China slammed India Wednesday for using the Dalai Lama as a “diplomatic tool” amid his visit to an Indian region claimed by Beijing, but the Tibetan spiritual leader has denied playing a role in the political spat, saying he is only traveling in the area to promote religious harmony.
The Dalai Lama, 81, arrived in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, part of which is claimed as “South Tibet” by Beijing, on Tuesday for the first day of a nine-day trip that was sanctioned by the Indian government and during which he plans to hold several religious teachings throughout the region.
In a press release issued on the day of his arrival, the Indian government noted that the Dalai Lama had traveled to the region—over which China and India fought a brief border war in 1962—on six earlier occasions since 1983, and said that “no additional color” should be ascribed to his spiritual activities around India.
“The government, therefore, urges that no artificial controversy should be created around his present visit to Arunachal Pradesh,” the statement read.
Beijing, which has accused the Dalai Lama of fomenting separatism in Tibet, was quick to hit out at New Delhi on Wednesday, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying telling reporters China plans to lodge “stern representations” with India over the trip.
“Arranging his activities in this sensitive area where China and India have territorial disputes not only violates India's commitment on Tibet-related issues, but also fuels the border dispute,” Hua said.
China’s official Global Times newspaper ran an anonymous op-ed on Wednesday which said that the Dalai Lama, who is expected to meet with India’s junior home minister Kiren Rijiju in the Arunachal Pradesh town of Tawang, “has long been active in anti-China separatist activities under the guise of religion.”
“Amid Beijing-New Delhi conflicts, the Dalai Lama is now openly used by India as a diplomatic tool to win more leverage,” the article said. “Therefore, Delhi attempts to play the Tibet card against Beijing.”
A report by local Indian media quoted Arunachal Pradesh state chief minister Pema Khandu on Wednesday responding to the criticism from Beijing by saying “China has no business telling us what to do and what not to do” with regards to the Dalai Lama’s visit.
Vishakha Desai, president emerita of U.S.-based Asia Society, told RFA that India’s refusal to back down over the Dalai Lama’s visit was part of a bid by the country to warn China off of meddling in its internal affairs.
“There is a far stronger and clearer nationalist tone that seems different in the Indian response to the Chinese criticism,” said Desai, who is also senior advisor for global affairs to the president of Columbia University.
“The fact that [one of two claimants to the title of 17th Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism] also went there, and so did Rich Verma, the American ambassador to India, also suggests that New Delhi is less worried about displeasing Beijing.”
India and China have been embroiled in a row over Arunachal Pradesh for decades, as part of a greater dispute over their shared 3,500-kilometer (2,175-mile) border which prompted the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The two sides routinely accuse each other of intrusions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a de facto border that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory in the area.
The Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since fleeing China in 1959 amid a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, on Wednesday denied that he had been used as a tool by New Delhi against Beijing, and said that Tibetans prefer self-autonomy within China to forming an independent state.
"India has never used me against China, India has taken great care of me," he told the Economic Times in Bomdila, adding that he considers himself a “messenger of ancient Indian thoughts and values.”
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate said that in the interest of “material development,” Tibetans want Tibet to remain a part of China, but said Beijing must provide them with “meaningful self-rule, autonomy, and must take care of the environment.”
He also referred to Arunachal Pradesh as place with special meaning to him, as he entered India through the region nearly 60 years ago, before settling in Dharamsala—the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.
Ahead of his arrival in Arunachal Pradesh, the Dalai Lama had traveled through the Indian state of Assam, where he was reunited on March 2 with 76-year-old Naran Chandra Das, one of five Assam Rifles guards who escorted him across the border during his flight to India.
The Dalai Lama had planned to fly by helicopter to the 17th-century Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh to hold three days of spiritual teachings beginning on Wednesday, but heavy rainfall forced him to travel by road through the region, delaying his expected arrival until Thursday.
In anticipation of the Dalai Lama’s arrival, Ngawang Norbu, the head Lama at Tawang monastery, dismissed China’s criticism over the visit as a “mere display of politics between the concerned countries,” in an interview with RFA’s Tibetan Service.
“What really concerns us is that His Holiness had to travel by road, not by air, due to inclement weather,” he said.
According to Norbu, the Dalai Lama had emphasized the importance of teaching the Tibetan language to area residents during his last visit in 2009 and the community was eager to show him how much progress had been made in literacy since then, thanks to the work of teachers arranged by the local government and civil society groups.
Other residents of Tawang also expressed their excitement over the Dalai Lama’s upcoming visit, including a soldier named Sonam Norbu and a monk named Cho Gonpo—both of whom were present at the border with China on the day the spiritual leader entered India.
“In 1959, the passport office notified us that His Holiness the Dalai Lama had departed from [the Tibetan capital] Lhasa, so I was ordered to leave for border area to receive him,” Norbu told RFA.
“I am already 90 years old, so I am very fortunate to see His Holiness again,” he said, though he added that he wishes the Dalai Lama had never been forced to leave Lhasa in the first place.
Gonpo, who was among a group of monks that gathered at the steps of the Tawang monastery in 1959 to attend a teaching by the Dalai Lama, also expressed happiness over the impending visit.
“I hope that the Tibet issue can be resolved, but I can’t be sure what will happen,” he said.
“However, you never know, we may yet regain our self-rule.”
Reported by Kalden Lodoe and Passang Tsering for RFA’s Tibetan Service, Joshua Lipes and Richard Finney. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.