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Modi’s Call to Dalai Lama–A Tactical move or a strategic shift on Tibet?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s greetings to Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on his 86th birthday is seen as a major strategic shift in policy on Tibet (Photo: IANS)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s greetings to Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama on his 86th birthday is being seen as a major strategic shift in policy on Tibet. Modi wrote in a tweet “spoke on phone to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to convey greetings on his 86th birthday. We wish him a long and healthy life”. This is the first occasion since 2015 when he has publicly greeted the Tibetan leader on his birthday, who has been the face of nonviolent resistance to China. The 14th Dalai Lama has made India his home since fleeing China in 1959.

From 2016, such public greetings stopped in a bid to soothe Chinese sentiments. India had toned down its public engagements with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamshala due to Chinese reservations. China regards the Dalai Lama as a "separatist" and doesn’t welcome international leaders calling on the Tibetan spiritual leader. It has in the past even objected to the Dalai Lama taking part in official functions or visiting places at the invitation of the Indian government.

The latest move would not go down well with the Chinese government that just celebrated 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party, and India did not extend wishes to the party on this important milestone. Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson reportedly said “it was not a government matter” as it was a party celebration and not the official National Day of China.

Also Read: Photo Feature: Tibetans distribute 86,000 masks and food on the Dalai Lama's 86th birthday

In 2018, the Indian government had issued directives to its Ministers, senior leaders and government officials, advising them to avoid Tibet-related events in India. The high-profile events marking the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India, which were to take place in Delhi, were either cancelled or shifted to Dharamshala soon after.

In this background, it is a very significant development that marks a departure from previous policy and comes amid strained relations between India and China over the lingering border disputes in eastern Ladakh. In June 2020, tensions between India and China reached an all-time high when both armies had a violent clash that claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers and the Chinese also suffered heavy casualties in terms of death counts.

Responding to the tactical development, Tibetan leaders and activists in India have welcomed PM Modi’s call. A Tibetan Parliament member described the call as a strong message to Beijing.

“This is a positive move from PM Modi on wishing happy birthday to His Holiness (Dalai Lama). PM Modi wants to send a message that India is no longer going to be very cautious when talking about Tibet. It sends a very strong message to China,” said Dolma Tsering quoted by ANI.

“PM Modi calling the Dalai Lama to wish him on his birthday is a great gesture, despite the border issue between India and China. This is a sign of India showing its strength. It is a very strong message to China,” added Lobsang Wangyal, a Tibetan activist.

Also Read: Tibetans celebrate Dalai Lama's 86th birthday – the spiritual leader who applauds India's freedom and religious harmony

Chinese watchers and analysts also described PM Modi’s move as significant in terms of signalling to Beijing. The Indian government appears to be telling the Chinese leadership that it is much more willing to touch upon matters that Beijing might consider sensitive, particularly if China is unwilling to take India’s sensitivities and interests into account, concerning the boundary issue.

The President of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Penpa Tsering demanded that the Chinese government should recognise that the Dalai Lama is the key to resolving the Sino-Tibetan conflict and should invite him to "Tibet and China on pilgrimage without any precondition" while speaking at a ceremony to mark the birthday of the Tibetan spiritual leader in Dharamsala.

"His Holiness the Dalai Lama is one of the foremost guides of our time and is one of the few individuals who can reorient Sino-Tibetan history toward a positive direction, he said who was elected as the President or Sikyong of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in May.

He asked China to utilise the opportunity offered by the "mutually beneficial Middle Way Approach" to foster a harmonious environment where Tibetans and Chinese can co-exist amicably.

The Dalai Lama has been a symbol of the struggle of the Tibetan people for freedom, challenging the communist rule of China.

For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), controlling the selection of the next Dalai Lama is critical for the sinicisation of Tibetan Buddhism. The project to sinicise Tibetan Buddhism has consistently received attention from the top echelons of the party, including President Xi. “Tibetan Buddhism should be guided in adapting to China’s socialist society and should be developed in the Chinese context,” Xi said last year.

In May 2021, China had also issued an official white paper that any successor of the Dalai Lama has to be approved by Beijing. It also called the demand for Tibetan independence a product of “imperialist aggression against China”.

China’s biggest fear is that the Dalai Lama may choose his successor outside Tibet within the Tibetan community in India. If the Dalai Lama finds a successor outside Tibet, the successor that China may appoint will not enjoy legitimacy and the spiritual authority required to exercise effective influence in Tibet.