ON THE WEB, 12 July 2020
Following the India-China military clash at the border in mid-June, there has been a growing call among Indian politicians and the public alike to confer India’s highest civilian award — the Bharat Ratna — on the Dalai Lama. A fierce hand-to-hand fight, in which Indian soldiers were assaulted with crude and barbaric weapons by the Chinese soldiers, killed 20 Indian soldiers and injured at least 76. The battle took place on 15 June, in the Galwan Valley of Ladakh region in north India, in sub-zero temperatures at a height of 4,200 metres (14,000 feet) above sea level. India and China each blamed the other for entering the other’s territory and triggering the attacks.
In the aftermath of the stand-off, Indians raging with anger called for a boycott of goods that are ‘Made in China’. Subsequently, the Government of India banned more than 50 Chinese apps, including some of the more popular ones like WeChat and TikTok. In addition, politicians within India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) want the government to confer the Bharat Ratna on the Dalai Lama, to send a “strong message to China”.
The Dalai Lama, who turned 85 earlier this week, has lived in India for the last 61 years. He calls himself the ‘longest guest of India’, and India calls him an ‘honoured guest’. He set up the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), popularly known as the Tibetan Govenment-in-exile, in the hill-top Himalayan village of McLeod Ganj in northern India after coming in to exile following the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. He has always rallied for a non-violent struggle for a free Tibet.
Fans in the millions around the world follow the Dalai Lama for his message of love, peace and compassion. Since abdicating his political powers to an elected leader in 2011, he has been engaged in the promotion of human values, inter-religious harmony, awareness on global warming, ancient Indian knowledge, and the free Tibet movement. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his endeavours to resolve the Tibetan issue with the Chinese through a peacefully negotiated settlement. This prize is considered the most prestigious award in the world. He has also received other esteemed awards such as the US Congressional Gold Medal in 2007; Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace, South Africa, in 2011; and the Templeton Prize, US, in 2012. These were given him to honour and appreciate his distinguished achievements and contributions to humanity.
Conferring the Bharat Ratna on the Dalai Lama to send a “strong message to China” does not honour a peace icon. In reality, it violates the ideals of the award, which is to be given in recognition of exceptional public service of the highest order, not for political considerations.
The Dalai Lama has long been a goodwill ambassador for India, promoting India as one of the world’s great civilisations that has ahinsa (non-violence) and karuna (compassion) as guiding principles. He praises India greatly for its religious diversity and harmony, and its practice of secularism. Despite all that he is, and remaining a loyal guest, some people still criticised him for “keeping silent” after the recent India-China border clash. It is well known that if he is asked about his views, he has always been transparent and outspoken. Such baseless criticisms are deplorable, and only showed their lack of respect for him.
Many of those same journalists and media houses then got the reply from the Tibetan political leader, that the Dalai Lama has relinquished his political powers, and that the head of the Central Tibetan Administration would answer the political questions. The Indian media, which seldom talks about the Tibetan freedom struggle, the human rights abuses and environmental destructions in Tibet, this time around used the ‘Tibet card’ extensively, giving unprecedented air time for the CTA President Lobsang Sangay. The CTA website overflowed with stories of how much Sangay has been interviewed by the Indian media.
On the other hand, India has never spoken anything in favour of the Tibetan freedom struggle in any international forum. Nor has it used the occasions of meeting Chinese leaders to raise the Tibetan issue, as many Western countries have. The Dalai Lama has been expressing India’s attitude over Tibet as “over-cautious”.
McLeod Ganj has grown over the last few decades into a favourite destination for both domestic and international tourists. This could be attributed solely to the presence of the Dalai Lama in this Himalayan village. Visitors from around the world come here for various reasons — spiritual (to attend Dalai Lama teachings and festivals), medical (Tibetan medicine), political (the ‘Free Tibet’ movement), and others for Tibetan culture. Of course, the new Dharamshala Cricket Ground has been a big draw for the domestic tourists in recent times, but the big flow of tourism here revolves around the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people. Besides tourists, world leaders and other famous people frequent this little place.
But the entrance to the Dalai Lama’s temple and residence in McLeod Ganj gives the true sense of how much he is actually honoured and respected: There’s a chaotic market; an unorganised taxi stand, causing congestion in the already minimal space; lines of vegetable vendors; a poorly-managed public toilet — all these just outside his residence and his temple.
Nobody is against the livelihood of people. Of course, people should run taxis, and others with the vendors to earn their livelihood. But all these taxis create congestion and traffic jams, and the unorganised vendors and the filthy toilets don’t actually look like a Bharat Ratna-deserving place for a person who has won accolades around the world, who has his residence just across the way. Another 100 metres down the hill, which he has to pass, there is an overflowing stinking garbage bin to the entrance of the Lingkhor, where devotees walk a path around the Dalai Lama residence and temple.
Add to all this, soon there’s going to be a busy cable car station just 100 metres away. The Dalai Lama has been provided the Z-Plus security by the government of India. This security coverage is reserved only for the VVIPs of India. He is one of the few who has this level of security. But one wonders if a person accorded with Z-Plus security would have a cable car running just a few metres away from his residence. The cable car station will also add to the already overwhelming congestion of cars and people.
Going by reports, and for obvious reasons, there are BJP leaders who are opposed to conferring the Bharat Ratna on the Dalai Lama, so as not to aggravate the delicate situation with China further. So he likely won’t be given the Bharat Ratna anyway — but really, this award cannot compare to all the prestigious honours the Dalai Lama has received in the past. The Bharat Ratna would become more valuable in having the Dalai Lama as one of its recipients, than any value there would be to the Dalai Lama receiving it.
About the author
Lobsang Wangyal lives in McLeod Ganj, India, and edits the Tibet Sun website.