Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to arrive soon for his second informal meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The coming summit is taking place in the backdrop of important developments on which the two countries have taken confronting stands.
While China advised restraint on rising tensions with Pakistan following the Pulwama and Balakot episodes, it has openly criticised India on the recent constitutional and administrative changes in Jammu and Kashmir. It reiterated its claim on all of Ladakh, stating the changes violated China’s territorial integrity which it would not “idly watch”. It supported Pakistan in the United Nations and has additionally objected to the army exercise currently underway in Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims as its own. So, apart from the usual irritants in bilateral relations such as the border dispute and trade imbalance, not much progress is expected on the traditional faultlines in Sino-Indian relations.
Even though Tibet does not seem to figure on the agenda, the meeting will be followed with particular interest in Dharamshala. This follows misgivings in some Tibetan quarters that New Delhi is gradually diluting its support to the Tibetan cause. This impression gained ground following the government’s direction to tone down the “Thank You India” programme that the central Tibetan administration had planned in January 2018, and the subsequent directive that elected leaders and senior government officials should avoid sharing a public platform with the Dalai Lama. The recent war of words over the issue of Dalai Lama’s reincarnation has led to questions about whether there is adequate realisation, willingness and preparation within the Government of India to thwart China’s design to ultimately install its own candidate in Potala Palace.
Though the Dalai Lama has spoken of various possibilities regarding his reincarnation, he has consistently rejected any Chinese government role in the process. He has stated that if he reincarnates, it will be in a free country, thereby ruling out China or Chinese-controlled Tibet. He has instructed Tibetans to reject any Chinese appointee as an imposter. The Chinese have been equally emphatic, declaring that choosing the next Dalai Lama is their historical prerogative. Chinese officials conveyed a blunt message to the Government of India through visiting Indian journalists that New Delhi’s failure to not recognise Beijing’s candidate would adversely affect bilateral ties.
To the Tibetans, the struggle to choose the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation reflects the struggle for leadership of Tibetan Buddhism. More than political, the Tibetan struggle is a civilisational one for survival of its unique culture and identity. It is sustained by a deep attachment to their spiritual leaders, the highest of whom is the Dalai Lama. China has not been able to dilute this loyalty to any significant extent. Its experiment to install an imposter Panchen Lama has failed. Attempts to mould an indoctrinated monastic order have also not succeeded. Its repressive measures indicate China remains wary of civil unrest of the kind that erupted in Tibet in 2008.
An authoritarian regime cannot countenance an institution not under its control. Therefore, appointing its own Dalai Lama is a strategic priority. What has encouraged Beijing to vehemently assert its intentions is its perception that international support for Tibet is flagging, and with its political and economic clout, it can deter countries from coming forward on the issue. It perhaps also believes that Tibetans, who identify all hopes and aspirations with the person of the 14th Dalai Lama, will not only be demoralised at his passing on, but also fragment into ineffectual uncoordinated groups, bereft of financial and political backers.
For New Delhi to acquiesce to any such Chinese design would be a folly. It must not fall prey to arguments that the passing on of the Dalai Lama would remove an obstacle to border settlement and normalise relations with China. Given its policy of regaining its lost territories, assertions on Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh, its military build-up in Tibet, plans to build dams and divert river waters, and its undermining of India in its neighbourhood, there can be no assuaging China. On the contrary, supporting the Tibetans strengthens India’s hand in dealing with China. New Delhi should take immediate steps to ascertain the Dalai Lama’s wishes on his reincarnation, and act proactively to ensure these will be endorsed by not just the Tibetans but the Buddhist world at large. The US Congress has already passed the “Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2019”, which has officially declared China has no role in selecting the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.
Some Chinese scholars have argued that the approach to suppress Tibetan civilisational aspirations has neither succeeded nor is likely to. This should be our advice too to President Xi. The time has come for India to encourage China to convert its intermittent contacts with the Dalai Lama into formal or structured talks to find an acceptable solution. A bold step for Modi could be to facilitate a meeting between Xi Jinping and the Dalai Lama, like the one the latter held with Premier Chou en-Lai in New Delhi in 1956.