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Modi must consolidate Dalai Lama legacy as Xi’s grip on Tibet gets tighter

If New Delhi and Dharamshala are not able to overcome this overwhelming sense of disarray, it could cost them both.

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As His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama turns 86 years old today — 62 years of which he has spent in India – and the world wishes him a very happy birthday and many, many more to come, two countries are flexing muscle and jostling for influence, not just over the Buddhist leader’s legacy, but over what Tibet means to the world.

The first, of course, is China. Seventy years after Mao Zedong’s government signed an unequal 17-point agreement with Tibet on 23 May 1951, the Chinese issued a White Paper on Tibet in May this year, the third in Xi Jinping’s era that began in March 2013.

Also read: More Galwans ahead? India doesn’t need to panic, yet

China’s grip and US’ Tibet game

Like the other two White Papers on Tibet, released in 2015 and 2019, this one emphasises the importance of “governing Tibet in the new era” under the supervision of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which, it believes, has been ‘liberating Tibet from the yoke of a feudal-theocratic system and shepherding it on the highway of economic progress’.

There is the two-pronged “Xi Jinping strategy of governing the frontiers and ensuring stability of Tibet,” which is why model villages are being developed all along the India-China Line of Actual Control, including near Doklam. These settlements are being built to watch out both for “pro-Dalai Lama infiltrators” and act as a buffer between the CCP and the people.

And there is the interesting shift in focus, away from disgracing the Dalai Lama (for several decades he has been accused of “splittist” tendencies) and in favour of a discussion about his succession. Party control over freedom of religious belief has been emphasised, by invoking the 1997 document which noted that “approval of the reincarnation of the Grand Living Buddhas by the central government…is the key to safeguarding the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism”, besides a 2007 decree that said reincarnations must be approved by the government.

Meaning, the Chinese seem determined to prepare for their own successor to the Dalai Lama, just like they did with the Panchen Lama in 1995, by installing Gyaincain Norbu in place of the Dalai Lama’s nominee, six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. Nyima hasn’t been seen in public since.

The other country that has rapidly upped its game on the Tibet story is the US. Exactly a month after the Chinese White Paper was released, the North American seat and personal monastery of the Dalai Lama, the Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca in New York state, announced that it was building a Dalai Lama Library “intended as a repository for the collected works of all 14 Dalai Lamas.”

The Namgyal Monastery also announced a $5 million fund-raising drive. Clearly, America’s powerful Buddhists have joined hands with both Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress to send a message to China that it will protect the trappings of the Dalai Lama – if the Dalai Lama himself cannot be protected – and not allow China to walk away with his sacred legacy.

The announcement of a Dalai Lama Library also means that the monastery intends to collect books and papers and other effects of all the Dalai Lamas, including that of the 14th reincarnation currently living in Dharamshala, who probably brought the sacred artefacts of his ancestors with him when he fled his beloved Lhasa in 1959.

It is not clear currently whether it is the original artefacts that will be transferred to the US library or their copies – and what the Narendra Modi government’s view is on this transfer.

Also read: China’s military recruiting jobless Tibetans on border to form ‘volunteer militia’: Intel reports

India’s mixed signals

Owing to Covid-19 strictures, the Dalai Lama’s birthday celebrations in Dharamshala will be low-key, a bit like Tibetan expectations from the Narendra Modi government. In his first term, Modi balanced his China-Tibet policy by inviting the former Tibetan prime minister-in-exile Lobsang Sangay to his oath-taking ceremony in 2014, met the Dalai Lama in the dead of night in an unmarked car with darkened windows the same year, invited the Buddhist leader to Rashtrapati Bhawan in 2017 as well as allowed him to go to Tawang, the birthplace of one of his key predecessors, the Sixth Dalai Lama. And on the eve of the PM’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in 2018, the government ordered the cancellation of all events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India.

In Modi’s second term, India used the Special Frontier Force comprising Tibetan refugees to capture the south bank of the Pangong Tso in the ongoing conflict with the Chinese. Then BJP general secretary Ram Madhav travelled to Leh to pay his last respects at the funeral of a Tibetan soldier who was killed in the conflict.

But Ram Madhav has since reverted to the RSS and under external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, also a former ambassador to China, India’s policy on the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community is more opaque. No one knows if the convention of senior officials in the Ministry of External Affairs, led by its foreign secretary, meeting the Tibetan leader in Dharamshala or Delhi has been kept up or not. Of course, Covid must take a large share of the blame. The pandemic has meant that several Buddhist monks have contracted the infection, forcing the Dalai Lama into isolation.

But the news from Dharamshala is more troubling. The transition from the old Sikyong, Lobsang Sangay, to the new, Penpa Tsering, has not been peaceful. Sangay, a US citizen, has returned home, but not before roiling the waters in the Tibetan administration in exile. Thousands of young Tibetan refugees are leaving India for better opportunities abroad, especially to the US — resulting in a rapid depletion of the Tibetan diaspora in India, even as Tibetan schools and monasteries, established since the Dalai Lama’s arrival in 1959, are shutting down.

Meanwhile, India’s intelligence community continues to believe the Karmapa Lama — the head of the Karma Kagyu sect, who fled Tibet 21 years ago for Dharamshala and who the Dalai Lama has recognised to be the genuine article — is a spy. Actually, the intelligence community cannot make up its mind — some insist he’s a Chinese spy, while others are more willing to trust the Dalai Lama faith in the younger monk.

As the Dalai Lama turns 86 years old, this overwhelming sense of disarray between New Delhi and Dharamshala seems to have become the defining motif of a once-special relationship. Truth is, if both sides delay in fixing it, it could cost them both. China has been biding its time for 62 years, since the Dalai Lama fled, for this chapter to play itself out — meanwhile it has built up its strength and is on the path to becoming the most powerful country in the world.

Significantly, India still holds several aces up its sleeve, including complete devotion to the Tibetan Buddhist leader in Himalayan communities across large swathes of the LAC; from Ladakh to Tawang, Indian Buddhists are recognisably India’s first line of defence.

One thing is certain: India’s indecision is China and America’s gain. Modi’s inability to cut through the chaff and rightfully claim the Dalai Lama’s legacy, who has often said he is a “son of India,” will only strengthen Xi Jinping’s hands. Equally, allowing the US to take charge of the Dalai Lama’s sacred inheritance will create a big hole in India’s self-avowed determination to consolidate this very special influence.

The author is a consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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