It was very early into the new year when Orgyen Trinley Dorje, 17th Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, finally left his monastery and entered Nepal. Waiting to receive him was Tai Situ Rimpoche, one of the 16th Karmapa's four regents -- the late monk's senior disciples, appointed to take care of his legacy, till the next Karmapa was found and enthroned.
Having met the runaway Dorje, Tai Situ escorted him to Mcleodganj, seat of the Tibetan government in exile. In the days to come, he was identified in the media, and by the world at large, as the boy Karmapa's mentor, preceptor and closest confidant. He has been amazingly busy for a man who was banned from entering India till a year and a half ago. Deftly avoiding serious questioning by the press, Tai Situ only found time to express his happiness at the Karmapa having arrived amid suggestions that he would be happy if the young monk took control of the Kagyu sect's headquarters -- the monastery in Rumtek, Sikkim.
In Rumtek itself, the Joint Action Committee (JAC) -- a conglomeration of Tibetan religio-political entities -- actually articulated the demand for the Karmapa's arrival. It would be a momentous occasion, for he who controls Rumtek controls the Kagyu's 350 (some intelligence reports say 600) monasteries worldwide and its billion-dollar wealth.
The monastery of Rumtek exercises great influence over Sikkim right from the days of the Chogyal, who gave the 16th Karmapa sanctuary in 1958. Sikkim, of course, acceded to India in 1975, in a merger China doesn't recognise. As such a pro-China tilt at the Rumtek monastery is a potential security risk.
This is the precise point being made by Shamar Rimpoche, once a fellow regent of Rumtek with Tai Situ but now a sworn enemy. In 1993, Shamar found his own Karmapa, Thai Thinley, rejecting Dorje as a pretender and a front for a China-Tai Situ conspiracy. After all, Dorje's ceremonial recognition as the Karmapa in 1992 was facilitated by Beijing.
In 1984, a quarter century after he fled Tibet crying against communist suppression, Tai Situ began visiting China. He met many important politicians there, including, say intelligence officials, Deng Xiaoping. He even presented a development plan for Tibet that advocated greater interaction with China.
Tai Situ also became a good friend of Nar Bahadur Bhandari, the then chief minister of Sikkim given to provocative views. The JAC was formed with Bhandari's support at a time when the Union government was very alive to growing Chinese influence in the region.
In 1993, Chen Li An, the prime minister of Taiwan, paid a secret visit to Sikkim as a guest of Tai Situ and Bhandari. They discussed bringing Dorje to Rumtek. Alarmed -- not the least because India had no diplomatic relations with Taiwan -- the Centre put Tai Situ on the watch list.
On August 2, 1994, the Home Ministry banned Tai Situ from entering this country for anti-India activities. Another charge against him (CBI case PE-3(S)/94 DLI) was the purchase of 120 acres in Gurgaon, near Delhi, in contravention of FERA and RBI regulations.
Backed by well-connected friends like Ram Jethmalani*, Tai Situ sought to have the ban revoked. Finally, on August 5, 1998, the Union home secretary allowed Tai Situ entry into India but warned him against visiting Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim and the Northeast and against getting embroiled in the affairs of the Rumtek monastery, including the installation of the new Karmapa. In the past few weeks, Tai Situ seems to have violated at least that final clause.
Following the Karmapa's arrival, two streams emerge within the Indian establishment.
Broadly speaking, the Shamar line is the logical conclusion of the thinking of intelligence and internal security agencies, such as IB and RAW.
Going soft on Tai Situ may be the line of a pro-China group within the Ministry of External Affairs, which seems reconciled to Beijing's suzerainty over Lhasa.
The only piece that doesn't fit is the Dalai Lama -- overtly anti-China but ready to recognise Dorje, a Beijing nominee, as the Karmapa. The key to this mystery may lie in a report sent on May 24, 1997 by K. Sreedhar Rao, then chief secretary of Sikkim, to T.S.R. Subramaniam, then cabinet secretary: "The reason as to why the Dalai Lama approved the reincarnation ... without adequate evidence and proper verification needs to be analysed. It is possible that a small coterie around him had been influenced by the Chinese."
Rao's letter warns that "along the entire Himalayan belt right from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh the influence of Tibetan Lamaistic Buddhism is extensive with a string of monasteries ... As of now no less than 11 monasteries are headed by lamas who can be considered proteges of China". The installation of a "Chinese national" as the Karmapa suggests that Beijing is preparing itself for the "post-Dalai Lama situation" and the "demand for installation of the Tibetan Karmapa in Rumtek ... can become more strident as time goes by".
Two and a half years later, the chickens, and the Karmapa, may have come home to roost.
*Ram Jethmalani, lawyer now Union law minister, has known Tai Situ for a "half-decade" and been a loyal friend
In 1994, when Tai Situ was banned from India and faced a CBI case, Jethmalani's juniors provided him legal help. Jethmalani also wrote to then home minister Rajesh Pilot. He says, "At the time, and even now, there was no doubt in my mind that Tai Situ was a high-ranking, learned monk against whom there was no clear case."
On December 2, 1996, Jethmalani wrote to then foreign minister I.K. Gujral describing the ban on Tai Situ as "irrational and anti-national ... Someone tells me he is suspected of Chinese connections and others tell me his Dalai Lama connection is not acceptable. The truth of the matter is nobody knows".
In 1998, on becoming urban affairs minister, Jethmalani wrote to an additional secretary in the Home Ministry seeking revocation of the ban on Tai Situ. It seemed to work. On August 5, 1998, the Union home secretary lifted the ban.