The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas
India and China’s Quest for Strategic Dominance
by Phunchok Stobdan
Vintage, an imprint of Penguin Random House, Gurgaon, 2019 pp: 312, Rs. 599
The Himalayan belt, from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, a total distance of more than 2,300 kilometres, was once a medley of cultures and dialects. However, the spiritual life of the whole region orbited around Buddhism. Taking advantage of an open border for trade, pilgrimage and study, students from across the region and down the centuries flocked to monasteries in Tibet to master Buddhism and transmit it across the region. This transmission of Buddhism from the Tibetan plateau to the Himalayan belt was facilitated by the fact that the border between the two was open and unguarded. The common thread of Buddhism gave cultural and spiritual balance to the peoples of Ladakh, northern parts of Himachal Pradesh, Mustang, Dolpo and Solo Kumbu in Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.
Ambassador P. Stobdan thinks this balance is being upset. The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas is a new study of the importance of the Buddhist Himalayas. In India there should be more research and study on the new political influences that are being exerted in the region.
China looks at the Himalayas in strategic terms. Mao Zedong considered Tibet as the palm and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh as the five fingers, pressure points.
However, historically, India looked at the Himalayas as a place of retreat and the abode of Siva. The spiritual and cultural sanctity of this newest and mightiest mountain range in the world has been sung by no other than Kalidas. In his Cloud Messenger, Kalidas sang, “In the northern quarter is divine Himalaya, the lord of mountains, reaching from Eastern to Western Oceans, firm as a rod to measure the earth.”
However, welcome ambassador P. Stobdan’s book is on the Himalayas, some of his arguments are deeply flawed. He says the Tibetan refugees are de-stabilizing the spiritual and cultural balance of the Buddhist Himalayan belt. He insinuates that the Tibetan refugees are tools in the service of China’s geostrategic ambitions in the Himalayas. He worries about “excessive Tibetan influence in the Himalayas via gradual taking over of Indian institutions by Tibetan lamas in the Buddhist Himalayas.”
Does the ambassador worry about the fact that bishops and archbishops of the Indian Catholic church are appointed by the Pope in far away Rome?
He puts forward another conspiracy theory that the Tibetan exile community in India is a part of China’s grand strategy to achieve some unspecified political goal. The ambassador writes, “Clearly then the Tibetan presence in the Himalayan region cannot be dismissed as a mere political incident. It is the result of a brilliant strategy and flawless execution of China’s strategy.” What is the strategy? That the Tibetan refugees will voluntarily and en–masse peddle Chinese influence around the region?
Of course, in-depth and informed discussion on the new Great Game played out by India and China in the Himalayan region is much needed. But interpreting broad, ancient and deep-seated cultural and spiritual bonds between Tibet and the peoples of the Buddhist Himalayas in narrow terms is not.
*Thubten Samphel is an independent researcher and a former director of the Tibet Policy Institute.