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Dalai Lama’s 86th birthday: How the Tibetan spiritual leader escaped persecution and outsmarted China to cross over to India 62 years ago

According to Dalai Lama’s autobiography, Nehru’s attitude betrayed that he had already made up his mind on asylum requests even before commencing the discussion. He was reportedly so uninterested in having discussions with the Tibetan leader that he was on the verge of dozing off.

Tibetan spiritual guru Dalai Lama turns 86 today, with his followers around the world extending their greetings and celebrating the venerated leader’s birthday amidst the shadow of the resurgent coronavirus outbreak.

Dalai Lama XIV or Tenzin Gyatso as he is known with his worldly name was born on 6 July 1935 to a small farming family in the small hamlet of Taktser, Amdo, which is in northeastern Tibet. Barely at the age of two, then named Lhamo Dhondup, he was declared the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama XIII, Thubten Gyatso.

The Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and patron saint of Tibet. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who have postponed their own nirvana and chosen to take rebirth to serve humanity.

The current Dalai Lama began his religious education when he was 6, and by the time he reached 16, he had assumed the role of the political leader of Tibet. The region of Tibet was under a relentless assault of China, ordered by then Premier Mao Zedong, who wanted to bring the region under Chinese control. The invasion sparked an uprising against Beijing’s rule but it did not dampen China’s spirits from relentlessly pursuing its agenda of capturing the Tibet region.

Dalai Lama pictured with his escape party in March 1959, Image via m10memorial.

Then in 1959, China moved to act against Dalai Lama, the face of the Tibetan resistance movement. Sensing imminent danger, Dalai Lama surreptitiously fled to the Himalayan town of Dharamshala, India, where he has lived in exile ever since.

In many ways, Dalai Lama’s dramatic escape to India was a watershed moment, not just in the Tibetan struggle against the Chinese occupation but also in the evolution of the relationship between India and China. Even after 62 years of his escape to India, the Tibetan spiritual leader continues to remain a thorn in the side of China and a major cause for its hostility towards India.

On the other hand, Dalai Lama’s entry into India heralded a large scale influx of Tibetan refugees in India. Tibetans facing persecution in China and who wanted to persist with their resistance against its forcible occupation came to India and continued their resistance campaign under the auspices of their foremost spiritual leader. These Tibetans and their offsprings continue to live in different parts of the country to date.

On his 86th birthday, it is worth revisiting the dramatic journey that Dalai Lama undertook to escape the sweeping and impending Chinese crackdown in his now occupied motherland.

The great escape: Dalai Lama outwits China and makes an arduous journey through the Himalayas to reach India

In 1959, even as the Chinese repression intensified in Tibet, the Chinese Army surprisingly held up an olive branch to the Dalai Lama, asking him to attend a Chinese dance troupe. Lama was the foremost Tibetan leader and considered by an overwhelming majority as the linchpin of the Tibetan resistance and commanded unmatched respect and admiration among the masses.

The invitation seemed innocuous but when he was asked to visit the Chinese military headquarters without soldiers or armed bodyguards, according to his official biography, the Tibetans thought something pernicious is afoot.

After years of altercation with the Chinese and being acutely aware of the tricks and stratagems used by them to trounce their opponents, the affable overture seemed too good to be true. As a consequence, on the day of the performance, thousands of protesters swarmed outside the Dalai Lama palace in Lhasa to keep him from being kidnapped, arrested or assassinated.

In the following days, the agitation intensified as Tibetans mobilised and organised themselves to fight the advancing Chinese forces. The Dalai Lama’s advisor, the State Oracle, sensibly suggested he flee.

So on March 17, 1959, disguised as a soldier, Tibet’s spiritual and political leader, then 23, slipped through the crowds outside his palace and embarked upon a tortuous journey towards safety and asylum. He embarked upon the treacherous path of crossing the prodigious Himalayas on foot with a retinue of his trusted soldiers and cabinet members. His entourage included his mother, sister, younger brother and several top officials. They travelled only at night to avoid detection from prowling Chinese guards.

According to various accounts, the entourage travelled for days and nights on end, without stopping, on foot and horseback. They carried a month’s supplies by mules and used a single boat made of yak skin to cross the 1,500 feet wide Brahmaputra river.

