Meaning of Modi’s Dalai Lama birthday wish

Lobsang Wangyal

Lobsang Wangyal

By Lobsang Wangyal

McLEOD GANJ, India, 8 July 2021

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to wish him a happy 86th birthday. Modi announced this on his Twitter page. The politically significant move was a rare one by any Indian leader, as India has always treaded cautiously to avoid irritating China by highlighting Tibet or engaging with the Dalai Lama.

Modi in a tweet on 6 July wrote: “Spoke on phone to His Holiness the @DalaiLama to convey greetings on his 86th birthday. We wish him a long and healthy life.”

It was the first time that any Indian leader has acknowledged wishing the Dalai Lama on his birthday, and that too a communication shared on a public platform. Beijing regards the Dalai Lama as a “splittist” bent on breaking Tibet from China, and complains whenever any world leader engages with the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama fled to India after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. He established an exile government known as the Central Tibetan Administration in the Himalayan village of McLeod Ganj in northern India, rallying for autonomy through Middle-Way approach, rather than for independence.

His message for love and compassion has attracted millions of followers around the world, on top of millions of Buddhist followers in the Himalayan region and beyond, like in Mongolia and many Russian republics. He has met with world leaders of yore and current, and continues to be welcomed everywhere. US President Joe Biden has a pending meeting with the Dalai Lama, likely to happen after the pandemic stabilises.

India with its own compulsions has only used measured and correct words and actions thus far when dealing with China to prevent hurting its sensitivities, Tibet being one of the key issues. In the past India had the trauma of a bloody war with China in 1962, during which India suffered a humiliating defeat. Perhaps because of this painful experience, India has refrained from publicly mentioning Tibet or the Dalai Lama in the past.

With the rise of China as a superpower, it has dismissed and disparaged India as a regional and a global player. In a recent show of its power, China has been flexing its muscle along the Himalayan border with India, most noticeable examples being the Doklam standoff in 2017, and the Galwan valley melee fighting in June 2020, resulting in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers.

Other thorny issues are China reclassifying Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet; adoption of mammoth infrastructure projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, which helps only to boost China’s global strategic presence as well as its adventures in the Indian Ocean. Also China has blocked India from joining the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group. China has been trying to thwart India’s ambitions on the regional and global stages.

Last week at the centenary celebrations of the Communist Party of China, President Xi Jinping said the Chinese people will never allow any foreign force to bully or oppress them. “The Chinese people will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us. Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people,” Xi warned.

Modi’s departure from India’s usual apprehensive approach, to openly and publicly announce his communications with the Dalai Lama is a show of India’s strength, and a warning that India cannot be bullied either.

China may have the strongest military force in the world, but India is not far behind when it is the fourth strongest military, with the third-largest defence budget in the world.

Reading between the lines, this move by Modi also shows Indian respect for the Dalai Lama, and would mean giving India’s tacit backing for the next Dalai Lama chosen by the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama is 86, and believes he will live to at least 110 years old, but China is in haste to choose the next Dalai Lama after the current 14th passes away. China will choose and impose a rival Dalai Lama by distorting history and disregarding the traditional ways of choosing the reincarnation — for them to use the puppet Dalai Lama as a tool to impose control on the Tibetan people.

But now, that’s clearly not going to work. India’s not going to give any recognition to the Chinese choice, and the US already has passed a law to oppose any Chinese choice of the next Dalai Lama.

This latest move by Modi has sent a clear and strong message to China that India has come out of the 1962 trauma, and that the new India is strong and ready to confront any eventuality. With that one single Tweet Modi readjusted India’s position, and asserted India’s rightful place in the scheme of the new geopolitics in the region.

About the author

Lobsang Wangyal lives in McLeod Ganj, India, and edits the Tibet Sun website.

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