From the Associated Press
6:20 AM PDT, April 16, 2008

NEW DELHI — Thousands of police patrolled New Delhi today before the arrival of the Beijing Olympic torch in the heart of the Tibetan exile community, highlighting India’s strong interest in its relationship with China.

After decades of frosty relations, India is trying to forge closer ties with powerful China and officials are desperate to avoid the chaos that has plagued the torch runs in London, Paris and other Western cities.

But many in India’s 100,000-strong Tibetan exile community — the world’s largest — have been threatening more of the protests that they have held nearly every day since demonstrations first broke out in Tibet in March.

Thousands of Tibetans have reportedly been heading to New Delhi to protest and will take part in their own torch run to highlight the Tibetan struggle against Chinese rule.

Even before the Indian leg of the torch relay Thursday, protests have caused New Delhi political trouble with Beijing.

More than a dozen exiles scaled the wall of the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi in March and The Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned India’s ambassador at 2 a.m., a diplomatic slap in the face and something India is eager to avoid repeating.

In recent weeks Tibetan exiles here have stormed the Chinese Embassy, which is now surrounded by barricades and barbed wire. They have gone on hunger strikes to protest China’s crackdown on riots in Tibet.

Today about 100 Tibetan exiles again tried to breach the security cordon around the Chinese Embassy. Police dragged away about 50 of them, loading them into police vans — but not before they managed to spray paint “No Olympics in China” on a street near the embassy.

Many exiles say that Thursday’s torch run through New Delhi is a perfect opportunity to make their point, despite the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, saying he supports China hosting this summer’s Olympic games.

Exiles have also called on Indian athletes to boycott the torch relay and asked local residents to wear “Free Tibet” T-shirts and fly Tibetan flags.

“By speaking out when the Chinese government brings the Olympic torch to India you will send a strong message to Tibetans, to the Chinese government, and to the world, that Indians support the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people’s nonviolent struggle for freedom and justice,” a statement from Students for a Free Tibet, among the more strident of exile groups, said.

Some exiles have said they plan to make a more dramatic statement, possibly trying to douse or steal the Olympic flame, although activists were sketchy about their plans.

A prominent Tibetan activist with a reputation for publicity stunts, Tenzin Tsundue, declined to reveal his specific plans, claiming his phone was tapped. He said he would go Thursday to the Indian Gate, referring to a Central New Delhi landmark the torch will pass.

Activists disrupted torch relays in Paris, London and San Francisco. However, recent stops in Argentina, Tanzania, Oman and Pakistan have been trouble-free.

For India, a Paris-style disruption — in which officials were forced to douse the flame amid protests — would be a political disaster.

India does not want to provoke Beijing. The two countries have been forging their closest ties since they fought a 1962 border war. Last year, two-way trade reached US$37 billion.

Both countries, with their billion-plus populations, have been seeking a greater role on the global stage, spurred by their rapidly growing economies. But India is still wary of China, which has massively expanded its economic, diplomatic and military clout in recent years.

Much public sympathy in India lies with the Tibetans, who have sought refuge in the country since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet after a failed uprising against Beijing in 1959 and set up his government-in-exile in the northern Indian hill-town of Dharmsala.

Analysts say that while India needs to bow to popular sentiment and allow some Tibetan protests, it has to make sure it does not let this jeopardize relations with China.

“This is a fine balance that is being maintained,” said New Delhi-based political analyst C. Uday Bhaskar.

Others believe that as the world’s largest democracy and home to the Tibetan exiles, India should take a moral stand.

“All they are fighting for is cultural freedom in Tibet. If they can’t have that, then India, as a democratic country, should at least give them freedom of expression in India,” opposition lawmaker Jaya Jaitly told the CNN-IBN news channel today, declaring that she would join the protests.