India to the Dalai Lama: Stay as Long as You Like, Really.

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What happens when the Dalai Lama steps down as political leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile? As far as India is concerned, he will always be welcome, according to statements today by the external affairs ministry.

“His holiness the Dalai Lama is an honoured guest in India. And he is a spiritual and religious leader,” an MEA Spokesperson said when asked if India will have any problem if the Tibetan leader continues staying in the country even after his retirement.

When you’re a guest in India, of course, that comes with certain responsibilities, the first of which is never to offend your hosts. In 2009, when tensions were flaring up between India and China over their unresolved border in Arunachal Pradesh, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used the same phrase at a regional summit in Bangkok:

“I explained to Premier Wen that the Dalai Lama is our honored guest. He is a religious leader,” Singh told reporters, adding, “We do not allow Tibetan refugees to indulge in political activities.”

That has always been the agreement between the Tibetan exile community in India and the government: make yourselves at home, but please keep the noise down. The Dalai Lama’s latest statement complicates matters, by connecting the dots between the Arab Spring, the pro-democracy movement in China, the Tibetan cause and his own decision to step down in favor of an elected leader:

In recent weeks we have witnessed remarkable non-violent struggles for freedom and democracy in various parts of North Africa and elsewhere. I am a firm believer in non-violence and people-power and these events have shown once again that determined non-violent action can indeed bring about positive change. We must all hope that these inspiring changes lead to genuine freedom, happiness and prosperity for the peoples in these countries.

As the world’s largest democracy, India can hardly put itself on the wrong side of that equation on principle. In recent days, Indian officials have also taken a softer line with the Karmapa, who was recently the subject of a foreign-currency probe that now seems to have been resolved as little more than an accounting issue. If he emerges as the Tibetans’ new leader, the Karmapa, too, will have to maintain good relations with India.

But the passionate rhetoric that strikes such a positive emotional tone in the West makes India’s foreign policy establishment uneasy. The view from New Delhi over the Himalayas to Tibet can’t help but include Kashmir.