They come carrying photographs of the Karmapa, some have his picture strapped to their heads, others come bearing bright yellow and pink plastic flowers. The long march of over a thousand people winds its way down the hills in the hot sun, past the snow-capped Dhauladhar ranges. Monks, students, women, youth and the elderly all walk down about 15 kilometres from McLeodganj, the home of the Dalai Lama, to the Gyuto monastery in Sidhbari, the transitory home of Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa—and the current seat of controversy.
The prayer hall inside the monastery is a picture of calm. There is a reverential hush as devotees walk in. An old woman who wants to make a Rs 20 offering but has no change, puts a Rs 50-note and takes back Rs 30 from the pile. In the small mounds of offerings that people have left behind are currency notes from all over the world. Amidst the Indian rupees and the dollar bills stands a nonchalant Chinese yuan note—the currency whose recovery in the monastery was responsible for a round of allegations about the Karmapa being a Chinese spy.
Outside, the steps and the courtyard of the yellow and maroon monastery fill up with devotees. Wednesday and Saturdays are when the Karmapa gives a public audience and today, a Wednesday, apart from the usual visitors are those who have come to express solidarity with the Karmapa.
And then, he finally appears. As he speaks, the crowd—with devotees in large numbers from Kinnaur, Lahaul-Spiti, Ladakh and from other parts of the country as well as abroad—hangs on to his words. His address in Tibetan is short and he talks about the controversy swirling around him.
“We are now facing such a situation, which has arisen due to misunderstandings and mistakes, that it has even caused concern to His Holiness the Dalai Lama...The Indian government, in contrast to Communist China, is a free country, a democratic country that is based on the rule of law. Therefore, I trust that things will improve and the truth will become clear in time. So please be at ease. There is no need to worry,” he says, raising his hand in blessing, before disappearing behind the imposing monastery doors.
But it’s been a week full of worry for the Tibetan community in Dharamshala. It all started on January 26, when two men carrying Rs 1 crore were caught at a Una checkpost. The money was part of a settlement paid by the Karmapa’s Trust for a piece of land they were buying from a Dharamshala resident. What followed was a raid at the monastery at Sidhbari where currency from about 20 countries, including China, all worth about Rs 7 crore, was seized.
“The administration of His Holiness ran a Saraswati Charitable Trust which had applied to the government for permission under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) so that they could deposit the donations they received in banks, but they were not given permission. Then in 2008, they started the Karmae Garchen Trust which too had applied for permission under FCRA. So many devotees come here from all over the world. Many of them are from Tibet and then, there are the Chinese from Taiwan, Hong Kong and even mainland China who come here and they give offerings in their currency. The Karmapa doesn’t even know how much money is inside, he doesn’t touch it. Since you can’t deposit foreign currency in a bank unless you have permission under FCRA, this currency was kept in the monastery,” says Diki Chunyalpa, who advises monasteries on environment matters, but has been made one of the spokespersons for the Karmapa in this hour of crisis. “Obviously, this was a non-modern solution. It was a bad judgment and it calls for a transition to a more modern way of accounting.”
The treasurer at the Karmapa’s office, a Ladakhi monk called Shakti Lama by all in the monastery, has been sent to police custody till February 5.
Last week, the Enforcement Directorate carried out raids over two days at the monastery. “They have looked at all the accounts books etc. that the administration had so meticulously maintained,” says Diki.
The money trail is not the only issue being investigated. The government is also looking into the land deal that the Karmapa’s Trust had entered into, for which they had paid the Rs 1 crore.
The Trust was buying the land to build a monastery for the Karmapa—this is just his transitory home. “He is, in a manner of speaking, living in borrowed lodgings. His room apparently is just 15x15 ft. So, his administration wanted to build a monastery for him. We had got preliminary approval from the government to buy the land. The Rs 1 crore that the two men were caught with was money the Trust had given them from the donations they received at a big Buddhist festival that was held in Bodh Gaya last December,” says Diki.
Himachal Pradesh doesn’t allow anyone from outside the state to buy land unless they have permission from the state Cabinet. Kangra’s district commissioner R S Gupta says the Karmapa’s Trust had applied for permission to buy land a month ago but they had not been given permission yet. “There are stages to this. First, you have to get an Essentiality Certificate which says how much land is needed and for what, and after that, the state government decides on it. The Trust had applied for an Essentiality Certificate but that has not been given yet. They have asked for about 60 kanals of land which is not feasible,” says Gupta.
It's not the money trail or the land probe but the allegation of the Karmapa being a Chinese spy that have upset the Tibetans living in Dharamshala. “In a way, there is a silver lining to this issue. There have been always been insinuations and murmurings about the Karmapa being a Chinese spy. Now since they are in the open, we can at least confront them,” says Diki.
The insinuations followed the Karmapa’s dramatic flight out of Tibet in December 1999. The Karmapa, accompanied by six others, travelled by car, on foot and on horseback for eight days and eight nights before crossing the border.
But controversy had dogged him even before that. He was a seven-year-old living in east Tibet in 1992 when he was recognised as a reincarnation and made the 17th Karmapa. But his selection was not free of controversy—a section of the Tibetans back another as the real reincarnation, but Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje has the Dalai Lama’s approval and the backing of the majority of the community. In the Tibetan hierarchy, the Karmapa, who is the head of the Karma Kagyu sect and whose role is purely spiritual, is the third most important leader after the Dalai Lama (who heads the Gelugpa sect, the biggest sect), and the Panchen Lama, who went missing in China in 1995, a few days after he was chosen by the Dalai Lama.
In India, the government initially suspected the Karmapa of being a Chinese spy and did not let him travel much out of his Sidhbari monastery. The restrictions have been easing gradually and in 2008, the Karmapa travelled to the US—his first international visit. But now the old suspicion has returned to haunt him.
“Maybe there was some mismanagement in the funds for which his administration is responsible. There should be an inquiry, but on TV channels, when they say things like, ab Karmapa ki pol kholengein, it is like you are talking about some goonda,” says Tsering, who runs a garment shop in McLeodganj.
At the office of the parliament of the government-in-exile, Speaker Penpa Tsering explains their position. “We are very clear that the Karmapa is personally not involved in financial dealings. There is the labrang that looks at the administration part so that the Karmapa doesn’t have anything to do with all this. Of course, money has been recovered. This goes against Indian law. There is an obvious reason why this happens. Many of our institutions, especially the one of the Karmapa, have a long lineage. The previous Karmapa, who was very popular and had disciples all over the world, would receive foreign donations. In the last few years, the Indian government has become very strict about giving FCRA to Tibetan institutions. If it had been granted, much of this would not have happened. But then again, since this is not in conformity with Indian law, the law should take its own course,” says Penpa.
But the conspiracy theories have confounded him. “From the time the Karmapa came to India, there has been a lot of suspicion around him. But we have no doubt that the Karmapa is not connected with this. He has always been under the watchful eye of the Indian government. All his visitors are screened and registered by the police. Even if you give this theory the benefit of doubt, who will he spy on? His Holiness is personally very fond of him, his plans are all public, so what will the Karmapa spy on? And why would the Chinese want such a high profile spy,” asks Penpa.