Indian PM Narendra Modi Phones Dalai Lama on His Birthday

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a plenary session of Eastern Economic Forum at far-eastern Russian port of Vladivostok on September 5, 2019. (Photo by Vladimir SMIRNOV / TASS Host Photo Agency / AFP) (Photo credit should read VLADIMIR SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images)
VLADIMIR SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he phoned the Dalai Lama on Tuesday to personally greet him on his 86th birthday in a show of public support for the Buddhist leader, who has been exiled in northern India since 1959 following China’s forcible seizure of Tibet in 1950.

“Spoke on phone to His Holiness the @DalaiLama to convey greetings on his 86th birthday. We wish him a long and healthy life,” Prime Minister Modi wrote in a statement posted by his official Twitter account on July 6.

China’s ruling Communist Party regards the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist monk, as a “splittist,” or separatist, and discourages other nations from recognizing his legitimacy as a spiritual and political leader of Tibet, which Beijing labels as an “autonomous region” of China. Tibet is located along China’s disputed Himalayan border with India. The two Asian giants have been engaged in an ongoing border standoff in the Himalayas since June 2020, when Chinese border troops attacked an Indian border regiment in the western Galwan Valley, killing 20 Indian soldiers. Beijing admitted to losing just four of its own People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops in the skirmish, though Indian sources claimed twice the number of Chinese soldiers died than their Indian counterparts. Since the melee, China and India have increased their military presence along their unmarked Himalayan border, both on the western front, near India’s Ladakh state, and along the eastern stretch of the boundary, near Tibet.

Observers interpreted Modi’s phone call to the Dalai Lama on Tuesday as a byproduct of the ongoing border tension between India and China, as Indian political leaders have traditionally been careful to avoid directly contacting the Tibetan leader in an effort to avoid disturbing diplomatic relations with Beijing.

“The PM [Prime Minister] did not convey his greetings to the Tibetan leader last year amid India’s border stand-off with China. There were no public messages congratulating Dalai Lama from the President or the Prime Minister last year,” the Times of India recalled on Tuesday.

“Modi has issued public messages of greetings to the Dalai Lama in the past, but had not done so for several years, nor had other senior figures from his ruling [Bharatiya Janata Party] BJP party,” Reuters noted on July 6. “After Modi’s tweet, several Indian state leaders also issued public greetings to the Dalai Lama, describing his values, teachings and way of life as an inspiration.”

Dolma Tsering, a member of the Tibetan Parliament, reacted to Modi’s phone call to the Dalai Lama on Tuesday with the following statement:

“This is a positive move from PM [Prime Minister] Modi on wishing happy birthday to His Holiness (Dalai Lama). PM Modi wants to send a message that India is no longer going to be very cautious talking about Tibet. It sends a very strong message to China.”

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