By Palden Sonam
Does the recent circular from the Prime Minister Modi government advising high functionaries and leaders to avoid a Tibetan event represent a change in India’s Tibet policy? The simple answer is no. The circular is more a tactic than a shift in policy on Tibet vis-à-vis China. In India’s China policy, Tibet is seen as source of leverage for India to calibrate, depending on the situation it faces with China at any given point of time.
India’s Tibet policy is by and large ambiguous. It seems to work well for its convenience; if India sees the necessity to place restrictions on the movements of Tibetans in India, or indeed calibrate the level of distance/proximity, it does so and projects this as a concession. For example, if India wishes to express its displeasure to China, it can allow Tibetans to protest during high-level Chinese visits, or arrange big ticket events for the Dalai Lama, or allow him to visit sensitive areas like Tawang. On the other hand, if it chooses to reward China for perceived ‘good behaviour’, it can reduce both the visibility of and contact with Tibetans. In both these scenarios, nobody can actually specify which principles of India’s Tibet policy is either violated or upheld, owing to the deliberate ambiguity of that policy. It may not be effective in the long-run but allows ample room for easy manoeuvring during “sensitive times” in bilateral relations, to borrow Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s words.
The government circular is also not a new development. In the past, Indian officials have sometimes been notified to keep distance from Tibet-related activities. Had it been a Congress government issuing this directive, the reaction may perhaps have been somewhat different. The issue with the latest circular is that it shows some inconsistency in the BJP government’s dealings with Tibetan exiles. In the beginning, the Modi government demonstrated a relatively high degree of engagement with Tibet. The prime minister of the Tibetan government in-exile was invited to Modi’s swearing in ceremony in 2014, the president of India hosted the Dalai Lama at the Rashtrapati Bhavan during a summit in 2016, and the Dalai Lama was given permission to visit Tawang in 2017 despite China’s protests. These developments would have sent a clear message to China and the world that the new government sought to do away with Congress’ more cautious approach to China and Tibet. The recent change thus naturally raises questions, most of which are focused on whether this is a policy shift. The more important question that needs untangling here is, why now?
The main reason for this is the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Qingdao and Prime Minister Modi’s participation in it. The foreign secretary had sent the During the visit, several important bilateral issues were discussed with high-level Chinese officials including the Chinese foreign minister and state councillor. It seems the two powers are trying to address bilateral disagreements before the upcoming SCO summit to be held in China in June this year. With Modi scheduled to attend the summit, India very likely does not want to upset the delicate balance with China at this point. According to The Hindu, some high-level Chinese delegates are also expected to visit India in March. These high profile meetings are important precursors to Modi’s visit to China, during which he will hold talks with President Xi Jinping. Having spent several years in Beijing as the Indian ambassador, Foreign Secretary Gokhale knows how much potential the Tibet issue has to upset China and harden its bargaining position. It is therefore safe to assume that the latest notice is largely his tactical formula – passing of restrictions/diluting contacts with Tibetans as a bargaining chip for concessions as well as smooth passage of the summit.
In this context, therefore, Tibet’s “Thank You India” event is the right thing to do, but at the wrong time and in the wrong venue in New Delhi’s view. China may have even forewarned India of the consequences of Indian leaders sharing a stage with the Dalai Lama. It is, however, worth asking whether Modi’s carrot to Xi will be paid in kind. It also raises the question of the government ceding sovereign privileges within the territory of India as a foreign policy ‘concession’. There is also some conjecture that Xi will demand more if he sees Modi’s concessions as coming from a position of weakness – especially on Tibet. However, from a broader perspective, this directive does not herald a new Tibet policy for India, the basic fundamentals of which remain the same.