China can keep complaining, but the Dalai Lama is a guest in India, and it is certainly the prerogative of the President to invite him to Rashtrapati Bhavan. The NDA regime is not going to be defensive about the issue.
On December 10, President Pranab Mukherjee hosted the first-ever ‘Laureates and Leaders for Children Summit’ at Rashtrapati Bhavan. While reiterating that his Government was committed “to the noble task of fulfillment and protection of child rights everywhere”, the President admitted that some factors “hampering the progress of disadvantaged children need to be removed and equal opportunities provided to them”. The fact that India has decided to take a lead in this field is welcome, and to offer the presidential residence for such noble cause is commendable.
But there’s more to it. One of the guests was the Dalai Lama, Beijing’s bête noire. In the past, Beijing had given all sort of uncharitable names, such as ‘splitist’ or even ‘devil in monk’s garb’, to the Tibetan leader. The last time the Dalai Lama was a formal guest at Rashtrapati Bhavan was when he visited India on the occasion of the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha Jayanti in the 1950s. In 1957, President Rajendra Prasad hosted a dinner party, which was attended by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his Cabinet colleagues and the Tibetan delegation (including the Panchen Lama). The Panchen Lama was then zealously accompanied by Chinese ‘guardians’.
Apa B Pant, the political officer in Sikkim dealing with Tibetan affairs later wrote: “The Chinese in the party gave an impression as if they were ‘greatly upset’… in many ways they tried to ‘protect him’ from too many contacts with Indians. They used to suspect every move of ours and get upset by small incidents which were trifling and insignificant in themselves. The flying of special flags for the two lamas and the non-appearance of the Chinese flag also brought about some comments… they thought that we were ‘making too much of these two lamas’ and giving them too much importance.” What upset the Chinese most was President Rajendra Prasad calling on the Dalai Lama: In a way they thought that we were trying to steal away the lamas from them.”
After nearly 60 years, the Chinese are still upset, though this time they did not make their anger public. How can they criticise the President of India and dictate whom he chooses to receive?
It was not the case when the Tibetan leader recently visited Mongolia. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang saw red and urged Mongolia “to stick to its commitment to Tibet-related issues for maintaining the sound development of bilateral ties… The Dalai Lama is a political refugee who has long been engaged in activities to split China and alienate Tibet from China in the name of religion.”
Geng added: “China resolutely opposes the Dalai Lama visiting any country…We also stand firmly against all forms of contacts between officials from any country and the Dalai Lama.” Well, the Dalai Lama is a guest in India, and it is certainly the prerogative of the President to invite him to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Does this indicate a change of the Indian policy vis-à-vis the Tibetan issue? It is too early to say, but in the case of Mongolia, the leaders in Ulaanbaatar have been quite courageous to dare facing Beijing’s ire. Beijing’s response was not long to come: A meeting to negotiate soft loans and projects on Tavan Tolgoi railroad, a copper plant and coal gasification project were cancelled. Munkh-Orgil Tsend, Mongolia’s Foreign Minister informed the Press that China had also canceled a bi-annual consultative meeting between the two countries’ Parliaments.
The spokesperson was angry: “We strongly demand that Mongolia…do not provide any form of support and convenience to the group of the Dalai Lama.”
The interesting outcome is that Mongolia turned to Delhi for support. Ulaanbaatar asked India’s help to cope with the freezing of the critical $4.2 billion loan, which was to provide an important lifeline for the country. Vikas Swarup, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, asserted that India was “ready to work with Mongolian people in this time of their difficulty.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his Mongolian visit in May 2015, announced a credit line of one billion dollars: “Mongolian leadership was highly appreciative of this gesture”, said Swarup.
China is not amused. The Global Times remained philosophical: “China won’t be overly sensitive about India’s cooperation with Mongolia, and won’t mistake India’s assistance as a counter to China… China’s influence on Mongolia’s economy cannot be replaced by India in the short run, and efforts will be in vain if India attempts to ‘bribe’ Mongolia’s loyalty with only one billion dollars.”
While India ‘bribes’ Mongolia, China only ‘helps’ Nepal!Xinhua reported that dozens of trucks carrying $2.8 million worth of products such as clothes, appliances, electronics and building materials had left mainland China for the Nepalese border.
In that case: “When it comes to cooperation with other countries, both China and India should refrain from excessive sensitivity” commented The Global Times, adding: “China’s efforts to connect itself with Nepal will be conducive not only to the export of Chinese-made products, but also to the import of goods from Nepal or even from India.”
Regarding the Lama’s visit to Mongolia, there is probably a political angle to it, which disturbs Beijing; the Mongols would like the Lama to find a reincarnation of their religious leader. It was rumoured that it might have been one of the reasons for inviting the Dalai Lama; the Jetsun Dhampa Lama, who lived many years in India and passed away in 2012, is due to reincarnate. This cannot please Beijing, which would like to keep a monopoly on ‘reincarnations’, and has started making preparations to recognise the next Dalai Lama.
Was the Dalai Lama’s presence at Rashtrapati Bhavan’s function a part of a new Great Game? A soft one? In any case, it is a sign of bolder soft diplomacy on the part of the Modi Government. Remember November 2011? As the preparations for the Global Buddhist Congregation (GBC), organised by the Ashoka Mission (with an attendance by some 900 monks and nuns from over 40 countries), were going on in Delhi, Beijing suddenly objected to the presence of the Dalai Lama in one of the functions; it threatened to call off the 15th round of the border talks between the Special Representatives if India refused to yield and cancel the conference. Beijing also objected to the Indian Prime Minister and President attending the opening ceremony of the GBC.
Eventually, India backed down partially, with the Prime Minister and the President suddenly becoming ‘busy’. But Modi’s India is not Manmohan Singh’s. This time, the Dalai Lama was seen offering a Buddha statue to President Mukherjee.
There is a message for China: India likes the Dalai Lama.
(The writer is an expert on India-China relations and author of several books)