For India, Tibet Poses Some Delicate Issues

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

NEW DELHI, April 1 -- Angry Tibetans in India chanted all kinds of anti-China slogans last month when they gathered to protest the crackdown in their homeland. But one chant, in particular, seemed to be an ominous warning to the government in New Delhi: "China-India brotherhood is a Chinese deception!" the Tibetans shouted.

The chant was an expression of anger over India's burgeoning diplomatic and economic ties with China. But it also reflected the contradictions in the Indian government's policy as it tries to ensure free speech for its sizable ethnic Tibetan population while also maintaining a fragile partnership with its powerful neighbor.

India enjoys a trading relationship with China expected to be worth $40 billion this year. At the same time, it hosts the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, his exile government and his followers. Authorities in Beijing have accused the Dalai Lama of fomenting the recent Tibet protests.

"It is a difficult position for India," said Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary. "We gave asylum to the Dalai Lama and his followers on the condition that they would not conduct political activities on Indian soil. But the Tibetan government-in-exile is run from here.

"We have to weigh the costs of extending support to the Tibetans in a demonstrative way in the current situation against damaging our ties with China," he said.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, India's current foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, said that the Dalai Lama was a "respected guest" and that India would continue to offer him hospitality. But the Dalai Lama should not do anything that could have a "negative impact on Indo-Sino relations," Mukherjee warned.

India is home to about 100,000 Tibetans, for whom the government's relationship with China is a particular source of discontent. Many activists accuse India of selling out to China. Two weeks ago, when Indian police used force to detain 100 Tibetan marchers on their way to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, the anger seemed to come to a boil.

"We know what is going on. India is cozying up to China at any cost, at the cost of Tibet," said Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress. "India is the land of Gandhi, and the marchers were following the principle of nonviolence. This kind of police action is not new. It happens every time a Chinese leader visits India nowadays."

Many analysts say India has handled the challenge of fulfilling its twin commitments, to China and the Dalai Lama, rather deftly in the face of enormous pressure from Beijing.

When pro-Tibet activists stormed the Chinese Embassy complex in New Delhi last month, authorities in Beijing summoned the Indian ambassador in the middle of the night to express their displeasure. India immediately beefed up security around the building.

Before Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, met with the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, India, last month, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told her that the Dalai Lama was the "personification of nonviolence." Then the government called off a previously scheduled meeting between the Dalai Lama and the Indian vice president, Hamid Ansari.

Last week, India's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party attacked the government, saying in a statement that "instead of expressing concern over the use of force by the Chinese government," it "is adopting a policy of appeasement towards China with scant regard to the country's national honor and foreign policy independence." The BJP urged the government to voice its concerns "correctly, unequivocally and unambiguously."

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