accept conditionalities that included a commitment that it would never host the Dalai Lama. In India, the Chinese have tried to exert pressure that the Tibetan movement should not be visible during the visits of Beijing’s top leaders. More recently, the Chinese promised retaliation if the Dalai Lama was allowed to visit Arunachal Pradesh. Though this is not his first visit there, the Chinese were disproportionately upset with New Delhi. They refused to accept it as a spiritual visit and their interlocutors pointed out that the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh had said that his state bordered Tibet and not China. Besides, he was accompanied by India’s Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju, at all the functions. Quite evidently for the Chinese, his trip had the blessings of the Indian government.
Beijing promised to punish India. In some ways, they have been hurting India for a while so one wonders what they propose to do now. They have refused to accept India’s influence in South Asia as they did in the past. India is being challenged everywhere – Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and even Afghanistan. Post the Dalai Lama’s visit they have given Chinese names to Arunachal Pradesh’s towns. Also, they are working hard to ensure that the Dalai Lama’s undisputed sway over Tibetan Buddhists is challenged by a competing sect – Dorje Shugden. Though this is not a new phenomenon, in recent years Dorje Shugden has grown in influence and its followers may end up questioning the Dalai Lama’s attempts to appoint his successor. It is all very complicated, but there is recognition in the Tibetan Buddhist exile establishment that China has become far too powerful to mess around with. The Chinese are not just trying to control the Buddhist narrative, but also ensuring that the community in exile in India shrinks so as not to pose any challenge to Beijing. India, that has taken an adversarial position towards China, will have to reconfigure its policies to ensure it does not get isolated in a world that seems enamoured of its populated neighbour.