Investigations in the matter of recovery of foreign currency from the Karmapa’s office have not only dampened the fervour of pre-election euphoria amongst the Tibetan émigrés in India but also questioned the integrity of their entire spiritual and political edifice. These allegations may or may not be correctly founded for either the Chinese or the Tibetan side, but a growing discomfort in the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE) is perceptible.
It is thus important to reflect on how India intends to deal with issues related to the Tibetan community considering the fact that the Karmapa is the third most important leader in the Tibetan-Buddhist hierarchy after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. And how far are the Chinese willing to meld religious and secular institutions to further their national interests in Tibet?
The 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Ugyen Trinley Dorjee heads the Karma Kagyu with assets worth US$1.3 billion and has represented the spiritual leadership for the last 11 years. His indictment in the Rs.70 million cash recovery scam has not only infuriated the Tibetan community, which grudgingly relented to a fair probe, but has also renewed the succession controversy in the Karma Kagyu sect.
To begin with, the Karmapa was a Beijing nominee but was subsequently recognized by the Dalai Lama as well. The probable reason for such support can be discerned from a report sent on 24 May 1997 by K Sreedhar Rao, then chief secretary of Sikkim, to TSR Subramaniam, then cabinet secretary, “The reason why the Dalai Lama approved the reincarnation without adequate evidence and verification needs to be analyzed. It is possible that a coterie around him had been influenced by the Chinese.”
According to the report, the putting in place of a “Chinese national” as the Karmapa suggested that Beijing was preparing for a post-Dalai Lama situation and demands for installation of the Tibetan Karmapa in Rumtek - the seat of the Kagyu sect in Sikkim - could grow with time. Meanwhile, the other contender to the position of Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje, based in Rumtek, continued to reject the present Karmapa’s anointment and the recent controversy has given him yet another chance for claiming the post.
The unaccounted currency has been apparently received as donations to purchase land for a monastery. The Dalai Lama for his part has rushed to show strong belief in the Karmapa’s innocence and deemed the cash reserves as ‘donations’ from Chinese followers. Indian intelligence services are exploring the possibility that the Chinese elements are involved in the money trail to increase their influence and control Indian monasteries. Moreover, security agencies in India believe that the Karmapa is strongly connected to the Chinese government ever since his ‘great escape’ from Tibet. The benami (purchases under false names) land deals being transacted in the region further add to the complexity of the issue.
The Chinese government for its part has denied any links with the 17th Karmapa and declared that such accusations reflect India’s mistrust towards the Chinese government. Xu Zhitao, an official of the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, which is responsible for minority and religious affairs, reiterated this view and asserted that the Chinese government did not interfere in local governance issues or the spiritual leadership in the TGIE. In fact, the Chinese media has rarely discussed either the Karmapa or his departure to India while it often criticizes the Dalai Lama as a ‘splittist’. The flaring up of the issue critically before the election of the Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister) of the TGIE reflects the enormity of stakes that India, China and the Tibetan community hold in the transition of the Tibetan leadership.
Considering the precarious situation, the Himachal government has already initiated proposals to the central government for establishing a permanent monitoring agency for Tibetan refugees - the Tibetan Refugee Unit. The Indian government has also become more vigilant on the activities of Chinese nationals who are believed to be involved in clandestine activities in India. However, if the allegations against the Karmapa are not substantiated in the longer run, India runs the risk of antagonizing not only him but the larger Tibetan community.
While monitoring the activities of Tibetan refugees would be a procedural step to avoid misunderstanding amongst the two communities, the Indian government needs to devise a more pragmatic approach to deal with the current leadership transition and a post-Dalai Lama scenario. While China’s increasing influence through initiatives like the ‘China Study Centres’ on the India-Nepal border can generate genuine concerns, it should however not lead to presumptive actions that alienate Chinese and Tibetan sentiments. From a long-term perspective, India’s best interests would be served by aiding a smooth and peaceful transition to a new TGIE and restraining itself from unsubstantiated criticism of the Chinese government or ‘its hand’ in the secular and religious affairs of the Tibetan community in India. Fortunately, the recent statement by the Indian Prime Minster appears to reflect this realization.