SPMRF Round Table Week (18 November to 25 November)

The Blessed People of Tawang

By Claude Arpi

According to an article in The China Daily published at the end of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang: “Under India’s illegal rule, the residents of Southern Tibet live difficult lives, face various kinds of discrimination, and look forward to returning to China.”

The mouthpiece of the Communist Party says, the Dalai Lama “can’t wait to give away Tawang district …in exchange for India’s support for the survival of his separatist group.”

Calling the Dalai Lama a ‘troublemaker’, the daily further affirms: “Depending on India for a living, the Dalai Lama’s eagerness to please his master is understandable, but he is going too far by selling Southern Tibet in exchange for his master’s favour.” Well this does not tally with the facts.

Not only did the entire local Monpa population (some 35,000 to 40,000 according to sources) throng to have a glimpse of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, but large flocks of Bhutanese too, who trekked from the neighbouring districts of Tashigang and Tashiyangtse, as well as Buddhist pilgrims from the remotest villages of Upper Subansiri, West Siang or Upper Siang districts, who travelled for days to have a once-in a life-time darshan. I doubts that a single one of these devotees dreamed to ‘return’ one day to the present-day Tibet.

One could however ask why the visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang triggered so much violence from the Chinese propaganda machinery? First and foremost, by allowing the Tibetan leader to visit Tawang, Delhi has reasserted that the Land of Mon, as Tawang is known, is an integral part of India, whether China agrees or disagrees. This does not please Beijing which lately has started adding Tawang to its ‘occupied territories’.

The Chinese response is also a reaction to the Dalai Lama’s immense popularity in India’s border areas. Despite the noise in the Chinese media (and the protest by the Chinese spokesperson), the Modi Sarkar saw no reason to not go ahead with the visit of the most honoured guest of India, the Dalai Lama. Retrospectively, it was the right decision.  Located south of the McMahon Line, Tawang is today one of the most strategic districts in the country; it should be noted that before October 1962, no Chinese had ever set foot in the area.

The Historical Issue

It appears that China still grudges the fact that in March 1959, India offered asylum to the Tibetan leader. Beijing tries to use the fact that the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, is born in a village south of Tawang to prove that the area belongs to China; but then the fact that Shiva resides on the Kailash would 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 part of the Middle Kingdom?

During the Simla Conference in 1914, Henry McMahon, India’s Foreign Secretary sat for several months on equal footing with Lonchen Shatra, the Tibetan delegate 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 historically 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.

India becomes Independent, Tibet is Invaded

Life continued for a few decades, India became Independent, the tri-colour flag continued to float over Dekyi Linka, the Indian Mission in Lhasa, 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; 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.

The 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 his 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 the 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.”

On March 31, 1959, 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: “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.

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 before the present one 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. Why is China so furious this time?

Probably, China has today become ‘bigger’; it dislikes 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.

Despite using batteries of ‘experts’, including a wanted ULFA dissident, Beijing has been unable to project its case and ended by resorting to insulting the revered Buddhist teacher.

Winning the Hearts

Another issue is that 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.

The entire State and District administrations, as well as local lamas and politicians were seen around as the Dalai Lama arrived in Bomdila. His massive 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.

Beijing does not know how to react to such popularity and reverence for the Tibetan leader; moreover 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.

As a test, Beijing should allow the Dalai Lama to travel to Tsona, north of Tawang in Tibet. Perhaps the inhabitants of Tsona would ask for the County’s reattachment to India? After all, in Tibet religious freedom exists only in propaganda statements, while South of the McMahon Line, it is an actual fact.

(The author is a well known columnist, author and China and Tibet expert. He has been living in India for over decades.)

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