Tawang has been in the news in recent times. According to an article in the China Daily, published at the end of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh: “Under India’s illegal rule, the residents of Southern Tibet live difficult lives, face various kinds of discrimination, and look forward to returning to China.” The mouthpiece of the Communist Party says that the Dalai Lama “can’t wait to give away Tawang district… in exchange for India’s support for the survival of his separatist group.” Calling the Dalai Lama a “troublemaker”, the daily further affirms: “Depending on India for a living, the Dalai Lama’s eagerness to please his master is understandable, but he is going too far by selling Southern Tibet in exchange for his master’s favour.”A few days later, China Tibet Online, a website affiliated to Xinhua, referred to the Tibetan leader’s visit to “Southern Tibet”, particularly to “Dawang”, a pin yin transcription for Tawang. Renaming names is however not new. It has been done by all colonisers. More than anybody, India is aware of this. China has done it in a more systematic manner. After it invaded Tibet in 1950-51, Shigaste became Rìkazé or Xigatse, Sakya was Sa’gya, Metok, north of Arunachal’s Upper Siang district, Mutao or Medog.
Apart from the cases of pure pin yin-sation like the ones just mentioned, in many cases, names have been completely changed. Ngari province is now called Ali Prefecture (Chinese faulty pronunciation can’t probably pronounce “Ng” and “r”), Kyirong at the border with Nepal is now Jilong and worse, Barahoti in today’s Uttarakhand is called Wuje, while Demchok in Ladakh is termed Parigas. Humans too are subjected to similar renaming: the Panchen Lama selected by China, Gyaltsen Norbu, is Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu. All this shows that the recent announcement about the “official standardised names” for six places in Arunachal Pradesh is not a scoop; the only surprise is that it was not done earlier, which is simply because the claim itself on Tawang is an afterthought. In any case, today it looks like a childish reaction to the Dalai Lama’s visit to the state earlier this month. The Chinese media said that Beijing’s objective was to reaffirm China’s claim over Arunachal, “South Tibet” for the Chinese. The Global Times reported: “China’s ministry of civil affairs announced on April 14 that it had standardised in Chinese characters, Tibetan and Roman alphabet the names of six places in ‘South Tibet’, which India calls ‘Arunachal Pradesh’, in accordance with the regulations of the central government.”
The official names of the six places (transcribed in Roman alphabet) are Wo’gyainling, Mila Ri, Qoidengarbo Ri, Mainquka, Bumo La and Namkapub Ri. Let us have a look where these places are located. Wo’gyainling is the new spelling for Urgyeling, the birthplace of Tsangyang Gyaltso, the sixth Dalai Lama, a few kilometers south of Tawang town. One understands the political reasons why China would be so attached to the place. Beijing is not ready to accept that a Dalai Lama could be born outside Tibet (China). The second place is Mila Ri. It is a lake known as Mila Nagula situated near the famous “Madhuri” Lake, north of Tawang and South of the Indo-Tibet border. The place is mentioned in the 1962 war records, advancing PLA troops passed the lake on their way to Tawang. As “Ri” means “mountain” or “ridge” in Tibetan/Monpa, Mila Ri is probably one of the ridges above the lake. The third place is Qoidengarbo Ri, for “Chorten Karpo” or “White Stupa”. It refers to Gorsam Chorten, the only large white stupa in the area (and the largest in Arunachal). It is not far from Zimithang, the tactical HQ of the 4 Infantry Division during the 1962 war.
The name may refer to one of the ridges around the stupa. Mainquka is Menchuka (or Mechuka, alternative Indian spelling) is a most strategic valley in West Siang district of Arunachal. It is the only of one the six places outside Tawang district. China is not happy that India recently landed a C-17 Hercules transport aircraft in the area. Menchuka was also occupied by the Chinese in October-November 1962. Bumo La is the border post of Bumla, 45 km north of Tawang, where the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA meet several times a year. “Bumo” means “girl” in Tibetan/Monpa. Namkapub Ri is linked to Namkha Chu river, the theatre of the first Chinese attack in October 1962. “Ri” is for one of the ridges above the river (perhaps Hathungla). By naming these six places, Beijing wants to remind India of the 1962 war and the fact that the Dalai Lama “belongs to China”. As the ministry of external affairs stated, renaming places can’t change the fact that the territory south of the McMahon Line belongs to India. What about the local population in Arunachal looking forward “to return” one day to China under the Communist banner? During the Dalai Lama’s visit, not only did the entire local Monpa population (some 35,000 to 40,000, according to police sources) throng to have a glimpse of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, but also large flocks of Buddhist pilgrims from the remotest villages of Upper Subansiri, West Siang or Upper Siang districts, who travelled for days to have a once-in-a-lifetime darshan.
Why did the visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang trigger so much violence from the Chinese propaganda machinery? First and foremost, by allowing the Tibetan leader to visit Tawang, New Delhi has reasserted that the Land of Mon, as Tawang is known, is an integral part of India, whether China agrees or disagrees. This does not please Beijing, which lately has started adding Tawang to China’s “occupied territories”. Moreover, if China is under the impression that Delhi’s policy is going to change, it is mistaken; Beijing has to reconcile and live with it. The Chinese response is also a reaction to the Dalai Lama’s immense popularity in India’s border areas. This deeply irritates Beijing whose propaganda is unable to win over the “masses”, whether on the Tibetan side of the border or in the Indian Himalaya. Beijing does not know how to react to such reverence for the Tibetan leader; given that the Chinese leadership has been unable to win over the hearts of the Tibetans, more than 60 years after their so-called liberation. In these circumstances, how could the Communist leadership convince the population of Arunachal Pradesh to join the authoritarian regime? Another reason why Beijing has been so furious is that China has today become “bigger”; and it dislikes to be contradicted by “smaller” nations (like India). Despite using batteries of “experts”, including a wanted Ulfa dissident, to bolster its claims, Beijing has been unable to project its case and ended up by resorting to insulting the revered Buddhist teacher and threatening India. It will lead Beijing nowhere in the long run.