Leaked cables from the United States embassy in New Delhi have shed light on the delicate balancing act India faced following widespread Tibetan riots in China in March 2008, as the government came under pressure to weigh “the sympathy of the Indian public” against Beijing's concerns over protests in India.
A dispatch from the U.S. embassy filed in March 26, 2008, two weeks after riots began in Tibet and several Chinese provinces with Tibetan populations, quotes the then foreign secretary — and current National Security Adviser — Shiv Shankar Menon as telling the U.S. Ambassador the Tibetan movement had “the sympathy of the Indian public.” India, he said, had been “a generally supportive home” to Tibetan exiles and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
Yet officials acknowledged the tough balancing act the government faced, as they came under increasing pressure from Beijing to clamp down on protests as the Olympic torch prepared to make its way through New Delhi.
The cable, part of the latest batch of documents released by WikiLeaks, indicated that the U.S. believed that the Indian government would ultimately favour “the side with greater public support.”
“While the GoI [Government of India] will never admit it, we expect New Delhi's Balancing Act with India's Tibetans to continue for the foreseeable future, with the caveat that a rise in violence — either by Tibetans here or by the Chinese security forces in Tibet — could quickly tip the balance in favour of the side with greater public support,” the embassy's political counsellor wrote.
The U.S. believed India would continue “to walk the razor's edge between Beijing and Dharamsala.” “It cannot afford to antagonise the former, but it has a sacred obligation to the latter,” the cable said.
The cables also highlight the prominent role played by U.S. officials in liaising between exiled Tibetan groups, the Indian government and Beijing. U.S. officials regularly met with envoys of the Dalai Lama, who advised the U.S. government on whether or not to pressure India to take a harder line on China.
In one meeting, Mr. Menon assured the U.S. Ambassador that arrested Tibetan protesters, some of whom tried to scale the walls of the Chinese embassy in New Delhi in the lead-up to the Olympic torch relay, would be released.
In another, the Dalai Lama's special envoy Lodi Gyari advised U.S. officials “to positively react” to India's measured statement in the aftermath of the protests, saying that India had “understandable compulsions, and it's better than the past when no statements were issued.”
Another cable, issued on April 10, illustrated the Dalai Lama's increasing desperation over Tibet's future, following the March violence. “Tibet is a dying nation. We need America's help,” he told U.S. officials.
The exiled Tibetan leader did, however, express confidence that China was still open to having dialogue with him, citing his interactions with an unnamed Chinese scholar.But in a later meeting in New Delhi in August with U.S. Ambassador Timothy Roemer, the Dalai Lama said the political issues in Tibet could wait and “should be sidelined for five to ten years.” Addressing environmental issues was a more pressing issue for the international community. His changed message, U.S. officials noted, “may signal a broader shift in strategy to reframe the Tibet issue as an environmental concern.”