Dalai Lama, a staunch advocate for non-violence and freedom, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989

A section within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s mentor Sangh Parivar wants the government to send out a strong message to China by conferring India’s highest civilian award – Bharat Ratna – on Dalai Lama, the octogenarian icon of the protest against the communist country’s occupation of Tibet.

The proposal to confer the Bharat Ratna on Dalai Lama is being vetted at the highest echelons of the government. A section within the officialdom in New Delhi is in favour of giving it a thought, particularly in view of China’s recent aggression along the disputed boundary with India. The others, however, advised caution, as such a move by India would trigger a strong response from China, sources in New Delhi said.

Dalai Lama has been living in India ever since he fled the Potala Palace in Lhasa in March 1959, to escape the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which had by then occupied Tibet.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is also understood to be considering a few other proposals, including one to send the 84-year-old Buddhist monk greetings from the high offices in New Delhi on his forthcoming birthday on July 6. A final decision, however, is likely to be taken only after factoring in the progress in talks between senior diplomats and military officials of the two sides to resolve the stand-off along India-China disputed boundary in eastern Ladakh.

“We must honour him (Dalai Lama) with Bharat Ratna,” said Pankaj Goyal, the general secretary of the Bharat Tibbat Sahyog Manch (BTSM), which was floated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

“I feel more and more that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama should be given the Bharat Ratna,” Nirupama Rao, former Foreign Secretary, posted on Twitter, just days after the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA soldiers had a clash at Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh. “He (Dalai Lama) deserves it for his service to humanity, his compassion, courage, and his abiding faith in democracy and fundamental freedoms, all values that our Republic upholds,” tweeted Rao, India’s former envoy to China.

Shanta Kumar, a senior BJP leader and former Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, had in April 2019 submitted to the Union Government a letter signed by the MPs of several political parties, recommending Bharat Ratna for Dalai Lama. Eminent personalities like historian Ramachandra Guha and former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi too advocated for conferring the award on him. So did Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

Dalai Lama, a staunch advocate for non-violence and freedom, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He has only been arguing for “genuine autonomy” – not independence from the Chinese Government’s rule – for Tibet. Beijing, however, still calls him a “separatist” and accuses him of running a campaign to split China. His visit to Rashtrapati Bhavan on an invitation from the then President Pranab Mukherjee in December 2016 triggered a strong protest from China. So did New Delhi’s decisions in 2009 and 2017 to allow him to visit Arunachal Pradesh, where China claims nearly 90000 sq km of the territory of India to be its own.

New Delhi, however, always dismissed the protests from Beijing, underlining that the Dalai Lama was an honoured guest of India and he was always free to visit any part of the country.

But just two months before Modi had an “informal summit” with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan in central China on April 27 and 28, 2018, the cabinet secretariat issued an advisory in New Delhi asking “senior leaders” and “government functionaries” in the states as well as at the Centre to stay away from events attended by Dalai Lama.

New Delhi’s move was obviously intended to avoid irking Beijing ahead of Modi-Xi “informal summit”, which India had hoped would bring back on track its relation with China after it had reached its nadir over the 72-day-long military face-off between the two nations in Doklam Plateau in western Bhutan the previous year.