At a funeral last week in the mountains of northern India, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi̵
Surrounded by troops waving both India and Tibet, Ram Madhav laid a wreath in front of the coffin during a ceremony giving the deceased man full military honors. In a now deleted tweet, the national secretary general of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party said he hoped the soldier’s death would lead to peace along the “Indo-Tibetan border.”
The rare recognition of a secretive Indian military unit with Tibetan soldiers in itself threatened to escalate a border conflict that has killed dozens since May and fueled economic ties between the world’s most populous nations. Even more striking was the proposal that India question China’s sovereignty over Tibet – a red line for Beijing, which sees separatism as a cause that is also worth fighting for places from Xinjiang to Hong Kong to Taiwan.
“The Indians are sending a message – a very strong message that they probably have not sent in decades,” said Robbie Barnett, who led Columbia University’s program of modern Tibetan studies until 2018 and has been writing about the region since the 1980s. “The involvement of exiled Tibetans and the use of exiled Tibetan icons, images and flags is very important for China’s interpretation.”
While India and China’s foreign ministers agreed on the need for restraint during a meeting in Moscow last week, tensions along the border remain higher than at any time since hostilities resumed. Both sides continue to step up their efforts in the disputed area, which is key to controlling vital Himalayan mountain passes with warning shots fired this month along the line of actual control for the first time in more than four decades.
In the last few weeks, China moved fighters and heavy bombers to the Indian border from the Central Theater Command, Beijing’s strategic reserve, which was not done even when the two sides went to war in 1962, according to Indian defense officials who asked not to be identified due to of rules for talking to the media. China’s Ministry of Defense did not answer faxed questions.
While none of the countries have an incentive to go to war, the increasing intensity and persistence of friction can cause them to stumble into one, according to Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Eurasia Group traveled last week the probability that border crossings could lead to a more persistent military conflict to 15%.
“An announcing or unintentional incident at a local hotspot could now really create a broader conflict that none of the governments wants,” said Narang, who wrote a book on the deterrence strategies of regional nuclear powers.
Tibet, an area roughly the size of South Africa that stretches across the Himalayas, has been a point of contention in India’s relations with China ever since the Dalai Lama fled to the South Asian nation after a failed uprising in 1959. He set up a government in exile in the northern Indian city of Dharamshala, much to the displeasure of Beijing. India only recognized Tibet as part of China in 2003.
India first set up the military unit for Tibetan refugees, known as the Special Frontier Force, just after the war between India and China in 1962 to carry out covert operations behind Chinese lines, according to Jayadeva Ranade, a member of the National Security Council Advisory Board. Like US special forces, each member is trained as a para-command and operates undercover in cooperation with the Indian military.
“The recognition is a clear message to China that your countrymen are fighting with us,” said Ranade, head of the Center for China Analysis and Strategy, a research group in New Delhi. “I do not remember this strength being recognized as this in the past.”
The Special Frontier Force participated in a night attack last month to conquer strategically high ground and remain on the front line, according to the Indian defense authorities, who asked not to be identified.
Yet both India and China are trying to downplay the importance of the Tibetan soldiers.
Indian Army spokesman Colonel Aman Anand declined to answer questions about the unit, but said the military was committed to maintaining peace and quiet while protecting national integrity and sovereignty at all costs. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
China has downplayed reports of Tibetans, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Monday asking reporters to ask India about the issue.
“China’s position is clear,” he said. “We are strongly opposed to any country that in any way facilitates the ‘forces of’ Tibetan independence ‘separatist activities.”
While the government has avoided inciting the situation, China’s state-owned media over the past week have released footage of military exercises with live fire in Tibet involving tanks, fighter jets and even drones that could bring food to soldiers in the long winter that is expected to start soon.
The coffin of Nyima Tenzin, the Tibetan soldier who died, was draped with the flags of India and Tibet. Madhav, the BJP official who participated, understood the significance: He wrote a book, published in 2014, about the conflict called “Uneasy Neighbors: India and China After 50 Years of the War.” Madhav did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why he deleted his tweet.
Although the Indian government has not officially recognized the Tibetan forces, Tenzin’s public funeral and Madhav’s attendance have aroused support for unity with the Tibetan exile community, according to Gonpo Dhundup, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a body with more than 30,000 members and fighting for freedom of the region.
“I strongly feel that the younger generation will participate in SFF in greater numbers, ”Dhundup said by telephone from McLeod Ganj outside Dharamshala. “The confirmation, no matter how brief, has sent a message that our contribution will be recognized.”
– With the help of Colum Murphy and Jing Li
(Updates with new image after section 11)