Buddhist leader meets Naren Chandra Das 58 years after he escorted him in India after his escape from Chinese authorities
The first time they met, Indian paramilitary guard Naren Chandra Das was ordered not to talk to the bespectacled young soldier he was escorting near the Chinese border in a top-secret mission.
Nearly 60 years later, Das was reunited with the Dalai Lama in an emotional ceremony that recalled the Buddhist leader’s escape from Tibet after a failed uprising against Chinese authorities.
This time the Dalai Lama had the first word. “Looking at your face, I now realise I must be very old too,” he told Das, 79, at a ceremony on Sunday in the north-eastern city of Guwahati.
The ceremony is likely to fuel anger in Beijing over the Dalai Lama’s tour of north-east India, including Arunachal Pradesh, a border state with areas that China regards as its own territory.
It has warned India that the tour by the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing calls an “anti-China separatist”, will do serious damage to ties between the two Asian powers.
In Guwahati on Sunday the Dalai Lama – who denies seeking Tibetan independence – remembered the “warm-hearted” welcome he received in India after a 13-day trek through the Himalayas to escape the Chinese army.
“The days prior to my arrival in India were filled with tension and the only concern was safety, but I experienced freedom when I was received warm-heartedly by the people and officials and a new chapter began in my life,” he said.
The Dalai Lama fled his Lhasa palace in March 1959 when he was 23 after years of tension between Tibetans and the Chinese government erupted into popular rebellion.
Disguised as a Chinese soldier, he and members of his cabinet slipped out of the palace and trekked by night through mountains and across the 500-metre (1,640ft) Brahmaputra river to reach the Indian border.
Until he appeared in India, some observers feared the Dalai Lama had been among the estimated 2,000 people killed when the Chinese crushed the uprising.
India offered him asylum and a home base in the hill town of Dharamsala, where he was permitted to set up a government-in-exile. About 80,000 Tibetan refugees soon joined him in the Himalayan town.
China argues the 1959 rebellion was the work of wealthy landowners bent on maintaining feudal rule, and that its “peaceful liberation” of the mountainous region has brought development and prosperity.
The Chinese foreign ministry on Monday reiterated its objection to the Dalai Lama’s tour of the border states, saying it was “resolutely opposed to any country’s support and facilitation for the 14th Dalai group’s anti-China separatist activities”.
Chinese anger over India’s role in sheltering the Dalai Lama was one of the factors that led to a brief war between the two countries in 1962. Cross-border incursions by Chinese troops are regularly reported and border areas of the state are highly militarised.
Like past Indian leaders, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, has maintained an official policy of treating the Dalai Lama as an “honoured guest” in the country, inviting him to meet the Indian president in December – another event that drew Chinese condemnation.
India and Tibet share close cultural and religious ties and the Dalai Lama has regularly affirmed India’s sovereignty over the entirety of Arunachal Pradesh, including areas the Chinese government labels “south Tibet”.
Tibet remains under the tight control of the Chinese government and possessing pictures of the Dalai Lama or his writings is illegal.
On Sunday, the Dalai Lama appeared to whisper something to Das as the pair embraced during ceremony. Asked afterwards what the Buddhist leader had told him, Das said: “He was happy to see me.”