Updated: July 8, 2021 7:56:07 am
In addition to his position as the spiritual leader of Buddhists around the world and his stature as someone who personifies deep ethical insight and humanity, the Dalai Lama is also undoubtedly a political symbol. For many Tibetans, he represents an idea of freedom and the right to religious and cultural practices, seen as being trampled upon by China. In India, his presence signifies the best of this country’s spirit of openness and hospitality. It should, therefore, be no surprise that Prime Minister Narendra Modi telephoned the Dalai Lama to wish him on his 86th birthday on July 6, or that many cabinet ministers too did so on social media. Unfortunately, the persona and office of the religious and moral leader have also been reduced over the years to a pawn in the oscillating relationship between India and China.
The birthday wishes clearly aim to send a not-so-subtle signal to Beijing. In addition to the prime minister, chief ministers Pema Khandu of Arunachal Pradesh and Prem Singh Tamang of Sikkim — both states bordering China — too wished the Dalai Lama. This has come at a time when the memory of the tension along the border in Ladakh is fresh and China has been loudly objecting to India’s involvement in the Quad. But rewind to as recently as March 2018: The Indian government issued a note directing government functionaries to stay away from events organised by Tibetan leaders in exile, keeping in mind the “very sensitive” moment in India-China ties. That respect for Beijing’s sensitivities had come soon after the standoff at Doklam in 2017, and was followed by an “informal summit” between PM Modi and President Xi Jinping. On its part, China steps up its support to insurgent groups in the Northeast depending on how it views bilateral ties.
As a mature state and a regional power with a set of core values, it is time that India stops viewing the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community as a “card” to be deployed against China. New Delhi must realise that the “Tibet card” may be more about optics than any substantive impact on India-China ties, for better or worse. Equally, the public conversation around the Dalai Lama needs to move beyond the China prism. As representatives of a country that has been home to a revered figure to non-Buddhists and Buddhists alike, it is important that the degree of respect Indian leaders and officials display for the Dalai Lama is consistent, and stands on its own terms.