Is India Ready to Play the ‘Tibet Card’ in Its Battle With China?

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Is India Ready to Play the ‘Tibet Card’ in Its Battle With China?

Talk of a “Tibet card” in India’s hands is not new, but is New Delhi likely to play it?

Is India Ready to Play the ‘Tibet Card’ in Its Battle With China?

Exiled Tibetans shout slogans against the Chinese government during a protest to show solidarity with India in the country’s standoff with China in the Ladakh region, outside the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, India, Saturday, July 11, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

In the month since 20 Indian Army personnel were killed as a result of the clash at Galwan on the Sino-Indian border, public anger at China is palpable. There have been growing calls for a strong response from the Indian government, including a strengthened partnership with Taiwan. There have also been similar calls for enhanced support for Tibet and the Dalai Lama. 

About 10 days after the Galwan clash, Pema Khandu, chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, referred to the Line of Actual Control dividing India and China as the India-Tibet border. Several points are noteworthy here: He was speaking at an Indian Army meeting at the Bumla border post; he is  from the BJP, the party that also holds power in New Delhi; and his state is entirely claimed by China, which calls it “southern Tibet.” 

Coming against the backdrop of the Galwan clash, this could appear to be an attempt at rekindling the Tibet issue, which India has done every now and then when there is a conflict with China. This was of course music to the ears of Tibet activists, who have been seeking active Indian support for a long time. Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan writer and activist, during a recent media interview, echoed Khandu and said that the border must be called “the Tibet border and not the China border.” Not surprisingly, Chinese media has commented on such Indian views and opposed them.

There is ongoing debate about how India should respond to the Tibet question in the light of China’s increased pressure. Some Indian public commentators support playing the Tibet card while others are somewhat cautious. Well before the current conflict, in 2018, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist organization out of which the BJP emerged, had argued for a reappraisal of India’s Tibet policy. Prominent BJP ideologues have supported reopening the Tibet issue, even supporting the right of Tibetans to live “as a free nation.”

Such voices have become louder. A retired senior Army officer wrote about the strategic importance of Tibet, and argued that time has come “to challenge the very legitimacy of the Chinese claim over Tibet.” In another opinion piece in Business World, Krishan Varma, a former head of India’s foreign secret service, made a case for a fresh assessment of India’s Tibet policy. He argued that a new Indian policy approach on Tibet “has the real potential of causing major turbulence in China’s underbelly.” He added that India might do well to “align its policy on the issue with the U.S. and support the ‘Tibet Policy and Support Act (2019)’ that has been passed by the U.S. Congress and is pending U.S. Senate approval before being promulgated into law through due process.”  

Similarly, an editorial in Hindustan Times, a national newspaper, called for a rethink of India’s Tibet policy. Stating that India has had an inconsistent approach to Tibet, it said, “Delhi now needs to shed its hesitation, not just because Tibet is a ‘card’, but is intertwined with the values of freedom and peace central to the vision to resist China.” The editorial added that although India has continued to respect to China’s core interests, Beijing has not reciprocated. The editorial argued for honoring the Dalai Lama with the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honor, and for India to take up the rights of Tibetans in international platforms and build deeper links with the younger generation of Tibetan activists who are the face of the new resistance. Finally, it also recommended that India make a statement on the Dalai Lama’s successor indicating that India will respect the Dalai Lama’s wishes on the succession issue. Others have argued that China’s paranoia about the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan presence in India ensures that India continues to have a Tibet card to play at all.

The idea of the “Tibet card” is not new, of course. And various Indian commentators have previously warned against such a strategy. For example, Suhasini Haidar, a prominent foreign policy correspondent, had argued in 2018 that the idea of the Tibet card is “out of step” with shifting ground realities in Tibet and cautioned the Indian establishment against using “the Tibetan population in India as a strategic tool,” a point others have also made.  

Similarly, Sudha Ramachandran, writing also in 2018, asserted that India never did have a Tibet card, considering that India and the even the Tibetans have accepted the One China formulation and India’s efforts to keep the Tibet card has only angered China, “without yielding tangible dividends.” Echoing Ramachandran’s sentiments, P. Stobdan, a China analyst who had previously argued that the idea of a Tibet card is a folly, declares in a recent book that China’s slow invasion tactic has been successful in dealing with India whereas New Delhi, even after 60 years, has made no significant gains in its China policy. Instead, he argues that India is now “worryingly and helplessly entangled in a Tibetan quagmire with serious implications for the stability of its frontier region.” What is noteworthy is that arguments against using the so-called Tibet card have been rare during the current crisis.

Part of the problem is the inconsistency in the Indian approach to Tibet under the Modi government. In December 2016, the Dalai Lama was invited to the Rashtrapati Bahavan, India’s presidential palace in New Delhi, for an event in honor of Nobel Peace prize winners, which raised objections from China. In March 2017, the Dalai Lama was also allowed to travel to Tawang, which was again questioned by China. In July that year, in the middle of the Doklam conflict, Lobsang Sangay of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Tibetan government-in-exile, was allowed to unfurl the Tibetan flag at Pangong Tso in Ladakh, one of the points of the current stand-off. But since the 2017 Doklam confrontation, New Delhi has attempted to play down the Tibetan presence in India, even preventing government officials from attending the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile.  

Ultimately, it is unlikely that the Modi government will really play any “Tibet card,” despite the frequency and prominence of those arguing for it in the Indian debate. Even these opinions are more likely a reflection of the general anger toward China, rather than carefully thought out policy proposals.