India's handling of Karmapa issue shambolic

Feb 8, 2011

Category: Police Raid Jan 2011

Tibetan Buddhism's third most important leader, Ugyen Thinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, is once again in news. Police raided a monastery of the Karmapa Lama in Dharamsala in January and reportedly seized USD 1.6 million in cash in various currencies, including the Chinese yuan.

The head of the Karma Kagyu sect, generally seen as a political successor to Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, was soon being labelled as a Chinese spy. Notably, the third highest spiritual leader of the Tibetan community fled from China in year 2000 and is recognised by Beijing.

In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of, Dr Dibyesh Anand, an expert on Tibet, discusses the controversies regarding the Karmapa and the way India should handle them.

Dr Dibyesh Anand is Associate Professor of International Relations at London's Westminster University and the author of 'Tibet: A Victim of Geopolitics'.

Kamna: Some suspect that the 'escape' of Ugyen Thinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, to India was a part of Chinese intelligence operation to use him to shape Tibet-related events after the death of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Is there any substance in such suspicion?

Dr Anand: The honest and informed answer is - no. It would require a big leap of faith on the part of the Chinese to hope that such a high-level lama, who was a teenager when he fled, would remain under their influence. Did the Chinese not know that Indian security services will keep a very close watch on the young Karmapa? Did they not realise that if the 'plot' is revealed, it would be a bigger embarrassment for them? If you look closely at wild stories being broadcast by the Indian media, you see that they are nothing but rumours and false stories propagated by some vested interests (Indian government needs to investigate these unnamed sources far more rigorously).

Let me give you a few examples of how any person with rudimentary knowledge of Tibetan affairs will realise that the stories are fabricated. I'll focus on stories that are directly connected with the accusation of him being a spy (rather than alleged financial mismanagement by his aides).

a. Chinese SIM cards were found in Karmapa's establishment - Did any journalist investigate if Chinese SIM cards work in Himachal area or not? Will the use of a Chinese SIM card inside India not attract greater scrutiny/surveillance than using Indian SIM card? Surely, Chinese SIM cards can only be used via Indian networks inside India.

b. Karmapa made a lot of donation after the Leh flash flood to gain influence - Which senior lama will not do the same? Since Ladakh has a number of followers of Kagyu sect, of which Karmapa is the head, what is wrong in Karmapa helping out? If he had not assisted, he would have been accused of not caring for his disciples. Since he assisted, he is being accused of helping China. Why is this story being brought up now and not during the Leh flash floods?

c. Karmapa was sent to establish control over monasteries from Ladakh to Sikkim to Arunachal - It is appalling to see journalists taking this accusation at its face value. There is no monastery of significance in Arunachal that belongs to Kagyu sect. If Chinese wanted to do that, why did they recognise Sikkim as part of India in early 2000s well after the Karmapa had come to India? Surely, if China had sent him to India to exercise control, they'd have waited for the Dalai Lama to die, Karmapa to take control and then claimed Sikkim.

d. Karmapa has been sent to extend Chinese influence over exile Tibetans - China used to hope that after the demise of the present Dalai Lama, Tibetan exiles will lose a charismatic leader with global appeal and splinter. Karmapa's arrival in India destroyed that hope. Why would China risk providing a figure around whom Tibetans and their Western sympathisers can mobilise, thus prolonging the conflict between Chinese government and the Tibetans?

e. Karmapa has many Chinese followers - All Tibetan lamas, including the Dalai Lama, have an increasing number of followers inside China. In fact, the Chinese government is far more threatened by the increasing influence of Tibetan Buddhist lamas over its population than by neighbouring countries. Rather than understand this, many Indians tend to see everything in black and white terms.

Kamna: Why has the Karmapa never been able to win over the confidence of the Indian establishment?

Dr Anand: Indian national interest is shaped in a rather fragmented and haphazard manner and influenced by several competing vested bureaucratic and political interests. Sectarian tensions arising out of the reincarnation controversy over the 17th Karmapa (where the backer of the other candidate for Karmapa, Shamarpa, is a personality known for having good connections with the Indian security establishment), the conspiracies surrounding Karmapa's escape (one such film, 'The Flight of a Karmapa', makes similar accusations about Karmapa being a spy - I was given the DVD of this film by someone in Beijing. So you can imagine that the story suits certain interests in China for it sows suspicion amongst the Indians), and the strong strand of Sinophobia in Indian security discourse all contribute to this.

Rather than approaching China with rational, calm and open-minded approach, Indian media and a section of security experts generate more hysteria.

Kamna: What will be the repercussions of the raids on Karmapa's headquarters on the ties between Tibetans and India? Do you think Indian authorities should have acted more carefully?

Dr Anand: Accusing someone, especially a venerated leader of millions, of being a spy is a serious matter. Surely, it is the Central government that has the responsibility of finding out and dealing with foreign spies. How can officials from the state government, who have no locus standi on this matter (they can only concern themselves with financial matters involved and not the spy accusation), give public statements to the media casting doubts over Karmapa's credentials? How can the state DGP bring in the reincarnation controversy when that has no bearing on financial irregularities he is investigating? Since when did a police chief become an expert on reincarnation procedures of Tibetan Buddhism? How can unnamed sources be allowed to plant rumours in the media about Karmapa being a Chinese mole? Is this not Libel? Who gives the media the license to destroy someone's reputation even when the government has not even brought a case against Karmapa for being a spy? India's handling of this sensitive matter has been shameful and shambolic.

Tibetans are deeply grateful to India for giving them refuge, for being a democracy, and for allowing freedom of worship. And they have in turn contributed immensely to the host society through their part in rejuvenating Buddhist pilgrimage, tourism, trade, and economy. Tibetans hold their religious leaders very dear. And an attack on Karmapa Lama is deeply offensive to millions of his followers. It is also seen as disrespect to the Dalai Lama since this Karmapa has a strong backing of the former.

The raids on the headquarters were not offensive per se for many Tibetans also realise that the religious institutions need to modernise their financial matters and become more accountable. However, the media stories and the slights made by the local police, the CM, and 'unnamed sources' were not about the raid but character assassination.

Kamna: How can China take advantage of this whole situation?

Dr Anand: China gains from this episode without having to lift a finger. First, the Tibetans living in India will feel hurt by Indian media’s insensibility (again, the raid per se is not hurtful, but the wild accusations of being a spy by the media) and thus may become preoccupied by this. Second, Karmapa cannot become a unifying religious figure for the Tibetans and their supporters after the 14th Dalai Lama passes away because in order to do that, he needs to remain in India, have trust of the government and people, and be allowed to travel without too many restrictions. China gains from this. Third, Tibetans inside Tibet will realise that their notion about India being tolerant and welcoming is incorrect since Indians do not care for the sentiments of the Tibetan Buddhists.



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