Is the Karmapa more sinned against than sinning? The question bears weight as the controversy over the ‘non-return’ to India of Ogyen Trinley Dorje, 17th head of the Tibetan Karmapa lineage, continues to linger. He had left India in May 2017 on his India government issued Identity Certificate for the UK, Canada and the United States. His departure was after getting due clearance from Indian authorities. He was due to return in August but the trip got extended for medical reasons with check-ups in Germany and Canada. In November, his sister was sent to explain his decision to further extend his stay until June 2018 for health reasons.
The seeds of the controversy were probably planted in March 2018 when he acquired a passport of the Commonwealth of Dominica, rated by the Henley Passport Index as the “seventh best passport in the world” guaranteeing visa-free arrival or visa-free access to 119 countries. That is no crime since other Tibetan religious leaders in India also travel on passports of different countries.
What may have raised Indian hackles were interviews he gave complaining of restrictions placed on his movements in India which inhibited his religious studies and prevented him from discharging his religious responsibilities as Karmapa. The restrictions reportedly also required him to submit his travel plans in writing to the ministries of Home and External Affairs, which then inform the Superintendent of Police in Dharamshala of their approval.
Add to that reports alluding to him as a “Chinese plant” although there’s never been any evidence against him on that score. Officials who have dealt with the matter admit there is no other Tibetan leader who has been subjected to so many restrictions and checks as the Karmapa. An official pointed out that “He is the only important Tibetan lineage holder in India not to have a home of his own. Since his arrival in India in January 2000, he has been housed in two rooms at the Gelug Vajravana Gyuto Monastery in Dharamshala where he cannot perform rituals according to his tradition.”
Although reports have since indicated the Indian government is giving him some land in Dwarka near Delhi for a monastery, a formal offer is awaited. It won’t come cheap, the reports say it may cost as much as Rs 20 crore (about $280,000) an acre.
The treatment of him is odd given the enormous significance of the Karma Kagyu lineage in Tibetan Buddhism. It is even older than that of the Dalai Lama and it is the Kagyu lineage which began the selection of its head through reincarnation. Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s claim as Karmapa rests not only on his recognition by the Dalai Lama, 95 per cent of the Karma Kagyu lineage and most Tibetans. The Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala recognises him as the Karmapa. He has made common cause with the Tibetan struggle against Chinese occupation and professed his loyalty to the Dalai Lama.
Officials say in the post-Dalai Lama phase, Tibetans all over the world will be looking to the Karmapa for guidance and leadership. In that sense, India must not do anything that could deepen the young Karmapa’s apprehensions about his treatment in this country. References to him as a “Chinese plant” appear to have hurt him deeply and raised doubts in his mind about whether he would be treated with dignity as and when he returns to India.
Some have sought to insinuate that Trinley Dorje is only one claimant to the title of Karmapa, pointing to Thaye Dorje. But the latter has broken his vows, got married and therefore cannot ordain other monks. Nor has Thaye Dorje voiced any support for the Tibetan struggle.
The Karmapa controversy comes at a time when there is a sense within the Tibetan community that India is ambivalent towards them, an ambivalence perhaps driven by the challenge posed by China.
The Chinese continue to deal with the heads of various Tibetan lineages in India and even facilitate the reincarnation of their successors in Tibet. While Chinese oppression in Tibet is widely acknowledged, Beijing also appears to have gone the extra mile in refurbishing monasteries in Tibet and providing money for their upkeep. This may be driven less by concerns over Tibet and more by the spread of Buddhism among the Han Chinese population. It may not be long before Chinese Buddhists become the single largest ethnic group to travel to Bodh Gaya in Bihar, widely revered as the place where Buddha attained enlightenment.
There’s something else India needs to take notice of. The Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala has acknowledged the gradual exodus of Tibetans (albeit in small numbers) to the West and some even back to Tibet. Reports in September said there was a sharp fall in Tibetan numbers in India, from 150,000 to 85,000, in the last seven years. Clearly, younger Tibetans seek a future and a life given the uncertainties associated with their status as “foreigners” in India, which bars them from seeking jobs or owning property. The treatment of the Karmapa only adds to Tibetan misgivings about India.
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