Jetsun Jamphal Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, otherwise known as the 14th Dalai Lama, one of the world’s most respected spiritual leaders, visited the troubled-torn state of Manipur on 17 October. He came calling at the invitation of Manipur assembly speaker, Yumnam Khemchand who had met him in Dharamasala recently.
On his arrival at the Tulihal international airport he was received by Chief Minister N Biren Singh and the Speaker and was driven to the Raj Bhawan. The next day, at a civic reception after a press conference, he spoke at length on “peace and harmony”. The first point he touched on was the growing trend of religious intolerance in the country over the last few months.
He said “historically India is a multi-religious country and everyone has the right to preserve it but no one religious group has the right to forcibly convert or propagate their religion,” striking a mild blow to the advocates of the Hiduvta cult that has been raising its head in various corners of the country. Unlike other spiritual leaders of India, like Shri Ravi Shankar, who met Rajkumar Meghen, the former chairman of the outlawed United National Liberation Front, who is demanding an independent Manipur and is now serving a 10-year term in a Guwahati jail, the Dalai Lama did not reply to questions on the ongoing armed struggles in the region.
But he indirectly said about a union on the models of the European Union that has guaranteed peace among hitherto warring nations propelling the whole of Europe in its march towards development and as such India has the potential for development of all within the Union as a truly democratic nation. To a query from this correspondent on the future of the institution of the Dalai Lama, he was sceptical that the Chinese may try to hoist a Dalai Lama of their own after his death as they did with the others like the Panchen Lama.
But the Tibetan people would not accept the Chinese version, citing his declaration in 1969 that the institution of the Dalai Lama is the concern of the Tibetan people. On the ongoing growing fear of a third World War following US President Donald Trump’s posture on North Korea, he said that he had no right to criticise him as he was elected by the American people but being the President of the biggest democracy in the free world, he should show more concern about humanity at large and felt sad at the present stand-off in the peninsula.
Likewise, he was critical of George Bush Jr for his conduct of the war in Iraq. He said he held no temporal powers over the Tibetan people after 2014 as they now have an elected Prime Minister. But he reiterated the stand that since 1994 the Tibetan government in exile had not raised the Tibetan question in the United Nations and had been focusing on the preserving of their distinct culture and traditions. But, by all accounts, the 14th Dalai Lama seemed ready to acknowledge the present status quo of Tibet being an autonomous region of China but with a distinct culture of its own.
This, in spite of views of the radicals amongst his own Tibetan diaspora flock, which wants India to recognise Tibet’s sovereignty and make the McMahon Line legitimate before international law. It is worth recall that in 1913-14 when the British India Government invited Tibet to mark the borders, China was also asked to attend but did not insisting that Tibet was an integral part of China and hence it had no right to participate in the Shimla Conference and enter into agreement with any other country.
China has refused g to recognise the McMahon Line and for that matter, Tawang and all the way up to the Dirang Dzong in today’s Arunachal Pradesh, had been under Tibetan administration till 1952 when Major Bob Khathing (an Indian Frontier Administrative Service officer from Manipur) went there and planted the Indian tri-colour at Tawang, hence the Chinese claim on that portion of the Indian territory.
It was, however, an Indian Tawang through which the 14th Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959. It might also be recalled that while providing refuge to the Tibetans in India, Nehru refused to raise the issue in the United Nations. The widely-read Imphal Free Press had this to say, “Again, since ancient Tibet is defined more as a cultural domain, when this domain is translated into hard territory to fit the modern definition of a nation state, it would, as per the Tibetans’ own national imagination, not the Tibet Autonomous Region and the tradition Amdo, Kham and Ngari of China, but also Ladakh, Sikkim and parts of Arunachal Pradesh of India.” It may be recalled that it is on the basis of the claim of cultural contiguity that China still raises heckle that Arunachal Pradesh should form part of its province of Tibet.
Unfortunately, modern states are no longer defined by such terms anymore. Otherwise, Switzerland, Austria and a greater part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire would be one state today. While we empathise with the plight of the Tibetans, we have no authority or competence to even attempt a verdict on the issue. But from the perspective of peace and regional harmony, we see no other way out of this entangle than was suggested by an article in The Wall Street Journal once, “China must concede comprehensive autonomy for its Tibet Autonomous Region, ensuring the protection of the distinct Tibetan identity, both culturally and demographically.”
But the fact that both Manipur Governor Najma Heptulla and the chief minister stayed away from the only public reception accorded to the Dalai Lama has given rise to speculation that they did so under instructions of the Union home minister to keep away from any official engagement. It is an obvious indication that in the post Doklam stand-off, New Delhi is reluctant to ruffle Chinese feathers.
(The writer is Special Representative of The Statesman based in Imphal.)