In early April 1959, with some 50,000 Chinese soldiers scouring the mountains in search of him, the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet into northeastern India. Beijing blamed him for fomenting an uprising among Tibetans, which the People’s Liberation Army was then quashing.
While foreign spies and correspondents filled up sleepy hill stations on the Indian side, the Dalai Lama took refuge in an old monastery, guarded by a detachment of Indian solders and a sect of 600 shaven-headed Buddhist monks.
His brief sojourn at the 400-year-old monastery in the town of Tawang would be the first stop in a life of exile in India.
This weekend, the Dalai Lama returns to Tawang — and Beijing is no less irked by his presence there now than it was six decades ago.
China claims the region where Tawang sits and the area surrounding it as a southern extension of Tibet, which Beijing rules; India has long maintained that the land, which comprises its northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, is an inalienable part of its territory.
Tensions over the border dispute have flared recently, raising the specter of a budding rivalry between the two Asian giants who fought a brief, wintry war in 1962.
Reports of troop buildups and border incursions have increased. A visit to the state by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in mid-October to campaign in local elections was cited by Beijing as an act of provocation.
Now the Dalai Lama’s trip, which his camp insists is simply to deliver teachings to his faithful, is further stoking Chinese ire.
On Nov. 3, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman blasted the Tibetan leader-in-exile for his “separatist” activities.
“The Dalai Lama often lies and often engages in acts to sabotage China’s relations with other countries,” said Ma Zhaoxu. New Delhi, sensing trouble, has barred foreign journalists from covering the event.
Ever since he fled the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, the Dalai Lama has lived as a guest on Indian soil, free to do as he pleases provided he refrains from directly antagonizing China.
This is not the first time he has journeyed to Tawang from his seat in the north Indian town of Dharamsala. But in the wake of riots in Lhasa last year and amid the present frostiness over the Sino-Indian border, the visit has assumed a deeper political dimension.
The monastery at Tawang is one of the largest and oldest of the dominant Tibetan Gelupga sect and is near the home of Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama, born in 1683 — a leader particularly beloved by the Tibetans.
As the present Dalai Lama (the 14th) ages, rumors grow that his successor may be tapped from this historic cradle of Tibetan Buddhism in a bid to preempt Beijing, which is almost certain to select its own Dalai Lama once the current one passes.
In Chinese eyes, the prospect of the Dalai Lama ginning up emotions and support in Tawang poses a challenge to its vision of dominion over all of Tibet.
The boundary separating Arunachal Pradesh from Tibet — dubbed the McMahon Line — was drawn up by the colonial British and officials from Lhasa in 1914, an act of map-making that China to this day refuses to recognize.
According to Beijing, Tawang and its surroundings were under the suzerainty of the Qing dynasty after its armies extended China’s frontiers to Tibet and Central Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries.
If Tibet is Chinese soil — something that New Delhi has officially recognized — then, the argument goes, Tawang and its monastery ought to be as well.
But the facts on the ground, experts say, do not fully support Beijing’s claim. “China is trying to impose this idea of a coherent nation-state,” says Gray Tuttle, professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York.
“But it is basing its claim on a premodern cultural world where there was nothing like a modern state.”
Not only was Chinese control over Tibet thin until the 1950s, but Tibetan rule over Tawang was nominal as well.
Beyond the appointment of certain abbots in monasteries and the occasional payment of taxes to Lhasa, the people living there “did not see themselves as part of a broader empire, let alone a Chinese one,” says Dibyesh Anand, an authority on the region and a professor of international relations at Westminster University in London.
Moreover, the ethnic group that inhabits this remote, mountainous part of the world, know as the Monpa, has always stood somewhat apart from the Tibetans of the plateau, despite sharing their religious and cultural outlook.
In the days when political power was concentrated in Lhasa, Tibetans would look down upon the Monpa almost as if they were a tribe of southern barbarians.
But after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, the group on the margins found itself at the center of a hot spot, faced with the task of aiding compatriots who were fleeing the brutal Chinese crackdown in 1959.
As a result, the Monpa in India aren’t particularly keen to swap nationalities. “They all fear China for what it did during the Tibetan uprising,” says Anand.
Still, as New Delhi asserts its sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh, many locals complain of poor governance. Like other parts of India’s periphery, development has been woeful: roads in the rugged terrain are poor and in many places nonexistent, the school system is dysfunctional, and some state officials are corrupt.
The Indian military often monopolizes the region’s functioning infrastructure for its own deployment and strategic ends, leaving the Monpa again sandwiched on the edge of latter-day empires.
The Dalai Lama’s visit, says Anand, should be seen not as a gesture of defiance toward China nor a validation of democratic India but as an act of solidarity with a community that looks to him for guidance.
For years he has pushed for dialogue with China and quietly sought autonomy for Tibet, but this purported “middle path” of peaceful advocacy has made little progress and has frustrated many younger Tibetans who are living in exile from their homeland. Now, suggest observers, the Dalai Lama may be thinking more of shoring up the Tibetan diaspora as it looks toward an uncertain future.
“With him getting older, it makes sense to try to establish a long-term support network for Tibetans in exile,” says Tuttle.
Meanwhile, border tensions around the monastery where the Dalai Lama found asylum 60 years ago continue to simmer.
As neighbors and growing world powers, India and China are bound to have their differences, but, say analysts, it is in both countries’ interests to move away from the icy, uncompromising positions where they are now entrenched.
The possibilities for trade between India’s northeast and China’s southwest have barely been explored. “Indians and Chinese need to be more confident in their history,” says Anand. “This is history, as you see in Tawang, which was more complicated, fluid and relaxed.”