Monk in the Midst of Muck
China speaks big and loud, but it has not been able to win the hearts of the Tibetans 60 years after their so-called liberation. How can the Communist leadership convince the people of Arunachal to join the authoritarian regime?
Buddhists believe in the concept of sacred places or peethas. During the 10th century, the great Indian yogi Tilopa said that peethas are to be found inside your own self, though “outer peethas are mentioned in the scriptures for the benefit of simple fools who wander about”.
Peetha or not, Tawang is undoubtedly a special spot, a place of power. Is that why the ‘Hidden and Blessed Land of Mon’ is so coveted by China?
Located near the tri-junction between India, Tibet, and Bhutan, south of the McMahon Line, Tawang is today perhaps one of the most strategic districts in the country. Though before October 1962, no Chinese had ever set foot in the area, Beijing still dreams of controlling it. In the recent weeks, China has vociferously and threateningly reasserted its claim, but despite the noise in the Chinese media (and the protest of the Chinese spokesperson), the Narendra Modi Government saw no reason to not go ahead with the visit of the most honoured guest of India, the Dalai Lama.
History of the Place
‘Lama Geno’, in Monpa language could be translated as ‘the Lama knows’. It is what Tsangyang Gyatso, the young Sixth Dalai Lama, wrote with his finger on a stone in Urgyeling, his native village south of Tawang, in 1688. A high delegation had just arrived from Lhasa looking for the reincarnation of the Fifth Dalai Lama who had passed away a couple of years earlier in Tibet. The boy ‘knew’ that the Lamas had come to ‘take him back’ to Tibet.
It is just one of the numerous stories or legends in Mon Tawang; the Monpas are fond and proud of these legends. Today, Beijing tries to use the fact the Tsangyang Gyatso is born in a village south of Tawang to prove that the area belongs to China; but given the fact that Shiva resides in the Kailash, would that make the area around the sacred mountain part of India? Moreover, suppose the 15th Dalai Lama is reborn in Ladakh or Kinnaur, would it make J&K or Himachal Pradesh part of the Middle Kingdom? Chinese logic serves its own interests.
The Simla Convention
History caught up with Tawang in 1913 when two intrepid British ‘explorers’, Capts Frederick Bailey and Henry Morshead, of the Survey of India scouted the Tibetan side of the ‘snow line’ in search of a northern border for India. Their experience and notes would be invaluable for Henry McMahon, India’s Foreign Secretary during the Simla Conference in 1914 during which Lonchen Shatra, the Tibetan Plenipotentiary, sat on equal footing with McMahon and Ivan Chen, the Chinese representative. On their first day in Simla, the three plenipotentiaries had verified their respective credentials whose bona fide was accepted by all. Today, China denies this, but it is a historical recorded fact. The Convention signed by India and Tibet (and only initialed by China) did not solve the tricky Tibet-China frontier issue, but the border between India and Tibet was fixed in the form of a thick red line on a double-page map — that was the McMahon Line.
After the Chinese troops of Zhao Erfeng, the warlord of Sichuan, entered Lhasa in 1910 and tried to capture the Dalai Lama, London thought that it would be better for India and Tibet to have a demarcated border, though for centuries, trade, cultural, and religious exchanges had been going on between the Land of Snows and the subcontinent without hindrance or formal guarded border posts. Between good neighbours, a fence is not required.
In the early 1930s, though the Buddhist neighbour in the north remained friendly and peaceful, Sir Olaf Caroe, the far-sighted Foreign Secretary, thought it was time to assert the Red Line as India’s border with Tibet; as a result, the first Indian expedition went to Tawang in 1938.
India becomes Independent, Tibet is Invaded
Life continued for a few years; India became independent, the Tricolour flag continued to float over Dekyi Linka, the Indian Mission, but soon clouds started accumulating in the roof of the world’s blue sky. Without warning, in October 1950, Communist China invaded Tibet.
A dying Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel got the ball rolling to protect India’s borders. With Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, the Secretary General of the Ministry of External Affairs, he took the initiative to set up a North and North-East Border Defence Committee under Maj Gen Himatsinghji, the then Deputy Defence Minister. The Committee’s first decision was to take over the administration of all Indian territories south of the McMahon Line. The experience of Kashmir, where India reacted too late, was not to be repeated.
Assam Governor Jairamdas Daulatram (NEFA was then part of Assam) ordered a young but highly decorated Naga officer, Maj Bob Khathing, to march to Tawang. On January 17, 1951, Bob, accompanied by 200 troops of Assam Rifles and 600 porters, left the foothills for the historic mission. During the following weeks, the young officer showed his toughness, but also diplomatic skills. In the process, the Monpas were delighted to get, for the first time, a proper administration.
The Dalai Lama takes Refuge
Eight years later, Tawang made news when a fleeing Dalai Lama crossed the border at Khenzimane, north of Tawang, and took refuge in India. A few days earlier, the young Lama had sent a telegram from Lhuntse Dzong in Southern Tibet to Jawaharlal Nehru: “Ever since Tibet went under the control of Red China and the Tibetan Government lost its powers in 1951… the Chinese Government has been gradually subduing the Tibetan Government.” He asked the Prime Minister: “I hope that you will please make necessary arrangements for us in the Indian territory.”
