Unlike the airport in my home town, Bengaluru, or the airports in two cities I visit often, Mumbai and Delhi, the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose airport in Kolkata is run not by a private firm but by the Airports Authority of India. This must be why, unlike in Bengaluru, Delhi or Mumbai, as one approaches the security check counters of the Kolkata airport, one is confronted by a sign-board listing all those who are exempt from frisking and having their bags x-rayed.
So far as I recall — I haven’t been to Kolkata for about a year now — that board listed 18 individuals who enjoy privileges the rest of us are denied. Most were defined by the post they held. They included the President and Vice President, the Chief Justice of India, and governors and chief justices of states. One omnibus category was ‘those under SPG protection’; another, ‘holders of the Bharat Ratna’. Only two of these exempted individuals were listed by name. These were His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Robert Vadra.
Someone once said that India is home to all that is noble as well as all that is disgusting in the human experience. I have never been more conscious of the truth of this remark when passing that sign-board at the Kolkata airport. No two individuals living in our Republic could be a greater contrast than Robert Vadra and the Dalai Lama. One owes his rise entirely to nepotism and political connections. The other has achieved his position entirely due to the nobility and decency of his own character.
I have been in the same room with the Dalai Lama only twice. Yet I have known about him all my life. I was born and raised in Dehradun, which is home also to a large number of Tibetan refugees, some of whom went to the same school (Cambrian Hall) as I did. From them I learnt of their sufferings at the hands of the Chinese, and how the community was kept going in exile through the spirit and example of their leader.
I first saw the Dalai Lama in person at five-thirty in the morning of January 30, 1990. Earlier that winter, a wave of bloody riots had broken out across northern India, as a result of the (misguided, malign) campaign to have a Ram temple built where a mosque stood in Ayodhya. Among those distressed by the violence was the philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma’s. In response, he organised a night-long vigil of peace at the place where Gandhi himself had been assassinated, on Tees January Marg in New Delhi.
The audience, huddled together in the winter cold, sat on dhurries under a shamiana enclosed on three sides, hearing poems and songs in praise of inter-faith harmony. The vigil concluded with a discourse by the Dalai Lama. As soon as he arrived, and placed himself on the (modestly elevated) stage, the curtains behind him were lifted, to reveal that he sat in an absolutely straight line with a portrait of Gandhi, suitably illuminated for the occasion, that hangs almost precisely where he was shot on January 30, 1948.
The second time I saw the Dalai Lama was earlier this month. This was also in Delhi, but in an enclosed room this time. His Holiness had recently turned 80; and his Indian friends had gathered to wish him. The organisers had kindly asked me to come and (briefly) speak about the person being honoured.
At lunch, I was placed on a table next to the chief guest, from where, while I looked across respectfully, I did not go across and introduce myself. One of my table-mates did not share my restraint. Choosing his moment, he walked over to the next table, and, in a voice that resounded around the room, remarked: ‘Your Holiness! How are you!! You remember we met in Calcutta!’
The Dalai Lama did not respond with anything remotely resembling a show of recognition. So the attention-seeker continued: ‘We met in Calcutta! With Mother Teresa!’ The older man now took off his glasses, wiped his face, and softly said: ‘I am sorry I don’t remember you, but I do remember Mother Teresa’.
In my speech I would say that the Dalai Lama resembled Mahatma Gandhi in three crucial respects: his commitment to non-violence, his respect for people of all faiths (or none), and his deep concern for ecological harmony. I would add that, like the Mahatma, he had the courage to take on the fundamentalists in his own faith, as he had recently done with the Burmese Buddhists persecuting the Rohingyas. Now I could further add that the Dalai Lama was akin to the Mahatma in another, and scarcely less significant respect — his mischievous sense of humour.
The Dalai Lama’s view of the world is succinctly stated in his 2011 book Beyond Religion. This outlines a trans-religious ethic of compassion and care, to heal the wounds that currently afflict cultures, nations, and the globe itself. Although no fan of Communism (whose brutalities he experienced at first hand), the Dalai Lama is deeply worried about the failure of the market to improve the lives of the majority. ‘On the issue of economic inequality’, he writes, ‘I consider myself at least half Marxist’.
For a man who has suffered so much, the Dalai Lama is altogether without bitterness. He has compassion even for the Chinese who demonise him. In our fractured times, his is a voice for tolerance, reason, and hope. We Indians are very lucky to have had him spend the bulk of his life in our otherwise tortured and unforgiving land.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. The writer tweets as @Ram_Guha
The views expressed are personal