The Dalai Lama speaks at a news conference prior to a speech to thousands at the UC San Diego campus in California, in June 2017. Photo: Reuters/ Mike Blake
The Dalai Lama speaks at a news conference prior to a speech to thousands at the UC San Diego campus in California, in June 2017. Photo: Reuters/ Mike Blake

India seems to be changing its stance on the Dalai Lama’s public role, citing new “sensitivities” in its bilateral relations with China. Three days after Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale sent out a letter “advising” Indian officials to avoid any Tibetan public functions, an event planned to commemorate the Dalai Lama’s 60th year in exile in Delhi was scrapped.

The ‘Thank You India’ event was planned to be held at Thyagaraja Stadium in Delhi on April 1. But it has now been shifted to Dharamshala.

The Foreign Secretary’s letter to union Cabinet Secretary PK Sinha indicated sensitivities in regard to Sino-Indian relations with specific reference to the event planned by the Tibetan government in exile. The letter said: “ The Dalai Lama set-up also intends to invite a number of Indian dignitaries… Participation by senior leaders, or government functionaries… is not desirable and should be discouraged.”

‘We understand’

Ngodup Dhongchung, a representative of Dalai Lama in Delhi, confirmed the rescheduling. He said: “We will now have the event in Dharamshala instead of Delhi. We will also have it on March 31 instead of April 1.” The Tibetan government had reportedly invited former PM Dr Manmohan Singh and BJP’s senior leader LK Advani for the event in Delhi. However, Singh’s office had declined the invitation and Advani was yet to give his consent, according to reports. 

Dhongchung added: “Some people may be disappointed. But we are guests of India. Indian people have been very generous to us. We understand the compulsions.”

Tibetans gather during an armed uprising against Chinese rule on March 10, 1959 in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The Dalai Lama, head of Tibet’s Buddhist clergy and the region’s spiritual leader, fled with 100,000 supporters to northern India, where a government-in-exile was set up. China ended the dominance of the lamas (Buddhist monks) and destroyed many monasteries. Occupied in 1950 by Communist forces, Tibet became an ‘autonomous region’ in 1965, but most Tibetans regard the Dalai Lama as their ‘god-king’ and resent the Chinese presence. Photo: AFP

External Affairs: ‘No change in our position’

India’s Ministry of External Affairs clarified their stand, saying: “He (Dalai Lama) is a revered religious leader and is deeply respected by the people of India. There is no change in that position. His Holiness is accorded all freedom to carry out his religious activities in India.”

Gokhale sent the letter to Sinha just before he flew to Beijing last month for talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou and State Councillor Yang Jiechi.

The meeting with Yang was considered significant. He is also the Special Representative for bilateral border talks along with India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. The pair have been holding talks to diffuse fresh tensions that erupted last year at Doklam, a tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan. The crisis led to a 78-day military standoff between India and China. 

Gokhale was India’s ambassador to China when Sino-India relations dipped due to the Doklam standoff. He is widely respected in diplomatic circles and won many friends in Beijing during his two-year stint.

India and China are viewed as competing Asian giants, having fought a war in 1962. Delhi believes that China is carrying out a “salami-slicing” strategy to undermine India’s territorial claims in the disputed border areas. Indian strategic observers have also expressed worry that Beijing is deploying a “string of pearls” strategy to encircle India’s maritime interests in the Indian Ocean.