LUMBINI, Nepal — For a few short hours, as dancers imported from Kathmandu leapt and twirled for the bemused president of this tiny Himalayan republic, the sleepy, provincial town of Lumbini, in western Nepal, became the focus of the great chess game underway between India and China.
After a sudden, unannounced, and brief visit from Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in Kathmandu, Nepalese President Ram Baran Yadav had flown in to take the stage here — at the birthplace of Buddha — to inaugurate “Visit Lumbini Year 2012” on behalf of Nepal tourism.
But as he set fire to a symbolic, Olympic-style “peace flame,” more than a few observers were wondering about the fortuitous timing of the event, which coincided, like the flourish of a magician's cape, with the preventive detention of hundreds of Nepalese Tibetans in the capital.
The detention of Tibetans is nothing new, of course. And Nepal is always rife with rumors and conspiracy theories. But for the past several months a curious mystery has unfolded around Lumbini — the latest beachhead in the quiet battle for Buddha underway between China and India.
With competing conferences, organizations, and cultural tours, both China and India have sought to leverage their historical ties with Buddhism for so-called soft power in the region.
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India seeks to use its common cultural heritage to overcome China's ethnic ties to the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, and China seeks to limit the damage from its repression of religious freedom in Tibet and its incessant sparring with the Dalai Lama.
“This is part of China's effort to use Buddhism to gain an entry into Nepal, [and] to show to their Buddhists that they're showing equal attention to Buddhism outside the country,” Jayaveda Ranade, formerly additional secretary for East Asia with the Indian government, said of a Chinese proposal for the development of Lumbini.
Yadav, Nepal's president, made no mention of China before the crowd gathered at Buddha's birthplace, though in Kathmandu Wen pledged more than $140 million in aid for the building of infrastructure and other projects. Wen also agreed to consider Nepal's request to extend the 1,200 mile Qinghai-Tibet railway onward to Kathmandu and Lumbini.
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“Both sides started worrying about this once the Dalai Lama started giving intimations of mortality, shall we say,” said Jabin Jacob, assistant director of the New Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies, an independent think tank.
“If the Dalai Lama is disappearing from the scene or he is going to be stepping back from the political scene, as he already has, then there is this huge resource lying out there untapped,” he said.
India and China: their claims to Buddhism
Born Prince Gautama Siddhartha in what is today Nepal, the Buddha achieved enlightenment, gained his spiritual following, and died (or achieved final nirvana) in India. As a result, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar, located in the north Indian state of Bihar, remain major pilgrimage centers for believers from around the world.
But in India Buddhism was subsumed by Hinduism, and New Delhi has done little to spread the wealth from tourism to Lumbini — which most view as less significant than the three pilgrimage sites in India. So as Nepal's tourism ministry seeks to lure 500,000 visitors to Lumbini in 2012, expectations of Indian support are not too high — though India claims to be “more than happy” to contribute.
“Most of the inter-governmental bodies are dysfunctional,” said Aditya Baral, director of the publicity department of the Nepal Tourism Board.
At the same time, even though China is notorious for its suppression of Tibetan Buddhism, and India is home to the exiled Dalai Lama, in its other forms Buddhism is reportedly the fastest-growing religion in China and accounts for only a tiny, neglected minority in the land where it originated.
And China's largesse, at least on paper, or in rumor, appears to know no bounds.
“Nearly 40 percent of Chinese believe in Buddhism. Several of the Chinese leaders themselves are practicing Buddhists, despite being members of the Communist Party,” said Shrikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“So from that point of view it's quite natural for China to be interested in Buddhist projects,” he said.
According to Ranade, China held its first World Buddhist Forum in 2006 in an effort to project its handpicked candidate, Gyaltsen Norbu, as the legitimate Panchen Lama, after secret police allegedly kidnapped and spirited away the boy chosen by the Tibetans in 1995.
A second conference in 2009, for which the concluding ceremony was held in Taiwan, was aimed at convincing neighboring Buddhist nations that China had embraced the religion, despite its continued opposition to the Dalai Lama.
