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South Asia Monitor
A New Irritant in India-China Ties
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
14th Dalai Lama —Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (6 July 1935 in Taktser, northeastern Tibet) is the 14th Dalai Lama, a spiritual leader revered among the people of Tibet. He is the head of the government-in-exile based in Dharamshala, India.Tibetans traditionally believe him to be the reincarnation of his predecessors. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

At the best of times, India and China have a relationship that is fraught with open suspicion and hidden animosity. As luck would have it, there are any number of factors to keep the two Asian giants in a state of perpetual but covert hostility. The latest provocation comes from Tibet’s spiritual leader, Dalai Lama, who has been running his administration-in-exile at India’s Dharamshala since his escape from his homeland in the late 1950s. The Dalai Lama plans to visit the north-eastern Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh in November.

Though the trip may appear innocuous, it is really not so. For, Beijing says that a part of Arunachal Pradesh is its own territory. The Tibetan leader would, therefore, need China’s permission to go there. With New Delhi alleging Chinese incursions into India over the years, the Dalai Lama’s proposed visit could further strain relations between the two neighbours. "We firmly oppose Dalai visiting the so-called 'Arunachal Pradesh'," Jiang Yu, the spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, told Reuters last week.

China claims around 90,000 square kilometres of Arunachal Pradesh. It describes the area as "disputed” and brazenly calls it "Southern Tibet". India has been rubbishing this claim, and the country’s Minister for External Affairs, S. M. Krishna, quipped the other day that "Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India and the Dalai Lama is free to go anywhere in India.”

The row over Arunachal goes back to 1962. During a border war between the two nations that year which shocked New Delhi, Chinese forces advanced deep into Arunachal Pradesh, occupied it for a short while and then – surprisingly — withdrew. However, in the following decades, Beijing showed increasing belligerency towards India over Arunachal. Also, China made several raids into India.

The rift between the two countries widened in 1986, when Arunachal Pradesh became a separate State, and at one point it seemed that a war would break out. Recently, China sought to block India's application for a USD-2.9-billion loan from the Asian Development Bank, which included funding for a $60 million water management project in Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing argued that it was a "disputed territory”. What is more, Beijing made its displeasure known every time an Indian Prime Minister or President visited Arunachal.

Obviously, the Dalai Lama’s November plans have angered China, all the more so because he would not only visit Itanagar (the State capital), but also Tawang. It is located on the eastern Himalayas and is the home to the 328-year-old Galden Namgey Lhatse Monastery. This is Tibetan Buddhism's biggest monastery after the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The Galden Monastery is "a virtual treasure trove of Tibetan Buddhism and culture and is seen by Tibetans as the repository of perhaps the last remnants of a Tibet that was later affected by an influx of Han Chinese tradition”. And it was through Tawang that Dalai Lama came into India in 1959. He hid in the monastery there for a week.

Tawang is also strategically important. It offers the shortest route between Tibet and India‘s Brahmaputra Valley. There is a fear that Beijing’s control over Arunachal and Tawang in particular would make it extremely easy for Chinese forces to overrun India. In fact, the fiercest battle in the 1962 war was fought at Tawang, a conflict that devastated New Delhi’s trust in Beijing. Merely a few months before this, the two had agreed on peaceful coexistence. In fact, India’s then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was so disappointed that he fell ill and died soon after.

New Delhi’s concern is not confined to Arunachal alone. Chinese forces have been making frequent forays into other areas of Indian territory. Kashmir and Sikkim (which became part of the Indian Union in 1975) have been witnessing Chinese adventurism. Sikkim is another irritant: Beijing has refused to acknowledge this State as Indian. Admittedly, in 2003 China did agree to India’s sovereignty over Sikkim, but this appears to be more in letter than in spirit, given the latest incursions. Unfortunately, Beijing is reopening issues that New Delhi thought were closed.

Obviously, China has its own agenda: its designs on Indian territory are well known, and Beijing hopes that by pressuring New Delhi it can be arm twisted to part with some land. China certainly wants Arunachal, most certainly Tawang. And the Dalai Lama’s coming visit is but one of China’s ploy to push New Delhi into a corner. Sadly, India did buckle under China’s pressure last year when the spiritual leader’s trip to Arunachal was cancelled. Also last year, India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, went to Arunachal and called it an integral part of India, but gave Tawang a miss!

It is clear that India needs to reinforce its defence preparedness on its borders with China. In the early 1960s, Nehru’s idealism and adamancy caused pain and shame. He was sure that his ties with the then Chinese leaders were so strong that an attack was unthinkable. His Ministerial colleagues disagreed with him. But Nehru remained steadfast in his notion of goodness till the Chinese soldiers walked into India in what looked like an exciting picnic. Only India did not enjoy that. One hopes that New Delhi pays equal attention to China and Pakistan.



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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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