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Should the Dalai Lama visit Arunachal Pradesh?

Last updated on: October 21, 2009 19:47 IST

Experts differ on whether the Dalai Lama's visit to Arunachal Pradesh could escalate tensions between India and China and even lead to war, writes Sheela Bhatt.

Should the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetans, visit Arunachal Pradesh when tension between India and China is so high?   

China has objected, officially and unofficially, against his proposed visit in November more than once.

It is well-known that the Chinese see the Dalai Lama as a 'splittist" leader and not as a religious or spiritual leader of Tibetans. The Dalai Lama has visited Arunachal Pradesh several times in the past despite China's protests.

Prem Shankar Jha, well-known columnist and author of many books including The Twilight of the Nation State: Globalisation, Chaos and War has argued in his latest column that, 'The immediate need is to persuade the Dalai Lama to postpone his visit to Tawang. This should not prove difficult for he could hardly be relishing the prospect of setting the house he has been living in on fire. A postponement will buy time for the two countries to clear misunderstandings and evolve a policy that brings peace to Tibet.'

Jha thinks that for good of India and China, the Dalai Lama should not visit Twang in times like this. In quite a surprising tone he warns that, 'The resulting confrontation has now acquired a life of its own and is leading the two countries towards a war that neither wants. The calibrated escalation of China's demands and actions suggests that the point of no return will be the Dalai Lama's visit to Tawang in November. Wen Jiabao's request for a meeting with Manmohan Singh in Bangkok should, therefore, be seen as a last ditch effort to avert war.'

This sounds scary but most New Delhi-based analysts, well-versed with international affairs, rejected Jha's claims.

Former diplomat Naresh Chandra, who has been a member of International Crisis Group and National Security Advisory Board, told rediff.com that, "The decision to visit Arunachal Pradesh should be left to the Dalai Lama. India should not allow China to have a veto in this matter. It is true that both countries are under tension. But, tension has to be managed. What can China do to India if the Dalai Lama visits Arunachal Pradesh? Will it stop trading with India? India is not saying that Chinese prime minister should not go to Tibet."

Chandra says if India agrees to postpone the Dalai Lama's visit, Chinese will push the envelope. In future they may mind his visit to Leh also.

"Jha has got it wrong. The issue is if you concede China's demand to not allow the Dalai Lama's visit, you are conceding that China has a special interest in Arunachal Pradesh. This is not possible to do because you can't concede on any Indian territory. We should be friendly to China but conceding on Arunachal Pradesh is just not possible. The line should not be crossed."

Mohan Guruswamy, who has written the book Chasing The Dragon: Will India Catch Up With China?, told rediff.com that, "We should not encourage China in this matter. It is none of its business. The Dalai Lama should go to Arunchal Pradesh. India is free to decide about it. There is no end to Chinese demands."

He says the Dalai Lama should go now and go again and again.

Srikant Kondapalli, China expert who has written two papers on China's defence services and who was post-doctoral visiting fellow at the People's University, Beijing, from 1996-98, told rediff.com, "I don't think India and China are moving towards war because unlike in 1962, India is not unprepared. Both countries are nuclear powers and both countries are alert. No war is possible in these circumstances."

Kondapalli, who has been educated in Chinese studies in India and China with a specialisation in modern Chinese history, says, "I think the Dalai Lama should go to Arunachal Pradesh because if he cancels it will be seen wrongly by Indians and by the world. It will be seen as India working under pressure from China and moreover, South Block will lose face because diplomats like Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and Joint Secretary (East Asia) Vijay Gokhale, have said clearly that the Dalai Lama is free to visit any part of India."

Jha, an economist strategic analyst, who has written three books on China that includes Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India Dominate the West? and Managed Chaos on the fragility of  the Chinese miracle, dismissed in strongest words all those experts who support the Dalai Lama's visit. He told rediff.com that these experts know nothing about China and strategic issues.

In an angry tone, he said, "I have lived through 1962. I have lived through humiliations. I don't want such humiliations, again. I wrote three books on China because I had gone through the pain of humiliations."

Jha says that China is economically strong but politically insecure. He says, "Those people who are supporting the Dalai Lama's visit don't know China at all. China is economically successful but it is an intrinsically insecure country. Many people see high-rise buildings in Shanghai and think that nothing can go wrong with it. But, that is not true. China has been giving signal after signal of its views over border issues." 

Jha said he knows reliably that, "There is a terrible feeling in government that these people (strategic experts who support the Dalai Lama's visit) have gone crazy. They will drive us to war."

Jha says logically one should ask question the when China's GDP is 2.5 time bigger than India, when it holds 2/3rds of US treasury bonds, when it is having dialogue under G-2 with US why would its Prime Minister Wen Jiabao ask for Indian prime minister's time?

Jha thinks in the upcoming meeting of China and India's leaders in Thailand (during the ASEAN Summit), China is likely to warn India. India and China can do lots of things together in the field of environment, trade and economic crisis. Why create another crisis? he asks

He also put forward and argument that China can shift an entire division of its army in just a week's time near Indian borders but the Indian army is not prepared. It needs time. Jha says, "The very least our experts can do is buy time for the Indian armed forces."

He also argues that, "I am very surprised that the Dalai Lama who has lived in our house since the last 60 years is not taking a position. Why does he not offer to postpone his visit? He can see the damage to India better than I can see it. His visit to Twang to open a hospital is purely a political act." 

Talking about the basic issue between two countries, Jha argues that China has a misunderstanding about India's stand on Tibet. They think that surreptitiously India may be supporting the Dalai Lama's idea of a 'Greater Tibet' which if conceded will have direct impact on China's unity and future. Jha says, "India has never supported and will never support idea of a Greater Tibet. But the misunderstanding should be cleared."

Jha forcefully pleads for talks with China and he thinks India should buy time, "Those who support strident diplomacy vis-a-vis China owe it to people of India to find out about any misunderstanding with China. If China is readying to humiliate India, we should buy time. We are doing neither. People who know nothing about China are rushing India into confrontation for which the Indian Army is not ready."

In this catch-22 situation, the Dalai Lama has been evasive, so far. If he himself prefers to delay his visit to Arunachal Pradesh, the matter can be solved amicably and will help cool the tempers, says a New Delhi-based strategic expert offering a temporary solution.

You have heard the experts, now we would like your opinion:

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi