Postcard From…Tawang

tawangThe inhabitants of the remote frontier town of Tawang, in the Himalayan foothills in the northeastern Indian region bordering Chinese-administered Tibet, have lived under many flags. Anyone over the age of 62 can tell the stories of four different empires: British, Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian. During the 1962 war, Chinese troops briefly occupied what is today known as the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Today, India administers the area, though China hasn’t completely renounced its claims.

Today, Tawang is once again the focus of a border dispute between the world’s two most populous countries, now both armed with nuclear weapons and competing for superpower status. In claiming the region, China has disavowed the so-called McMahon Line, a border drawn by India’s British colonial rulers in 1914 that gave Arunachal to India. Tawang and its surroundings were under the suzerainty of the Qing dynasty, after its armies extended China’s frontiers to Tibet and Central Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries. And if Tibet is Chinese soil — which is something that New Delhi has officially recognized — then, the argument goes, Tawang and its monastery ought to be as well. Meanwhile, China also occupies a part of Kashmir claimed by India.

Despite 13 recent rounds of talks on the border dispute, no agreement has been reached.

Tawang is once again in the news because of a visit by the Dalai Lama to a Buddhist monastery that was his first stop after leaving China in 1959. India’s growing economic and diplomatic clout has made it more assertive in dealings with its regional rival. The government has stood firm in the face of Chinese protests over the Dalai Lama’s trips to Arunachal. The religious leader’s visit there is seen as a double provocation — a challenge to China’s control over Tibet and to its claims over this part of India. Because of strengthened economic ties between the two booming Asian giants, however, New Delhi acknowledged Beijing’s sensitivities over the visit by barring foreign media coverage of the Dalai Lama’s trip.
The United States and other major countries have been mum on the India-China border row. “I don’t think we have a position necessarily on his decision to travel to this area,” State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters on the issue of Dalai Lama’s visit. “But the Dalai Lama “is primarily an internationally respected religious figure. He of course has the right to go wherever he wants and talk to people that he chooses to talk to.”

Saransh Sehgal, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus based in Dharamsala, India, also writes for Asia Times Online. He can be reached at: info (at) mcllo (dot) com.