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New Delhi: With a top official having directed all functionaries to avoid any commemorative events organised to mark 60 years of Dalai Lama’s exile in India, there is a bit of a puzzle about the underlying message from this order since the Modi government had earlier projected that it was ready to play the ‘Tibet card’.
The Indian Express reported on March 4 that Cabinet Secretary P.K. Sinha had issued a classified circular “discouraging” government functionaries – political and bureaucratic – from attending events organised by the Tibetan government-in-exile to mark the key anniversary over the next few months.
The circular was apparently issued to central ministries and state governments on the urging of the new foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale. The letter from Gokhale to Sinha was dated February 22, as per the newspaper. A day later, Gokhale travelled to Beijing on his first visit to China as foreign secretary.
The Ministry of External Affairs responded to reporters queries on the Indian Express report by stating that India has not changed its position on the Dalai Lama. Describing him as a “revered religious leader” who is “deeply respected” by Indians, the MEA added that the Dalai Lama is “accorded all freedom to carry out his religious activities in India”.
According to some sources, similar circulars have been sent out in previous years as periodic reminders to government officials to keep their distance.
However, according to another former Indian diplomat, it was a “little surprising” that a formal circular was issued. “Government does at times discourage people from attending a meeting, but this was a pre-emptive move…and done on a formal circular,” he said.
Former director of the Institute of Chinese studies Alka Acharya also wondered if these notes were a normal routine. “It would not be surprising if such notes were sent around by the MEA from time to time in the past as well, possibly on the eve of state visits or when some very high-profile functions were organised,” she said.
The Cabinet Secretary’s circular gave the reasoning that the Dalai Lama’s upcoming commemorative events would be held at a “very sensitive time in the context of India’s relations with China”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to attend the SCO summit in June. The Times of India reported that there are important bilateral meets planned ahead of that high-level visit by Modi.
India-based French expert on Sino-India ties and Tibet, Claude Arpi, described himself as “sad” at the issuing of the circular, adding that “sensitive time means nothing”. “Times have been ‘sensitive’ since the Dalai Lama crossed the border at Khenzimane on March 31, 1959. It will remain ‘sensitive’,” asserted Arpi.
China has frequently raised the issue of presence of Tibetan refugees and activities of Dalai Lama with the Indian government. The default Indian position has always been that India is a “open society” and there are not many restrictions on freedom of expression, including for refugees.
“It is a sensitive issue that has always been managed. The Dalai Lama has been meeting senior government functionaries. A complete restriction on him is something we have never accepted,” said the former Indian diplomat.
In fact, he pointed out that the circular could give the impression to the Chinese that the government has more leverage on the activities of the Tibetan exiles. “It raises expectations,” he said.
Arpi agreed that China will also ‘note’ that India agreed “to their demand and ask more”. “It will not help India in the long run,” he argued, adding, “…if the time was really sensitive, one or two ministers could be told not to meet HHDL (His Holiness Dalai Lama). Why a circular? [This is] uncalled for.”
He asked whether China would have been ‘nicer’ and supported Indian aspirations at the UN Security council if India had capitulated at Doklam. “The answer is No”.