Exiled Tibetan Leader's Photo Op With Flag at Pangong Tso Adds Tibet Card to India-China Border Mix

Amid the ongoing stand-off in Doklam, the image of the head of the Tibetan 'government in exile' paying respects to the Tibetan flag on Indian territory could be seen as 'political activity', something Delhi has discouraged in the past.

New Delhi: The Tibetan ‘government-in-exile’ which had earlier said – against the backdrop of the ongoing stand-off between Indian and Chinese soldiers elsewhere in the Himalayas – that its head had unfurled the Tibetan flag  at Pang Gong lake in Ladakh has dialled back on that assertion and now insists Lobsang Sangay was only paying his respects to an already unfurled national flag.

The lake, located at over 14,000 feet, sits astride India and China, with the Line of Actual Control passing through it.

Sonam Norbu Dagpo, spokesperson of the self-styled ‘Central Tibetan Administration’ (CTA), had earlier twice confirmed to The Wire that this was the first time the independent Tibet flag had been unfurled by Sangay at that important location.

He last re-confirmed the hoisting to The Wire on Sunday morning. “This is the first visit by the CTA president to Ladakh and, therefore, the first time that he offered prayers, hoisted the prayer flag and hoisted the national flag by himself at the lake,” he said.

He stressed that while this was Sangay’s first visit, other top Tibetan political leaders, who headed earlier avatars of the CTA, had visited Pang Gong lake previously. “But at that time, there was no media coverage like now,” he said.

However, on Sunday night, CTA information secretary Dhardon Sharling reached out to The Wire to insist Sangay had not hoisted the flag.

“The Tibetan national flag seen in the pictures was not hoisted by President Dr. Sangay. It belongs to a Tibetan settled in Pangong lake and according to him, the flag is up there since Dec 10, 1989. President Dr. Sangay, happened to walk past the house and upon seeing the flag, paid respect,” said Sharling.

She added that there was no mention of the hoisting of the National Flag in the CTA news reports.

The CTA president, who was in Ladakh to attend the birthday celebrations of the Dalai Lama, took part in an event “led by monks and then thrust some sacred grains blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama into the lake”.

While he was standing on the shores of Pangong lake, Sangay said, “Physically, I may be standing just a few meters from Tibet today. However, in terms of political freedom and views, I am still far away from the situation inside Tibet”. The CTA president “lamented the true prevalent situation inside Tibet but expressed hope that freedom will be restored in Tibet soon”, according to the CTA information secretary.

What took place was “a spiritual event holding symbolic significance and bears no political overtures,” asserted Sharling.

Sharling’s ‘clarification’ may presumably allow the Indian government – which does not allow the CTA to engage in ‘political activities’ – to delink an event that the Chinese media has described as the use of the ‘Dalai Lama card’ from the ongoing border confrontation at the Bhutan-India-China tri-junction.

‘Permission not needed’

Earlier, Dagpo had told The Wire that the location has special meaning for the Tibetan community. “As you know, half the lake is in India, and half in Tibet.” Consequently, the hoisting of the national flag has “political and personal significance” for Sangay, he had said.

In fact, the official Indian position is that the area is part of Jammu and Kashmir, India, and not a part of Tibet/China.

When asked if any go-ahead signal was taken from the Indian authorities, Dagpo asserted, “I don’t think any permission is required to hoist the Tibetan national flag”.

Speaking to The Wire, a former MEA secretary, R.S. Kalha said, “The [photo op with] the Tibetan flag [at Pang Gong] is a political act, especially at this time”.

For the last 22 days, Indian and Chinese soldiers have been watching each other warily on a clearing called the ‘Turning Point’ in Doklam. Indian soldiers had stopped Chinese soldiers from constructing a road within Bhutanese territory, which would have serious security implications for the tri-junction and the ‘chicken neck’ Siliguri corridor.

China has been on a media blitzkrieg claiming that India violated a 1890 treaty and asserting that Indian soldiers were on Chinese territory. India and Bhutan have both said that China had changed the status-quo by building a road and asked it to return to the previous position.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a five-minute conversation on Friday on the sidelines of a meeting of BRICS leaders gathered in Hamburg for the G20 summit. However, no details were given of the “wide range of issues” discussed.

Meanwhile, even as the two leaders met in Hamburg, the Chinese embassy in India issued an advisory for its nationals to “pay close attention to personal safety”.

The Observer Research Foundation’s Manoj Joshi agreed that the flag event  “assumes importance due to the timing”. “This is a very significant gesture, given that it has happened for the first time at this location which has emotional and political symbolism.”

Both Kalha and Joshi pointed out that the flag was hoisted on Indian territory, which could be interpreted as political activity by the Tibetan exiles, something the Indian government has officially frowned upon in the past.

A former Indian diplomat, who has been a practitioner in India-China bilateral ties, claimed that it was unlikely that India would have “encouraged” Sangay to go to the lake. “So far, I do not see any signs of the Indian government interested in escalating the issue,” said the diplomat, who did not want to be named. He also pointed to the Indian statement on the Doklam stand-off, which he said was “very measured and sober”.

Joshi asserted that the NDA government has a history of trying to play up the Tibet issue. “Ever since this government took office, it has given more visibility to the Tibetan cause, right from swearing-in day. This has not gone unnoticed in Beijing,” he said.

When Modi was sworn in as prime minister, Sangay was among the special invitees in the audience, sitting right next to then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. Sangay’s presence led to speculation of new government policy on Tibet. Sangay’s presence didn’t go unnoticed, with China lodging a protest. A few months later, Modi and Xi were sitting together on a swing alongside the river Sabarmati – but that was probably the biggest high in India-China bilateral relations till now.

In April 2016, India allowed a US-based Chinese dissident organisation to organise a seminar of pro-democracy activists in Dharamshala, but later cancelled the visa of an Uighur activist on the grounds that he gave wrong information in his visa application. The visas of three other participants to the conference were also cancelled. However, the seminar went ahead, but without the media being allowed in.

The permission for the conference had come in the wake of China putting on hold – yet again – the listing of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar by the 1267 Al-Qaida and Taliban sanctions committee of the UN Security Council.

In December 2016, China warned India to respect Beijing’s “core interests” after Dalai Lama visited Rashtrapati Bhawan to attend a conference of Nobel laureates and shared the dais with the Indian president. This was the first contact between the Tibetan spiritual leader and the head of the Indian state in decades. India had played down the incident, stating that Dalai Lama had been invited for a “non-political event”.

A few months earlier in October 2016, Beijing had also protested the first ever visit by an US ambassador to India to Arunachal Pradesh.

This year, China was again upset by the visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh. The language used by the Chinese foreign ministry on Dalai Lama’s visit was so sharp that India issued a list of previous trips of the Tibetan spiritual leader to the north-eastern state, which is claimed by China. The foreign ministry spokesperson also clarified that there was a “no change” in Indian government’s policy towards China’s Tibet or to the boundary question.

Note: This story has been edited to reflect that other top Tibetan leaders have visited the Pang Gong lake before, according to Sonam Norbu Dagpo, as well as Dhardon Sharling’s clarification that Sangay merely paid his respects to the flag and did not unfurl it.