THE BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS of the Dalai Lama usually follow a certain pattern. There are day-long programmes across Tibetan settlements and towns along the Indian side of the Himalayas. And then there are the phone calls and messages to the Dalai Lama’s office.
But this July 6th, in a Covid-induced marked-down affair, there was a surprise caller at the other end of the line. Or, at least, a surprising public acknowledgement that such a call had been made. It was Narendra Modi.
It was surprising because New Delhi has always been incredibly reticent about acknowledging the presence of what it calls its ‘revered guest’. In its caution to not offend Beijing, former prime ministers have gone out of their way to not even do something as anodyne as wish the Dalai Lama on his birthday. Even Prime Minister Modi—who had signalled a change when he invited Lobsang Sangay, the then political head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, to his first swearing-in—just months later (right before Xi Jinping’s India visit), is believed to have had a secret meeting with the Dalai Lama, where the latter, according to one media report, was “virtually kidnapped”, put into an unmarked car with dark window shades and driven to 7, Race Course Road. In 2018, elected leaders and officials were even asked to stay away from attending events marking the Dalai Lama’s 60th year in India. Delhi itself is far from the only guilty party here. In the last few decades, several countries have exercised caution when it comes to the Dalai Lama. Even Barack Obama, in an attempt to assuage Chinese backlash, conducted a meeting with him in 2010, not in the Oval Office, but in the less symbolic confines of the White House Map Room, and after the meeting ended, showed him out through a side door amid bags of trash.
But the world is now increasingly wary of Beijing since the pandemic and its recent excesses, the least of it not being its aggression in Ladakh.
The institution of the Dalai Lama also stands at a crossroads today. The current incumbent is 86 years old. While he has tried to devolve the powers of the institution by handing its political power to the government in exile, the Tibet movement’s fortunes continue to be yoked to him.
In Tibet, despite the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda against him and its attempts to Sinicise the region, the figure of the Dalai Lama has continued to remain a powerful political symbol. After years of bemoaning him, the party is now strengthening its grip over the region by laying the groundwork to pick his successor. Can a solution for the Chinese lie in a 15th Dalai Lama handpicked by the party, preferably one with a nice party family background? Will the international support for a free Tibet die with the passing of the current one? What geostrategic gains can an all-powerful China, bestowed with the spiritual blessings of a compliant 15th Dalai Lama, achieve? It’s a worrisome thought.
The US has become increasingly involved, declaring that the wishes of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans must be respected when it comes to the Dalai Lama’s succession. The Dalai Lama himself, who continues to hope the Tibet issue will be resolved in his lifetime, has kept his cards close to his chest. He has ribbed those who enquire by asking them to examine his health and joked about why the party doesn’t reincarnate Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping instead, spoken about a possible female Dalai Lama, and even that the institution might end with him. More recently, he has declared that he would revaluate whether the institution should continue once he turns 90, while detailing that a successor could be picked either in the form of a reincarnation after his death, a successor who is selected, or one who is recognised as an emanation during his lifetime.
India has so far been extremely quiet in this regard. For years, its attitude towards the Dalai Lama has been marked with an absence of clarity. Is having the Dalai Lama, China’s greatest bugbear and among the world’s foremost moral authorities, on Indian soil, a burden or a blessing? Whatever the Dalai Lama chooses, New Delhi’s support will be important. A birthday wish is a good starting point.