Dalai Lama’s entourage, image via Dalailama.com

It took two weeks for Dalai Lama and his group to reach India. During this time, it was widely believed that the 14th Tibetan spiritual leader has been killed by the marauding Chinese forces. His followers across the world were resigned to the fact that they might not see Dalai Lama again. But on March 31, 1959, after completing a dangerous trek and crossing the gigantic Himalayas, Dalai Lama surfaced in India and demanded autonomy for Tibet.

Former Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru almost slept when Dalai Lama was discussing with him about applying for an asylum in India

Days after arriving in India, the Dalai Lama was weighing on the option of applying for an asylum request in India. In this regard, he met Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to gauge his attitude about a formal request for asylum. But, the Dalai Lama was taken aback by Nehru’s frosty reception. The Indian Prime Minister made it clear to the Tibetan spiritual leader that he would not make any commitments that would harm India’s relationship with China.

According to Dalai Lama’s autobiography, Nehru’s attitude betrayed that he had already made up his mind on asylum requests even before commencing the discussion. He was reportedly so uninterested in having discussions with the Tibetan leader that he was on the verge of dozing off.

“At first he listened and nodded politely. But . . . after a while he appeared to lose concentration as if he were about to [fall asleep],” the autobiography noted about how Nehru cold-shouldered the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama explained that he had taken all steps to reach a reconciliation with China, but having failed in cutting ice with the Chinese, he was seriously considering the option of staying in India rather than return to Tibet. This reportedly made Nehru realise the gravity of the situation. He understood what the Tibetan spiritual leader was asking for, but reiterated his stance that India cannot support him.

India granted the Tibet leader asylum on April 3, 1959, and permission to establish a government-in-exile in the northern hill station of Dharamsala, already a sanctuary for thousands of Tibetan exiles fleeing Chinese repression. From there, the Dalai Lama launched an international campaign to reclaim Tibet, gradually easing this into an appeal for greater autonomy.

Dalai Lama continues to remain a thorn in the flesh for the Chinese

Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama has been a source of great torment for the Chinese. Authorities in China, to this day, fear the reach and respect that the Dalai Lama continues to command in the restive region of Tibet. China continues to raise objections to his visits to Arunachal Pradesh, a state under the sovereign control of India that China often claims is “Southern Tibet” and a part of its country. Although the Dalai Lama has given up his political role in 2011, China fears that the Dalai Lama holds enough sway in Tibet to spark an uprising against the Chinese subjugation.

The Dalai Lama has steadfastly advocated a pacifist approach to resolve the intractable relationship of Tibet with China, but the authorities in Beijing have always held a suspicious view of the Tibetan leader’s intentions. Like in Xinjiang, where China is presiding over a cultural genocide of Uyghur Muslims, they have been persecuting Tibetans and the pious devotees of the Dalai Lama in Tibet.

This has occasionally sparked a wave of demonstrations, most recently with the spate of self-immolation protests against China’s heavy-handed approach in Tibet. Since February 27, 2009, when Tapey, a young monk from Kirti Monastery, set himself on fire in the marketplace in Ngawa City, Ngawa County, Sichuan, there have been over 156 cases, where monks, nuns and ordinary people self-immolated in Tibet protesting against the Chinese repression.

In 2012, the Dalai Lama had said he does not encourage such protests but praised the courage of those who had set themselves on fire to make their grievances heard and blamed the Chinese for perpetrating a cultural genocide in Tibet.

Dalai Lama criticized by left-leaning liberals for exhibiting views that do not conform to their outlook and donating to the PM CARES Funds

Like China, its admirers back in India also share the same amount of antagonism for the supreme Tibetan leader. The Dalai Lama has been routinely subjected to criticism for expressing views that do not jibe with the liberal-communal worldview.

In 2019, Dalai Lama was branded as ‘Islamophobhic’, ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic’, because he opined that Europe should belong to Europeans and that the larger strategic objective should be to return the Muslim and African refugees to their own lands after providing them with adequate training so that they can improve affairs in their own countries.

More recently, the Dalai Lama was targeted by a section of left-leaning liberals because he contributed to the PM CARES Fund for the country’s fight against the Chinese coronavirus. In April this year, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, Dalai Lama, had pledged to donate to the PM Cares Fund from the Dalai Lama Trust. The announcement was a welcome move to strengthen India’s fight against the pandemic. But the spiritual leader, who has been living in India since 1959, was soon subjected to online abuse.

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Jinit Jain
Engineer. Writer. Learner.

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