After years of reading into the ‘Great Game’ from a British perspective and some well meaning Indian attempts that looked at specific sectors of the Himalayas, The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas: India and China’s Quest for Strategic Dominance draws out historic, strategic, religious and cultural angles that weave New Delhi and Beijing’s modern-day stance along the Himalayas.
It raises questions on India’s existing Tibet policy and says modern-day Buddhism in the Himalayas is influenced due to ‘Tibetenisation’ while Indian Buddhist institutions are being taken over by Tibetan lamas. “Powerful lamas are setting up their parallel sectarian networks and infrastructure from Tawang to Ladakh,” argues the author, Phunchok Stobdan, a former diplomat.
India is trapped in to playing the ‘Tibet card’ and the present scenario could be more useful to China than to India, says the book. Stobdan blames “dubious funds’ from outside the country being used to create mega infrastructure by several of the lamas, who post-1960, are settled in the southern part of the Himalayas.
In a rather startling argument, Stobdan says settling of the Dalai Lama in India in 1959 was part of China’s strategy. China allowed the Dalai Lama to get away. He cites the Qing dynasty rule which used the Tibetan lamas to expand their empire.
In his opinion, the Indian Buddhist tradition of Nalanda and Vikramshila practised by Sakyas and Vajracharyas is being allowed to die down. There is no effort to sustain the Indian Buddhist tradition.
“The Tibet issue has already overshadowed the Himalayan identity, which has served to further blur the Indian outlook,” Stobdan explains while arguing that India needs to stop China from gaining primacy in Asian Buddhism.
Buddhists in the Indian Himalayas were always different from Tibetans. The books cites the ‘Monyul’ or the land of the ‘Mon’ people. Ethnic ‘Mons’ are scattered across the entire Indian Himalayas, Bhutan, Tibet and Yunnan province of China . “They don’t consider themselves Tibetans. They speak a separate Tibeto-Burmese dialect,” says the author.
This proximity of the Himalayan Buddhist culture to the Tibetan culture, could be a fertile ground for China. And India could be confronted over the re-incarnation of the next Dalai Lama. Will the next anointed lama be born in India or abroad? China can use its money power to get the necessary nod from Tibetans spread across the world in installing its chosen lama. The present Dalai Lama is in his mid-eighties.
On the boundary question, the book’s narration leads to the many unanswered questions left behind by the British and their flexible cartography of redrawing boundaries in the Himalayas besides entering into treaties.
The British pursued a flexible national boundary based on objective reality devoid of any illusionary line. India continued to follow the British-drawn colonial line. In reality Indian policy makers may have negated the very basis on which the British identified the frontiers — and which they kept altering with through 1848 to 1914.
The modern-day boundary dispute between India and China in the Ladakh sector stems from the Tibetan-Ladakh war of 1684 and not from the power tussle between Britain and Czarist Russia that ensued through the 1800s earning the sobriquet ‘Great Game’.
The ongoing dispute in Ladakh has it origin in the Tibetan invasion of Ladakh and the snatching of Drukpa monastic lands, says the book while giving an example that Chinese claim Demchok (in south eastern Ladakh) based on a assertion made by the Dalai Lama in the 17th century.
Stobdan clearly draws from history when he narrates that the Tibet in 1947 staked claim to Lakadh and vast tracts of Arunachal Pradesh. Referring to the ‘Temisgang treaty’ of 1684 he cites how the Ladakhis had the right to govern the enclaves in Menser in Tibet. The other enclave Darchen-Labrang in Tibet was Bhutanese. The two served as outpost to pilgrims visiting Mount Kailash.
Since 1846, the Maharaja of Kashmir collected taxes as per the 1684 treaty. Stobdan cites British and Indian documents to argue that taxes were collected right through till 1953 when India gave up the control over Menser.
Overall an informative book, however, a location map of Menser and Darchen-Labrang could have been a welcome addition for referencing with details like distance of modern day G219 highway in Tibet run from Menser.
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