In a space of growing tension with China, New Delhi’s haphazard attempt to fan the flames and keep China at bay comes at the expense of the Tibetan community. Originally, the large Thyagaraj Sports Complex stadium in the capital city of New Delhi had been booked out to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s shelter in India amidst the Chinese occupation and crackdown against their culture. The event unfortunately faced diplomatic obstacles leading to abstinence by government employees and was voluntarily shifted out of New Delhi, back to Dharamsala.
Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, in a note to Cabinet Secretary Sinha on February 22, stated: “We understand that this includes a large public event titled ‘Thank You India’ being organised at Thyagaraj Sports Complex in New Delhi on 1 April, 2018. The Dalai Lama set-up also intends to invite a number of Indian dignitaries. These are likely to be followed up by additional events in Delhi as well as other states of India. The proposed period will be a very sensitive time in the context of India’s relations with China. Participation by senior leaders or government functionaries, either from the Central Government or State Governments, is not desirable, and should be discouraged.”
Back in 1959, Prime Minister at the time, Jawaharlal Nehru had granted the Spiritual leader a home in Dharamsala, and since then the Indian Government has had extremely friendly ties with the Tibetian community without ever looking back. That is until recently, when apart from the discouraged participation to the “Thank You India” event, a Tibetan rally against the Chinese occupation of Tibet was also banned in New Delhi.
Having also served as a former Indian ambassador to Beijing, Gokhale requested Sinha to issue a “classified circular advisory advising all Ministries/Departments of Government of India as well as State Governments not to accept any invitation or to participate in the proposed commemorative events”, as an attempt to avoid furthering bad relations with China.
“In Delhi, we approached many dignitaries and invited them,” said Sonam Dagpo, a spokesman for Tibet’s government in exile and the chief organizer for the planned events. “But the foreign secretary’s notice says very clearly that Indian officials shouldn’t attend. So why continue? It’s futile.”
While the intention was naturally not to offend the Tibetan community, rather appease Beijing, this was still seen as an embarrassment among Tibetans that had for so long taken India to be their new home. Although the sentiments may have been upsetting, both the Dalai Lama and the representatives for the Tibetan government in exile displayed deep understanding.
"Once we (heard about the note), we decided to shift the venue," he said. "There are no ill feelings. If you weigh what the Indian government has done for us, that is far more than this."
Apprehensions of an Indian change in attitude and policy towards the Tibetan community have come up in light of these recent events. In response to these apprehensions, the Indian foreign ministry issued a statement this month saying there is no change in India's position, and that "His Holiness is accorded all freedom to carry out his religious activities in India.
However, the apprehensions arise not from a lack of freedom for the Dalai Lama to carry out religious activities, but rather the lack of freedom to widely express these activities across the borders of the country and New Delhi’s coldness towards them.
The shifting of the event also comes in the same month as the Government banned Tibetans from holding a rally with the Dalai Lama in New Delhi to mark the 60th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule. While authorities in India and Nepal have previously banned protests against China by Tibetans during sensitive times, such as visits by Chinese leaders, this ban was unprecedented as it instructed Tibetans to restrict their activities within Dharamsala.
“The Dalai Lama’s followers can host events, hold protests - but only in Dharamsala,” said the official, who also declined to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media. “We don’t want Tibetans to hold big anti-China protests in New Delhi because it creates a bit of diplomatic tension between India and China,” said the senior foreign ministry official. “We have limited them this time.”
India boycotted China's flagship summit in Beijing last May on its Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious global trade plan. Many believe that the Dalai Lama’s visit to the state of Arunachal Pradesh - a province that China claims as its own - in April 2017 had provoked Beijing to take diplomatic and military moves that impacted the relationship negatively through much of 2017. Ties between China and Pakistan have also been strengthening at a concerning rate. Both governments have spoken out about the issue and about working on mending ties between the two nations.
At a press conference in February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that there was a “pressing need” for China and India to resolve a lack of mutual trust. Later at the conference, Yi stated that the two countries leaders "have developed a strategic vision for the future of our relations: the Chinese 'dragon' and the Indian 'elephant' must not fight each other, but dance with each other."
Vijay Gokhale also visited Beijing for the conference in February, where he said both sides noted the need to "address differences on the basis of mutual respect and sensitivity to each other's concerns, interests and aspirations."
Despite all the controversies surrounding the “Thank you India” event, BJP National General Secretary Ram Madhav, Minister of State for Culture Mahesh Sharma and BJP MP Shanta Kumar on Saturday attended the event at Dharamshala. The move to have senior BJP leaders attend the event was seen as an attempt to mend the optics behind a troubled Indian - Tibetan relationship. Oddly, the leaders also mocked official Chinese complaints that are lodged when senior Indian officials attend events like this, calling the complaints ‘love letters’.
Ram Madhav also went on to officially support the Tibetan struggle for their Homeland. "This relationship is more spiritual, cultural and religious," Madhav said at the event .The Dalai Lama said, "I do not know for how long the Tibetan struggle will go on. However, the struggle will remain alive till the spirit of Tibetans remains.”
While these statements are in line with India’s original Tibetan policy, it goes against the efforts of India to appease China with government abstinence from such events. Having important Indian leaders mock official complaints from China and proclaim legitimacy to the Tibetan homeland claim at important events might undo whatever minor and careful steps India was taking towards better ties with China, without undoing any of the embarrassment the Tibetan community faced at the hands of these appeasement efforts.
In the wake of the Chinese threat, perhaps even in arms with Pakistan, India needs to be more careful. India needs to find a better way of balancing its respect for the Dalai Lama and his community without offending China in the future, rather than dealing with the relationship with a haphazard allotment of dignitaries to events, where they make statements which may do more harm than good to all parties involved.