When Religion and Politics Mix: The Dalai Lama and India-China Relations

The Dalai Lama is slated to visit Tawang in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh from 5-7 April. The visit follows a public meeting with the President of India in December last year – the first of its kind in some 60 years[1] – and an address at a major Buddhist conference in the Indian state of Bihar in mid-March where he shared the stage with the minister for culture in the Indian central government.[2]

Beijing has expectedly protested loudly and vigorously, presaging a fresh round of tensions in the India-China relationship.

The Chinese have been trying to portray Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh itself, as the central issue in the India-China boundary dispute. In the process, they are trying to repudiate a significant clause of a landmark 2005 bilateral treaty, which stated clearly that ‘settled populations’ would not be disturbed in the process of resolution.[3] Tawang, with the largest Buddhist monastery in India and a population of some 11,000 at last count, is as settled as they come. This Chinese volte face – no doubt related to continued challenges to their legitimacy in Tibet – might be said to have been at least partially responsible for why the boundary negotiations have not moved forward for a while.

Riling the Chinese in 2008, the Dalai Lama, also finally acknowledged the legitimacy of the colonial-era McMahon Line between today’s Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet. Add to this, Chinese worries about whether or not the Dalai Lama will even bother to reincarnate. If he does so in non-Chinese controlled territory or even not at all as he has sometimes declared, that too, would ensure a continued challenge to Chinese authority.

The Dalai Lama last visited Tawang in November 2009[4] and so the current visit hosted by another Indian central government minister Kiren Rijiju, himself a Buddhist and from Arunachal, is not entirely a novelty.

And yet, there is no doubt that the BJP government is trying to sell to the Indian public a certain sense of muscularity in its policy vis-à-vis China.


A BJP Playbook?

The BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi first signaled its combative approach vis-à-vis China by inviting both the Tibetan Sikyong (or prime minister equivalent of the Central Tibetan Administration) and the Taiwanese representative in New Delhi to his swearing-in in May 2014.

However, India’s very real lack of economic capacity ensures that a ‘Tibet card’, if it exists, is an entirely notional one.

While India is trying to use Buddhist soft power as a diplomatic tool, one need only look at how quickly the Mongolians regretted their welcome of the Dalai Lama in November last year. The fact that he was met by the Indian ambassador to Mongolia should highlight India’s involvement in the visit.[5] Beijing responded by reading Ulaanbaatar the riot act and imposing an economic blockade.[6] When the Mongolian ambassador to India asked for help and to raise its voice against China’s unilateral action,[7] the Indian foreign ministry spokesperson declared in a media briefing in New Delhi that the Mongolian envoy’s comment had been misconstrued and India would commit only to supporting it through its ‘monetary crisis’ with a US$1 billion credit line announced during Modi’s visit in May 2015.[8] Mongolia finally decided to apologize to China.[9]

There are other contradictions on the Indian side. Well over half of India’s Buddhists are actually converts from India’s lowest Dalit or untouchable castes. These neo-Buddhists who have adopted a mix of the major Buddhist schools and view religion as as a tool for political and social emancipation, have little to no visibility in India’s Dalai Lama-driven Buddhist showcase and public diplomacy. Even those Buddhists following Tibetan variants along India’s frontier areas are largely ignored in India’s majoritarian electoral politics – Rijiju is the exception that proves the rule.

To return to geopolitics, part of the mix that the Dalai Lama issue foregrounds are New Delhi’s increasing engagements with China’s rivals such as the United States[10] – the previous US ambassador too, visited Tawang in October 2016[11] – Taiwan,[12] Japan and Vietnam. All of this of course, occurs against the backdrop of a promising if not entirely fulfilling bilateral economic relationship and a scale of demand in India for infrastructure development and manufacturing investments that can only be met by China.

Many Indians are unhappy at what they perceive are China’s consistently anti-India policies – its continued blocking at the UN of attempts to sanction Pakistani terrorists[13] and refusal to support India’s membership of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group[14], for example. India’s decision to officially embrace the Dalai Lama[15], they think is a long overdue response to such Chinese unfriendliness. The question really is if Indian policymakers have prepared adequately for the next stage of Chinese reactions.

A version of this article was originally published in the East Asia Forum on 5 April 2017.


[1] http://www.dalailama.com/gallery/album/5/708#ad-image-7; http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-india-dalailama-idUSKBN16R0S6

[2] See also http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/chinese-state-media-experts-slam-india-on-dalai-lama-s-nalanda-visit/story-sYf18QLku8bugIDpPdsMVJ.html

[3] http://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/6534/Agreement+between+the+Government+of+the+Republic+of+India+and+the+Government+of+the+Peoples+Republic+of+China+on+the+Political+Parameters+and+Guiding+Principles+for+the+Settlement+of+the+IndiaChina+Boundary+Question

[4] For Chinese reactions, see http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/dalai-lama-tawang-arunachal-pradesh-india-china-beijing-tibet/1/911054.html

[5] http://www.eoi.gov.in/ulaanbaatar/?0003?000?7037; http://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/NewsDetail/index/1/9527/China-Beats-Mongolia-into-Submission-Friend-India-Watches

[6] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/12/china-blocks-mongolia-border-dalai-lama-visit-161210060313417.html

[7] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/India-to-help-Mongolia-staying-away-from-its-spat-with-China/articleshow/55879044.cms

[8] http://www.mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/27780/Transcript_of_Weekly_Media_Briefing_by_Official_Spokesperson_December_08_2016

[9] http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2065082/china-says-hopes-mongolia-learned-lesson-after-dalai

[10] For Chinese reactions, see http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/chinese-state-media-experts-slam-india-on-dalai-lama-s-nalanda-visit/story-sYf18QLku8bugIDpPdsMVJ.html

[11] http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/us-envoy-richard-verma-joins-arunachal-cm-pema-khandu-in-celebrating-tawang-festival-3096235/

[12] http://news.takungpao.com/taiwan/liangan/2017-02/3421825.html.

For the official Chinese reaction, see http://world.huanqiu.com/hot/2017-02/10136264.html

[13] http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/china-extends-veto-on-india-s-move-for-un-blacklisting-of-jaish-chief-masood-azhar/story-Ut9sxWSJGQJb5Rc70cIweM.html

[14] http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/china-india-nsg-membership-pakistan-usa-barack-obama/1/857898.html

[15] http://indianexpress.com/article/india/rethink-in-new-delhi-dalai-lama-karmapa-to-be-in-the-public-gaze-buddhist-meet-4457881/

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: