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India's Modi phones Dalai Lama on birthday, sign of friction with Beijing

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By Reuters
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By Sanjeev Miglani

NEWDELHI -Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi let the world know on Tuesday that he had personally wished Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama a happy 86th birthday in a phone call, 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.

The Chinese embassy and representatives of the Dalai Lama did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

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 BJP party. 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.

“This is the first public greetings, till last year even party officials were not allowed to publicly greet,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Chinese troops seized Tibet in 1950 in what Beijing calls a “peaceful liberation”, and the Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959, following a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

Just three years ago, when Modi was 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.

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.

India offered no felicitations to Beijing on the centenary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party last week which Indian media described as another sign of its unhappiness. In contrast, Modi tweeted greetings to President Joe Biden on Sunday’s U.S. Independence Day holiday.

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.”

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