To China, via Tibet (The Asian Age)

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
Jul 08, 2014

Having demonstrated his appreciation of Tibet’s PM-in-exile’s symbolic significance, Mr Modi can now define his Near Abroad strategy by acknowledging that the Karmapa can be a valuable Indian asset

A group of red-robed monks waited in a curve of the road that wound up from Teesta towards Gangtok. A Kalimpong lama had died, my Nepalese Hindu driver said indifferently. “They are waiting for him.” It wasn’t until a day later that I learnt the deceased monk was Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche, the 14th Red Hat Lama, a powerful prelate whose passing, on June 11, can have repercussions on Himalayan religious politics.

I didn’t make immediate inquiries because Gangtok is always so beguiling. The town seems more crowded. More brick high rise buildings dominate the skyline. If you look down, the roads and pavements are dirtier than ever. But there is a clean crispness in the rain-washed mountain air. A smile always twinkles in the eyes of local folk. On a clear day, you could look out from the elegance of my suite at the Denzong Regency hotel to the snows of Kanchenjunga. On the other side shimmered the ancient red-roofed Rumtek monastery where the last Chogyal of Sikkim, Palden Thondup Namgyal, was installed as head lama in 1933. Tragically, Rumtek became notorious some years ago as the scene of pitched battles by opponents of Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa lama.

My visit had nothing to do with that controversy. It couldn’t have been more secular in fact, for Sikkim University’s gently scholastic vice-chancellor, Dr T.B. Subba, had invited me to deliver the foundation day lecture. It was a particularly welcome invitation for a university that had been one of the Chogyal’s dreams. It was denied to him, which made it a particularly gratifying — if humbling — experience for me to play some small part in the dream’s belated realisation. Sikkim University is a bustling place with more girl students than boys but it badly needs to be concentrated in a single campus.

My theme was “The ‘Near Abroad’ concept for big countries like the US, Russia, China and India”. That Russian term, also translated as sphere of influence, allowed me to discuss how nations manage neighbourhoods that are important for strategic, economic, ethnic and cultural reasons. Globally, the Ukraine crisis made it topical. Historically, the subject’s significance lies in American attempts to extend the Monroe Doctrine — the most explicit articulation of the Near Abroad theory — to promote its geopolitical interests in Europe and Asia.

India’s rulers are not given to cerebral analyses of their actions. But by inviting all the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation leaders, and the Prime Minister of Mauritius and Tibet’s Prime Minister-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, to his swearing-in ceremony, Narendra Modi highlighted a welcome appreciation of India’s rights and duties in its Near Abroad. That was confirmed when he made Bhutan — India’s closest friend in the region — his first destination abroad. Travelling in Europe at the time, I was delighted to learn he hadn’t rushed to thank the Americans for granting him a visa as his first act in office.

Bhutan is an independent kingdom and Sikkim now a state of India. But with Tibet, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar, they comprise a sensitive Near Abroad for both India and China. The British called the region the “Belgium of Asia” and warned it could become another “Alsace”, the province over which France and Germany squabbled throughout history.

P.N. Dhar, Indira Gandhi’s principal secretary, invoked the Near Abroad theory (without using the phrase) in his memoirs, Indira Gandhi, the “Emergency” and Indian Democracy. Rejecting pious fiction about the Sikkimese yearning for democracy and India holding a referendum to ascertain their wishes, he confirmed that RAW’s R.N. Kao personally supervised all the seemingly spontaneous events that led to the annexation. “This process had started several months before the storm broke in April 1973.” In short, RAW set Sikkim’s revolutionary ball rolling before the Sikkimese knew they were revolting. The reason? China’s conquest of Tibet had made Sikkim “an area of geo-strategic importance overnight”. It was the Near Abroad.

In the lively question and answer session following the lecture, someone mentioned India’s “big brother” attitude in the neighbourhood. That allowed me to emphasise that good diplomacy does not mean outright acquisition which generates hostility, as Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine demonstrate. The 1950 treaty with Sikkim and subsequent agreements gave India every power it needed to safeguard legitimate strategic and economic interests. It is only because of a fortuitous concatenation of circumstances that the annexation did not provoke armed resistance. Participants at last year’s seminar at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, where I launched a new revised edition of Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim asked precisely this. Why didn’t the Sikkimese rise in revolt like the Nagas?

That question didn’t come up at the Sikkim University function. I wonder how the chief guest, R.B. Subba, would have responded if it had. A former bureaucrat, R.B. Subba, a Limbu (or Tsong) like the vice-chancellor, is the state’s human resource development minister. I was greatly impressed by his phlegmatic (though silent) acquiescence in all that was said. Times have obviously changed. The Sikkimese now display a new mature confidence.

I hope a matching maturity will inform India’s response to the young Karmapa lama, now that his most formidable opponent has gone. As the Tibetologist, Thierry Dodin, writes in Tibet Sun, Shamar Rinpoche best understood how to play on fears of China and fuel the Indian security community’s suspicions about the Karmapa. Having already demonstrated his appreciation of Mr Sangay’s symbolic significance, Mr Modi can now further define his Near Abroad strategy by acknowledging that the Karmapa can be a valuable Indian asset. The Sikkimese, including Mr Subba and his chief minister, Pawan Chamling, would be delighted if the Karma Kagyu sect’s head is allowed into Sikkim to start with.

The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author


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