File photo of an exiled Tibetan activist participating in a Tibetan Youth Congress street protest calling for a boycott of Chinese goods in Dharamsala, India, June 16, 2020.
Credit: AP Photo / Ashwini Bhatia
Among the many commitments that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently made in New Delhi, two stood out. At a roundtable gathering around seven civil society leaders, Blinken interacted with former Dalai Lama interpreter Geshe Dorji Damdul. Then, separately, Blinken met a representative of the Dalai Lama, Ngodup Dongchung.
The fact that America’s top diplomat met Tibetan officials on Indian soil inevitably raised eyebrows. India has long tried to walk a tightrope on Tibet, so as not to offend Chinese sensibilities.
While the Dalai Lama has operated in exile from India since 1959, New Delhi’s official policy has always been that the country’s Tibetan community is not allowed to engage in any political activity. In 2016, a planned conference of Chinese dissidents in New Delhi, including Tibetans, was called off after India revoked their visas at the last minute.
Two years later, several events were planned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India. But Narendra Modi’s government issued a circular asking its officials not to share the stage with the Tibetan leader, and various events were subsequently moved from New Delhi.
But after the unprecedented border clashes last year, many believe India is pursuing a paradigm shift in its Tibetan policies, aimed at retaliation against Beijing. A prominent foreign policy analyst, Sreeram Chaulia, for example, believes the Blinken meetings were “definitely coordinated” with the Indian government. “Since China says it does not accept Indian sovereignty over much of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh,” he said, “express that India will not obediently recognize the Tibet‘s current status as an inalienable part of Chinaâ¦ will send strong compensatory signals to Beijing.
Yet, if India hopes to achieve strategic leverage through its Tibetan community, it will need to articulate its positions with greater clarity and consistency. New Delhi’s frequent about-faces on political engagement with Tibetans will not help cultivate Tibet as a bargaining chip against China. If Tibetans see India’s policy as a mere knee-jerk reaction to the dynamic border equation with China – rather than a policy born out of more consistent and reliable principles or values ââ- New Delhi is unlikely to win their favor. confidence, for fear of another flip flop.
India also has a larger challenge: the future of the Tibetan community in India itself. While India grants citizenship to Tibetans born in India before 1987, those born after that year will only be eligible if they have an Indian parent.
The statelessness of many Tibetans has various consequences. Most of them find it difficult to access employment opportunities in the country, do not have the right to own businesses or buy land, and face obstacles when trying to travel to abroad because they do not have a passport.
For their part, some Tibetan leaders fear that if India grants them citizenship, Tibetans will have to leave the exclusive colonies in which they currently live and integrate into traditional Indian society. This could mean a weakening of their sense of community and their commitment to the Tibetan cause, some fear.
Yet in the absence of economic opportunities, young Tibetans are becoming increasingly restless and New Delhi will need to meet their aspirations as soon as possible, while keeping their commitment to Tibet alive through its own political support.
Meanwhile, aware of the strategic threat India and the United States could pose through their engagement with Tibet, Beijing is already seeking isolation.
In recent years, China has attempted to âsinizeâ its own Tibetan population, notably by resettling Han Chinese in Tibet. Last week, President Xi Jinping visited Tibet to report on various infrastructure projects and policies. In line with Beijing’s sinicization policy, Xi called for “mixing [of] ethnic groups âandâ adapt Tibetan Buddhism to socialism with Chinese characteristics â. The Chinese president also spoke of the promotion of Mandarin as the main language of the region.
Earlier this year, China also raised militias in Tibet to counter Indian troops along the real line of control.
Beijing’s long-term policy is to tighten control over its Tibetan population, while severing the ties Tibetans in India have with their homeland. In the context of its border issues with China, New Delhi must respond by committing to further support – politically and economically – the 100,000 Tibetans in India and their cause, cultivating a reliable base of support among them and strengthening their ties to their homeland.
Under President Joe Biden, Washington made it clear that it wanted to counter the Chinese threat by engaging with Chinese dissidents, from Tibet to Taiwan. New Delhi should join Washington in a more engaged and coherent manner.