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Why the Foreign Secretary met the Dalai Lama

By B Raman
July 12, 2010 10:59 IST
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B Raman glances at the foreign secretary's visit to Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama against the backdrop of China's recent actions vis-a-vis Pakistan.

Nirupama Rao, India's foreign secretary, arrived in Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh on July 10 and called on His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She was reportedly with him for about an hour.

His Holiness lives in Dharamsala, where his Tibetan-government-in-exile is located. Senior advisors of His Holiness, including his Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche, were reportedly present during the meeting.

According to local sources, the welfare of the Tibetan exiles living in India and the adequacy of the physical security arrangements for His Holiness were among the subjects discussed.

A representative of the Himachal Pradesh state government had stated on July 9 that Rao would visit Dharamsala on July 10 and 11, but he did not indicate whether she would be calling on His Holiness. Foreign secretaries have been paying a courtesy call on His Holiness during their tenure. She herself had planned to make a courtesy call on him on two or three occasions after taking over as the foreign secretary, but the visits were postponed due to her preoccupation with other work.

In fact, it has been reported that she was to meet His Holiness on July 3 just before Shiv Shankar Menon, the national security adviser, left for China as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's special envoy, but her meeting was postponed.

There was thus nothing unusual or secret about her visit and meeting with His Holiness, but there is likely to be speculation connecting her meeting with India's unhappiness over China's ignoring Indian concerns over the implications to India's national security of China's decisions to help Pakistan in improving its road infrastructure in the Gilgit-Baltistan area and in constructing a railway line to Xinjiang which will pass through Gilgit-Baltistan. These decisions were announced during President Asif Ali Zardari's just-concluded visit to China.

Gilgit-Baltistan, which is de jure a part of India's Jammu and Kashmir, has been under Pakistan's illegal occupation since 1948. Pakistan had illegally ceded some of the Indian territory in the area occupied by it to China in the 1960s in return for Chinese assistance in the construction of the Karakoram Highway passing through the territory. This highway is also being upgraded now with Chinese assistance.

The Chinese have sought to play down Indian concerns over their assistance to Pakistan for improving the infrastructure in the Gilgit-Baltistan area by projecting it as meant to promote trade between Pakistan and Xinjiang, but it has serious military implications for India.

It would enable Pakistan to move its troops and military equipment to these areas across the Line of Control in J&K more rapidly than in the past. It would also enable Chinese troops in Xinjiang to move to this area to assist Pakistan in the event of a military conflict.

This would further increase the military threat to the Ladakh and Kargil areas where China claims a large area as Chinese territory.

The military conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999 had broken out in this area after General Pervez Musharraf, the then chief of the army staff under the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, had secretly sent Pakistani troops to the area and occupied some Indian territory in the Kargil sector by taking advantage of the withdrawal of some Indian border posts during winter.

Even if Rao's visit was not connected with the Chinese decisions announced during Zardari's visit, it is important for the Government of India to express openly and strongly its indignation over the Chinese actions in total disregard of India's legitimate concerns.

Our policy-makers should also examine what options are available to India to counter the Chinese actions.

Upgrading the interactions with His Holiness is one option.

Establishing open contacts with the secular Uighur elements of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress is another option.

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B Raman