Dalai Lama at the Namami Brahmaputra River Festival in Assam: Mixed Signals for India-China Relations

Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, Assam

His Holiness the Dalai Lama graced the Namami Brahmaputra River Festival[1] in Guwahati as chief guest, on 2 April 2017, as part of a 14-day visit to Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Assam Governor Banwarilal Purohit, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and several state cabinet ministers received him at the banks of the Brahmaputra in Guwahati. The Assam Government and the New Delhi-based research think-tank India Foundation, jointly organized this particular event hosting the Dalai Lama.[2] This visit combined with the Dalai Lama’s subsequent itinerary covering Tawang and Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh lends itself to some questions about India’s China policy and in particular, the link between the boundary dispute and aspects of river-management and -sharing between India and China.

The Namami Brahmaputra Festival and the Dalai Lama’s presence at it is a clear attempt at securitizing issues related to Brahmaputra water-sharing and management by the Indian government. China has already stated that the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh and more particularly his visit to Tawang, will ‘seriously damage’ the Sino-Indian bilateral engagement. New Delhi might end up muddying the waters of the Brahmaputra more than it already is at present, in terms of advancing riparian cooperation with China, be it at the bilateral level or at the larger basin-wide multilateral level. This type of signaling by India to China will definitely be a setback for the existing Sino-Indian dialogue on the Brahmaputra, which was based on the logic of keeping the water issues and the ever-contentious and longstanding boundary dispute as separate tracks in the Sino-Indian relations.

The Namami Brahmaputra River Festival itself has received mixed response from within the state of Assam.[3] This festival is designed and promoted by the central government through the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, in line with its already existing Namami Gange project. The invocation of the word ‘Namami’ has not been well received from some sections of the society in Assam who believe it is an imposed word borrowed from Sanskrit, when a more local-sounding word could have been used. The staging of elaborate prayers with lamps along the Brahmaputra, similar to what is seen in Haridwar and Varanasi along the Ganga is also debated as a sign of a different Hindu ethos in a region where people associate their life along the river in animist terms of spirituality and traditional means of adaptation.

The Namami Brahmaputra event has been projected by the central government as the biggest river festival of India, replete with new versions of songs paying obeisance to the river, again similar to what has been done in the case of the Ganga. Till not very long ago, the Brahmaputra was not very much high in the social hierarchy of rivers in India; the Ganga occupied the pinnacle of this hierarchy, followed by the Yamuna and others. With the Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, however, attention has shifted to the Brahmaputra, albeit in a very cosmetic and event-oriented manner.

The core problems affecting the people living by the Brahmaputra – ranging from devastating annual floods to large-scale erosion of its banks, to basic livelihood concerns of drinking water, sanitation and healthcare – still remain unresolved. Since the devastating flash floods of the summer of 2000, Sino-Indian bilateral cooperation on the Brahmaputra had moved ahead considerably, leading from data-sharing protocols first signed in 2002, renewed subsequently in 2008 and 2013, to an Expert Level Mechanism between India and China constituted in the year 2006.[4] Apart from this, a slow but steady series of Track-2 confidence-building initiatives have been in progress, attempting to include all the riparian stakeholders of the Brahmaputra. While cooperation between India and China in this regard can at best be referred to as being at the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) level, even this has taken considerable time and effort. The attempt to derail this process with such signaling by inviting the Dalai Lama to the Brahmaputra Festival shows a certain lack of pragmatism and foresight.

The Indian media has over time, fed a sense of suspicion and fear in Northeast India, about the possible diversion plans on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra by China. This has in turn, been used by the Indian government to announce a multitude of mega/medium/small hydropower dam projects in Arunachal Pradesh, citing ‘first-user rights’ concerns. While the BJP came to power in Assam last year on the poll plank that it would oppose the dams in Arunachal Pradesh, at the centre, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has expedited the process of clearances for mega dams and support the contentious Lower Subansiri Hydropower Project in Arunachal Pradesh.[5] This mindless dam construction policy can be referred to as a new ‘scorch the rivers’ policy. Several anti-dam protests have occurred in Arunachal Pradesh in the past few years, including by Buddhist monks in Tawang[6], where the Dalai Lama is visiting. Celebrating ‘Namami’ Brahmaputra in Assam while simultaneously damming its tributaries in Arunachal Pradesh is the irony at play here.

The current signaling by New Delhi to China involving the Dalai Lama’s presence at the Brahmaputra festival is not in consonance with the objective of the agreement on ‘Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-Border Rivers’ agreed upon in 2013[7], when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited India. Meanwhile, even as Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay graced the opening ceremony of the Brahmaputra Festival, China has invested heavily in Bangladesh, including on river-related projects such as the rail bridge over the Padma.[8] Sino-Bangladeshi cooperation on the Brahmaputra river system, in fact, is on the uptick. If India wishes to play a leadership role in South Asia, it must realize that this requires it also play a leadership role in ensuring multilateral riparian engagement on the Brahmaputra. Its current posturing to please some domestic constituencies however will only harm riparian relations in the region. This will hit home especially if agreements on the long-pending Teesta river water-sharing and the construction of the Ganges Barrage Project by Bangladesh on the Padma river[9] once again prove elusive during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India later this week.

The author is finishing up his PhD thesis titled, Waters of Conflict or Waters of Cooperation: Geopolitics of Sino-Indian Transboundary Water Management in the Yarlung Tsangpo and the Brahmaputra


[1] http://namamibrahmaputra.com/about/

[2] http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2017/04/03/all-religions-show-way-to-peace-dalai-lama/

[3] http://www.dailyo.in/variety/assamese-tradition-namamibrahmaputra-hindutva/story/1/16374.html

[4] http://wrmin.nic.in/forms/list.aspx?lid=349

[5] http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/prakash-javedekar-environment-projects/; https://scroll.in/article/691695/bjp-appears-to-be-going-back-on-poll-promise-to-oppose-north-east-mega-dams

[6] http://indianexpress.com/article/explained/in-fact-behind-the-firing-and-deaths-in-tawang-anti-dam-protests-and-abbot-lama-tussle-2783149/

[7] http://wrmin.nic.in/forms/list.aspx?lid=349

[8] http://indianexpress.com/article/world/world-news/china-to-build-4-44-billion-rail-line-on-bangladesh-bridge-padma-river-bridge-2968088/

[9] Bangladesh is planning the Ganges Barrage Project at Pangsha near Rajbari, 100 kms downstream from Farakka Barrage in India.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *