Claude Arpi, DailyO, 12 April 2017
The Dalai Lama’s ongoing visit to Arunachal Pradesh, particularly to Tawang, the Land of Mon, has generated a great flow of ink. As usual, the Chinese were the first to shoot; their propaganda machine is far better organised than their Indian counterparts, who have a tendency to go into “sleep mode”.
Last month, a briefing was organised in Beijing to explain to the Indian and foreign journalists what happened in 1959. Lian Xiangmin, director of Institute of Contemporary Tibetan Studies, reiterated China’s claims over Tawang. “One of the three major temples of Tibet is Drepung monastery near Lhasa, and Tawang was a subsidiary of Drepung and in history, Tawang’s monks went to Drepung to study sutras. Tawang under Drepung also made contributions to the local government. So Tawang is part of Tibet and Tibet is part of China, so Tawang is part of China. So this is not much of a question.”
Perfect logic with Chinese characteristics!
For centuries, the Buddhist Himalayan belt had close connections with Tibet. In Ladakh for example, most of the monasteries were affiliated to monasteries in western Tibet; ditto for Kinnaur, Spiti, Lahaul or Sikkim, linked with other religious centres in Tibet. According to Lian’s logic, all these areas should become Chinese!
However, it was Delhi’s responsibility to brief the Indian media on the correct historical position of Tawang. This was not done. It is worth noting that no matter who has been in power in Delhi, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, the Dalai Lama has consistently been considered India’s honoured guest.
Is China under the impression that this policy is going to change? No, it won’t and Beijing has to live with it. Regarding Tawang, when the Dalai Lama crossed the border in 1959, Beijing did not claim the area south of the McMahon Line as its own. If it had been China’s territory, Chinese troops would have followed him, no?
Tawang was an afterthought for Beijing, whose position changed after the Kongka Pass incident in October 1959, when Beijing realised that India was questioning the Chinese road passing through the Indian territory. Thereafter, Beijing’s stand got more aggressive and NEFA suddenly became China’s territory to use as a bargain chip against its occupation of the Aksai Chin. China may speak big, but the regime in Beijing has not been able to win the hearts of the Tibetans on the Roof of the World.
In these circumstances, how could the Communist leadership convince the population of Arunachal Pradesh to join its authoritarian regime? One has only to look at the current events in Xinjiang to realise that the Monpas and other Himalayan populations will never want to live under a repressive regime, like the Uyghurs have to. Let us hope that Beijing will note how immensely popular the Dalai Lama is in Arunachal Pradesh.
This is obvious just by looking at a few photos of the gatherings in Bomdila, Dirang and Tawang, which circulated on the social media. The video of the Dalai Lama’s encounter in Guwahati with a jawan of the 5 Assam Rifles who received him when he crossed the Indian border at Chuthangmu, north of Tawang, on March 31, 1959, was extremely touching. Both were moved to tears; the old soldier tellingly remarked that at that time the other side of the border was Tibet, not China.
Chief minister Pema Khandu, who accompanied the Tibetan leader on his journey to Tawang, remarked: “His Holiness had solemnly resolved to visit Arunachal Pradesh no matter what. Despite the inclement weather that forced cancellation of his chopper, he decided to travel by road.”
The entire state and district administration, as well as local lamas and officials, were seen around; of course, for politicians it was a question of good “political” karma to be seen with the Nobel Peace prize laureate. During the seven-hour drive by road, under inclement weather conditions, the Tibetan leader must have recalled his first stop at Bomdila.
In April 1959, the Dalai Lama had rested a few days at the hill station before moving to the plains of Assam and Mussoorie; he stayed with Har Mander Singh of the Indian Frontier Administrative Service, who was the Political Officer in Bomdila, overseeing the entire Kameng Frontier Division. Nearly 60 years later, the Dalai Lama still remembered his first dal, cooked by Mrs Singh.
This time, despite a revised programme, large crowds came to get the Dalai Lama’s blessings. His immense popularity obviously irritates Beijing whose propaganda is unable to win the masses, whether on the Tibetan side of the border or in the Indian side.
The reception in Tawang has been memorable: not only have tens of thousands of local Monpas thronged to have a glimpses of the “Bodhisattva of Compassion”, but also large flocks of Bhutanese trekking from the neighbouring districts of Tashigang and Tashiyangtse have come, as well as pilgrims from the remotest village of Upper Subansiri, West Siang or Upper Siang districts, who would have travelled for days to have a once-in-a-lifetime darshan.
Some analysts call this a Tibet card, but it is far more than a “card”. With the visit, India reiterated that Arunachal Pradesh is an inalienable part of the nation. And for the local population, it was a unforgettable moment of joy to have their Lama back in their midst.
Though Beijing does not know how to react to the popularity and reverence for the Tibetan leader, it will have to make do with it.