Guwahati, Apr 3: Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal head of Tibetans, is on a 12-day visit to Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, especially to the Tawang Monastery considered important for the Buddhists, the place he first crossed over into India.
Not fearing the warnings by Chinese authorities, Indian officials have hosted the Tibetan leader. The Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, who hails from Arunachal Pradesh, has categorically rejected the Chinese demand to cancel permission to Dalai Lama.
Recalling his escape to India in 1959, the Dalai Lama said “every time I visit these areas, the Tawang area, it is very emotional for me. I see a place where I had enjoyed freedom for the first time.”
The Dalai Lama’s escape to India had marked a rapturous moment, not just in Tibetan history, but also in the evolution of the Indo-Chinese relationship. Chinese protests against Indian refuge to him can be heard even 58 years after the spiritual leader came to India. Simultaneously, his entry into India also ushered in large-scale Tibetan refugee influxes, who still continue to dwell in several parts of the country.
The beginning of the 1950s was witnessing a large part of Tibet being annexed by the Chinese. The next few years were witness to the Dalai Lama trying to evade a full-scale military takeover of Tibet by Chinese forces. On March 10, 1959, Chinese general Zhang Chenwu had invited the Dalai Lama to a performance by a Chinese dance troupe. However, a peculiar protest of arriving without any soldiers or armed bodyguards was met with a large amount of suspicion from the Tibetans who had been suffering the oppression of the Chinese for over a decade.
Given the backdrop of Chinese aggression in Tibet, the officials surrounding the Dalai Lama were quick to guess a sense of deceit in the Chinese invitation. As a cautionary measure, he was soon advised to escape from Tibet. On March 17, 1959, therefore, the Dalai Lama dressed up as a soldier and slipped out of the shelter of the monastery that he would never see again. Accompanying him were 20 of his officials. The spiritual leader made his way barefoot across the arduous Himalayan region that included crossing the 500 yards wide Brahmaputra River.
Dalai Lama meets Havildar Naren Chandra Das, a member of 5 Assam Rifles that escorted him when he left Tibet in 1959 and entered India through Kinjamane in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh.
He finally reached India on March 30 and settled down at the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh. The following month he reached Mussoorie in present day Uttarakhand, where he was later met by then Prime Minister Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru to discuss the future of the Tibetan refugees who followed him.
Meanwhile, back in Tibet the Chinese imposed a curfew in Lhasa and close to 2000 people died in the ensuing battle between the local people and the Chinese forces. Close to 800 artillery shells were fired into the summer palace of the Dalai Lama. A day later, China announced the dissolution of the Tibetan governing body and a Tibetan autonomous region was merged within the People’s Republic of China.
Politically, the arrival of the Dalai Lama in India was a crucial moment in Indo-Chinese relations. For Nehru, maintaining cordial relations with China was always seen as a diplomatic necessity. According to historian Ramachandra Guha, “Nehru saw China at once as a peer, comrade and soul mate.” However, over time arguments emerged between India and China, particularly around the issue of border creation post the departure of the British. In this atmosphere of antagonism, India’s grant of refuge to the Dalai Lama was an essential trigger that pushed both the countries to the point of the war. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 which was eventually won by China was one of the most critical products of the Dalai Lama’s escape to India.
Looking back, the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India has been by far the most dramatic visit by any foreign politician. As pointed out by himself a couple of days ago, he is the “longest guest of the Indian government.”