On the 50th anniversary of his escape to India, the exiled Dalai Lama stands as a bigger challenge for China than ever, as underscored by Beijing's stepped-up vilification campaign against him and its admission that it is now locked in a "life and death struggle" over Tibet. It was on March 30, 1959 that the 24-year-old Dalai Lama, travelling incognito, crossed over into India after a harrowing, 13-day trek through the Tibetan highlands. His arrival became public only the following day. Since then, he has come to symbolise one of the longest and most powerful resistance movements in modern world history.
Little surprise Beijing now treats the iconic Dalai Lama as its Enemy No. 1, with its public references to him matching the crudeness and callousness of its policies in Tibet, where it has tried everything from Tibet's cartographic dismemberment and rewriting history, to ethnically drowning Tibetans through large-scale Han migration and systematically undermining Tibetan institutions. Unnerved that the Dalai Lama's soft power has stood up to its untrammelled power, China today has taken to haranguing propaganda while enforcing a stringent security clampdown across an increasingly restive Tibetan region, half of which has been hived off from Tibet and merged with Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
With the Dalai Lama having parlayed his international moral standing into an unassailable influence over global public opinion, a desperate Beijing has had to fall back more and more on Cultural Revolution language. Consider one of its latest outbursts against him: "A jackal in Buddhist monk's robes, an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast". The Dalai Lama gave up his demand for Tibet's independence more than two decades ago, yet the Chinese propaganda machine still brands him a "splittist", as if China holds a historically and legally incontestable entitlement to Tibet.
Recently, China bullied its largest African trading partner, South Africa, into barring the Dalai Lama from attending a peace conference in Johannesburg. Yet it faced major embarrassment when the European Parliament and US House of Representatives passed separate resolutions this month, with the former calling for "real autonomy for Tibet" and the latter demanding Beijing "lift immediately the harsh policies imposed on Tibetans". Both legislatures backed the Dalai Lama's initiative for a durable political solution to the Tibet issue.
In 1956, when the Dalai Lama had travelled to India for celebrations over the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha's Enlightenment, Jawaharlal Nehru smitten by the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai bug convinced him to return to Lhasa, although the Dalai Lama's advisers feared for his safety. Had he not escaped from the Chinese-guarded Norbulingka Palace in Lhasa on the night of March 17, 1959, disguised as a Tibetan soldier, the Dalai Lama may have met the same fate as the 11th Panchen Lama, who disappeared in 1995 soon after he was anointed at the age of six. The March 10, 1959 Tibetan mass uprising indeed was triggered by popular fears the Dalai Lama would be kidnapped after he was asked to come to a Chinese army-camp event without bodyguards. The uprising was harshly suppressed in a year-long bloodbath.
Had the Dalai Lama not managed to slip away, China would have installed an imposter Dalai Lama long ago, in the same way it has instated its own Panchen Lama in place of the official appointee it abducted. Now it has no choice but to wait for the exiled Dalai Lama to pass away before it can orchestrate any sham. To frustrate Beijing's plans, the present Dalai Lama needs to lay down clear rules on succession.
In fact, it was the long, 17-year gap between the 1933 death of the 13th Dalai Lama and the November 1950 assumption of full temporal powers by the present incumbent at the age of 15, after the Chinese invasion had started, that cost Tibet its freedom. Because of the protracted power vacuum, Tibet had not sought to reinforce its independence by becoming a United Nations member in the propitious, pre-1949 period when China was politically torn.
A similar long gap in succession and grooming now could strike a devastating blow to the Tibetan cause to regain autonomy. That is why it has become imperative to clarify the rules to choose the 15th Dalai Lama, including whether he is to be discovered in the free world and not in Chinese-controlled Tibet, as the current incumbent had earlier suggested. Another issue that needs to be sorted out is whether the present Karmapa Lama, who fled to India in late 1999, can fill in as an unofficial, transitional successor to the Dalai Lama.
For India, Tibet is the core issue with China, which became its neighbour owing not to geography but to guns by gobbling up the traditional buffer. The recent congressional resolution recognised India for its "generosity" in playing host to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees. But this is more than just munificence: The Dalai Lama is India's biggest strategic asset because without him, the country would be poorer by several military divisions against China. India thus has a major stake in the succession issue, including in overseeing the training and education of the heir. For now, though, given the stepped-up Chinese intelligence activities from cyber to land Indian agencies must beware of any plot to assassinate the present incumbent.
The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research.