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As China prepares for post-Dalai Lama Tibet, what is India to do with the Tibetan Exiles?

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • March 25, 2010

    The post-Dalai Lama era is likely to be fraught with uncertainty and has profound security implications for both India and China. While China is afflicted with the Tibetan unrest, India has worries about the future of Tibetan refugees spread across the subcontinent. Relations between the two Asian giants are also greatly entwined with the Tibet factor. While India is yet to evolve a strategy to deal with the fate of the Tibetan refugees after the present Dalai Lama passes away, China is incrementally preparing to confront the Tibet problem in the post-Dalai Lama phase. Thus, Hu Jintao’s reconfigured Tibet policy based on promotion of Buddhism and creation of a new monkhood is aimed at confronting the security situation in the post-Dalai Lama era. It is also geared towards weakening India’s manoeuverability on the Tibet issue and bilateral border negotiations.

    China’s latest move towards incremental preparation for the post-Dalai Lama era came on February 28, 2010, when it nominated its designated Panchen Lama, Gyaincain Norbu, to the Parliamentary advisory body, the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) as one of the 13 new members. Prior to this, on October 18, 2008, the Chinese government formulated plans to set up the first-ever academy of Tibetan Buddhism in southwestern China. Construction for the $11.7 million project began in October 2008. The purpose is to train “patriotic and devotional religious personnel”. In other words, the attempt is to "build an officially approved cadre of monks in order to dilute the influence of defiant monks in Tibet, who have faith in the Dalai Lama". In fact, the signs for the creation of a new monkhood subservient to Beijing was witnessed in July 2007 when in a major diplomatic move the government in China passed a law on reincarnation -- Order No. 5 of China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs, Management Measures for the Reincarnation of ‘Living Buddhas’ in Tibetan Buddhism -- which required all reincarnate lamas to be approved by the state. Through this major tactical step China asserted its right to manage and select all reincarnate lamas of Tibetan Buddhism and thereby sought to choose its own Dalai Lama after the present one passes away. This is based on the assumption that with the exit of the present Dalai Lama the Tibetan problem would inevitably end.

    Earlier from April 13 to 16, 2006, China organised for the first time a World Buddhist Forum in Hangzhou to espouse its leadership of the Buddhist world. It also provided an international platform to China’s own Panchen Lama to bolster his legitimacy both internally and globally. It may be recalled that China hand-picked Gyaincain Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995, rejecting Gedhun Choekyi Nyima selected by the Dalai Lama. Since then, China has been steadily raising his profile. The Dalai Lama was not invited for this international forum in which over 1,000 monks and experts from thirty-seven countries gathered to participate in the discussion on building a harmonious world, because he was seen as “splitting the motherland and sabotaging the unity of ethnic groups.” As such, his participation would have caused “disharmony”, as reported by Xinhua.

    More importantly, the Fifth National Conference on the Work of Tibet held in Beijing in January 18-20, 2010 indicates China’s policy direction on Tibet. This was convened especially keeping an eye on the future of the Dalai Lama. Evidently, the 2010 Work on Tibet came after the March 2008 Tibetan uprisings. The last Conference was held in 2001. During the 2010 Conference, Chinese President Hu Jintao made a very important statement on the need for lasting stability in Tibet, implying that Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of creating economic prosperity to mitigate separatism alone could not tame the restive Tibetan population. Identifying that “Tibet faces a special contradiction between people of all ethnic group and the separatist forces led by the Dalai clique,” Hu Jintao emphasised on the need for “leap frog development” and “lasting stability” as the major themes of the work of Tibet. The emphasis on “lasting stability” is particularly striking. The Work Report talks about adopting substantial measures to ensure “normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.” This perhaps signals the need to promote and preserve Tibetan Buddhism, which has hitherto been stifled or controlled in Tibet. Also, perhaps there is the realization on the part of the Chinese leadership that the forces of identity and nationalism cannot be eliminated through repressive measures. Conspicuously, this means that along with Deng’s policy of economic development in minority areas, Hu Jintao adds a major policy decision of promoting Tibetan Buddhism, which in some sense would mean upholding the Tibetan identity. Arguably, China is incrementally preparing for the post-Dalai Lama scenario. This momentous decision also has ominous implications for India.

    First, it would certainly blunt Western criticism about China’s repressive policy in Tibet. Second, it would discredit the Dalai Lama’s criticism of cultural repression of the Tibetans as well as invalidate his demand for ‘Greater Tibet’ to promote and preserve Tibetan identity. Third, it would weaken India’s Tibetan card or in other words weaken the threat of re-opening the Tibet question as a kind of pressure tactic on China.

    In the light of these developments, it is pertinent to ask how India is preparing for the post-Dalai Lama era. The presence of the Dalai Lama in India along with 120,000 Tibetan refugees spread across 39 settlements is leverage for India. But India has so far steadfastly avoided using the Tibetan card. In fact, while China has shown eagerness for the Dalai Lama’s return to China, it has categorically refused to take back the exiled Tibetan population based in India. Of course, the Dalai Lama has refused to go back to Tibet leaving his exiled-people behind. Quite clearly, China is not interested in resolving the Tibet issue. By constantly disparaging the Dalai Lama as a ‘splittist’ and involving his representatives in fruitless talks, China is simply buying time till the Dalai Lama passes away, after which, it hopes, the Tibetan movement would naturally fizzle out. In the meantime, through several measures, China is incrementally consolidating its hold on Tibet. Consequently, China’s Tibet policy is geared towards weakening India’s bargaining position on the border negotiations as the Tibet factor is entwined with the disputed India-China border.

    In this scenario, India needs to raise with China the issue of the future of the exiled Tibetan population in India. This is pertinent since the long-term presence of Tibetans in India could prove to be troublesome in terms of internal peace. The 1999 Manali disturbance in Himachal Pradesh bears testimony to the fact that the growing presence of Tibetans and their engagement at times with illegal trade and business has brought them in collision with the local population. With time Tibetans are only likely to strike deeper roots in India, and a future Gorkhaland kind of a scenario could well become a reality.