Why the Indian media’s leading Ladakh expert doesn’t live up to the billing

Phunchok Stobdan, a former diplomat and author, has consistently disregarded historical and contemporary facts while holding forth on the ‘Buddhist Himalayas’.

ByKaveri Gill
Why the Indian media’s leading Ladakh expert doesn’t live up to the billing
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On May 29, Phunchok Stobdan created a storm among fellow Ladakhis by using uncouth language to accuse the Dalai Lama, on an Aaj Tak show, of not speaking up against the Chinese incursion into Ladakh. The former diplomat’s remarks drew censorship from Buddhist monasteries; educational, cultural, merchant and trade associations; and by the Ladakhi people on social media, culminating in a bandh across Leh on June 1.

Stobdan responded with a curious apology:

“I perhaps used some not so good words about His Holiness the Dalai Lama but that was not meant to hurt anybody, including His Holiness or the followers of His Holiness in Ladakh. So, you know, this is an ongoing problem now. We are really worried in Ladakh. Chinese are hardening their position. They are capturing our land. And people like me, who have been watching the issues on the border for a very, very long time – almost for 35-40 years – are deeply worried. This cannot go on. And we need support for people. And His Holiness has a lot of deep influence in the area. He should, I think, also sympathise with us and the people of Ladakh.
These are okay, some statements here and there. I am an individual, I am not some big personality of Ladakh. But certainly, I am a very known, very well-known international expert on security and strategic affairs. And none of these comments are meant for any other purpose than to give an articulation to the issues that concern our national defence, especially Ladakh.”

Another apology, cited by the Tribune, reiterates Stobdan’s perception of himself as embodying expertise and acting in national interest:

"In the wake of Chinese intrusion in eastern Ladakh from early this month, I have been requested by several national and international media channels to give my expert comments. As an authority on national issues, I have been making several geopolitical comments on the defence of Ladakh land and the nation. These are my personal views on the issue and do not reflect the opinion of any organisation or society. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is our supreme religious head who I deeply revere. I have attended several teachings, including Kalachakra initiations, by him. Therefore, there is no question of profaning him from the spiritual angle. These are purely expert geopolitical comments pertaining to the border standoff with China. However, if the sentiments of some people are hurt by my comments, I extend my apology.”

Stobdan may be forgiven for seeing himself as he does if reliable criteria for judging expertise and acting in national interest are that:

  • He has written regularly for leading national newspapers and magazines.

  • His 2019 book, The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas: India and China’s Quest for Strategic Dominance, was reviewed widely and uncritically in the same national dailies.

  • His ambassadorship to the Kyrgyz Republic is long past, but he has since been affiliated to the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and the United Service Institution of India, and continues to grace the India Foundation think tank events, and so on.

  • In the corridors of the Delhi establishment as well as the international press, he is turned to most often as the sole voice articulating the perspective of Ladakhis and the Himalayan region.

But are these metrics enough to ascertain genuine expertise and acting in national interest?

Let’s examine some of the key arguments made by Stobdan in his writings over the last three decades, and most recently summarised in his book, to make an independent academic assessment.

First, Stobdan asserts that as part of deliberate and concerted efforts to Tibetanise the “Buddhist Himalayas”, which poses a threat to India as the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile are in collusion with the Chinese regime, it is they who are pushing for Bodhi to be recognised as an official Indian language. “Importantly, the agenda of getting the Bodhi (Tibetan) language included in Schedule VIII of the Indian Constitution was initially set by Dharamshala through its proxies from the Himalayan region,” he writes in The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas. “The move is gaining momentum and being embedded in the agenda of local political parties. In fact, the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan institutions have become rallying platforms for the Himalayan people to assert their cultural causes.”

As a Ladakhi, a scholar and a diplomat, can Stobdan be ignorant of Kushok Bakula Rinpoche’s efforts in this regard that predated by many years the Dalai Lama’s coming into exile in 1959?

Stobdan’s many writings make no mention of the historic speech, deliberately made in Ladakhi, by Bakula Rinpoche in the Jammu and Kashmir Constituent Assembly in May 1952, as a mark of protest against Sheikh Mohammad Abdullaha’s first budget proposal and its studied neglect of the Ladakhi population. It was a strong assertion of the unique identity of the Ladakhis. Indeed, it was this speech made in Ladakhi, the only language he spoke other than Bodhi, that announced Bakula Rinpoche as a statesman to be reckoned with, at state and national levels. By 1953, a memorandum was submitted to prime minister Bakshi Gulam Mohammed of Jammu and Kashmir, inter alia, requesting that the Bodhi language be made the medium of instruction in primary school, and given the same status as Sanskrit and Arabic in university curricula.

To recount the linguistic history of the “Buddhist Himalayas”, Bodhi belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages. It has no resemblance to Mandarin. Bodhi is spoken across Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and, within India, in Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, and Sikkim, being closely related to their different Tibeto-Burman dialects. It would serve our geopolitical, soft power aims to recognise it as an official Indian language.

Ignoring all this evidence to the contrary, including the linguistic battles of the “architect of modern Ladakh” himself, that strongly attests to historic links between Tibet and India, Stobdan chooses to see and promote differentiation over this commonality. The ethnic Monpas of Tawang, he accordingly writes, “don’t consider themselves Tibetans as they speak a separate Tibeto-Burman dialect”.

