Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has let the world know that he had rung Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to wish him a happy 86th birthday, disregarding any potential disapproval from China.
Beijing regards the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in northern India for more than six decades, as a dangerous “splittist”, or separatist, and frowns on any engagement with him.
Indian leaders have generally been circumspect about public contact to avoid upsetting Beijing, but with India’s own relations with China at a low ebb, Modi said in a tweet he had passed on his best wishes personally.
“Spoke on phone to His Holiness the @DalaiLama to convey greetings on his 86th birthday. We wish him a long and healthy life,” Modi said.
Spoke on phone to His Holiness the @DalaiLama to convey greetings on his 86th birthday. We wish him a long and healthy life.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) July 6, 2021
Several Indian state leaders subsequently greeted the Dalai Lama saying his values, teachings and way of life is an inspiration to humanity.
The Dalai Lama thanked his supporters and expressed his appreciation for India, where he has lived since he fled his homeland in 1959.
“I want to express my deep appreciation of all my friends who have really shown me love, respect and trust,” the Dalai Lama said in a video message.
He reiterated his mission to serving humanity and urged supporters to be compassionate.
“Since I became a refugee and now settled in India, I have taken full advantage of India’s freedom and religious harmony,” he said.
He added that he had great respect for India’s secular values such as “honesty, karuna (compassion), and ahimsa (non-violence)”.
Chinese troops seized Tibet in 1950 in what Beijing calls a “peaceful liberation”, and the Dalai Lama fled into exile and made the hillside town of Dharamshala his headquarters after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.
On Tuesday, a small celebration attended by mostly government officials was held at the Central Tibetan Administration. On a projected screen, the Dalai Lama’s video message was played and followed by a cultural performance by the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.
Usually, the spiritual leader’s birthday is a fairly elaborate affair in the town, open to members of the public who would flock to the Tsuglagkhang Temple where performances are held. Sometimes, the leader would also make an appearance.
This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the celebrations were muted and behind closed doors. But a banner marking his birthday hung in the town square and Tibetan monks distributed sweets and juice to passers-by outside the closed temple.
“Many people really show they love me. And many people actually love my smile,” the Dalai Lama said with a smile at the start of the video. “In spite of my old age, my face is quite handsome,” he said with a laugh.
New Delhi recognises Tibet as an autonomous region of China but has several territorial disputes with Beijing elsewhere on their 3,500-km (2,173-mile) Himalayan border.
Relations deteriorated in June last year following the most serious clash in decades, when Chinese troops attacked an Indian border patrol with rocks and clubs, killing 20. China later said it lost four soldiers during that clash.
Tens of thousands of troops remain in close proximity at several points in the western Himalayas, on the border running through India’s Ladakh, a region sometimes called Little Tibet because of its Tibetan culture and predominantly Buddhist religion.
Back in 2019, when Modi was still pursuing a detente with Chinese President Xi Jinping, his government had asked Tibetans in India not to hold a rally to mark the 60th anniversary of the uprising.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen also wished the Dalai Lama a happy birthday, tweeting: “Thank you for teaching us the importance of coming together to help one another through this pandemic.”