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The Dalai Lama visit: New Delhi's message to Tawang

November 15, 2009

Ajai Shukla
Business Standard (India)
November 14, 2009

New Delhi, Nov. 14 -- The ongoing visit of Tenzin
Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, to the Tawang region
of Arunachal Pradesh has been speciously played
out in the media as a three-sided event between
New Delhi, Beijing and the Tibetan government in exile.

On Wednesday, at a public meeting in Tawang, the
cameramen jostling for photos of the Dalai Lama
only needed to turn about to film the actual
exemplars of this high-stakes drama: the local
Monpa tribal people who — after centuries of
domination by contemptuous Tibetan officials, and
now eagerly coveted by China — have decided
unambiguously that they are Indians.

Tawang, after all, only became a part of India on
February 6, 1951, when a Naga officer, Major
Robert Kathing, leading a platoon of Assam
Rifles, was welcomed by cheering Monpas after he
crossed the Sela Pass and ordered the people of
Tawang to stop paying taxes to the Tibetans.
Until then, Tibetan officials had controlled the
Tawang tract, a huge chunk of territory protruding south towards Tezpur.

And Tawang only remained a part of India after
the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, which
occupied it for more than a month in 1962, got an
unambiguous message from the Monpas: “we don’t
trust you; go back to China”. And Tawang will
only remain a part of India if the Monpa people
remain as staunchly patriotic as they are today.
On April 11, 2005, India and China signed an
agreement on the “Political Parameters and
Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the
India-China Boundary Question”, in which Article
VII stipulates that, “In reaching a boundary
settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due
interests of their settled populations in the border areas.”

New Delhi was initially convinced that this
implied status quo on Tawang, but Beijing now
insists that this does not prejudice its claim
over that border area. Chinese scholars argue
that the Monpas’ interests would be better
safeguarded with China, and that only the Monpas
could decide their future. So Monpa perceptions
and opinion of India remains important for the future of Tawang.

That is why, amidst all the signalling that has
attended this visit -- New Delhi’s signals to
Beijing, Beijing’s signals to New Delhi, the
Dalai Lama’s signals to Tibet, etc — the most
vitally important message is the one sent out by
New Delhi to the Monpas. India has signalled
clearly that Tawang will not be handed over to China.

Ever since India’s abandonment of this area in
1962, Tawang’s opinion-makers have doubted
India’s staying power in the face of serious
Chinese pressure. And New Delhi has not done
itself any favours with its disregard for its
image on its vulnerable frontiers.

"Take a look at the army’s temporary barracks,"
says Karma Wangchu, a former IB operative and
then MLA, pointing to the flimsy tin sheds in
which soldiers live. “The government seems ready
to pack up and leave Tawang again. If they plan
to say, why do they not have permanent buildings?”

Visible from many places on the Indian side of
the border are China’s well-built concrete
barracks, with roads connecting many of their
border outposts. The Indian Army’s ramshackle
infrastructure makes a deeply unfavourable contrast.

"Why does India not come out strongly and say
that Tawang will never be given to China?" asks
Lhakpa Tsering, a road-building contractor who
has travelled widely across India. “The Dalai
Lama’s visit shows that India is learning how to
defy China, but people in Tawang need to be
reassured. They feel that New Delhi will barter
them away in a border settlement.”

In Buddhist-predominant Tawang, where the Dalai
Lama is a living God, China remains the Bad Guy,
a country that persecuted the holiest of all
Lamas. In that respect, Tibet’s Buddhist identity
builds common cause with India. Politically,
though, New Delhi and Lhasa never reached a
settlement on Tawang. From 1947 until 1949, when
Communist Chinese forces overran Tibet, Lhasa
refused to acknowledge that Tawang was a part of
India. Tibet’s historical control over Tawang underpins China’s claim today.

The Dalai Lama, himself, had long maintained a
careful ambiguity about Tawang, rejecting Chinese
claims over it, but never openly rejecting Tibet’s.
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