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Ever since Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru offered sanctuary to the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees in 1959, India has reaped a moral and strategic benefit from this act of humanitarian service. But with the Dalai Lama’s retirement from politics and the installation of Lobsang Sangay as the new Tibetan political leader in Dharamsala, the strong ties between India and the Tibetan government in exile could now be at risk. Mr Sangay has signalled a strange new willingness to cast his lot with China, which raises serious questions about his commitment to India’s security.|
India has earned global admiration for providing a home in exile to Tibetans. India’s global “soft power” is enhanced by hosting the Dalai Lama, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate whom many consider the living heir to Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy of practising non-violence, ahimsa, and who calls himself a “son of India”. In the past 54 years, many Tibetan refugees have served in the Indian military, in the Bangladesh War of Independence and building roads that secure India’s northern borders. The presence in India of the heads of all four branches of Tibetan Buddhism provides incalculable benefits in sensitive regions like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Ladakh. And the presence of loyal, pro-India Tibetan exiles challenges China’s ability to threaten India from a secure position in Tibet.
But this beneficial relationship is now at risk from changes instituted by Lobsang Sangay. Mr Sang-ay has bewildered many long-time Tibet supporters by announcing policies that are alarmingly pro-Beijing, and threaten to take the entire Tibetan exile cause with it. Never mind that Mr Sangay was born, raised and educated in India, thanks to the Indian government.
At a speech on May 8, 2013 at the Council on Foreign Relations, a prestigious Washington DC think tank, Mr Sangay announced that henceforth Tibetans would abandon the goal of democracy for Tibet, and instead accept Chinese Communist Party rule in its “present structure”. Most troubling for India’s security, when asked about Chinese military border incursions into India, from Tibet, he declared that he supported China in this matter, giving China full “discretion” in invading Indian territory.
What is driving Mr Sangay’s embrace of Beijing?
The new Tibetan leader was an obscure Harvard researcher before capturing a majority of Tibetan exile votes in 2011, beating two established opponents by running an uncharacteristically aggressive campaign. On a researcher’s salary, it is still a mystery how he paid for his jetsetting campaign, or was able to suddenly pay off a $227,000 home loan on July 29, 2011, just days before his inauguration.
Several sources have noted that Mr Sangay had a close and continuous relationship (including joint travel) at Harvard with Hu Xiaojiang, president of a Chinese students and scholars association with ties to Chinese intelligence services. In 2011, Mr Sangay also admitted – after several years of denials – that he used an “Overseas Chinese National” passport to travel to Beijing on an academic junket in 2005.
It is plausible that these matters can be explained away, but he fact remains that Mr Sangay is trying to push policies that legitimise the Chinese Communist Party, and support the Chinese military’s ability to threaten India. India is facing a bellicose China that is increasingly willing to rattle its sabres from the Himalayas to the East China Sea. China continues to occupy Aksai Chin, daily sends armed incursions into Indian territory, and has plans to divert the Brahmaputra and Tibet’s other great rivers to a parched and polluted China. At a time like this, democratic India’s national security is threatened when this new and almost unknown Tibetan politician embraces China’s unlimited right to militarise Tibet.
On the contrary, India needs Tibetan allies who stand with democracy, and who challenge China’s ability to turn Tibet into a military base that threatens India.
It is time for the Intelligence Bureau and other security agencies to question Mr Sangay on the meaning of his statements, as well as the source of his unexplained funding.
And it is time to reinvigorate the mutually beneficial Indo-Tibetan relationship that Mr Sangay has threatened to destabilise, in the face of the increasing threat from China.
Maura Moynihan is a journalist and Tibet analyst based in New York City