Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2017-04-10 07:41:45 Published on Apr 10, 2017
The Dalai Lama had visited Arunachal Pradesh six times before this. But he was not as old then.
Is the Dalai Lama's 'reincarnation' in Arunachal Pradesh the real worry for the Chinese?

China has reacted with anger at the visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang, declaring that New Delhi has “severely damaged China’s interests and China-India relations.” Considering that this is the seventh visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh, it is only a mark of the current poor state of the Sino-Indian relations that we are hearing such rhetoric. In any case, given how badly Beijing damages Indian interests through its relationship with Pakistan, the statement is not likely to cut much ice in New Delhi.

Adding salt to China’s injury is the statement of the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese term as “southern Tibet”, observing that his state only shares a border with Tibet, not China.

There is little doubt that the Narendra Modi government has gone out of its way to use the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan issue to needle China, beginning with the invitation to the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, to Modi’s oath-taking ceremony in 2014. This time around, the added insult to Beijing was that the Dalai Lama was received at Tawang by the Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, who hails from Arunachal Pradesh. Just what India seeks to gain from this, however, is not clear.

For many Indians and indeed the world, the Chinese reaction to the Dalai Lama is not easy to understand because India has formally and repeatedly accepted that it recognises Tibet as being part of China. Yet, the Chinese have elevated the necessity to maintain control over Tibet to one of their “core interests”, second only to ensuring that Taiwan is not recognised as a separate nation.

Where it all began

The issue of Tibet and the Dalai Lama begins with the very conception of a nation, before the emergence of a nation-state. Empires waxed and waned and functioned in an era where ethnic identities were quite different from today. Before 1912, China was part of the Qing Empire, likewise before 1947, India was part of the British Empire. There are concepts of Sinic or Indic civilisational areas, but to claim that these had clearly marked out borders would be incorrect.

As for Tibet, its relationship with Chinese empires fluctuated over time. Despite Chinese claims to the contrary, the Tang Empire did not control the Tibet-Qinghai region. Tibet was conquered by the Mongols who later conquered China and founded the Yuan empire that lasted between 1270-1354. But their ties with the Tibetans was unique, often termed as a patron-priest relationship and they ruled Tibet in quite a different way from the manner in which they administered China.

The Ming dynasty ruled China between 1368 and 1644 and they more or less left Tibet alone, though they, too, welcomed Tibetan religious leaders in their court. Tibet came under the sway of a number of autonomous Mongol kings with Tibetan religious leaders as the preceptors. One such relationship led to the emergence of the Dalai Lama, the fourth of whose reincarnation was from the family of powerful Mongol chief Altan Khan. However, the apogee of the Dalais came with the fifth Dalai Lama who, in 1642, became the spiritual and temporal ruler of the country.

Two years later, in 1644, the Manchus overthrew the Ming and established the Qing empire. The Manchus, too, accepted the Tibetan religious leaders as their spiritual advisers. And it was not surprising that they invited the Dalai Lama to Beijing. Contemporary records show that their 1654 meeting was more of a summit of two rulers than anything else. As historian Sam van Shaik puts it,

“Though modern Chinese historians have taken this visit as marking the submission of the Dalai Lama’s government to China, such an interpretation is hardly borne out either by the Tibetan or Chinese records of the time.”

The sixth Dalai Lama was born near Tawang in 1683 and was enthroned in 1697. But he died prematurely amidst turmoil arising from factional quarrels between the Mongol temporal authorities of Tibet. Eventually, in 1720 the Kanxi emperor sent an army with the seventh Dalai Lama at its head, to re-establish his authority. This marked the beginning of the first entry of Chinese armies into Tibet. Nearly two centuries later, in 1910, the Manchu armies again invaded Tibet and deposed the 13th Dalai Lama, but their rule was short lived as the Manchus themselves were overthrown in 1912.

After the overthrow of the Manchu empire, the 13th Dalai Lama issued a declaration of independence for Tibet and expelled its representatives. The current, 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, escaped from Tibet via Tawang in 1959 and has been in exile in India since then, along with more than 1,50,000 of his compatriots.

A brief history

Now, it is interesting that two of the China-based empires who controlled Tibet were themselves foreign – the Mongols and the Manchus. Yet, Beijing is staking claims for the imperial boundaries of the Qing empire as being those of the People’s Republic of China. True, it is not very different from India, which took as its boundaries the ones established by the British Empire. But just as Indians cannot claim that the Northeast was always part of Mother India, neither can the Chinese make similar claims on areas like Xinjiang and Tibet.

Imperial boundaries are also often based on self-aggrandisement and exaggeration. This was more so in the case of Qing China which refused to accept that they had any equal in the world. So, either you were directly administered by the emperor, or his vassal or tributary. And there was a lot of fiction here, independent states like Vietnam were classed as vassals and European traders as tributaries.

China claims it “liberated” Tibet in 1949. This was actually a military operation by the People’s Liberation Army against the Tibetans who had been independent since 1912. The poorly armed Tibetans resisted, but were overwhelmed. They signed a 17-point agreement which was drafted by the Chinese and signed under duress by the Tibetans. Under this, the Tibetans accepted “returning to the motherland of the People’s Republic of China”. In return the Chinese said they wold give “national regional autonomy” and would not alter the existing political system in Tibet and the status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama.

Needless to say, the Chinese violated their side of the agreement from the very outset and finally, when conditions became difficult, the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 and repudiated the agreement. The PLA now unleashed a massive campaign of repression which was revisited again during the Cultural Revolution in 1966 when many monasteries were destroyed and Tibetan scriptures burnt.

What the Chinese want

All this history has been retailed here because the current Chinese quarrel with the Dalai Lama is that while he is willing to accept that Tibet is an autonomous part of China, which as the above history indicates it was for varying periods of time, the Chinese now want him to declare that Tibet has always been a part of China, which is factually incorrect.

