Perched on a verdant mountainside in western Arunachal Pradesh is the world’s second largest Tibetan monastery of Tawang. This multi-storied Buddhist monastery towers over a vast collection of associated buildings sprawled across an entire mountainside and houses one of the last remaining centres of Tibetan culture.
The Tawang monastery is the biggest Tibetan monastery after Lhasa. At its heart are a library of ancient texts and a main hall housing the sacred 27 feet statue of the Golden Buddha.
The three-storied Parkhang library holds a collection of centuries old scriptures in addition to other priceless manuscripts many of which were rescued from Tibet at a time when its monasteries were being ravaged by the Red Army soldiers.
The Tawang monastery is dedicated to the wrathful deity, Palden Lhamo or Goddess Dri Devi, considered to be the principal protectress of Tibet. Should this monastery fall, then, many Tibetans believe, so will Tibet and the dharma would forever be extinguished.
This massive Tawang complex is the last bastion of Tibetan Buddhism that is sought to be overwhelmed and obliterated by Beijing’s Communist overlords. The tall white-washed protective walls of the monastery are unlikely to withstand a Chinese military assault. The only force standing between them and the might of China’s Red Army is the Indian government.
This monastery and its long heritage are at the centre of the latest face-off between Beijing and New Delhi.
Despite repeated threats from Beijing, New Delhi has held to its unstated position that the Tibetan people, their culture and religion need to be preserved. Even though India accepted China’s invasion and annexation of Tibet in 1950, it did so reluctantly and gave refuge to the Dalai Lama and his followers. Thousands of Tibetan refuges continue to live in India.
The Chinese leadership, however, continues to view the Tibetan religion, its head, the Dalai Lama, and Tawang as threats.
The recent Indian decision to allow the Dalai Lama to travel to Tawang set off a predictable ruckus in Beijing which threatened India in no uncertain terms.
“India is fully aware of the seriousness of the Dalai issue and the sensitivity of China-India border question,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesperson. “Under such a background if India invites Dalai to visit the mentioned territory, it will cause serious damage to peace and stability of the border region and China-India relations.”
The Chinese spokesperson added: “The Dalai clique has long been engaging in anti-China separatist activities and its record on the border question is not that good.”
Indian external affairs ministry spokesman retorted: “The Dalai Lama is free to travel in any part of the country, we see nothing unusual if he visits Arunachal Pradesh again.” Earlier, the Chinese had even objected when President Pranab Mukherjee held a dinner for the Dalai Lama.
Recent disclosures made by a former high official of the Chinese government, Dai Bingguo, who has participated in 15 rounds of border talks with India, admitted that China considers Tawang to be an “inalienable” part of the Tibet region of China.
He hinted that although China claimed all the 90,000 sq. km of India’s Arunachal Pradesh, a deal could be worked out if New Delhi agreed to hand over Tawang. Former foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon has disclosed in his book Choices that Beijing has long made it clear that it covets Tawang.
New Delhi has not only consistently resisted this demand but also not accepted Beijing’s annexation of 38,000 sq. km of land in Aksai Chin. Beijing offers nothing in return and wishes New Delhi to act unilaterally.
This is because Beijing does not believe in a give and take policy. It believes that every other nation being naturally lower in status, must accept this fundamental asymmetry. In the past, subservient kingdoms were expected to bring expensive annual presents to appease China’s emperors, whereas today the Communist bosses in Beijing expect territory and acceptance of Chinese diktats.
Significantly, every nation that has signed a border agreement with the Peoples’ Republic of China has had to cede territory. Even the tiny Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan (area 199,951 sq. km), which is about the size of Gujarat (area 196, 024 sq. km), was forced to give up 1,250 sq. km of its land to China under an unequal agreement signed in 1999. Local Kyrgyz leaders were so incensed with this unequal deal that many had demanded the impeachment of their then President.
Another even smaller Central Asian republic, Tajikistan (area 143,100 sq. km, which is about the size of Chhattisgarh state), was compelled to hand over 1,122 sq. km of territory to China. This led to massive protests in Tajikistan and took almost a decade to implement the treaty. In total, an estimated 16,000 sq. km of Central Asian lands have been acquired by China during the last two decades.
Even this is nothing compared to the two massive kingdoms of yesteryears, Eastern Turkestan and Tibet, that have been annexed by China’s Communist regime. Not surprisingly these regions, which today constitute the Chinese provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet, continue to experience huge discontent and militant protests.
Similarly, Beijing claims that the two regions incorporated into India during British rule, Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh (formerly the North-East Frontier Agency), belong to China, despite the fact that no Chinese communities have ever ventured in these parts. The fact that the rulers of these regions once paid tribute to Chinese emperors is considered to be the basis of Chinese sovereignty over them.
Despite Beijing’s intransigence on Tawang, its blatant opposition to India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and its stonewalling of a UN resolution against Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar, New Delhi sent its foreign secretary to China last month for strategic talks.
Although Chinese officials claimed that the talks were positive it made no concessions. While there is huge asymmetry in India’s military and economic capabilities vis-à-vis China, a medieval hegemonic mindset is unlikely to work in today’s age where cooperation rather than coercion is the order of the day.