DHARAMSALA, India - The Indian government's ban on a long trip to Europe by the 17th Karmapa Lama, the second-most important "Living Buddha" after the Dalai Lama for Tibetans in exile here, has dealt a blow to the Free Tibet movement.
While many analysts believe New Delhi imposed the travel restriction on Karmapa so as not to upset Beijing and hurt ties between the two countries that are warming up, rumors have been circulating - without any hard evidence to back them up - that India suspects the Karmapa might be a spy for China.
Whatever the real reason, the ban comes at a time when the Karmapa is believed to be being groomed as successor to the aging Dalai Lama as spiritual leader of the Free Tibet moment. The Karmapa's potential would become limited if his activities were restricted by Indian authorities.
According to Ringu Tulku, the coordinator of the Karmapa's scheduled visit to Europe, the Indian government did not give its nod. The Kagyu office or the administration of the Karmapa, was informed of New Delhi's decision by the Tibetan government in exile on April 3. The 24-year-old Karmapa was originally scheduled to visit nine European countries over six weeks to give a series of teachings, lectures and initiations to his devotees. No explanation was given about the ban. "The process has begun to find out why this visit is not possible and what positive conditions are needed to make the visit possible in near future," a message posted by the coordinator of the Karmapa's visit read.
Some analysts believe this is a sudden decision by the Indian government. In 2008, New Delhi allowed the Karmapa Lama to travel to the United States, which was his maiden overseas trip since he fled Tibet in 2000. This time, the ban on his Europe trip was made just a couple of days before Indian Minister for External Affairs S M Krishna's official visit to China. Clearly, New Delhi did not want to upset Beijing to jeopardize Krishna's visit.
The Karmapa Lama, in a statement to his devotees in Europe, said: “My proposed visit has had to be canceled for reasons beyond my control. I was very much looking forward to meeting with my European students, visiting your dharma centers, giving teachings, and having the opportunity to gain first-hand experience and insight into the great variety of European life and culture.
"I was wholeheartedly preparing for this visit so you will understand that I too was sad and disappointed when I learned that I would not be able to come this time. However, I hope that this is merely a temporary setback and that I will definitely be able to visit Europe in the near future," he said in the statement.
The Karmapa Lama is head of the Kagyu school, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, ranking only behind the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama in the Tibetan spiritual hierarchy. The present 17th Karmapa - Ogyen Trinley Dorje - was also the first high lama to be recognized by China's communist government. He fled across the mountains from Tibet to India in 2000, when he was just 14, and since then has been living in exile, close to the Dalai Lama in the de facto capital of Tibetans in exile.
Due to his sensitive status as a refugee and as a prominent leader of the Tibetans in exile, the Karmapa needs to seek pre-approval from the Indian government for any travel, either to other parts of India or to foreign countries.
Needless to say, the Chinese government, which always slams the Dalai Lama for making overseas trips to engage in "separatist activities", would not happy to see the Karmapa follow the Dalai Lama's suit. It would not be a surprise if Beijing pressed New Delhi for the ban. .
The Indian government apparently makes its decisions on Karmapa's travel requests in view of its ties with China. In 2008, ahead of the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, the government rejected the Karmapa's request to visit areas near China. These included monasteries in the Lahaul and Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh as well as Ladakh district of Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian government didn't provide a reason for the rejection.
The Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Laureate, enjoys freedom to visit foreign countries, though his travels inside India are still restricted. This is because the Dalai Lama is much more widely recognized internationally and among Tibetans and their supporters. India would not want to risk being condemned internationally by banning any foreign visit by the Dalai Lama.
There is probably another reason why the Indian government imposes stricter restrictions on the Karmapa Lama's movements. The authorities are said to still have security concerns about the Karmapa fleeing from China and suspect his motives for coming to India.
