February 16, 2020 12:30:12 am
Title: The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas – India and China’s Quest for Strategic Dominance
Author: Phunchok Stobdan
Publication: Vintage Books
Price: Rs 599
Ambassador Phunchok Stobdan is one of the few Indian scholars and security analysts who has intimate familiarity with the Himalayan zone shared by India, Tibet and China. His understanding of the sectarian distinctions among the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the long history of engagement between the Chinese central empire and Tibet’s unique theocratic dispensation and the distinctive character of the Buddhist legacy in India’s own Himalayan region, is reflected fully in his timely book, The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas- India and China’s Quest for Strategic Dominance. While there is a perception that Tibet is a vulnerable underbelly of China, the author shows how it is also becoming a platform for extending Chinese influence into the southern Himalayas, which the Indian security establishment has failed to counter over the years.
The book draws attention to the fact that the dominant sect in Tibet is the yellow hat or Gelugpa, which is headed by the Dalai Lama. It was founded in the 15th century by Tsongkhapa whose seat is the Ganden monastery not far from Lhasa. However, in the southern Himalayas, stretching from East to West, the older tradition is that of Guru Padmasambhava who is revered in Ladakh, Lahaul and Spiti, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. The Nyingmapa sect has been associated with this tradition but is gradually being overshadowed by the Gelugpa sect. The other traditions are the Kagyu headed by the Karmapa and the Sakya whose current headquarters are in Dehradun. Stobdan argues that historically there has been a constant drive by the Tibetans to entrench the dominant Gelugpa in the southern Himalayas. It is a fact that at India’s independence in 1947, the then Tibetan administration had laid claim to the entire stretch of the southern Himalayas, including Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. While these irredentist claims have not been raised since the Dalai Lama sought shelter in India in 1959, it is Stobdan’s argument that the string of monasteries in the Indian Himalayan zone are falling into the hands of Gelugpa monks appointed by the Dalai Lama, with the tacit acquiescence of Delhi. If and when the Chinese reconcile with the Dalai Lama or gain control over the institution in future, then this could well lead to a Chinese zone of influence throughout this strategic and sensitive region.
While one may or may not accept that there is a well-thought-out Chinese conspiracy afoot, there is no doubt that the distinctive Buddhist traditions in the Indian Himalayas are being steadily eroded. Reviving the extraordinarily rich Padmasambhava tradition and philosophical heritage should be on the cultural agenda of the Indian state. This will also reinforce the affinities India shares with Nepal and Bhutan.
It is clear that Stobdan considers the presence of Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in India as a disruptive factor in India-China relations. India extending asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959 soured relations between the two countries. It may have turned differences over the border into a strategic confrontation, which still continues. However, while the American CIA certainly played a role in assisting the escape of the Dalai Lama into India and extended support to Tibetan rebels thereafter, it is difficult to accept the argument that India became entangled in an American conspiracy to turn the two Asian giants into enemies. It is unlikely that Jawaharlal Nehru would have decided to extend asylum to the Dalai Lama under US pressure. The US has never questioned Chinese sovereignty over Tibet although it uses China’s oppressive tactics in Tibet as a pressure point. Stobdan is right in advising India not to play the American game on Tibet, as it would only sharpen Chinese anxieties without any gain for India.
The Chinese assumption that the Tibet issue will resolve itself once His Holiness is no longer on the scene may be misplaced. It is the reverence in which he is held by Tibetans everywhere, including in Tibet itself, which has prevented the kind of militancy which one witnesses in Xinjiang. His departure may spawn a radicalisation, particularly of the Tibetan youth which may become a challenge for both India and China. As the author points out, the issue of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation after his death may become another complicating factor. All this points to the need for the two sides to engage in a confidential conversation on these matters, the sooner the better.
Stobdan’s book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the complex historiography of the Himalayas and the role of Tibet, India and China in this strategic zone. It is full of insights and points the direction in which Indian policy must move to safeguard the country’s vital interests. Better editing could have avoided several repetitions. There are also some inaccuracies. The Chinese never offered to give up Aksai China in exchange of Chinese claims, including Tawang in the east, as the author contends. What they said was that in return for India making “meaningful” concessions in the east, China will make “appropriate” but as yet unspecified concessions in the west.
Shyam Saran is former foreign secretary and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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