In claiming that Bodhi is unrelated to other Tibeto-Burman dialects, is Stobdan himself not providing an argument against India’s territorial rights, based on a common linguistic heritage, over Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, and promoting a fabricated justification for the Chinese claims in these areas? As Mao Zedong famously declared, the occupation of Tibet was akin to controlling the palm of a hand, with the five fingers of Ladakh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh enabling China’s expansionist agenda in the region. When China first occupied Tibet, they started by printing currency with both Bodhi and Mandarin scripts, laying the ground to later claim Bodhi as their own. Without a factual basis, Stobdan’s arguments appear to support such a potential claim by the Chinese over the five fingers in the future.

Second, in his televised outburst, Stobdan asked why the Dalai Lama hadn’t publicly decried China’s incursion into Ladakh. In a less belligerent tone, he still demanded in his video apology that the Dalai Lama “should sympathise with us and also the people of Ladakh”.

It is a strange demand coming from Stobdan given how he reads the Dalai Lama’s clear support for the McMohan Line and India’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh, which he failed to mention altogether on television. “Moreover, the Dalai Lama in recent years has been rather shrewdly played the Tawang card [sic],” he writes in his book. “He has tried to stoke the fire while suggesting that ‘Arunachal Pradesh is a part of India and not China’. Such statements have evoked immense sentiment for him among the Indian people.”

Again, in the repetitive style of his book, Stobdan writes: “On his part, the Dalai Lama had shrewdly stoked the fire not only while making several anti-China statements in Tawang but also by playing to the gallery in India by saying he considered Arunachal Pradesh to be a part of India and not China. The statement served to evoke immense sentiment among the people for him, and by implication the Dalai Lama had taken his cause to the Indian public.”

So, would Stobdan care to explain his convoluted “damned if he speaks and damned if he doesn’t” interpretation of the Dalai Lama’s clear and consistent support of India’s territorial claims? Can India afford to pay heed to such inconsistent and befuddling counsel at this critical time?

Third, let alone common linguistic heritage, geopolitical and strategic affairs, Stobdan’s knowledge of Buddhist history in the Himalayas appears rather shallow. It is his identity as a Ladakhi – under fire after the June 1 protest against him by his own people – on which his reflexive expertise rests and which, in turn, bestows upon him, in his view, the exclusive right to expound on the religion at the national level. He acknowledges as much when he says, “Being a native of the Himalayan region has definitely helped in writing this book.”

His book is littered with condescending phrases such as “India seems to lack sufficient wherewithal to understand the critical interplay between Buddhism and the Himalayas [sic]” or “It’s beyond the gaze of even well-informed Indians”.

Yet, in reading the Buddhist history of India as being restricted to the Himalayan region and, within that, a sectarian outlook of Ladakh, Stobdan betrays his own ignorance.

Failing to recognise Buddha Shakyamuni, or the masters of Nalanda, most of whom belonged to the south and east of India and not the Himalayas, and how they are the reason for the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s teacher-student relationship with India, Stobdan arrives at a reductive and perverse view of this long history: “The Dalai Lama has often used the ‘guru-chela’ idiom in order to gain sympathy among the Indian people. He has often said, ‘I’m the longest staying guest in India’ and ‘I am a son of India’, which can be viewed as a dual but deceptive tactic he applied to both threaten China and enthral India [sic].”

Stobdan goes on to write how these statements enrage the Chinese and they deem it a betrayal, “an attempt to sell out the people and the country”.

In a book that makes heavy use of Chinese Communist Party sources such as the Global Times and is often disorienting for the reader in articulating China’s perspective while laying out the best bilateral foreign policy for India to follow, this is not uncommon.

In conclusion, let’s set aside Stobdan’s grouse against the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, which is apparent from reading his scurrilous writings of the past two decades. It is his prerogative, as is his right to a personal opinion and free expression of it. Let’s also take at face value his apology, in which he attempts to make a distinction between his spiritual allegiance to the Dalai Lama and his expert opinions on geopolitics and national security. Again, the former is his private business and not of public interest. Rather, this piece sought to pose hard questions on the latter.

It set out to examine Stobdan’s self-professed expertise on the “Buddhist Himalayas”, and his consequent acting in national interest. And found him lacking on both scores. Many Ladakhi community leaders, such as Sonam Wangchuk, do not claim any kind of expertise, yet have spoken out clearly and strongly against the Chinese incursion into India. Stobdan, in contrast, used his TV appearance to digress from the issue at hand by dragging the Dalai Lama into the fray needlessly – and rather curiously given that his retirement from political leadership in 2011 is well known.

Over the course of his career, as illustrated here, Stobdan has consistently disregarded historical and contemporary facts when analysing Chinese policies (notably describing their One Belt One Road initiative in the region as “nothing but the political geography of Buddhism”) and guiding Indian policy in the “Buddhist Himalayas”.

If such readings aren’t deliberate, Stobdan should give up his claims to expertise; if they are deliberate, he must jettison his claim of acting in the national interest. Either way, it would not serve the Indian establishment to rely on such ill-informed counsel at such a perilous time. It urges greater caution, from the government and the media, in its uncritical adoption of such expertise. It also throws down the gauntlet for a younger generation of Ladakhis and Indians to undertake more and sounder research on the Himalayan region – all aspects of it – so we have a wider spectrum of trustworthy scholarship and expertise to rely upon.

Kaveri Gill is associate professor in International Relations and Governance Studies at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi. The views are personal.


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