Safe passage for torch allows India to make a diplomatic point

April 18th, 2008 - 11:00 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Sonia Gandhi
(News Analysis)
By Pranay Sharma
New Delhi, April 18 (IANS) India has rarely used an event associated with the Olympics to prove a diplomatic point. But it did so Thursday afternoon when it allowed the Olympic torch relay in the heart of the capital to pass off peacefully in front of a select crowd that included a senior leader from Beijing and at least 200 other Chinese. It was a fine diplomatic balance that India struck. By allowing the Tibetans to hold their demonstrations without any disruption to the main event - the relay with the Olympic torch - India succeeded in telling the world, and particularly the Chinese, that both can be achieved.

Some would still say India approached the whole thing in a ham-handed manner. But after the Olympic torch relay ran into trouble in London, Paris and San Francisco, the Indian authorities had to ensure that no such disruption occurred when the torch passed through New Delhi.

The Tibet issue has played a key role in Sino-Indian relations for over five decades. India had signed an agreement with China in 1954 where it had accepted Tibet as “a region of China”. Subsequent Indian leaders have only upgraded this position of India, though the Dalai Lama and his supporters, who set up their “government-in-exile” in India since 1959, have been allowed to pursue their “religious and cultural” activities.

The Beijing Olympics was meant to be China’s moment of glory. It was the occasion for the Chinese leadership to announce to the world about its arrival as a major player in the international scene. But the recent unrest in Lhasa and its fallout in different world capitals have linked the Tibet issue with the Olympic event to be held in the Chinese capital this August.

The controversy comes at a time when Sino-Indian relations are on the upswing - perhaps for the first time in many decades. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance UPA) government has carried forward the process that began with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government some years ago. Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, along with son Rahul, visited China last year. This January, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went to Beijing and tried to strengthen relations further.

A situation has now been created where the two sides, perhaps for the first time, have started looking at areas where both can work closely for their mutual benefit. Both India and China, the two fastest rising economies in the world, are also the largest consumers of oil. Attempts are now being made by Beijing and New Delhi to work out an arrangement that will help both countries to buy oil and natural gas from different parts of the world at a price more suitable to them.

The trade between the two sides has been growing at a steady pace and at $40 billion, China has become India’s largest trading partner, relegating the United States to second place. There is also better cooperation between the two sides on issues like climate change.

There is no denying that India’s relations with China have been growing with each passing year. But realistically speaking, even if it was not moving in the direction that India would like, New Delhi can hardly use the Tibet issue as leverage against China. There are a number of reasons for this. But most important, despite the present hype, Tibet is not an issue that can be politically sustained in the country. There is little political dividend that an Indian government can get out of it.

But on the other hand, India can lose much more, if it becomes pro-active on Tibet. This has much to do with the Kashmir issue. Since the 1990s, China has maintained Kashmir to be an issue that should be bilaterally resolved between India and Pakistan. This position has remained unchanged over the past two decades. A shift in India’s Tibet policy can only force a re-think among the Chinese leaders on the Kashmir issue. And the outcome of that may not be to New Delhi’s advantage.

However, by ensuring the safe passage of the Olympic torch, India has undoubtedly made it clear to China that unlike many other countries in the West, New Delhi was not interested in trying to earn brownie points from Tibetan demonstrators on this issue. But by allowing the Tibetan protestors to hold their parallel rally, New Delhi also made the subtle point: allowing a dissenting voice was perhaps the sign of a confident, democratic nation.

(Pranay Sharma can be contacted at

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