The Karmapa's flight to India a decade ago created trouble for New Delhi in handling its relations with Beijing. Some Indian officials may not have been happy about the incident, and many are convinced that the Karmapa has been tricked by China since 2000 to create vexatious situations in India, particularly around his official seat at Rumtek in Sikkim, and rumors have circulated that Karmapa might be a spy for the communist government of China. Suspicion grows as the Karmapa becomes increasingly close to the Dalai Lama to win the trust of the latter and to gain greater influence among young Tibetans here.
Given a lack of hard evidence, however, it could be that the rumor has been spread deliberately, either by the Chinese or some Indian politicians who are not happy with his taking refuge in India.
Padma Choling, 58, newly appointed by Beijing as governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region, told Newsweek magazine in an April 5 interview: ''The Karmapa and I are mates from the same hometown; I know him quite well. When he left Tsurphu Monastery in December 1999 he left behind a letter. He said he would never betray his country, his people, or his religion. We hope he keeps his promise and does more good for the Tibetan people in his lifetime.''
Asked by Asia Times Online about the letter, the Karmapa's private secretary, Lama Phunstok, said, "We know he left a letter, nobody knows its content other than His Holiness the Karmapa. But surely he might have left a letter for a big reason, it is true."
For India, the arrival of the Karmapa has also dragged it into a dispute that it does not want. He has been challenged as not being a real successor to the 16th Karmapa. There are voices in the exiled Tibetan community supporting the claim by another monk, Ogyen Thaye Dorjee, a year older than Ogyen Trinley Dorjee, to be the real successor. However, Ogyen Trinley Dorjee is acknowledged by both the communist authorities in Beijing and the Dalai Lama. The case is now being brought to an Indian court for a ruling on who, as the 17th Karmapa, has the right to the assets of the Black Hat Lama's official seat at Rumtek.
And Ogyen Thaye Dorjee, the rival claimant to be the true Karmapa, now lives in Germany and often tours European countries. He surely would never want to see the existing Karmapa's influence grow and could have strongly objected to Ogyen Trinley Dorjee's trip to Europe. Ogyen Thaye Dorjee is said to have good connections in the Indian government and it would have been easy for him to pull strings.
The Karmapa Lama is confined to the monastery complex, closely guarded by Indian police and intelligence agents, and even unable to walk in the monastery grounds without permission - though he is allowed to make occasional excursions to Dharamsala to attend religious functions and to visit the Dalai Lama.
He spends most of his time in cramped quarters on the top floor of the monastery, where twice a week he gives public blessings in the temple, and he is able to receive a limited number of devotees for private audiences, though interviews to journalist are very rare. (For an interview, see Karmapa Lama: Tibet's young voice Asia Times Online, July 24,2009.)
His secretary, Lama Phunstok, said, ''We have no direct contact with the Indian government; everything comes to us through the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan representative in New Delhi.'' He believes His Holiness the Karmapa will return soon to his official seat at Rumtek.
Asked about the controversial succession of the Karmapa, Lama Phunstok said, ''The other group of Thaye Dorjee has some influence, but he's an invalid Karmapa. In a democracy [different] voices are always heard. How soon will the issue be settled? I don't know, but truth takes a little longer, eventually it will."
Samphel Thupten, the exiled Tibetan government spokesman, told Asia Times Online, ''We were told it was not convenient [Karmapa's Europe tour] for Indian government allowing permits overseas."
Asked whether the Indian external affairs minister's visit to China could have had any bearing, he said that was just speculation. ''We do respect the decision stated by the government of India. We have always wanted Karmapa Lama to visit places abroad to reach more students, his disciples. However, as the Tibetan government in exile sees it, it is bound under the Indian authorities' decision and will follow that."
Tashi Paljor, a Tibetan in exile, said His Holiness the Karmapa should have more freedom and wondered why Indian authorities were restricting him.
Some exiles have even signed online petitions, saying that travel restrictions on the Karmapa are a violation of human rights. In a letter to the Indian government they wrote, ''We seek a diplomatic solution that will allow the Karmapa to fulfill his spiritual responsibilities through his presence in thousands of centers and monasteries all over the world. We call for Ogyen Trinley Dorje's immediate and unconditional release from confinement in India.''