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With Dalai Lama’s Ladakh Visit, India Pokes China in the Eyes

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With Dalai Lama’s Ladakh Visit, India Pokes China in the Eyes

As if the Dalai Lama’s month-long visit to Ladakh wasn’t enough to infuriate China, India last week flew him to a remote village there in a military aircraft.

With Dalai Lama’s Ladakh Visit, India Pokes China in the Eyes

The 14th Dalai Lama, seen here with Indian Air Force officials at the Air Force Station at Leh in Ladakh, India, on August 10, 2022, was flown in an IAF Dhruv helicopter to Lingshet.

Credit: Twitter/ PRO Defence Srinagar

On August 10, India flew the Dalai Lama in an Indian Air Force helicopter from Leh, the capital of Ladakh, to the remote Himalayan village of Lingshed. Photographs of the Tibetan spiritual leaders with IAF officers at the Leh air station and disembarking from the helicopter at a helipad at Lingshed were shared by India’s Ministry of Defense.

The Dalai Lama has been in Ladakh over the past month. His last visit here was in July 2019, and this is the first time since the pandemic began that the spiritual leader has left his base in Dharamsala, the seat of the Central Tibetan Authority, as the exile government is called.

His visits to Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, Indian border regions where China lays claim to territory, have always riled Beijing and evoked a strong response.

For instance, in April 2017 when the Dalai Lama visited Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned India’s then-ambassador in Beijing, Vijay Gokhale, to lodge a protest. It also accused India of “obstinately” arranging his visit in disregard of China’s concerns. “We demand India stop using the Dalai Lama to do anything that undermines China’s interests,” Beijing said.

China then went on to rename six places in Arunachal Pradesh with Dalai Lama links.

The Dalai Lama’s latest visit has come at a significant time. India and China are locked in a military standoff along their disputed border in Ladakh. The two sides have deployed at least 50,000 soldiers at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh and substantially enhanced their weaponry and defense systems here.

This is the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Ladakh since the India-China military standoff began in May-June 2020. Incidentally, the spiritual leader landed in Ladakh just a couple of days ahead of the 16th round of talks between Indian and Chinese military commanders to end the impasse at the border.

While the Dalai Lama’s visit to Ladakh was perhaps not aimed at coinciding with the military talks – his trips there have always been in July, when the weather in Ladakh is less severe and the latest trip was announced several months in advance – the timing of his ferrying in an IAF flight is significant.

It came at a time when the Americans are needling China over Taiwan. On August 2, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei. A week later India ferried the Dalai Lama in a military aircraft. It was a veritable poke in China’s eyes.

Despite its tight control over Tibet, China remains insecure, responding strongly to any development, statement, or activity relating to the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan exile communities in India.

Indian leaders extending birthday wishes to the Dalai Lama have infuriated the Chinese too. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted the Dalai Lama on his 87th birthday on July 6, Beijing reacted sharply. India “needs to fully understand the anti-China and separatist nature of the 14th Dalai Lama,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a press conference in Beijing the following day, calling on New Delhi “to abide by its commitments to China on Tibet-related issues, act and speak with prudence and stop using Tibet-related issues to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

India’s response to Chinese objections to India greeting the Dalai Lama or allowing his visit to border regions is that it treats him as “an honoured guest in India and as a respected religious leader who enjoys a large following in India,” and that he is “absolutely free to travel to any part of the country.”

Ahead of the Dalai Lama’s latest trip to Ladakh, an Indian government official stressed that the visit is “completely religious.” However, this is unlikely to have calmed Beijing’s nerves.

Buddhism has stood at the heart of the unique national identity of Tibetans for centuries, and China, despite its relentless efforts, has been unable to break or even weaken this link. It has been unable to destroy the institution of the Dalai Lama. Its efforts to discredit the Dalai Lama – its routine use of disparaging rhetoric against the Dalai Lama, which includes describing him as a “splittist,” a “wolf in monk’s robes,” a “demon,” even a “spiritual terrorist” – have failed to undermine his stature or the respect he commands among the Tibetan people.

Buddhism and the institution of the Dalai Lama are therefore intensely political, and every word the Dalai Lama utters or step he takes never fails to ruffle Beijing’s feathers.

It was in 1959 that the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of his followers escaped Chinese repression and fled to India. In the decades since the Tibetan exile community in India has grown to around 100,000.

The Dalai Lama’s escape to India is remembered by his followers who accompanied him on that historic journey in 1959 and has been recounted to succeeding generations of the exile community in India. The monasteries and towns that played a key role in that journey are an important part of Tibetan history, which China cannot wipe out. The Dalai Lama’s visits to these places, therefore, infuriate Beijing.

During his 2017 visit to Tawang, the Dalai Lama stayed at the Tawang monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery after the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso (the current Dalai Lama is the 14th), the Tawang monastery plays an important role in Tibet politics.

After crossing into India through the Bum La Pass on March 30, 1959, the Dalai Lama stayed at the Tawang monastery for several weeks. As I have pointed out elsewhere, “Tawang figures prominently in the history of Tibetan resistance against Chinese rule.”

The Dalai Lama may be only meditating in monasteries, meeting monks, and addressing public gatherings. But these are immensely political moves as far as China is concerned and hence its angry responses.

India committed to a One China policy back in the mid-1950s. However, it has not reaffirmed such a commitment publicly or in bilateral documents for over a decade.

It again avoided articulating such a commitment explicitly in the wake of the Taiwan crisis. Chinese officials including its ambassador in New Delhi Sun Weidong have called on governments to reaffirm support for the One China policy. Responding to a question on India’s position on One China, the spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs merely said that “India’s relevant policies are well known and consistent. They do not require reiteration.”

The coming weeks and months are likely to heighten China’s insecurities over Tibet. India and the U.S. are scheduled to hold the 15th round of the joint military exercise Yudh Abhyas at Auli in Uttarakhand, less than 100 km from the LAC. This is in the relatively calm central sector of the LAC.

Significantly, the military exercise which will involve high-altitude mountain warfare will be held from October 14 to 31. Incidentally, the joint exercise will be held at a time when India will be marking the 60th anniversary of the Sino-Indian border war. The war, which saw the Chinese occupying a vast swathe of territory, Aksai Chin, in Ladakh lasted from October 20 to November 21, 1962.

Another round of angry Chinese rhetoric and robust moves along the LAC can be expected.