Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | India’s Tibet policy

Diplomatic Affairs Editor Suhasini Haidar takes a deep dive into India-Tibet and India-China relations

In this episode of Worldview, our Diplomatic Affairs Editor Suhasini Haidar takes a deeper look at whether India is rethinking its Tibet Policy and the impact of Tibet on India-China relations.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has caused quite a ripple by announcing for the first time in years that he had spoken to Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, the Dalai Lama, to wish him for his birthday.


Conjectures that given China’s continuing aggression at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the government may actually be considering a shift in India’s Tibet policy.

What is that policy?

For centuries, Tibet was India’s actual neighbour, and in 1914, it was Tibetan representatives, along with the Chinese that signed the Simla convention with British India that delineated boundaries. Remember, most of India’s boundaries and the 3500km LAC is with the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and not the rest of China.

However, after China’s full accession of Tibet in 1950, that China repudiated the convention and the McMahon line that divided the two countries. And in 1954, India signed an agreement with China, agreeing to trading terms on what it called the “Tibet region of China”.

In 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled to India, PM Nehru gave him and Tibetan refugees shelter, and they set up the Tibetan government in exile, which continues to hold elections. But the official Indian policy is that the Dalai Lama is a spiritual leader, and the Tibetan community in India, with more than a lakh exiles, is not allowed to undertake any political activity. Despite frequent protests from China, especially when the Dalai Lama is invited to an official event or travels to Arunachal Pradesh, most governments have held the line on what is seen as a contradictory stand.

In recent years, the Modi government has attempted some shifts, but its policy has also confused many, including within the Tibetan community.

Confusing Signals?


PM Modi invited the Sikyong of Govt in Exile PM Lobsang Sangay to his swearing in ceremony in 2014, but the government appeared to distance itself from the invitation, and didn’t repeat it in 2019.


The government allowed a Conference of Chinese dissidents, with Uighur and Tibetan leaders invited from across the world, but at the last minute their visas were cancelled


Several events to mark the 60th year of the flight of the Dalai Lama to India were planned- but a government circular reminded officials not to take part, and events including the Dalai Lama’s visit to Rajghat had to be cancelled.


BJP leader Ram Madhav publicly attended the funeral of a soldier of the Tibetan Special Frontier Force, that has been trained under the Indian army, but later deleted his tweet about the funeral


PM wished Dalai Lama in the first such public acknowledgement since 2013, the first time as PM, but the MEA clarified this week that the Dalai Lama a respected religious leader, and wishing him was part of India’s consistent policy of treating him as an honoured guest

But quite apart from these essentially symbolic aspects of India’s Tibet policy, there are many important areas that New Delhi must watch more closely

What to Watch For:

  • Changes in Tibet itself: Over the past few decades, the Chinese government has moved to change Tibet in many ways. From pouring in investment, infrastructure projects, to pouring in Han or mainland Chinese, in an effort to Sinicize the population. While there has been rapid development, including the famous Qinghai Tibet, and now Sichuan Tibet rail lines, there has also been an increasing suppression of the Tibetan populations’ links to the Dalai Lama, and old border crossings from Nepal have been sealed. In its White Paper on Tibet, its 3rd in the past decade, the Chinese government has made it clear it intends to  tighten its controls in Tibet.
  • In addition, there’s Chinese dams on the upper riparian areas of the Brahmaputra, and  construction of Tibetan villages along the LAC, particularly along Arunachal Pradesh boundary, which can prove to be a future flashpoint aimed at bolstering Chinese claims of territory.
  • As India-China tensions grow and turn violent after the Galwan deaths, China has begun to raise Tibetan Militia groups, while the Indian Army trains the Tibetan Special Frontier Force, which could lead to the frightening albeit unlikely spectre of Tibetans on both sides fighting each other at some point in the future.
  • There is then the question over the future of the Tibetan community in India, that the government doesn’t give citizenship to Tibetans born in India after the cut-off year of 1987, leaving the youth of the community completely in limbo, living in segregated communes in different parts of India, but not being given rights as Indians, with little recourse or connection to what is happening back home in Tibet.
  • In the past few years, the US has also increased its role, by accepting more Tibetan refugees, with an estimated 30,000 now residing there. Most prominently, the Karmapa Lama the head of the Karma Kagyu sect, who took Dominican citizenship, also resides permanently in the US now, and as US-China relations deteriorate, is likely to increase its interest in the Tibetan issue.
  • The larger question is over the succession to the 86-year-old Dalai Lama, who has been not only the spiritual leader, and the leader of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, but the political leader of the community worldwide. While he remains in good health, and said in his birthday video that it has been predicted he could live to 110, the worries about identifying his successor are growing in importance for India. The successor could be a living incarnation, that the Dalai Lama taps, or living in a specific area in India or even in another country like Taiwan, but it is time for the Indian government to firm up its strategy in the succession scenario. China has made it clear it intends to announce its own Dalai Lama, as it once did the Panchen Lama, and try to control the succession. The US is likely to weigh in as well, as it has by settling the Karmapa there.

As a result, India must avoid a situation where it has a young and restive Tibetan population that resides here, but looks outside of India for its leadership and command structure after the Dalai Lama has passed.

Read more: Tibet is Not a Card

Reading Recommendations:

  • Freedom in Exile by the Dalai Lama
  • The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas: India and China’s Quest for Strategic Dominance by Phunchok Stobdan
  • Nehru, Tibet and China by Avtar Singh Bhasin
  • Cadres of Tibet by Jayadeva Ranade
  • A special Report by Manoj Joshi Implications for India of China’s 2021 White Paper on Tibet

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