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India-China tension: Soldier's death puts spotlight on Tibetans in India

beijingwalker

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India-China tension: Soldier's death puts spotlight on Tibetans in India
The death of a Tibetan-Indian soldier near the border with China has drawn attention to the role played by Tibetans in the Indian army, particularly when it comes to covert operations in mountainous terrain.

Date 14.09.2020




Nyima Tenzin, a Tibetan-Indian soldier, died on August 30 in a landmine blast near the Pangong Tso lake, which has become a site of dispute for Indian and Chinese militaries recently. The soldier, part of India's Special Frontier Force (SFF), a covert paramilitary unit, was killed while patrolling the India-China border in the territory of Ladakh.

The images from Tenzin's funeral on September 8, depicting his coffin draped in the Indian and Tibetan flags, received widespread media coverage in India.

It suddenly put the spotlight on the Tibetan community in the South Asian country and their contribution to the Indian army, at a time when tensions between India and China are running high.

"This incident is unfortunate, but it has finally got people talking about how China has captured Tibet. If Tibet was independent, then these border skirmishes would have never happened," Ngawang Tenzin, a Mumbai-based teacher, told DW.


Ngawang Tenzin believes Nyima Tenzin's death and the subsequent funeral is a gentle reminder to Tibetans in India about who they are


Tibetans in the Indian army

The SFF is a special paramilitary unit set up in 1962 that mainly recruits from the Tibetan community in exile in India. Since the Dalai Lama — the Tibetans' spiritual leader — fled to India in 1959 following an anti-Beijing uprising in Tibet and the subsequent Chinese suppression, over 100,000 Tibetans have made India their home. Some are now Indian citizens.

The SFF unit — controlled by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India's external intelligence agency — is specialized in covert operations in mountainous terrain.

"Tibetans are used by the Indian army for mountain warfare, as we specialize in that. We are mountain people, which is why we adapt to that climate faster than people from mainland India," Tenzin said.

Palden Sonam, a New Delhi-based political analyst, believes that the death of the soldier has highlighted the Tibet issue and renewed solidarity among Indians for the Tibetan cause. Nevertheless, the political leadership and the army have so far refrained from commenting on the SFF.

"There was no statement from the Indian leadership or the army about the death of Nyima Tenzin. In fact, Ram Madhav, a BJP leader, who was present at the funeral and tweeted about it, later deleted his tweet. It's unknown whether the tweet was deleted because of pressure from New Delhi or Beijing," Sonam told DW.

"The Indian government seems tactful here. It lets the media report freely about the SFF and its role, while it remains silent," he added.

The Indian army's use of SFF along the border with China has raised concerns that the Chinese military could use Tibetan-Chinese soldiers to engage with the Indian military along the disputed frontier.

"China will definitely pit Tibetans against each other at the border. The lives of Tibetans will get affected," said Sonam.

Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry, said at a news briefing recently that Beijing wasn't aware of Tibetans fighting for India, but that China was "firmly opposed to any country, including India, supporting the secession activities of Tibetan pro-independence forces or providing them with any assistance or physical space."


Political pawns?

Ngawang Tenzin believes Nyima Tenzin's death and the subsequent funeral is a gentle reminder to Tibetans in India about who they are. "The cremation of the soldier in Ladakh with full state honors has happened for the first time and it's a big deal for us," he said. "When I was in school, on December 10, we used to go out and chant the slogan, 'Tibet Azaadi, Hindustan Suraksha,' (Free Tibet, Protect India). This slogan is very important for us (Tibetans)."


Since the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, many Tibetans have followed him to India. The Indian government, however, has so far not recognized Tibetans in the country as refugees and instead classifies them as "foreigners."

And New Delhi's support for the Tibetan government-in-exile, based in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala, seems to be determined by the state of India's relations with China.

New Delhi has often been accused of giving the cold shoulder to the Tibetans, only viewing them as a bargaining chip when political tensions with Beijing escalate and ignoring their contribution as soon as the situation calms down.

Dorje Rangzen, a New Delhi-based activist, believes that Tibetans are simply used as political pawns as and when required by India against China. "I was put in jail in July for protesting outside the Chinese embassy. I was beat up by the Indian police. My grandfather fought for India in the 1971 Bangladesh war. Why isn't our contribution being recognized by India?" he told DW.

"We (Tibetans) gave a lot to India, but India hasn't taken any action against China. Why is the Chinese embassy in India still open? A lot of us are in pain because of public apathy. The cops told me to go back to Tibet. I was called 'corona' by someone the other day," he added angrily.

"The death of a Bollywood celebrity gets media attention, but the plight of Tibetans doesn't. I am ready to fight for India, but are Tibetans important to Indians?" Rangzen questioned.

