On April 24, 2012, the Himachal Pradesh Police quietly dropped all criminal charges against Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Known as Black Hat Lama, Ogyen Trinley Dorje is a claimant to the title of 17th Karmapa and head of the influential Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Backed by powerful mentor priest, Taisitu Rinpoche, Ogyen even has the support of the Dalai Lama to the Karmapa title. The criminal case was related to seizure of Indian and foreign currency, including Chinese Yuan, amounting to nearly R6 crore from Gyotu monastery in Sidhbari in Kangra district after Ogyen’s key aide, Shakti Lama, was caught by the Una police carrying unaccounted one crore rupees in cash on January 26, 2011. Lama was caught red handed in a benami land deal on behalf of Karmae Garchen trust, which was then said to be headed by Dorje.
This was the culmination of a complex, nuanced and multi-layered game played between Indian intelligence agencies, rival high lamas of Tibetan Buddhism and watched by Chinese rulers of Tibet. The biggest gainer in the cash seizure controversy was Ogyen’s arch rival Trinley Thaye Dorje, the second claimant to the 17th Karmapa title, the Black Hat and riches in the Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim. Said to be propped up by a section of the Indian internal security establishment, Trinley Thaye Dorje and his mentor Shamar Rinpoche are based in a Kalimpong monastery.
To his credit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saw through the complex game after a high level Buddhist delegation met him on January 29, 2011 in support of Ogyen Trinley Dorje. After discussing the issue with his principal advisors, the PM was clear that as Tibetan refugees, the Karmapa or his supporters could only buy land in India through benami transactions which normally involve cash. It was also clear that as the Karmapas supporters were Tibetans, Europeans and Americans, the cash offerings had to be in Chinese Yuan, Euros or US dollars. Despite the public and media calling Ogyen a Chinese agent and Beijing issuing an official statement denying it, a message was sent to then Himachal Chief Secretary, Rajwant Sandhu, (on the sidelines of the annual chief secretaries conference on February 4, 2011) to not escalate the issue, stop the media trial and let the police quitely investigate the high profile case due to rival claimants and powerful lobbies at work.
The tussle over the real incarnation of the 16th Karmapa has been complicated by the circumstances in which Ogyen Trinley Dorje crossed over from the fortified high security Tsurphu Monastery in Kham region of Tibetan Autonomous Region of China to India in 2000. His great escape from Tsurphu on December 28, 1999 to Mustang region on the Tibet-Nepal border, airlift to Kathmandu in the presence of the Dalai Lama’s representative and subsequent entry into India through Raxaul border, surfacing at Dharmsala on January 5, 2000, are shrouded in mystery. Even though the Dalai Lama fully backs Ogyen Trinley Dorje to be the 17th Karmapa, there are genuine concerns within the Indian establishment, and a section believes that he is a Chinese plant. Rival Trinley Thaye Dorje was also born in Tibet but was anointed as 17th Karmapa by Shamar Rinpoche at the Karmapa Buddhist Institute in Delhi in 1994.
In the backdrop of Beijing’s desperation over 35 self-immolations in Kham-Sichuan region, the role of the 17th Karmapa assumes importance since, after the Dalai Lama, he is the second most powerful lama outside China. His word counts in eastern Tibet and could play a soothing role in settling the restive Sichuan region. The other reason is that in case something were to happen to the present 14th Dalai Lama, then Ogyen Dorje would be an important player in forming the search party to seek out the next Dalai Lama, the reincarnation of the head of Gelug school. Beijing would do everything to nix this move. The quest for wearing the Black Hat, rightful heir to the fortunes in Rumtek Monastery, a labrang (branch) of Tsurphu, and the influence of the 17th Karmapa in the sensitive Sikkim-Bhutan region is also an important factor in the political calculus of India and China. All these factors were put on the table before National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, known China expert, on February 21, 2012 by top officials and intelligence chiefs. It was pointed out that Ogyen Dorje had quit the Karmae Garchen trust six months prior to the cash seizure and hence had nothing to do with the benami land deal. After ensuring that all the principals were on board, the meeting chaired by Menon made a few key decisions.
The first, India will not get involved in the internal politics of the Karma Kagyu school and will give equal status to Ogyen and Trinley but will not allow either of them to take the seat at Rumtek Monastery till the 17th Karmapa reincarnation issue is resolved. Both will be allowed to travel abroad on refugee certificates but will be asked to maintain proper accounts.
While Indian agencies cannot vouch that Ogyen Trinley has nothing to do with Beijing, chances of him being a Chinese agent are extremely remote as he came to India at the age of 14. So by calling him a Chinese agent, India was not only antagonising his supporters and Tibetans at large but also potentially delivering him into Beijing’s lap. Hence, a decision was made to engage Ogyen while watching his statements on China.
Unreasonable action against Ogyen would also annoy the Dalai Lama, whose set-up would be under greater threat if the 17th Karmapa claimant actually had linkages with the Chinese establishment. So as long as Ogyen is not a security threat, New Delhi is not worried about his religious role.
Significantly, Ogyen Trinley was allowed to travel to America twice and his critical statement on Chinese repression and regret over rising self-immolations in Sichuan was also noted with satisfaction. While India recognises Chinese claims over Tibet, it is Beijing which is increasingly getting worried over protests and self-immolations in the highest plateau as force is not working against the rebellious monks. When External Affairs Minister S M Krishna went to meet his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, in February, he offered Indian help for settling Tibet. Even Chinese high officials have started murmuring about the need to engage India over Tibet. With all the high priests of the four Tibetan Buddhism schools living in India or Bhutan, New Delhi needs Ogyen Trinley and his supporters in the Himalayan belt for its Tibet card.