When security hawks swoop

Feb 11, 2011

Category: Police Raid Jan 2011

On the last day of 1999, when the world was preparing to welcome the new millennium, a group of Tibetans was climbing high mountains and crossing long valleys on foot - on their way to India. On January 5, 2000, when Ugyen Thinley Dorje appeared in Dharamsala, the news of the 17th Karmapa Lama's escape to freedom spread like wildfire. The Tibetans in exile, including the Dalai Lama, were thrilled. For the world media, the 15-year-old boy-monk's escape from the Chinese-controlled territory was the "story of the century". But, for the Indian intelligence, there was something fishy about it. They refused to believe that a boy, his sister and four monks could run away from Tibet.

The security establishment's suspicion lingers on. The Karmapa is not allowed to go to Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, the seat of his previous reincarnation. In June 2008, he was given permission to visit his centres in the US, but last year he had to cancel his foreign engagements as the home ministry refused to clear his trip. And now, with the recovery of some Chinese currency from his monastery, the sceptics are busy refloating their old conspiracy theory: Dorje has come to India to collect the Black Hat of his lineage from Rumtek and take it back to his Tsurphu monastery in Tibet. And this theory is entirely based on the "circumstances of Karmapa's escape" from Tsurphu, which is located in a "high security region of Tibet".

The Indian media has swallowed this theory without asking one simple question: how difficult is it to escape from Tsurphu? I had the same question on my mind when i went to Tibet in 2004. During my stay in Lhasa, i along with an Australian professor went to Tsurphu, which is about a four-hour drive from Lhasa. The northern highway from Lhasa was excellent till it branched off to a gravelled road. We saw only a few isolated villages along this lonely stretch. The area was barren with no cultivation.

When we reached Tsurphu, i realised that it was a medium-size monastery as compared to huge monasteries in Lhasa. Our visit was unannounced and we had travelled in a jeep with a Tibetan driver and a Han guide. They took us to the Karmapa's living quarters which were kept in the same state in 2004 as they might have been when he fled in 1999. Even a big notice on a blackboard asking visitors to take permission for audience with the Karmapa was in place.

On the first floor of the monastery, we saw the window from where the young monk had jumped to a terrace and then to the ground where a vehicle waited for him. There was only one sentry post at the only gate of the monastery and there was no high fencing. The monastery, on the bank of a river, was surrounded by high mountains. The structure of the monastery did not indicate that security might have been much tighter when the Karmapa had escaped. We did not encounter any check post on the entire route. We both were foreigners but nobody stopped us.

As someone who has worked with military intelligence, i understood that it was not so difficult for a determined young man to escape from this isolated monastery. It certainly was much easier than the escape of the Dalai Lama, who had fled in 1959 even as the Chinese army had surrounded the Potala palace.

All those who suspect the circumstances of the Karmapa's escape are ignorant of the ground reality and have too much faith in Chinese security. Until now, after 10 years of his stay in India, we tend to believe the Chinese claim that the "Karmapa has gone to India to collect his hat". To keep this myth alive, the Chinese haven't even removed the notice from the board at Tsurphu.

China has an interest in creating confusion, but it's very difficult to understand why we have believed the Tibetan monk's alleged links with China so credulously. It's being alleged that the Karmapa hasn't made any statement against China since he came to India. The Karmapa reiterating the Dalai Lama's views on Tibetan autonomy and curtailment of religious freedom in Tibet, has been reported on at least a dozen occasions. The Himachal police have accused the Karmapa of being a Chinese spy because they found "Rs 11 lakh in Chinese yuan" at his monastery. The fact that currency of at least eight other countries was also found has been easily ignored because that proves that the money came from hundreds of devotees from numerous countries who visit him every day.

With the Dalai Lama not getting any younger at 75 and clouds over the Karmapa's credentials as the next charismatic leader of the Tibetans in exile, no points for guessing who will benefit from these rumours. Power struggle within the Tibetan sects and the naivete of our police have done extensive damage to our foreign policy and security. The Chinese couldn't have asked for a better scenario. They must be amused; in fact, they are probably smiling.

The writer, a former military intelligence officer, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.



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