There has been a mixed reaction to India’s foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee’s statement on the Dalai Lama made days before the Olympics torch arrived for its Delhi leg. The senior minister told a media channel that: ‘The Dalai Lama is a respected guest of India. The nation will continue to offer him all hospitality, but during his stay in India, he should not indulge in any political activity, that could adversely affect relations between India and China.’ When asked for his reaction, the Tibetan Prime Minister-in-exile, Sandhong Rinpoche told FORCE (see interview) that, ‘These statements are not new. Ever since we arrived in India in 1959, the position of the Indian government has been consistent.’ This exactly is the problem. The stature of China and the Dalai Lama has changed so much that New Delhi needs to review its understanding of the Dalai Lama to assess how its national interests are served better. The Dalai Lama who fled Lhasa in 1959 to come to India was not welcome in the US and London. Today, he has been offered honorary Paris citizenship, and should he desire, Washington would be pleased to host him permanently. The Dalai Lama’s international stature has turned tables on China, which is defensive in the world arena and inside Tibet. Within days of calling him a liar and organising pro-China demonstrations to thwart the impact of pro-Tibet rallies protesting the Olympics torch journey for the August 2008 Games across important capitals of the world, Beijing has buckled and invited the Dalai Lama’s representatives for talks on building mutual trust. Known to set its own agenda, China which views defensive diplomacy as a sign of weakness is realistic enough to understand that the Dalai Lama has become its Achilles’ heel.
It is instructive for New Delhi to appreciate Beijing’s vulnerability and dovetail it into its China policy.
The last time China was under similar intense pressure because of the Dalai Lama was in April 1988 when it had announced that if he gave up his goal of independence, he could live in Lhasa. For the first time ever, there was a US Congressional support for the Dalai Lama in 1987 which quickly transformed into spontaneous demonstrations and riots inside Tibet through 1987 and 1998 against the Chinese occupation. At that time, China was a weak nation and was vacillating on its Tibet policy. The Dalai Lama’s reply to Beijing was the famous 1988 Strasbourg address at the European Parliament where he unveiled his ‘Middle Path’ and declared to forego the independence call made in 1959 from exile in India. He said that Tibet could remain with China if Beijing allowed an autonomous status to the whole of Tibet (political and ethnographic), to include Amdo, Kham and U-tsang areas (Tibet Autonomous Region). The Dalai Lama’s Greater Tibet covered the TAR, the whole of Qinghai province, western parts of Sichuan, areas of Yunnan and a slice of Gansu. Beijing immediately cried foul and rejected it saying that it was an indirect call for independence. China could not permit Taiwan’s status of ‘one country, two systems’ to Tibet and have democracy flourishing alongside authoritarian rule. Moreover, the creation of Greater Tibet meant disrespect to Beijing drawn administrative boundaries.
The minimum the Dalai Lama was asking was much more than the maximum Beijing could give. Even as China was working on a befitting response to the Strasbourg address two things happened that undermined Beijing’s credibility: the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and there was the Tiananmen debacle the same year. China’s internal and external strategies on Tibet had gone awry. It hardened its position and labelled the Dalai Lama as a ‘splittist.’ This was not all. The dithering since 1950 when China ‘liberated’ Tibet on how much freedom should be given to TAR was over, and Beijing embarked on the modernisation drive. Massive funds and non-Tibetan as labour and entrepreneur were pumped into TAR. The results are all too evident: Tibet has been modernised beyond recognition, and there is economic prosperity. The price has been that because of the ‘floating population’ of non-Tibetans, Lhasa has more Han Chinese living there who control the economy with fringe benefits going to Tibetans. Having transformed TAR beyond recognition, what Beijing could not do is win over the Tibetans through doles of good life and prosperity. The religious and cultural groundings were too strong to be uprooted. Buddhism continues to flourish in the godless country. This is where the Dalai Lama’s victory lies.