If resurrection means finding space in the minds of world leaders and electrifying international media and civil society after a gap of decades, Tibet has—temporarily at least—been resurrected. And in its resurrection, the spotlight has fallen on a maroon and ochre-robed monk who is, as he says in his autobiography Freedom in Exile, different things to different people. For his followers, the Dalai Lama is a living Buddha. For much of the world, he is the embodiment of Tibet in all its dimensions—political, spiritual and cultural. For India, he is a “respected guest” not expected to engage in political activities, as external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee found it necessary to tell China this week. And in the Cultural Revolution argot favoured by Zhang Qingli, head of the Communist Party in Tibet, he is “a wolf in monk’s robes, a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast”.
When an uprising in Tibet last month cast a dark shadow over China’s projected triumph—the 2008 Beijing Olympics—it promptly accused the Dalai Lama of masterminding it. When the world media rushed to Dharamshala, where he lives, the charismatic monk delivered a firm rebuttal. He said he had not incited the violence in his Himalayan homeland, nor did he condone it; and he held China guilty of committing “cultural genocide” and “demographic aggression” in Tibet. In the fraught days that followed, the Dalai Lama spoke of peace and reconciliation but also expanded on his charges against the Chinese.
As India and the world watched him, questions arose: Is the Dalai Lama violating his compact with his hosts by engaging in political activity on Indian soil? Is he embarrassing India in its conduct of a complex relationship with China? Does his presence here, along with more than one lakh Tibetan refugees, complicate India’s tightrope walk on Tibet?