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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 March 2008, 12:58 GMT
India walks the tightrope over Tibet
Seema Sirohi
By Seema Sirohi

The outbreak of violence in Tibet last week and the protests by Tibetan refugees in India have highlighted Delhi's delicately-balanced policy of keeping China unruffled while respecting the rights of the Dalai Lama.

Tibetans protest in India
India has not allowed large-scale public protests

It is a tightrope walk at the best of times.

But when Tibetan anger is exploding around the world to protest Chinese policies, the Indian government's job gets tougher in managing the anger of more than 150,000 refugees and their supporters.

The government arrested 100 Tibetans attempting to cross the border into China, earning words of appreciation from Premier Wen Jiabao.

It also arrested but quickly released some Delhi University students who tried to march to the Chinese Embassy, which remains secured by a thick police cordon.

'Solidarity and support'

India's Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee expressed "distress" at the "unsettled situation and violence" in Tibet in parliament, while opposition members and some from the ruling Congress Party condemned the Chinese crackdown.

More than 45 members of the All Party Indian Parliamentary Forum for Tibet issued a strong statement expressing "solidarity and support to the Tibetans peacefully protesting inside Tibet".

They asked the United Nations and the international community to send a special mission to Lhasa to investigate the situation and urged India to persuade the Chinese authorities to conduct "meaningful negotiations".

But the Indian government's official position is squarely that Tibet is an internal problem of China's and any comment on how it should be resolved would be deemed as interference by Beijing.

Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama maintains a government in exile in India
India's relations with China have grown significantly in recent years, covering many more areas than the border question and the presence of the Dalai Lama on Indian soil.

China has emerged as India's largest trading partner, with two-way trade crossing $38 billion, an increase of 56% over the past year.

The world's two fastest growing economies are enhancing their economic engagement at a rapid pace, despite little progress on the lingering border dispute.

Tourism too is on the rise with Indians travelling increasingly to newer destinations like China and other Asian countries.

The demands of the Indian business community and the tourists have added new policy compulsions, which were absent earlier, officials say.

Water concerns

India is also careful about stepping on Chinese toes because hundreds of thousands of its people depend on the River Brahmaputra, that originates in China.

There is concern that China is diverting water from the Brahmaputra to feed the Yellow River, an issue that India is trying address through a mechanism to share hydrological data.

Given the more complex relationship between two giant neighbours, the Indian government feels it has fewer levers to push as far as the Tibet issue is concerned.

India recognised Tibet as part of China way back in 1954, before the Dalai Lama sought refuge in India along with his followers.

India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, granted the Dalai Lama asylum but on the condition the Tibetans would not engage in "subversive activities" against friendly countries.

The community maintains a government-in-exile in Dharamsala in northern India, which has come to be known as the Little Lhasa.

Indian and Chinese flags in Delhi
The two countries are becoming Asian and world superpowers
Indian officials stress that while India has treated the Dalai Lama with utmost respect, several western leaders have shied away from granting him a meeting on his travels.

The very fact that he lives in India is a "political act" which annoys the Chinese.

But critics say India's policy is too cautious and borders on appeasement.

They say India could use the Tibet issue to its advantage, especially because China uses it repeatedly to its own advantage.

China claims the north-east Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh based on its ancient ecclesiastical links with Tibet.

While Indian members of parliament from the state are vocal against China, New Delhi remains shy of articulating anything that might ruffle Beijing's feathers.

Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary, wrote recently that "Tibet is at the head of our border dispute with China".

"It plays the Tibet card against us without compunction," he said, "undeterred by the fact that its own position on Tibet is contested by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people."

And, he concluded, "we let China patronise us."

Seema Sirohi is Deputy Foreign Editor with India's Outlook magazine

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