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Eye on China, public birthday wishes by PM, CMs for Dalai Lama

This is the first time Modi has publicly announced that he has spoken to the Tibetan spiritual leader on the latter’s birthday. In September 2015, he had thanked the Dalai Lama for the latter’s birthday wishes to him.

Written by Shubhajit Roy , Varinder Bhatia | Chandigarh, New Delhi |
Updated: July 7, 2021 7:08:03 am
dalai lama birthday, dalai lama, dalai lama pm modi, pm narendra modi, dharamsala, tibet, tibetan leader, dalai lama 86 birthday, Tenzin Gyatso, India china relations, Indian expressExile Tibetan government officials watch a message from their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on a screen during a ceremony to mark the 86th birthday of the Tibetan leader in Dharmsala, India, Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (AP)

Amid the slide in ties with China over the military standoff along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Tuesday that he had spoken to the Dalai Lama and wished him on his 86th birthday.

“Spoke on phone to His Holiness the @DalaiLama to convey greetings on his 86th birthday. We wish him a long and healthy life,” Modi said in a Twitter post.

This is the first time Modi has publicly announced that he has spoken to the Tibetan spiritual leader on the latter’s birthday. In September 2015, he had thanked the Dalai Lama for the latter’s birthday wishes to him.

The phone call to the Tibetan spiritual leader and its public announcement have diplomatic significance given that Beijing calls the Dalai Lama a “splittist”.

Others who greeted the Dalai Lama included Chief Ministers Pema Khandu (Arunachal Pradesh), Prem Singh Tamang (Sikkim) — frontier states that share a boundary with China — Arvind Kejriwal (Delhi), Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh), Amarinder Singh (Punjab), Pramod Sawant (Goa), Conrad Sangma (Meghalaya).

While Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri retweeted the Prime Minister’s post, Union Ministers Nitin Gadkari and Dharmendra Pradhan put out messages greeting the Tibetan spiritual leader. So did the new US chargé d’affaires Atul Keshap.

Indian governments, over the years, have been very careful and calibrated in their engagement with the Dalai Lama, keeping in mind the sensitivities of the Chinese government.


Move at time of low point in ties

The PM’s public articulation of his call to the Dalai Lama comes when ties between India and China are at their lowest, with the LAC standoff continuing. Delhi’s move signals that if its sensitivities are not respected, it will not hesitate to subtly up the rhetoric.

New Delhi has maintained that the two sides should be mindful of “mutual sensitivities, interests and concerns”.

The fact that the Chinese have not bothered about Indian “sensitivities” on the India-China border, or the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or the status of Jammu and Kashmir, has led New Delhi to recalibrate its position, sources said Tuesday.

Lobsang Sangay, who was the Sikyong (President) of the Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan-government-in-exile) from September 2012 to May 2021, told The Indian Express: “Today’s birthday wishes to His Holiness the Dalai Lama clearly shows the Government of India’s solidarity with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Since His Holiness is everything for all Tibetans, if anybody shows high regards towards him, it is good for us.”

“India has always been good to us. But to do it so publicly, as today, where not only the Prime Minister, his Cabinet colleagues and so many Chief Ministers, from Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Delhi and several other places, very genuinely wishing His Holiness and publicly, it is indeed a very positive indication,” he said.

“His Holiness the Dalai Lama has always called himself as the son of India. And now to be wished by all the top leaders of the Government of India, it is a very positive sign,” he said.

Asked if this was a snub to China, Sangay said: “I do not want to politicise the birthday wishes. But yes, it is really good to have so many top leaders wishing His Holiness publicly.”

Karma Yeshi, former Finance Minister of the Tibetan-government-in-exile, said: “I don’t think that PM has ever personally called the Dalai Lama and wished him on his birthday. But this time it is happening; So, that is good. According to my personal view, it could be a message to China that India is no longer shying away.”

In the past, India has sent out mixed signals. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he had invited Sangay to his oath-taking ceremony.

Thereafter, he had a “brief meeting” with the Dalai Lama, sources said, in the first year of his term itself. This meeting was confirmed by the Dalai Lama as well.

The Dalai Lama was invited to Rashtrapati Bhavan in December 2016 where then President Pranab Mukherjee had met him and other Nobel laureates at an event dedicated to the welfare of children.

In April 2017, the government allowed him to travel to Tawang, the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama.

Following the border standoff with Chinese troops in Doklam in 2017, the government became very careful about engaging with the Dalai Lama.

In March 2018, in an unusual departure from its stand on the Tibetans-in-exile, the government, underlining that this is a “very sensitive time” for bilateral relations with China, sent out a note asking “senior leaders” and “government functionaries” of the Centre and states to stay away from events planned for March-end and early April by the “Tibetan leadership in India” to mark the start of 60 years in exile of the Dalai Lama. Soon after, Modi held the first informal leaders’ summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in April 2018.

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