The military funeral for nyima tenzin, a tibetan fighter killed in an august skirmish along the sino-indian border, was a provocative spectacle.
A leader of the special frontier force a secretive, indian-controlled paramilitary group of tibetan refugees the 51-year-olds coffin was draped in both the indian tricolour and the tibetan snow lion flag, which is banned in china.
Most mourners at the funeral in remote ladakh were tibetan refugees and uniformed soldiers of the sff, which has operated in the shadows under indian army command for decades. but ram madhav, a senior member of indias ruling bharatiya janata party, was also present and laid a wreath on the coffin.
Relations between beijing and new delhi are at their worst since the countries 1962 border war. the nuclear-armed neighbours have multiple friction points, including a military stand-off in the himalayas and new delhis strengthening ties with washington.
But tibet is among the most fraught issues, fuelled by beijings anxieties about its hold over the border region and indias sheltering of the dalai lama, the exiled spiritual leader.
The chinese are absolutely paranoid about tibet and tibetan refugees, said manoj joshi, distinguished fellow at new delhis observer research foundation. what they worry about is that india can promote separatism and subversion among the tibetans.
India, which had flourishing trade and cultural ties with tibet for centuries before chinas invasion in 1951, formally recognised the region as part of china in 2003. new delhi maintains it has no interest in stirring tibetan resistance to chinese rule, and in recent years, as prime minister narendra modi courted chinas xi jinping, new delhi distanced itself from the dalai lama.
But china remains suspicious. in the chinese mind, india wants tibet to be independent in order to be a buffer, said yun sun, director of the china program at the stimson centre in washington.
Robert barnett, former director of columbia universitys modern tibetan studies program, said beijings unease has grown as finding the successor to the 85-year-old dalai lama becomes more pressing.
China is convinced that it has to win the tibetans over by appointing the next dalai lama, and it cannot do that unless it can win over this dalai lama or exterminate his influence, mr barnett said. whether they can do any of that depends on india.
New delhis deployment of tibetan fighters alongside indian soldiers in the stand-off with chinas peoples liberation army in ladakh also reflects a possible shift in indias strategic thinking.
When the indians allow photos to be leaked with troops carrying tibetan flags, the messaging is very strong to china that we have a tibet card and well play it, said mr barnett.
The sino-india border dispute itself stems from beijings pursuit of tibets historic claims. the indo-tibetan border in ladakhs harsh terrain was never properly demarcated something that india believes china is trying to unilaterally do now through military might.
But beijing also claims 90,000 sq km of indias north-eastern state of arunachal pradesh. analysts said china was particularly obsessed with tawang, site of an important 16th-century tibetan buddhist monastery and birthplace in 1683 of the sixth dalai lama.
Fang tien-sze, an expert in china-india relations at taiwans national tsing hua university, said beijing considers its claim over tawang as central to securing its hold over tibet, lest any precedent be set for finding the dalai lamas reincarnations outside china. beijing believes that regardless of what happens it has to take tawang back, said mr fang.
The seeds of indias tibetan paramilitary force, the sff, were planted in the late 1950s when the cia briefly tried to organise armed tibetan resistance to chinese rule. after the us lost interest, the indian army set up its own training centre for tibetan fighters in 1962.
The sff has since fought for india against pakistan in 1971 and 1999, but was not previously deployed against chinese troops. although official details of their recent role have not been made public, some analysts said sff fighters helped indian troops seize control of strategic heights in border skirmishes with the pla last month.
Using tibetans against china has its own meaning, said suhasini haidar, diplomatic editor of the hindu newspaper. the group was raised with the idea of being something you can use in your war with china, but youve never actually deployed them. it would seem as though the government is waving a red flag against china.
Chinese officials have downplayed tibetan involvement in the border stand-off. wu fei, an analyst at beijing-based center for china and globalization, said china could interpret indias use of tibetan troops as part of the tussle in which each side uses whatever resources are available to gain ground.
But mr wu said any involvement of the india-based tibetan government-in-exile will complicate the issue.
Despite a recent agreement to disengage, the border situation remains volatile. the trick will be to achieve a disengagement that both sides can portray as a victory, said m taylor fravel, director of the massachusetts institute of technologys security studies program.
Its hard for china to appear to be backing down. it makes a risky situation even riskier.