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Frontier town venerates Dalai Lama

November 11, 2009

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News
November 10, 2009

Tawang -- Perched high up in a remote corner of north-east India,
Tawang is every bit the frontier town.

Maroon-robed Buddhist monks rub shoulders with ethnic Tibetans,
Nepalese and Indians in the town's busy market.

Soldiers in olive green stroll down, relaxed and unarmed.

But underneath the surface of apparent calm is a sense of tension and
heightened expectation.

The Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who is revered here as
no other, is in town.

"For us, this visit is very special," says Guru Rinpoche, the abbot
of the 300-year-old Tawang monastery, seen by many as one of the last
vestiges of Tibetan Buddhism.

Emotional bond

"We have a very close bond with him," he adds.

The Dalai Lama has a special, emotional bond with Tawang.

Fifty years ago, he arrived here after fleeing Tibet on foot and
slipping across the border into India.

The monks at the monastery protected him and India gave him refuge.

But his visit this time has been strongly opposed by China which has
described it as an attempt to foment Tibetan separatism.

It is easy to see why China is uncomfortable.

At his first public rally at a vast open ground festooned with
Tibetan prayer flags, the crowds began pouring in from the early
hours of the morning.

Ethnic Tibetans, entire families had travelled several days to come
here, some crammed together on the back of pick-up trucks.

They bowed their heads in veneration as the Dalai Lama walked into a
grand welcome, with pipes playing in the background and monks leading the way.

"For us the Dalai Lama is like a God, so I don't think China has any
right to object to his visit," said one man at the rally.

"We are all Indians and we have always been Indians, so China's claim
is absurd," said another.

Humiliating war

But Tawang - with its proximity to Tibet - has immense strategic value.

China has never recognised India's control over the entire state of
Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang.

It sees it as an extension of Tibet and therefore believes it should
be part of China.

* There were so many Chinese soldiers. Everyone was running, even the
Indian soldiers had to leave * -- Pasong

It was also here that the Chinese army invaded in 1962 and inflicted
a humiliating defeat on India, in a short, bloody war.

Entire border villages emptied out as the Indian army retreated.

One of those who had to flee with his family was Pasong, a shepherd
who is now in his 90s.

As he warms his hands over a fire in his little home in Tawang, he
searches for words as he tries to remember what happened.

"There were so many Chinese soldiers," he tells me.

"Everyone was running, even the Indian soldiers had to leave. We were
all very frightened."

The India-China border is only 35km (22 miles) from Tawang. The drive
is breathtaking but backbreaking over the rugged terrain and the dirt
tracks which pass for roads.

There is a strong Indian military presence but even they find it hard
to drive up.

"The roads are very bad compared to the ones across the border," one
soldier that we meet says.

Over the past few months, there has been an increase in tension here.

There have been reports of Chinese military incursions into Indian
territory and an Indian military build-up.

Several local villagers say that since September the roads have been
closed periodically to allow military convoys to move.

Indian mind games

At 4,785 metres (15,700 feet), the Bumla Pass is India's last border outpost.

The air is thin and temperatures well below zero.

Amid signs proclaiming "India-China Friendship", the border
commander, Dalbir Singh and his men from the Sikh Regiment look out
at Chinese positions through binoculars.

"Over there you can see their watchtower," he points out.

The soldiers are unarmed because even the simplest move can lead to a
misunderstanding.

The border here was drawn up in 1914 by the British but never
recognised by China.

Dalbir Singh tries to show me where India ends and China begins but
it is hard to tell the difference. There's just a series of jagged
peaks with the border somewhere in between.

Even though everything appears calm, there is a sense of unease
beneath the surface.

After 10 minutes, we are asked to leave and head back down the mountain.

Back in Tawang, the Dalai Lama has finished the first of several
prayer meetings he is due to hold. The crowds disperse slowly, their
faces flushed with excitement at having seen him in person.

Despite the bitter memories of 1962 and the sharp diplomatic
exchanges over the past few months, no-one here is in the mood for
another confrontation.

But India is not averse to playing mind games - and allowing the
Dalai Lama to visit Tawang is just one of them.
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