When Manmohan Singh clearly and courageously said last month that there was no question of his government cancelling the Dalai Lama’s Arunachal Pradesh visit, I was proud. As refugees in India, it is painful for us Tibetans to witness Beijing bureaucrats laying down the law to our host government in arrogant, bullying terms. This visit’s historic importance is that it swings back focus on the McMahon Line and therefore Tibet. That’s why China was so impatient to shoot it down. The result of this pivotal visit will be a realisation that, without reinstating Tibet as a buffer zone, India will forever be subjected to pressures: militarily, politically, environmentally and, now, over water.
Many Indians do not realise the pressure that Beijing is exerting on New Delhi. They portray the visit as yet another China-Dalai Lama showdown. The fundamental problem China has is with Indian borders. It did not need a Dalai Lama to add to its rants. Dealing with China is tricky; a capitalist nation, ruled by a Communist-style party in the name of socialism, is aggressive and hugely defensive. One cannot lose a point; concede one point and you become subordinate. That is why Barack Obama has armed himself for his first Beijing visit as US president with Dalai Lama power, prepared to punch home points with Chinese President Hu Jintao. After facing Hu, he will still get to meet the Dalai Lama.
A unique bond with the Monpas of Buddhist Tawang has led to the 14th Dalai Lama’s fifth visit to India’s “Land of Dawn-lit mountains”. The programme at Tawang monastery is solely to impart Buddhist teachings. It is at a most appropriate time, when the Indian government needs to assert its territorial rights in Arunachal Pradesh. In the face of China’s strident claims over Arunachal, the Tibetan leader’s spiritual visit to his followers legitimises India’s stance in the most significant yet entirely non-verbal manner.
Historically, Tawang was Tibetan territory until early last century. Even today many families in the region retain ancestral tax papers for making payments to the government of Tibet. During the Chinese invasion of Tibet, India unilaterally declared the McMahon Line as the border and swiftly evicted the remaining Tibetan officials from the local administration in 1950. Arunachal Pradesh as a state was formed in 1987; till then it was part of the North East Frontier Agency.
The 6th Dalai Lama by virtue of his birth in Tawang in 1683 made sacred this 2,000 sq km region. The Great 13th Dalai Lama ceded the region to British India in 1914 by signing the bilateral McMahon Treaty in Delhi. The 14th incarnation is today symbolically and silently gifting it again to India. The Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile in Dharamsala have repeatedly confirmed that they honour the 13th Dalai Lama’s decision. For the Tibetan populace, within and outside Tibet, Arunachal Pradesh is a part of India.
In 2004, Sun Yuxi, then Chinese ambassador to India, made that ill-phrased claim over Arunachal not just Tawang, he said, but “the whole of it”. Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee rescued Sikkim from China’s ambitions by surrendering India’s remaining authority to speak on Tibet and, recently, a Chinese map portrayed Kashmir as an independent country.
China is not going to stop there since Beijing refuses to recognise the 1914 McMahon Line and the Simla Agreement also. It is most likely to question the territorial integrity of the remainder of the 890-km McMahon Line, the Demchok region in eastern Ladakh, and the Sumdho area of the eastern Himachal Pradesh border. Having one of its vital military installations at Sumdho (Tibet: trisection) between Tibet and Himachal’s Lahaul-Spiti, India is expected to counter any attempts on Sumdho with armed might.
As schoolboys in a Tibetan refugee camp, we used to be marched out once in a while for Free Tibet protest rallies. We shouted slogans in Tibetan and English but never understood this phrase in Hindi: “Tibbat ki azadi, Bharat ki suraksha” (Tibet’s independence is India’s security). It never made sense to me until later, when i realised how India had accepted Tibetan refugees fleeing Chinese persecution, nurtured us and reinforced us not with guns but with education.
The Tibetan armed resistance, based in Mustang, western Nepal, and disbanded in 1974, was later reconstituted into a Tibetan battalion in the Indian army known as Establishment No 22, a classified paramilitary force deployed in important operations like the Kargil war. Today, 7,000 Tibetan soldiers, under the ministry of home affairs, man the most difficult and dangerous borders in India’s mountainous terrain.
For India to keep Arunachal, based on the McMahon Line, the only choice is to recognise Tibet’s independence. It cannot legitimise the McMahon Line border otherwise. Faced with this political reality, India may not be able to summon the courage to support the movement for Tibetan independence overtly, but it is important that it stands firm on its position.