 

beijingwalker

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Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry, said at a news briefing recently that Beijing wasn't aware of Tibetans fighting for India,
Now we learned that India openly supports Tibetan separatists and terrorists, gloves are off, nothing holds China back from openly supporting various rebel and insurgencies groups operating all over India.
 

beijingwalker

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India waving SFF and Tibet cards won’t scare China. Can’t pull levers you don’t have
Bending foreign policy to serve domestic politics is proving to be costly for India. Hyping the use of the Tibetan-majority SFF against China is one such example.
SHYAM SARAN 14 September, 2020 10:47 am IST


The Tibet issue played a major role in precipitating the India-China war of 1962. There were localised skirmishes along the border, but these began to be seen in a more ominous light by China in the wake of the Tibetan revolt of 1959 followed by the exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to India. The setting up of Indian posts and increased patrolling on our borders were seen as part of a sinister Indian design to subvert Chinese rule in Tibet. The status of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan issue have remained a shadow over India-China relations even though New Delhi has recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and has under-played official relations with the Dalai Lama.

The Tibet government-in-exile is allowed to function at Dharamsala but is not recognised by the Indian government. For China, Tibet is a “core issue” just as Taiwan and Xinjiang are.

A changing relationship
During the tenure of the Narendra Modi government, there have been instances of open courtship of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Its ‘Prime Minister’ Lobsang Sangay was an invitee to the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Modi in 2014. The Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Pema Khandu, declared that his state had a border with Tibet and not with China, in 2017.

But after the Modi-Xi Jinping summit in Wuhan in April 2018, there appeared a rethink on the Tibet issue with the Ministry of External Affairs reissuing instructions to government functionaries to avoid public association with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan representatives of the government-in-exile. An international Buddhist conference, which the Dalai Lama had been encouraged to convene, was cancelled. The Tibetans were advised that the 60th anniversary, in 2019, of the Dalai Lama’s entry into India, should be a low-key affair.

The second Modi-Xi summit in Mamallapuram in October 2019 reinforced this trend. The Modi government was signalling that it was prepared to put the Tibet issue in cold storage while advancing bilateral relations with China.

The wrong card
During the recent clashes between the Indian and Chinese armed forces on the border in eastern Ladakh, the Tibet issue has resurfaced and will add to mutual distrust and suspicion. A deliberately leaked report to the media revealed that the secretive Special Frontier Force (SFF), recruited mainly from the Tibetan community in India, was used in the operations in southern Pangong Tso. One of its soldiers, Tenzin Nyima, died in a mine blast and at his funeral, independent Tibet’s flags were displayed. BJP leader Ram Madhav attended the funeral and tweeted about it. He subsequently took it down, presumably at the behest of the Ministry of External Affairs.

Several commentators were quick to welcome the report on the SFF, no longer secret, as a reminder to China that India still held the “Tibet card” and would be ready to use it to bring it to heel. Like much of the bizarre fantasising that seems to have taken hold in India, this, too, may only heighten mistrust and hostility in Beijing without inflicting any real pain. In any negotiations with an adversary, one should never provoke a confrontation over an issue where the other side has greater equity and stake than oneself. This is clearly the case here. It is also intriguing that this story was highlighted on the eve of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow. At the very least, it would have made his interaction more challenging.

The SFF has been in existence for several years. Its efficacy lies in its rigorous training, high morale and professionalism. It should not have become yet another pawn in a political game to convince public opinion that India has more levers of influence than it actually has. In doing so, the potential efficacy of the SFF has been undermined and Chinese suspicions over India’s intentions regarding Tibet would have been aroused to a new intensity.

A crisis of credibility
The tactical use of the Tibetan issue and of the Dalai Lama is both cynical and counter-productive. Ever since his arrival in India, he has enjoyed respect and reverence across the Indian political spectrum as a religious leader. We have consistently maintained the position that he is our welcome guest as a high religious personage and that we do not endorse political activities engaged in by him or the Tibetan community. This has helped manage Tibet as an issue in India-China relations, reducing its salience as an irritant. Unfortunately, this consistent and longstanding position has been severely compromised.

In any India-China border settlement, an understanding over Tibet will need to be arrived at. The best-case scenario for India would be a reconciliation between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese regime, and this seemed possible during the first few years of Xi Jinping’s rule. In our informal conversations with Chinese counterparts, we have conveyed that their assumption of the Tibetan issue being permanently resolved once the Dalai Lama was no longer in the scene was misplaced. In fact, we pointed out, the situation may become even more fraught once the restraining hand of the Dalai Lama was no longer available. The Tibetan community in India, particularly the youth, could become more radicalised.


In Tibet, reconciliation between its people and the Chinese state would be more likely with the blessings of the Dalai Lama rather than in his absence. Both countries, we conveyed, need to have an early and quiet dialogue on this issue and not allow it to become a festering problem for the future. There was receptivity on the Chinese side to these views. However, this waving of the Tibet card, which serves only to irritate and annoy, puts paid to any such engagement on a sensitive issue, with serious implications for the future. It undermines the immense goodwill and gratitude that New Delhi has all along enjoyed with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in India and abroad. The community is disturbed by the manner in which the Indian government plays hot and cold towards it and has become anxious about its future.

The bending of foreign policy issues to serve domestic political ends is proving to be costly for India. The most valuable asset a country and its political leadership possess is credibility with both friends and adversaries alike. When image-making gets unlatched from reality, credibility is the first casualty. And India indeed faces a crisis of credibility.

 

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