On July 6, the Dalai Lama celebrated his 86th birthday. Wishes poured in from leaders and well-wishers from across the world. Prominent among those who wished him well, and did so publicly this year, was India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“Spoke on phone to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to convey greetings on his 86th birthday. We wish him a long and healthy life,” Modi wrote.
Others who reached out to the Dalai Lama from India were chief ministers Pema Khandu of Arunachal Pradesh and Prem Singh Tamang of Sikkim — both states bordering China and where Beijing has territorial claims.
This is the first time since 2015 that the Indian prime minister has publicized his call to the Tibetan spiritual leader.
There has been no official response from Beijing so far, but the wishes from India are likely to have ruffled feathers in the Chinese government as it regards the 14th Dalai Lama as a “splittist.”
In 1959, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crushed an uprising in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of his Tibetan followers fled to India. India granted them political asylum. There are around 100,000 Tibetans living in India today, and the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Authority (CTA), as the Tibetan government-in-exile is known, is situated in Dharamsala in India.
This puts India right in the middle of the China-Tibet conflict. It has bestowed India with the “Tibet card,” leverage against China that India could use to score points in its own conflict with Beijing.
India has played the Tibet card several times in the past.
Modi waved this card at the inaugural of his first prime ministerial term in May 2014. Lobsang Sangay, then the president of the CTA, was among the special invitees to the event and was even a part of a group photograph of South Asian heads of state. In subsequent months, India openly courted the Dalai Lama. He met the then-president, Pranab Mukherjee, at the presidential palace and was permitted to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, where China claims over 90,000 square kilometers of territory. And at the height of the Doklam crisis in 2017, when the Indian Army and the PLA were locked in 73-day standoff at the China-Bhutan-India trijunction, India permitted Sangay to unfurl the Tibetan flag at Pangong Tso in Ladakh in the western sector of the disputed Sino-Indian border.
The Modi government’s use of the Tibet card in the 2014-18 period was driven by domestic and external considerations. At home, it made him look tough in the eyes of his nationalist supporters. But it was also motivated by a belief that playing the Tibet card would force China to take India seriously and push Beijing to act more sensitively on issues of concern to India.
However, the strategy failed to prove fruitful vis-à-vis China. Instead, it draw Beijing’s ire, and may have even prompted China to strike back against India at Doklam.
With the Tibet card failing to have the desired impact on China and with the Modi government anxious to normalize relations with Beijing, it quietly shelved the Tibet card in early 2018.
In February 2018, India’s foreign ministry issued a directive to government officials to stay away from CTA events. Tibetans were asked to ensure that events marking the 60th anniversary of their flight to India were kept low-key. Sangay was not invited to the May 2019 inaugural of the BJP government’s second five-year term.
So why has the Modi government changed tack again to use the Tibet card once again?
India’s relations with China have been extremely tense over the past year. On June 14, 2020, PLA soldiers attacked Indian soldiers at the Galwan Valley in Ladakh, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. The Galwan incident was not only the deadliest clash between the two neighbors since the skirmish at Nathu La in 1967, but also it was the first time since 1975 that blood was spilled along the disputed Sino-Indian border.
In August-September last year, India waved the Tibet card for the first time since 2018.
The government announced its deployment of the Special Frontier Force, an elite commando unit raised from among the Tibetan exile community in India for use in covert operations behind Chinese lines, in a key offensive against the PLA at Pangong Tso. The funeral of an SFF company leader was given a lot of publicity in the media.
In the months since, the impasse in the Himalayas remains. India and China have stepped up deployment of military personnel and hardware along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. Simultaneously, military officials have engaged in 11 rounds of talks.
While these have resulted in the two sides completing disengagement at Pangong Tso, tensions persist at other friction points. Apparently, the Chinese have refused to budge from areas they occupied last year at Depsang Plains, Hot Springs, and Gogra. At the last round of talks in April, the PLA reportedly asked Indian troops to move back. There is growing frustration in the Indian security establishment with China’s intransigence.
With the negotiation road failing to end the impasse in the Himalayas, a desperate Modi could be playing the Tibet card to signal to China that New Delhi could make things difficult for Beijing in Tibet if it wished too.
As its experience in the 2014-18 period indicates, playing the Tibet card has not helped India achieve its objectives vis-à-vis China. The Tibet question is a core issue to Beijing and any needling by India on this will result in retaliation. Chinese commentators have warned that it could provoke Beijing to retaliate in India’s Northeast. The Northeast is a conflict-ridden region and any support that China provides anti-India insurgents there would inflame the region.
A day after the Dalai Lama’s birthday, CTA President Penpa Tsering told India Today TV in an exclusive interview that the Dalai Lama is expected to meet Modi after the COVID-19 situation in India stabilizes.
Should this meeting happen, it would evoke a strong response from Beijing. Is India prepared for that?
Playing the Tibet card may impress Modi’s fans at home. It will not frighten the Chinese.