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India’s cautious relationship with the Dalai Lama

May 11, 2015

India Today, May 11, 2015 - As he prepares for his visit to China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is cutting the ground from beneath his own feet by distancing himself from the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, all the while promoting India as the founding Buddhist nation.

A scheduled meeting between BJP president Amit Shah and the Dalai Lama on May 2 in Dharamshala was cancelled by the BJP leader at the last minute because the PM did not want the Chinese to be upset with the senior BJP leadership meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader they deem to be "splittist," BJP sources confirmed.

"The prime minister will surely meet His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, upon his return from China. In fact, the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday is soon coming up in July... The BJP president cancelled his meeting with the Dalai Lama because the government did not want the Chinese to be upset with the meeting on the eve of the PM's visit to China," BJP sources said.

The tension between the government and the Dalai Lama is believed to have reached such a stage that the Tibetan spiritual leader, who has lived in India for the past 55 years since he fled the Chinese takeover of his homeland in 1959, will be travelling to California in early July for his birthday celebrations.

But with the last-minute cancellation of the Amit Shah meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader, Tibetan leaders in India are wondering if something is changing.

The BJP sources pointed out that the Chinese leadership believes the Dalai Lama is "splittist," meaning, he wants to split Tibet from China, and therefore fundamentally dangerous.

But the Dalai Lama has said publicly that he wishes the People's Republic of China and its leadership well, and believes that Tibet is an integral part of that country.

Fact is, the mother of Chinese president Xi Jinping - Modi's host in China next week - is a devout Buddhist. Interestingly, Tibetan leaders from Dharamshala confirm that the number of "Mainland Chinese believers in Buddhism" attending the Dalai Lama's teachings in Dharamshala has significantly increased.

"His Holiness' teachings are often translated in several languages, including Russia and Chinese. We have begun noticing that several Chinese from mainland China have begun to attend his teachings along with Taiwanese Buddhists," a Tibetan leader said.

The Dalai Lama has always enjoyed the status of a "holy leader" in India since he came to India in 1959 and then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru welcomed him on the condition that he wouldn't propagate any political activities. Every prime minister since has met the Dalai Lama soon after he becomes the PM and both sides have reiterated that position.

Certainly, each government holds the Dalai Lama in high esteem, and he is very careful not to breach the promise he first made to Nehru. Each foreign secretary as well as every joint secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs incharge of China is also seconded to look after Tibetan affairs in India, especially the Dalai Lama.

At the same time, prime minister Modi has come to realise that the officially atheist Chinese have begun to "use Buddhism as a tool in a big way to expand its own sphere of influence," the BJP sources said, for example, in helping fund the building of a Buddha temple in Lumbini in the Nepal Terai and close to the border with India.

It is only after India protested with the Nepalis, the BJP sources confirmed, that Kathmandu seems to have backed off. "India was uncomfortable with a huge Chinese presence in the Terai so close to India," an official said.

The officials admitted that India expected China to now rain money in Nepal, after the earthquake, helping them rebuild the country with soft loans that Kathmandu won't be able to refuse and India won't be able to match. "The Modi government may have got the first-mover advantage in Nepal when it sent search & rescue teams to help the Nepalis, but see how the Chinese now move in," the official added.

Clearly, Modi has learnt fast that diplomacy can be seamless in these last months as prime minister, which is why he wanted to know why India, a country where Buddha was born - a country called Nepal did not exist at the time in approximately 480 BC - did not make use of this inherent advantage.

So Modi led the Buddha Purnima prayers on May 5, the first time a prime minister has done so, pointing out "It has been said that the 21st century will be Asia's century… Without Buddha, this cannot be Asia's century."

During his recent visit to Germany, Modi told a journalist at a press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel that "Buddha was born in India." Diplomats say they have been shy of making this assertion publicly as they don't want to upset Nepal.

Modi's new-found realisation that Buddhism can be used as an important tool to counter the Chinese will be in full display in Mongolia and South Korea, where he will travel after China. The visit to predominantly Buddhist Mongolia is the first-ever by an Indian prime minister, where he will address the country's parliament on Sunday, May 17. In Korea, Modi is expected to plant a sapling from the Bodhi tree taken from the mother tree in Bodh Gaya.Certainly, Modi's interest in Buddhism contradicts his determination to distance himself from the Dalai Lama, often described as a "living god" of Buddhism, certainly of its Gelugpa sect.

Certainly, too, it seems as if the Modi government hasn't fully come to terms with the Dalai Lama's presence in India. Health minister JP Nadda, who also hails from Himachal Pradesh, where the Dalai Lama also lives, is believed to promote the Tibetan cause but Modi himself isn't so sure, the BJP sources conceded.



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