On June 28, 1992, three senior lamas responsible for the recognition of the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa approached the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. Following instructions in a poem-letter left behind by the 16th Karmapa, Tai Situ Rinpoche and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche asked for his endorsement of a nomad boy born in eastern Tibet. The Shamarpa left following a disagreement. The next day the Dalai Lama declared seven-year-old Ogyen Trinley Dorje the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa. Two months later, Shamarpa declared his own candidate — Trinley Thaye Dorje, another boy born in Tibet. Thus started another battle for power.
The Karmapa — who ruled half of Tibet and heads the Karma Kagyu order that has more than 600 Buddhist centres globally — is today entangled in China-Tibet-India politics, aggravated by rivalries spanning three centuries of power struggles. Living in a rented apartment near Dharamsala since escaping Tibet in 2000, the Karmapa’s focus is on Buddhist studies. He escaped to India to receive teachings and transmissions from Karma Kagyu teachers and the Dalai Lama.
Till now I believed that in the country’s long-term interests, Indians support our struggle to reinstall Tibet as a buffer zone between India and China. India is our second home; for many the only home. Therefore, calling the Karmapa a ‘Chinese spy’ is hurtful and unsettling.
When the Tibetans first sought asylum in India in 1959, we couldn’t make sense of the modern world. My mother laboured on the strategic road construction linking Kullu-Manali to Ladakh, where I was born in a tent. Later rehabilitated to Karnataka, the then Chief Minister S Nijalingappa offered us huge tracts of land on lease for 100 years. Today more than 40,000 Tibetans live in Karnataka without facing any benami land deal charges. Himachal Pradesh is home to about 27,000 Tibetans. The number increases as more refugees escape China’s punitive rule. Still, the Himachalis shared their homes with us. Lands acquired for infrastructure are in the process of being leased out to Tibetans by the state. Amid this adjustment and uncertainty, the Karmapa’s office has been accused of stashing foreign currencies and making a benami land deal. Legally, Tibetans are ‘aliens’ in India; we can’t vote, can’t own immovable properties and have to register all our movements in India. The 40,000 eligible Tibetans should, perhaps, follow in the footsteps of Namgyal Dolkar, the first Tibetan to have received Indian citizenship, and make things easier for everybody.
In 2010, India advised the Karmapa against undertaking a pan-European speaking tour. Barring Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, he is free to move anywhere in India. In fact, just when we were expecting a complete end to the travel ban, the ‘Chinese spy’ controversy kicked off. Quoting anonymous sources, the media repeatedly called the Karmapa ‘spy’, ‘agent’ and accused him of having ‘Chinese links’. Times Now editor Arnab Goswami ratcheted up the accusations by calling the Karmapa “... part of China’s grand design”. Anchoring a TV panel discussion, he said the Karmapa met Chinese leaders in 2009 in Hong Kong. Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s only overseas trip over the last decade in India was to the US. Shamarpa’s Karmapa candidate, Trinley Thaye Dorje, was in Hong Kong in February 2009. He visited Hong Kong last week too.
Most Tibetans believe that it’s a case of financial mismanagement. A rival party, headed by Shamar Rinpoche feeds the graver allegations to weaken the legal status of the Karmapa in India while also staking claim on the Rumtek monastery, in Sikkim, for his candidate. For the Tibetans, Ogyen Trinley Dorje is the only Karmapa. Sadly, the object of Tibetan faith and hope has become the subject of India’s suspicion.
As China steps up its presence across the Himalayas, India’s first line of defence should be to capture the loyalty of its Himalayan population. People from Ladakh, Lahaul, Spiti, Kinnaur, Sikkim and Tawang protested the allegations by the media, which did not play up the Centre’s ‘clean chit’ to the Karmapa as enthusiastically as they broadcast allegations of his alleged ‘Chinese links’.
The Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama and Karmapa are the Sun, Moon and Star for Tibetans. The Panchen Lama is under Chinese custody. So, after the Dalai Lama, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa will be our leader. He will also become the spiritual guru of Buddhists across the world. Tomorrow, when 400 million Buddhists in China are free to practise their faith, imagine what a Dharamaraja the Karmapa will make. It’s up to India to decide whether to host such an avatar as a refugee or hand the sceptre to a triumphant China.
(Tenzin Tsundue is a Tibetan writer and activist)
*The views expressed by the authors are personal.