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Why is the Dalai Lama going to Tawang?

Last updated on: November 5, 2009 19:26 IST

Image: The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader
Photographs: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
In a couple of days the Dalai Lama arrives in Arunachal Pradesh for a week-long visit. Claude Arpi looks at the different views on the Dalai Lama's trip to the state.

China's views

In a previous column, I explained why the Chinese are so upset (or pretend to be upset) about the Tibetan leader's visit to Arunachal and Tawang. Beijing claims the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh as theirs.

Though they offer various clumsy historical justifications for it, Beijing's main reason remains that it is not ready to accept that Tibet was once an independent nation (and therefore the McMahon Line has some validity).

Long ago, the great historian Dr R C Majumdar rightly assessed the Chinese way of behaving: 'There is one aspect of Chinese culture that is little known outside the circle of professional historians. It is the aggressive imperialism that characterised the politics of China throughout the course of her history, at least during the part of which is well known to us.'

'Thanks to the systematic recording of historical facts by the Chinese themselves,' Dr Majumdar said, 'an almost unique achievement in oriental countries... we (historians) are in position to follow the imperial and aggressive policy of China from the third century BC to the present day, a period of more than twenty-two hundred years... It is characteristic of China that if a region once acknowledged her nominal suzerainty even for a short period, she should regard it as a part of her empire for ever and would automatically revive her claim over it even after a thousand years whenever there was a chance of enforcing it.'

This mindset has not changed much in the Middle Kingdom.

The Dalai Lama's commitments

One of the consequences of this way of thinking is that the present leadership in Beijing is unable to grasp the motivations of the leader of the Tibetans. This creates unnecessary misunderstandings.

For years now, the Dalai Lama has spoken about his three commitments in life: To work for humanity as a whole, to promote inter-religious dialogue and to solve the Tibet issue.

A couple of years ago, he told me: "I carry the name of the Dalai Lama. I have a responsibility to act as the free spokesperson of the Tibetans in their struggle for justice, but this is not my first commitment."

His first commitment remains towards humanity, what he calls "the promotion of human values such as compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline. All human beings are the same. We all want happiness and do not want suffering." He terms this 'secular ethics'.

His second commitment is as a religious practitioner, as a Buddhist. He says: "Despite philosophical differences, all major world religions have the same potential to create good human beings. It is therefore important for all religious traditions to respect one another and recognise the value of each other's respective traditions. For the community at large, several truths, several religions are necessary."

The leader of humanity

Image: An elderly lady of the Manpa tribe spins prayer wheels at a monastery in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh
Photographs: Utpal Baruah/Reuters
If all the religious teachers spoke thus, many of the world problems would be solved.

When asked is there is a strict order in his commitments, he immediately told me: "Yes, first, as a fellow human being, the promotion of human values is my first priority, this covers six billion human beings. Second, I am a Buddhist, and as a Buddhist I want to promote religious harmony: it addresses perhaps half of these six billion who are religious believers. The third one is about Tibet. There are six millions Tibetans."

It sometimes irritates some of his young countrymen, but his commitment to his native land and his people comes only third.

Among other reasons, this makes the Dalai Lama a special person, a leader of humanity, respected worldwide (including by many in China).

The Dalai Lama adds: "Out of three commitments, number one and two are mostly on volunteer basis. Till my death I have committed myself to these causes. Regarding the third one, in a way it is not a voluntary commitment, it is due to past history and to the institution of the Dalai Lama. I am bound to this commitment and this responsibility, because I am the Dalai Lama who played a role in the past history of Tibet".

But that is not all.

Cultural Affinities

Though the Dalai Lama's trip to Tawang is not directly connected to his third commitment, it is, however, a fact that the entire Himalayan belt has culturally been very close to Tibet. Whether Ladakh, Sikkim, Lahoul, Spiti or Monyul (Tawang region), the population of these areas speak a Tibetan dialect; the religion practiced is Tibetan Buddhism; the script used for their religious scriptures is similar to Tibetan; several monasteries in these areas were religiously affiliated to some of the large monasteries on the Roof of the World and finally Tibetan Lamas have always taught the Buddha Dharma in these regions.