Over the years, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, there have been efforts between the Chinese and the Tibetans to negotiate a settlement. In 2002-2004, the Dalai Lama’s brother Gyalo Thondup and his special envoy, Lodi Gyari, also visited Tibet. Some of the more recent ones were encouraged by the United States, which, ironically played an earlier role in throwing the Tibetans to the wolves when they first used them to fight the Chinese and then, when they made up with Beijing, abandoned them. But little came out of all this and in 2008, the Dalai Lama said he had given up hope of negotiations with China on Tibet.

In 2011, on a visit to Lhasa, Xi Jinping, then Vice-President, had stood in front of the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama’s traditional seat and called on the country “to thoroughly fight against the separatist activist activities by the Dalai clique….” Two years later, Yu Zhensheng, ranking Politburo standing committee member in-charge of Tibet, made an extensive tour of Tibet and reiterated Xi’s views and declared that the Dalai’s call for autonomy was against the Chinese constitution.

“Only when the Dalai Lama publicly announces that Tibet is an inalienable part of China since ancient time… can his relations with the CPC Central Committee possibly be improved.”

Worry about ‘reincarnation’

Now, of course, we are at the endgame. The Dalai Lama is ageing. His “reincarnation” is on the mind of the Chinese.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that everybody is reborn, but people have little control over their own reincarnation, since that is governed by their karma. What complicates matters is the unique Tibetan idea that a person is not immediately reincarnated after death. The superior Bodhisattvas, called tulkus, of whom the Dalai Lama is the seniormost, it is believed are able to determine whether and where they will be reborn – and when.

They are supposed to leave clear instructions about the process, so that there is no ambiguity, and the process is not manipulated or misused by anybody for their own personal or political interests. The reincarnated Dalai Lama has thus to be not selected – but found. Incidentally, the first Dalai Lama was not found in his lifetime, but Gendun Drup, a shepherd turned monk, who died in 1474. was considered such after his death.

The current Dalai Lama has, however, said that it would be better that the centuries-old tradition ceased “at the time of a popular Dalai Lama”. Better to have no Dalai Lama than “a stupid one”, the Dalai Lama told the BBC. On his own website, the Dalai Lama explains it thus:

The Dalai Lamas have functioned as both the political and spiritual leaders of Tibet for 369 years since 1642. I have now voluntarily brought this to an end, proud and satisfied that we can pursue the kind of democratic system of government flourishing elsewhere in the world. In fact, as far back as 1969, I made clear that concerned people should decide whether the Dalai Lama’s reincarnations should continue in the future. However, in the absence of clear guidelines, should the concerned public express a strong wish for the Dalai Lamas to continue, there is an obvious risk of vested political interests misusing the reincarnation system to fulfil their own political agenda. Therefore, while I remain physically and mentally fit, it seems important to me that we draw up clear guidelines to recognise the next Dalai Lama, so that there is no room for doubt or deception. 

The Chinese have said that this is not acceptable.

As of 2007, the State Administration for Religious Affairs in China had decreed that the reincarnations must be approved by government else they would be declared invalid.

The Chinese have done this before and have been planning for life after the current Dalai Lama. On May 15, 1995, the current Dalai Lama named a six-year-old boy Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is the second most important leader among Tibetan Buddhists, part of the process by which each new Dalai Lama is chosen. On May 17, 1995 the Chinese authorities installed another boy, Gyaincain Norbu, in his place as the 11th Panchen Lama. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family have been missing and have not been seen in public since that day.

The Dalai Lama is aware that the Chinese are waiting for his death and will recognise a 15th Dalai Lama of their choice.

It is clear from their recent rules and regulations and subsequent declarations that they have a detailed strategy to deceive Tibetans, followers of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and the world community... I have a responsibility to protect the Dharma and sentient beings and counter such detrimental schemes...

It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, let alone the concept of reincarnate Tulkus, to meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas. Such brazen meddling contradicts their own political ideology and reveals their double standards. Should this situation continue in the future, it will be impossible for Tibetans and those who follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to acknowledge or accept it.


The Chinese seem to realise that they could never rule Tibet without the Dalai Lama’s spiritual authority. Given the current relationship between China and the Dalai Lama, you can be sure that the Dalai Lama, even if he decides to “reincarnate”, will not choose to do so in any Chinese controlled area. So, we are likely to see a Dalai Lama selected by the Chinese, who will have little respect among the Tibetans, or possibly another one in an area outside Chinese control, say, Mongolia or India, who will not be able to exercise his authority in Tibet, which explains the Chinese anger whenever the Dalai Lama visits any of these places.

This reincarnation issue is perhaps also the reason why China has of late been insistently pressing its claim to Tawang. What the Chinese worry about now is the prospect of a Dalai Lama reincarnating in Tawang and its environs and establishing his spiritual authority over the Tibetans.

Tawang is one of the great monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism built at the instance of the fifth Dalai Lama in 1680-81. Tawang became part of British India through the Simla Convention of 1914 arrived at between the Tibetan government and the British government. Till 2003, even the Dalai Lama maintained Tawang was Tibetan, but since then he changed his position and now he says that Tawang is a part of India.

The Chinese, too, earlier did not think much about Tawang being in India. After all, they occupied it for several months during the 1962 war and then pulled out. Thrice they have indicated that they were willing to trade off their eastern claims for India’s western ones in Aksai Chin. But now their position has hardened.

The Tawang issue, the Dalai Lama’s visit all seem to have put Sino-Indian relations in a time machine taking us to the 1950s and 1960s. All the positive vibes that were there in the early 2000s have vanished and both countries will be the losers for it.

This commentary originally appeared in

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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