New Delhi: The three-day annual extravaganza of the Arunachal Pradesh government, the Tawang Festival beginning October 21, this time round has a conspicuous state guest – US ambassador Richard Verma.
Verma reached Tawang, which borders China, around noon, accompanied from Guwahati by Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal. Arunachal chief minister Pema Khandu was there too – Tawang is his home town – to welcome the foreign dignitary.
“Stunning mountains and wonderful people. Terrific visit to Arunachal Pradesh for the Tawang Festival. Thank you Tawang for the hospitality,” Verma tweeted.
Arunachal MP and home minister for state Kiren Rijiju is set to join Verma tomorrow at the opening ceremony. Rijiju also tweeted about Verma’s visit, stating that his commitments on police commemoration day was the reason for not being able to be at Tawang on October 20 itself.
Verma’s visit to the northeastern state, which shares a 1,126 km frontier with China, is significant at a time when New Delhi’s ties with Beijing have been strained not only over the Chinese raising obstacles to Indian membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, but also for the cover provided to Pakistan in multilateral bodies.
This is probably the first time a US ambassador to India has visited Arunachal Pradesh. According to Chinese observers, Beijing is likely to lodge a protest on the visit, which it sees as a demonstration that US considers Arunachal an integral part of India.
Earlier in April, Chinese foreign ministry had objected when the US consul general in Kolkata, Craig L. Hall reiterated that US “is absolutely clear” that Arunachal is India territory.
“The intervention of any third party will only complicate the issue and is highly irresponsible,” Chinese foreign ministry told the Press Trust of India in response to Hall’s remarks in May.
The statement said that the “boundary question” has a bearing on China’s territorial sovereignty and Chinese people’s sentiment. “All the third parties must respect the history and reality concerning the boundary question, respect efforts by China and India to solve territorial disputes through negotiations, not get involved in the disputes or take sides on issues relating to the ownership of disputed territory,” added the Chinese foreign ministry.
China’s state councillor, Yang Jiechi, will soon be travelling to India for yet another round of discussions on the border issue with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
While China claims most of Arunachal Pradesh, Tawang – as the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama – is inextricably linked to China’s control on Tibet.
India had earlier been sensitive about the presence of US military teams, which had delayed the search and repatriation of the remains of US soldiers who died in that region in multiple plane crashes during the Second World War. In 2008,the UPA government allowed a Pentagon team to carry out a search in the state for the remains of soldiers Missing in Action (MIA). In 2009, however, it asked the team to wind up operations following China’s opposition. In September this year, the Narendra Modi government allowed the US to resume search operations for only 35 days. In an interview with The Wire in April, Gary Zaetz, spokesperson of the organisation Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action, called the termination of the operation “premature”.
Clearly, the hesitation of earlier days is no longer there, with the US ambassador now visiting Tawang.
The US ambassador’s visit takes place after another significant event. On October 9, Arunachal chief minister Khandu met the Dalai Lama in New Delhi to invite him to visit the state in the second week of March next year. In 2009, when the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism gave his consent to visit the state, China raised a strong objection to it. The then Indian external affairs minister S.M. Krishna dismissed the Chinese objection and reportedly said, the Tibetan spiritual leader “is free to go anywhere.”
Though in 2009, the Dalai Lama had sought the Indian government’s permission to visit Tawang after an invitation was extended by the Tawang monastery to deliver speeches, this time round, the invitation came from the state government run by the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA), an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Note: The article has been updated to reflect a correction in Gary Zaetz’s comment about the search for the remains of US soldiers.