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The Tibetan dilemma

 | March 30, 2012

India’s explanation that it has given the Dalai Lama a home purely on a humanitarian ground has never quite satisfied China.


The Tibetan question has vexed New Delhi ever since the present Dalai Lama fled China and entered India with his loyal band of followers in 1959.

Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetans, has not only made the Himalayan town of Dharamshala his home since then, but also his administrative capital, which “sneakily doubles” up as a political base, much to Beijing’s chagrin.

Although India’s relations with China nose-dived after the 1962 border war between the two, and despite a lingering territorial disagreement since then and a race for economic supremacy in South Asia in recent years, New Delhi and Beijing realise the importance of peaceful co-existence.

But the presence of the Dalai Lama and a large number of Tibetan exiles on India soil (there is a huge centre in Karnataka with even a magnificent Buddhist temple) has been an irritant in the Indo-Chinese ties.

Which have, time and again, taken a hit by the Dalai Lama’s covert political moves to draw world attention to the plight of Tibetans in China and the question of Tibet’s autonomy.

On top of this, immolations by Tibetans in India as a protest against Chinese occupation and also to try and attract Big Power intervention have invariably embarrassed New Delhi, which has been working hard to neither displease a mighty neighbour nor ignore the Tibetan predicament.

On Wednesday, a Tibetan died after he set himself on fire a few days before that in New Delhi. This was to highlight China’s “invasion” of Tibet in the 1950s, and the immolation was timed just before Chinese President Hu Jintao was to arrive in New Delhi for a summit of emerging market nations.

The man, Jamphel Yeshi, who died, was only 27. Twenty others have also sacrificed their lives, mostly in south-western China, during the past few years.

“The fact that Tibetan people are setting themselves on fire in this 21st century is to let the world know about their suffering,” Yeshi said in a handwritten statement found in his room.

Though the Indian police arrested a number of Tibetan activists in the past week or so in order to stop untoward incidents during Hu’s visit, Yeshi seems to have escaped notice.

Obviously, this immolation has been awkward for New Delhi, which has been over the years trying to assure Beijing that Tibet is China’s internal problem.

However, China has never been comfortable with the Dalai Lama staying in India which Beijing views as interference in Tibetan affairs.

India’s oft-repeated explanation that it has given the Dalai Lama a home purely on a humanitarian ground has never quite satisfied China.

If at all Beijing overlooks this, it is perhaps because it is driven by market forces. India is a lucrative source of revenue for Chinese products. Which come into India both officially and unofficially (through the smuggling).

On the other hand, the decades-old unresolved border problem and Beijing’s talk of India’s Arunachal Pradesh State as “South Tibet” alarm New Delhi, deterring it from going all out to support the Tibetan cause

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.


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