Nepali Times
India’s Dalai Dilemma


As the world reacts to China's crackdown in Tibet, one country is conspicuous by both its centrality to the drama and its reticence over it. India, the land of asylum for the Dalai Lama and the angry young hotheads of the Tibetan Youth Congress, finds itself on the horns of a dilemma.

On one hand, India is a democracy with a long tradition of allowing peaceful protest, including against foreign countries when their leaders come visiting. It provided refuge to the Dalai Lama when he fled Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, granted asylum (and eventually Indian citizenship) to more than 110,000 Tibetan refugees, and permitted them to create a government-in-exile (albeit one that India does not recognise) in the picturesque Himalayan hill town of Dharamsala.

On the other hand, India has been cultivating better relations with China, which humiliated India in a brief border war in 1962. Though their bitter border dispute remains unresolved, and China has been a vital ally and military supplier to India's enemies in Pakistan, bilateral relations have grown warmer in recent years.

China has now overtaken the US as India's largest single trading partner. Tourism is thriving. Indian information technology firms have opened offices in Shanghai, and Infosys's headquarters in Bangalore recruited nine Chinese this year. India has no desire to jeopardise any of this.

India's government has attempted to draw a distinction between its humanitarian obligations as an asylum country and its political responsibilities as a friend of China. The Dalai Lama and his followers are given a respected place but told not to conduct "political activities" on Indian soil.

When young Tibetan radicals staged a march to Lhasa from Indian soil, the Indian police stopped them well before they got to the Tibetan border, detaining 100. When Tibetan demonstrators outside the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi attacked the premises, the Indian government stepped up its protection for the Chinese diplomats.

The Dalai Lama's curious position has complicated India's diplomatic dance with China. He is simultaneously the most visible spiritual leader of a worldwide community of believers, a role that India honours, and a political leader, a role that India permits but rejects in its own dealings with him.

As a Buddhist, the Dalai Lama preaches non-attachment, self-realisation, inner actualisation, and non-violence; as a Tibetan he is admired by people fiercely attached to their homeland, with most seeking its independence from China and many determined to fight for it.

The Dalai Lama's message of peace, love, and reconciliation has found adherents among Hollywood movie stars, Irish rock musicians, and Indian politicians. But he has made no headway at all with the regime that rules his homeland. His sermons fill football stadiums and he has won a Nobel Prize, but political leaders around the world shirk from meeting him openly, for fear of offending China.

Indians are acutely conscious that, on this subject, the Chinese are easily offended. While India facilitated the highly publicised visit by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala last month, it almost simultaneously canceled a scheduled meeting between him and Indian Vice-President Mohammed Hamid Ansari.

When China summoned India's ambassador in Beijing to the foreign ministry at 2AM for a dressing-down over the Tibetan protests in New Delhi, India meekly acquiesced in the insult. Though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has publicly declared the Dalai Lama to be the "personification of nonviolence," India has let it be known that it does not support his political objectives. Tibet, India's government says, is an integral part of China, and India lends no support to those who would challenge that status.

The stark truth is that India has no choice in the matter. It cannot undermine its own democratic principles and abridge the freedom of speech of Tibetans on its soil. Nor can it afford to alienate its largest trading partner, a neighbour and an emerging global superpower, which is known to be prickly over any presumed slights to its sovereignty over Tibet. India will continue to balance delicately on its Tibetan tightrope.

(Project Syndicate.)

Shashi Tharoor, is a novelist and commentator, and former Under Secretary General of the United Nations.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)