This does not mean that these areas were part of Tibet.

This cultural affinity is one of the reasons why the Dalai Lama has accepted the invitation to visit Tawang.

Another fact often ignored is that the impregnable Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world, have been a quite porous frontier. It is only in the last 50 years, (in fact after the 1962 war with China) that the flow of goods and people abruptly stopped.

One of the most tragic collaterals of China's invasion of Tibet in 1950 is that not only border trade, but even cultural and religious exchanges, came to an end.

His presence in Tawang is a reiteration that the McMahon Line was (and is) the border

Image: The Dalai Lama at a news conference.
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
For centuries, caravans from Ladakh to Western Tibet, from Kalimpong to Chumbi Valley on the Tibetan side of Nathu-la in Sikkim, from Tawang (Arunachal) to Southern Tibet or from Munsyari (Uttarakhand) to the Kailas-Manasarovar region, have visited, traded and had exchanges with the Land of Snows.

There was a border (the McMahon Line in the North-East, at Demchog in Ladakh, Shipki-la in Himachal or Lipulekh-la in Uttarakhand, for example), but no human hindrance stopped traders, pilgrims and even government officials to move from one side to the other.

When one looks at certain frescos in Western Tibet (Tsaparang/Toling in Ngari district), one is flabbergasted by the resemblance with Ajanta and other Buddhist caves in India. Why? Simply because for centuries, Indian artists travelled freely from India to Tibet and vice-versa.

The history of the Himalayan belt is full of stories recounting the arduous trips of men and animals walking across treacherous passes and frosty valleys. Nobody blocked their journey; even though they belonged to different countries, both sides shared a common culture.

Another example: when Buddhism nearly disappeared from Tibet during the 9th/10th century AD, the renaissance of the Dharma in the Land of Snows originated from India's Buddhist regions of Ladakh and Spiti.

This is another reason why the Dalai Lama has accepted the invitation to go to Tawang: like Tibet, the eastern part of Arunachal belongs to the Himalayan world. This has nothing to do with an official border.

Is the Dalai Lama's visit political?

Beijing is often under the impression the Tibetan leader has a hidden agenda and wants to score points. They probably see the Tawang visit as one such occasion.

From the Indian side, it was specifically mentioned by Foreign Minister S M Krishna: 'The only restriction we have put on the Dalai Lama is that he should not indulge in political activities.'

A couple of years back, the Dalai Lama told me his motivation for travelling abroad. It certainly applies to his Indian trips: "Whenever I go abroad, whenever I visit a country, my number one priority is to interact with the public. This is my top most priority. Usually, I have nothing to ask the politicians, I have no specific request (Only when I visit Strasbourg or Washington, I have sometimes a specific political agenda)."

The Dalai Lama's visit to Tawang clearly relates to his two first commitments, to preach 'secular ethics' and, as a Buddhist teacher, to educate his local coreligionists about the importance of adhering to traditional Buddhist values while keeping an open mind about today's problems (including global warming and environment).

Let us not forget that the Tawang monastery is the largest Indian vihara. The Dalai Lama's fourth visit to this area since his exile, is therefore logical, there is no reason why the Tibetan leader could not teach the Buddha Dharma in this part of India.

At the same time, it is clear that the last thing the Dalai Lama would like to do is to embarrass the Indian government. He knows perfectly well how sensitive the situation between India and China has been during the last few months; that is why he will strictly adhere to his two first commitments.

The Dalai Lama rightly says: 'The Chinese government politicises too much wherever I go.' And one still wonders why Beijing did not raise a hue and cry on the occasion of the Dalai Lama's three first visits.

His presence in Tawang is nevertheless a silent reiteration that the McMahon Line was (and is) the border between Tibet (in today's China) and India.