According to Har Mander Singh, the Political Officer posted in Bomdila, a junior Tibetan officer reached the border post on March 29 and informed the Assam Rifles that the main party consisting of the Dalai Lama, his family, ministers, and tutors would be entering India on March 31.
On the appointed day, the Dalai Lama and his party reached Khenzimane. “His Holiness was riding a yak and was received by the Assistant Political Officer, Tawang. They proceeded to the checkpost without halting at the frontier,” wrote the Political Officer. On April 3, 1959, Nehru answered the Dalai Lama: “My colleagues and I welcome you and send you greetings on your safe arrival in India. We shall be happy to afford the necessary facilities for you, your family and entourage to reside in India. The people of India who hold you in great veneration will no doubt accord their traditional respect to your person.”
After resting a few days first in Tawang and then in Bomdila, on April 17, the Dalai Lama reached Tezpur in Assam from where he issued a statement denouncing China’s occupation of Tibet. The rest is history. Beijing never digested the fact that India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama. Incidentally, when the Dalai Lama crossed the border in 1959, China did not claim the area south of the McMahon line. Several articles appeared in the Chinese media about the so-called ‘Tibetan rebellion’ which had started on March 10, and the subsequent flight of the young monk to India, but in the Communist literature in April/May 1959, there is not a single word about Tawang being part of China.
But as a mark of their displeasure, the Chinese entered the Indian territory north of Tawang in October 1962, using the same tracks that the Dalai Lama passed through three years earlier. The Indian Army was woefully unprepared and the infrastructure non-existent. It was a watershed in Indian history.
Numerous visits to the State
Since then, the Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh six times between 1983 and 2009. The Tibetan leader’s first trip was in 1983, when he toured some of the Tibetan settlements in the State, as well as Bomdila, Tawang, and Dirang. In December 1996, he came back to Itanagar, and in October the next year, he was again in Tawang. In May 2003, the spiritual leader travelled to Tawang before visiting Itanagar in December. The last trip was in November 2009 when he was received in Tawang by the late Chief Minister (and father of the present CM) Dorjee Khandu. Each time China protested, but not as vociferously as during the present trip.
China is Furious Again
Why did China react so mildly the previous times? Probably, China has today become ‘bigger’; it refuses to be contradicted by ‘smaller’ nations. Beijing also knows that the visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang means a reassertion of India’s border in the area.
Beijing used batteries of ‘experts’, including a wanted ULFA dissident, to project its case. Lian Xiangmin, a ‘Tibetologist’ at the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing, warned India: “These are sensitive areas. Such a visit by the Dalai Lama touches sensitive issues and will undoubtedly negatively affect China-India relations.”
Lian used ‘Chinese’ logic to make his point: “One of the three major temples of Tibet is Drepung monastery near Lhasa, and Tawang was a subsidiary of Drepung, and in history, Tawang’s monks went to Drepung to study sutras. Tawang under Drepung also made contributions to the local Government. So Tawang is part of Tibet and Tibet is part of China, so Tawang is part of China. So this is not much of a question.”
For centuries, the Buddhist Himalayan belt had close connections with Tibet; most of the monasteries in Ladakh were affiliated to monasteries in Western Tibet; similarly for Kinnaur, Spiti, Lahaul or Sikkim, which were linked with other religious centres in Tibet. According to the logic of Lian, should all these areas also become Chinese?
Winning the Hearts
China speaks big and loud, but the regime in Beijing has not been able to win the hearts of the Tibetans more than 60 years after their so-called liberation. In these circumstances, how could the Communist leadership convince the population of Arunachal Pradesh to join the authoritarian regime?
Beijing should take note of the Dalai Lama’s immense popularity in Arunachal. Despite the short notice, tens of thousands came to get the Lama’s blessings. Chief Minister Pema Khandu, who accompanied the Tibetan leader on his journey to Bomdila, remarked: “We are humbled and will remain ever grateful to His Holiness. He has fulfilled the prayers of thousands of devotees who have waited eight long years to hear and see him in person.”
The entire State and district administrations, as well as local lamas and politicians were seen as the Dalai Lama arrived in Bomdila. His immense popularity deeply irritates Beijing whose propaganda is unable to win the ‘masses’, whether on the Tibetan side of the border or in the Indian Himalaya.
In Tawang, not only the entire local Monpa population will throng to have a glimpse of the Bodhisattva of compassion, but large flocks of Bhutanese, too, who have trekked from the neighbouring districts of Tashigang and Tashiyangtse, and Buddhist pilgrims from the remotest village of Upper Subansiri, West Siang or Upper Siang districts, who would have travelled for days to have a once-in-a-lifetime darshan.
Beijing does not know how to react to such popularity and reverence for the Tibetan leader. It is probably inconceivable for an atheist mind.
The Modi sarkar has taken the right decision by letting the visit happen; it is not only a question of religious freedom, but Delhi has also reasserted its border with China. If China is under the impression that Delhi’s policy is going to change, it is mistaken; Beijing has to reconcile and live with it.
It is perhaps time for China to hold serious discussions with the Dalai Lama; he is the only one who can unlock the vexed Tibetan issue. But before that, the Chinese leadership has to learn samata or equanimity from India.