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Is India snubbing the Dalai Lama?

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
March 6, 2018

The Indian government has urged officials to shun upcoming events commemorating the Dalai Lama's 60th anniversary of exile in India to avoid riling China at a time of rising tensions. Murali Krishnan reports.

Indien Dalai Lama
Image: Getty Images/AFP/L. Wangyal

A leaked circular between two senior officials directing their colleagues to avoid events marking the Dalai Lama's 60th anniversary in exile in India hints at New Delhi's reluctance to rile Beijing during "a very sensitive time" for bilateral relations.

Written on February 22 by Vijay Gokhale, secretary for foreign affairs, to Cabinet Secretary P K Sinha, the directive stated that it was "not desirable" for officials to participate in upcoming exile events, noting "the sensitive nature of the subject."

It has since sparked a serious debate on whether the Indian government is bowing to Chinese pressure and downgrading ties with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Tibetan government-in-exile led by the Dalai Lama. 

In response to the circular, the Dalai Lama's office has now cancelled its two main events in New Delhi — an inter-faith prayer on March 31 and a "Thank You India" event on April 1. They will now be held in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama's residence and the CTA headquarters. 

Tense relations

Relations between India and China have been tense over the past couple of years. Last year, both countries' militaries even faced off over a territorial dispute that also involved Bhutan. Some observers in India view the latest directive as an attempt by New Delhi to repair the relationship. "The issuance of the circular on this occasion would mainly be because of the tension in India-China relations caused by the face-off at Doklam," Jayadeva Ranade, President of the Center for China Analysis and Strategy, told DW.

It is therefore a prudent move, the expert said. 

Government officials speaking on condition of anonymity have confirmed that India was trying to downplay the 60th anniversary celebrations. "Look at China's expanding geopolitical and economic footprint. With Sri Lanka and the Maldives under Chinese influence, India is fast losing its leverage. This (circular) is part of diplomacy and the dividends, we hope, will pay off in the long term," said a senior diplomat.

But others disagree with this assessment. 

China displays military might as standoff with India intensifies

Wrong signal

Lalit Mansingh, a former foreign secretary, did not mince his words, saying that the circular sent "a wrong signal" as it contradicts India's policy of granting asylum to the spiritual head of Tibet. "You cannot earn brownie points with China with just a lame circular. There are enough examples to show that China will not reciprocate," Mansingh told DW.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Delhi-based think tank, Center for Policy Research, described the government's stand as "unfortunate."

"The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) didn't protest China's refusal — in breach of two bilateral MOUs (memorandum of understanding) — to share upstream data on Brahmaputra and Sutlej or its cutting off of Indian pilgrims' access to two sacred sites in Tibet. And now this, when India should be doing the opposite," Chellaney tweeted.

Taken aback by the leak, the government went into damage-control mode stating that its position on the Dalai Lama had not changed, although it did not deny issuing the directive.

A statement issued by the MEA said, "The government's position on His Holiness the Dalai Lama is clear and consistent. He is a revered religious leader and is deeply respected by the people of India. There is no change in that position. He is accorded all freedom to carry out his religious activities in India." 

Read more: Pakistan avoids global terror watchlist – for now

Modi soon in China?

Government insiders believe the circular is an honest attempt at trying to mend fences with China, especially after its sudden turnaround to back an American-led effort to place Pakistan back on the "grey list" of nations that are not doing enough to combat terror financing.

Also, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to visit Qingdao in June to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, although some reports suggest he may make an official visit to China as early as April. 

Others, like China expert Srikanth Kondapalli, saw the circular as being in line with the Indian government's support for Beijing's "One China" policy. "As the Dalai Lama himself pointed out, India is 'over cautious' when the Tibet issue comes up in India-China discussions," Kondapalli told DW.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11