The Dalai Lama: It is in India's interest to engage him more
The Chinese have raised the pitch on the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. China has not only claimed that the visit would “damage” Sino-Indian ties, Chinese experts have even warned that Beijing could show its displeasure to India using “military” means.
It would be easy to see the threatening behaviour of China as routine in the context of the Sino-Indian border dispute. After all, China claims Arunachal Pradesh and refers to it as ‘Southern Tibet’. However, there seems to be more to the Chinese belligerence than the border issue.
The Chinese seem to have concluded that the Dalai Lama has given up hope of a settlement with them. The prospects of Tibetan accommodation with Communist China seemed bright based on the Dalai Lama’s relationship with President Xi Jinping, whom he had once described as more “open-minded” and “realistic” than his predecessors.
These hopes were dashed the day the Dalai Lama decided to visit Mongolia last November, knowing that this would provoke China. Unsurprisingly, the three-day visit irked Beijing no end and it put pressure on Ulan Bator to declare that the Dalai Lama was not welcome to Mongolia in the future.
The Dalai Lama had also accepted an invitation to visit Taiwan – again something that would irk China no end – but that did not finally materialise. And now, he is going to Tawang, the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama, fuelling Chinese fears that he may be preparing the ground for his reincarnation, the 15th Dalai Lama, to be found there.
What makes matters worse for the Chinese is that the visit comes after a series of high profile meetings the Dalai Lama has had recently with constitutional heads in India.
The Dalai Lama had met the President of India in December last at the “Laureates and Leaders for Children” summit held at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. At that time the spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry had strongly criticised the meeting, opposing “any form of contact between officials of other countries with him.”
Subsequently, the Dalai Lama met the Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, during the 34th Kalchakra initiation ceremony at Bodh Gaya in January this year. Then in March, he played a leading role in an international conference on “Buddhism in the 21st century” at Rajgir. The conference was inaugurated by the Minister of Culture Mahesh Sharma and the President of India attended the closing ceremony. In March itself the Dalai Lama was hosted by the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, at the Narmada Sewa Yatra.
The Chinese were particularly insensed with India for allowing the Dalai Lama to attend the conference at Rajgir. The severity of the Chinese reaction was perhaps because of the high level of international representation at the conference. Mongolia which, under pressure from China, had regretted inviting the Dalai Lama last November, sent its highest ranking Buddhist monk, the Khamba Lama Most Venerable Choijiljav Dambajav as well as the Ven. AOtgonbaatar, the Head of the Sakya sect in the country.
Cambodia sent the great Supreme Patriarch of the country Sangharajadhipati Tep Vong. Thailand was represented by Most Ven. Arayawongso, Myanmar by Most Ven. Ashin Thuriya, Malaysia by the Chief Monk Prelate of the country Most Ven. B Saranankara Thero, Sri Lanka by several Mahanayakes and Anunayakes, Bangladesh by the Sanghanayaka of the country Most Ven. Sudhananda Mahathera, and Nepal sent the abbots and spiritual heads of all its ethnic Himalayan Buddhist communities.There were representatives from the Russian Federation also.
The 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorji, and prominent lineage holders of the four Tibetan Buddhist sects – the Sakya, Gelug, Kagyu and Nyingma – also attended the conference.
The Chinese do not want countries where they think they have considerable influence – such as Mongolia, Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc. -- to have any contact with the Dalai Lama. In fact, they do not even allow him to visit these countries. Contrary to Beijing’s expectation, however, their participation underlined the wide acceptance of the Dalai Lama as a respected Buddhist leader.
For China this is a zero-sum game. The greater the acceptance of the Dalai Lama in the Buddhist world, the more difficult it becomes for it to anoint the next Dalai Lama.
The 14th Dalai Lama will be 82 on 6 July this year. Up to now, his statements about reincarnation have been ambiguous – questioning variously the need for an antiquated institution in the 21st century, saying that he will reincarnate only in a free country thus ruling out China and even suggesting at times that he could “emanate” in someone younger in his own life time.
The Chinese perhaps want to avoid the prospect of having two Dalai Lamas – one an ‘official’ reincarnation recognised by Beijing and another, accepted by most Tibetans as their spiritual leader. This would be a replication of what happened with the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama – the reincarnation that was recognised by the Dalai Lama was kidnapped and has never been seen since and an ‘official’ reincarnation is paraded as the Panchen Lama by the Chinese who is seen as a Communist puppet by the Tibetans.
Meanwhile, the 14th Dalai Lama has already shed his temporal powers. They now vest in the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Yet because of the spiritual standing of the institution of the Dalai Lama, some influential Tibetan leaders in the government-in- exile want him to “emanate” while he himself is believed to be veering in favour of a traditional reincarnation.
The Dalai Lama is expected to clarify his position on reincarnation sooner than later – perhaps in the next couple of years. Apparently, a meeting of the four Tibetan Buddhist sects is planned so that they are on the same page on the reincarnation issue, even though the Dalai Lama is the leader of only the Gelug sect. The Dalai Lama is also expected to spell out the parameters of the future negotiation with China about Tibet’s status, so that the Tibetan people know his mind.
As for India, the need to engage the Dalai Lama extensively has never been greater. There seems to be recognition in government that the business-as-usual approach only helps China.
There is a realisation that China harbours unrealistic expectations of India respecting its concerns while it merrily ignores India’s concerns on wanted terrorists like Masood Azhar and Hafez Saeed, promotes an arms build-up by Pakistan, ignores India’s claims on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and has gone ahead with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through what India considers illegally occupied territory without prior consultation with New Delhi. How this plays out vis-a-vis the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans in exile remains to be seen.
There is, however, no ‘Tibet card’ to be played. India needs to protect its own interests. And that would mean deeper engagement with the Dalai Lama and allowing him complete freedom to meet people and travel the length and breadth of India.