India's Tawang Monastery is on terrain also claimed by China
In early November, the
Dalai Lama will visit the majestic Tawang Monastery, perched atop a
ridge in the Indian province of Aranchul Pradesh. Surrounded by thick
clouds and perennial mist, the monastery sometimes seems almost to be
suspended from heaven.
It is also at the very center of
thousands of square kilometers of terrain claimed by both China and
India, although India currently possesses it. It now risks becoming a
proxy battleground on which both India and China seek to proclaim their
sovereignty. The religious leader's visit can be seen as a card played
by both India and the Tibetan exile community to keep pressure on China.
Home to one of the most sacred
Buddhist monasteries, Tawang is the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama,
Tsayang Gyatso, in the 17th century. The current Dalai Lama passed
through this region when he fled into exile in 1959.
Chhime Chhoekyapa, the exiled Tibetan
spiritual leader's aide, told the media that the Dalai Lama is "going
there for teaching. This has nothing to do with politics, there is
nothing political about it." In Chinese eyes, however, and perhaps
Indian eyes as well, everything the Dalai Lama does has something to do
with politics. And this is a region that Beijing calls "Southern
When asked about the Dalai Lama's
upcoming visit, Beijing officials have fumed. "China expresses strong
concern about this information," said Jiang Yu, the spokeswoman for
China's Foreign Ministry. "The visit further reveals the Dalai clique's
anti-China and separatist essence. China's stance on the so-called
Arunachal Pradesh is consistent. We firmly oppose Dalai visiting the
so-called Arunachal Pradesh."
Tension has slowly been ratcheting up
between the two Asian giants, with media commentators fanning the
flames. "Is China itching to wage war on India?" asked Professor Brahma
Chellaney in the September issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Reports have appeared in Chinese state media alleging that India was
moving troops and fighter aircraft to the northeast, specifically into
Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
India, however, is acutely aware of
its shortcomings in the territory it controls. The Chinese, with their
extensive roads and railways, can actually come up to the Line of
Actual Control, take a stroll and walk back. Two years ago, Chinese
soldiers demolished a Buddhist statue that Indians had erected at
Bumla, the main border pass above Tawang, according to a member of the
Indian Parliament, Nabam Rebia. It takes several days for India's
troops to get to the border. But slowly India is finding its voice as
it struggles to speed up its own preparedness.
China claims around 90,000 square
kilometers of territory, roughly the size of Arunachal Pradesh,
regarding the area as "disputed." China lays claim to Tawang on behalf
of the Tibetans. But in the exile community in Dharamsala, where the
Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees live, the community is not
impressed. They do not claim Tawang as Tibetan, let alone Chinese
The Dalai Lama's travel plans were
announced a week after his recent visit to Taiwan to visit victims of
tropical storm Morakot. China denounced the Taiwan trip, although its
complaints were remarkably muted. The visit to Arunachal Pradesh has
now drawn further attention to China's treatment of Tibetan activists
and the Dalai Lama's calls for cultural and religious freedom and
Tawang became part of modern India
when Tibetan leaders signed a treaty with British officials in 1914
that established the McMahon Line between Tibet and British-run India.
Tawang fell south of the line. The treaty, the Simla Convention, is not
recognized by China.
"We recognize it because we agreed to
it," said Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan
government-in-exile. "If China agreed to it now, it would be a
recognition of the power of the Tibetan government at that time."
Tawang's native population is almost
entirely Buddhist. Its origin is obscure. It was a part of the kingdom
of Tibet in medieval times although local tribal rulers have governed
it from time to time. The British declared the area off-limits in 1873.
India's independence from Britain severed it from Tibet. In 1962
Chinese troops conquered Tawang during the invasion of Tibet and for
six months it was controlled by the Chinese. After their retreat,
Tawang again came under Indian control.
India denied the Dalai Lama
permission to visit Tawang the last time he requested to do so. This
time it is playing the Dalai Lama card to the full. Officials in
India's Ministry of External Affairs insist that "things are changing"
and that India is getting more assertive. On Sept. 16, India's foreign
minister, S.M. Krishna, rejected China's opposition to the visit.
In an interview on IBN7, the sister
channel of India's CNN-IBN, Krishna said China's objections had no
merit. While the government has not explicitly said the visit will be
permitted, Krishna said: "Arunachal Pradesh is a part of India and the
Dalai Lama is free to go anywhere in India. The only question is that
he is not expected to comment on political developments."
Analysts say the Tibetan leader's
visit will reassert Arunachal's status as an Indian territory. "The
timing of his trip [to Arunachal Pradesh] is significant. It comes
while the debate over his visit to Taiwan is still hot," said Bhaskar
Roy, a New Delhi-based China analyst. "Tibetans are as good at playing
these games as the Chinese. They know such a visit will keep up the
pressure on China."
In Dharamsala, Samdhong Rinpoche,
Tibet's prime minister in exile, called Beijing's objections to the
visit "absurd," adding that "Arunachal Pradesh and the Tawang region
are an integral part of India. If the Dalai Lama, who has stayed in
India for the last 50 years, is visiting any part of the country why
does this bother China? If the Dalai Lama goes to Chinese territories
it can raise objections but in this case has no business to interfere."
The Arunachal Pradesh government is
urging New Delhi to ignore the Chinese opposition. "Chinese claims over
Arunachal Pradesh are simply baseless and not correct. Arunachal
Pradesh is an integral part of India and would continue to be so," said
Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu.
"They [the Chinese] are opposed to
everything that His Holiness does," said a spokesman for the Dalai
Lama's private office in Dharamsala.
Tawang's strategic importance cannot
be ruled out. The place provides the shortest route from Tibet into
India. The Dalai Lama himself took this route to escape into India in
1959. Indian defense officials have already raised alarms declaring
China and not Pakistan to be India's biggest threat. They believe that
control over Sikkim and Arunchal Pradesh would enable Chinese forces to
overrun the entire northeast border region. Chinese troops repeatedly
have attempted to gain control of Sikkim's evocatively named Finger
Area, a tiny but key strategic location where Beijing does not dispute
In June this year, General J J Singh,
governor of Arunachal Pradesh and former chief of army staff, announced
the deployment of two army divisions of around 25,000 to 30,000
soldiers each along the Arunachal Pradesh border with China. The
strength of India's Sukhoi fighter jet fleet in the Northeast is being
increased. It remains to be seen if the Dalai Lama's visit will be the
trigger that causes them to be used.
Saransh Sehgal is based in Dharamsala, India; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org