Similarly, Beijing has undertaken other cultural intiatives, such as the displaying of tooth and hair relics of the Buddha in a traveling exhibition in Myanmar.
“All of this is to keep the Dalai Lama in his place,” said Jacob. “It's to ensure that they have a handle on his succession, an influence on his succession, and that they will be seen as legitimately intervening in that succession.”
At the same time, India has sought to build on the goodwill it receives naturally as home to the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism and reach out to other sects.
In 2007, for instance, the loan of an extensive collection of Buddhist art and artifacts from India's National Museum subtly reinforced the message that the religion traveled from India to China and beyond in conjunction with an East Asia Summit where Beijing had sought to shoulder out New Delhi.
Together with representatives from Singapore, China, Japan and Thailand, India has undertaken a $1 billion project to develop a modern university in the ancient Buddhist learning center of Nalanda, in modern day Bihar, under the leadership of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen.
Beginning this summer, however, the struggle for soft power has begun to seem as though it were scripted by John Le Carré.
The plot thickens in Lumbini
For Lumbini, the story begins in July, when China's state-run People's Daily reported that a peculiar Hong Kong-based outfit called the Asia Pacific Exchange & Cooperation Foundation (APECF) had signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to create a “special cultural zone” in Lumbini.
Touting a planned investment of $3 billion, APECF claimed to have the full support of the Nepal government for its scheme to build roads, telecommunications networks and tourist facilities in the area.
The dusty, one-horse town of Lumbini could certainly use the money. But at nearly one-tenth of Nepal's entire gross domestic product, $3 billion was a stupendous sum — and, some suspect, a wholly fictional one: a carnival barker's cry, crude propaganda, or a “trial balloon” to gauge how Nepal might react.
The answer was swift.
Soon afterward UNIDO and Nepal, by turns, disavowed the project. It surfaced that both Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the Maoist leader popularly known by his nomme de guerre Prachanda, or “Fearless,” and the controversial Paras Bir Bikram Shah Dev, Nepal's former crown prince, held positions on APECF's board of directors.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) blasted APECF's scheme as a threat to Lumbini's status as a World Heritage site. And Culture Secretary Modraj Dotel resigned in protest over alleged pressure to approve the project.
“What to me was worrying was the wheeling and dealing through which they had managed to get both Prince Paras and Prachanda, an unholy alliance from opposite ends of the spectrum,” said Kul Chandra Gautam, a former assistant secretary general of the UN who has publicly criticized the project.
“All kinds of shady deals happen in Nepal, and for our most influential political leader to be made part of this venture to me sounded very fishy.” (Prince Paras is no longer listed as a board member by APECF's website).
For Indian foreign policy think tanks, APECF — nominally a non-governmental organization (NGO) — was an obvious clandestine arm of the Chinese government.
Its Lumbini project was a transparent attempt to leverage Buddhism to station platoons of People's Liberation Army engineers within a stone's throw of the Indian border. And the bizarre snafu of the fake agreement with UNIDO was simply another example, apparently, of the inscrutability of Chinese espionage.
So, too, it goes in New Delhi.
This week, Beijing's special representative Dai Bingguo is in New Delhi hoping to flag off a “golden period” for India-China relations. But it's lucky he made it at all, in the wake of the latest Indian salvo in the battle for Buddha.
In November, Beijing scrapped Dai's planned visit to discuss an outstanding dispute over China's borders with Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir in protest over an Indian rival to its own World Buddhism Conference. Organized by the Asoka Mission, another NGO that receives government funding, the meeting brought Buddhist leaders from around the world together with the Dalai Lama the same week that Dai was to arrive for talks.
“Clubbed with the South China Sea dispute, clubbed with the Yellow Sea incident where the Chinese opposed the USS George Washington into that region and a host of other problems that China had with the US and their neighbors, including even with India, it did cost [Beijing] some soft power,” said professor Kondapalli.
“The convention decided to set up an international Buddhist institution somewhere in India, to codify the Buddhist scriptures and so forth,” he said.
Coincidence? Representatives of the Indian government say so. But just as in Lumbini, there are plenty of people ready to concoct a master plan behind the chaos.