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The Buddha Factor

December 21, 2011

India uses Tibet issue to score over China in soft power

The 17th Karmapa's monastery in Himachal Pradesh is among the highest seats of Tibetan Buddhism in the world. There is an air of unease here after the state police filed charges against the Karmapa for possessing unaccounted foreign currency. But commentators say the case will have little impact on the strategic nature of India's hospitality for Tibetan monks. 
After the Dalai Lama fled Chinese-controlled Tibet to India in 1959, several key monks of Tibet have followed suit. “The presence of all the religious heads of Tibet on Indian soil gives India a kind of power that China cannot match... India hosts the emotional and cultural core of a vast part of Chinese territory,” said Tsering Phuntsok of Norbulingka Institute for preservation of Tibetan culture.
Sources in the Tibetan Government in Exile say China is faced with a unique security concern, as it fears that the Tibetan followers of the India-based lamas can unsettle Tibet any moment. About 30 per cent of the Tibetan refugee population in India constitutes lamas or monastic students. In Tibet, the students are initiated into the schools of the four top India-based lamas. The Chinese media claims that the network among the lamas leads to sedition in Tibet. A spate of self-immolation by Tibetan monks in China in recent months has affirmed this fear in the state-backed Chinese media. 
The Chinese have been wooing Tibetan refugees to reduce the Indian influence. “The Chinese embassy in New Delhi will issue a fresh Chinese passport to any Tibetan who wants to return to Tibet or visit relatives for a short while,” said Phuntsok. However, the Embassy of China did not comment on this. Refugees in India complain they cannot speak to relatives in Tibet frequently, as the Chinese agencies regularly hack international calls. Last month, India-China border talks were postponed after China objected to the Dalai Lama speaking at a function on Buddhist philosophy in Delhi. 
India's stand can be seen as a means to utilise historic ties with Buddhism to re-warm its Greater Asia policy, according to Ravni Thakur, associate professor at Delhi University. As part of South Block's Buddha-intensive policy, India is reviving the Nalanda University with Buddhist nations in East and Southeast Asia. Communist China is also playing the Buddha card by offering to develop Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha, in Nepal and donating $1 million for the Nalanda University project. Tibetans question this when China denies religious freedom in Tibet. Commentators point out that Buddhist ties have been a key factor in India-Sri Lanka relations and now Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Japan are also on the same page with India's Buddhist focus. “Our silent hosting of the Tibetan spiritual leaders has boosted India's image and indicates our willingness to play the cultural card actively to forge durable partnership with other neighbours of China,” said Shashank, former foreign secretary and a veteran of India's Look East policy. On India's soft power, Shashank said, “We have just started discovering the power of culture and it will take India a long distance.”

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