(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
When Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama crossed over to India in July 1959; it raised a subterranean confusion within the Indian political establishment. Five years back, in 1954, India had surrendered the special privileges it enjoyed in Tibet and had entered into an agreement with Beijing thereby accepting that Tibet was a part and parcel of China. So when New Delhi extended refuge to Dalai Lama it was basically out of a humanitarian ground. But directionlessness of India’s Tibet policy had become apparent. In 1954 India could have used Tibet as a quid pro quo for settlement of the border problem in the eastern Himalayas. But no such thing was done. Subsequent Indo-China war of 1962 proved that India’s China policy was at a confused stage in the 1950s.
The same kind of confusion is visible even today. From 1959 to at least the end of the 20th century the Dalai Lama formed the cornerstone of India’s Tibet policy. His Tibetan government-in-exile was allowed a safe refuge at Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. The Dalai Lama was treated under suitable diplomatic protocol which a religio-temporal authority should deserve. In spite of pressures from China India did not budge in its respectful approach for the Dalai Lama.
But all these are now showing signs of a change. Here again there are signs that the government of India is trying to keep the Dalai Lama at arm’s length without taking into account his relevance in the Buddhist world. When Narendra Modi took oath as the Prime Minister of India in 2014 the President of the Central Tibetan Administration (the Head of the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamshala) was invited as a guest in the oath-taking ceremony. But in 2018 the Government of India had spurned an invitation from the same Tibetan government to participate in the latter’s anniversary programme citing the reason that ‘it was a sensitive time for bilateral relations with China’.
It is, however, true that questions can be raised as to how much influence the Dalai Lame still enjoys in Tibet. He is in India for sixty years. Tibet has undergone a lot of changes during this time. Most important, China has had a heavy dose of globalization in this intervening period and this may have considerably slackened the hold of religion in the psychic set up of the Tibetan people.
Still the Dalai Lama is important in the Buddhist world. He is one of the oldest surviving interpreters of Mahayana Buddhism which holds sway not just in Tibet but in China as a whole with 244 million Buddhists as well as in large swathes of east and south-east Asia where India is trying to penetrate with its Act East policy. China understands this and that is why it is trying to cultivate Buddhism as a tool of soft power diplomacy together with a vicious attack on the Dalai Lama. In spite of being a votary of atheism the Communist Party of China (CCP)-led government in Beijing is holding the World Buddhist Forum every three years since 2006. In Hainan province it has started the Nanhai Buddhism Academy and in Wuxi the Lingsham Grand Buddha (a huge statue of Lord Buddha) has come up. A collaborative Chinese Bangladeshi excavation in Bangladesh has taken place exhuming relics associated with Atish Dipankar. In addition China has helped in building up a Buddhist centre in Yangon and is busy in revival and restoration of Gandhara period sites in Pakistan as a sideshow of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Given this backdrop India must take note of China’s recent moves in regard to the Dalai Lama’s succession. The religious ‘guru’ is suspicious that China may foist its own protégée as the 15th Dalai Lama after his death and therefore he is keeping every option open including the possibility of ‘no succession’. According to Tibetan traditions senior monastic disciples choose the successor basing on signs and ability of the selected little boy to identify mystic signals. But in 2011 the Chinese foreign ministry issued a proclamation that Bejing has the right to appoint a Dalai Lama and anyone else chosen the other way will not be recognized by China.
Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama as a Bodhisatva who has attained the nirvana but who has willingly taken rebirth in order to share the common people’s sufferings. There are hundreds of lineages in the Tibetan society who are invested with this mystic characteristic but the Dalai Lama is the most influential. The one who comes next to the Dalai Lama is the Panchen Lama whom Beijing has already got within its pocket. The name of the present Panchen Lama is GyancainNorbu who is known to be a good man but carries no credibility with the people of Tibet because of the highly suspicious circumstance leading up to his selection. It is a well known fact that the six-year-old boy who was originally selected by the religious order to succeed the 10th Panchen Lama had suddenly vanished. No one has seen him again. The Communist government at Beijing stepped in and Norbu was chosen to become the 11th Panchen Lama.
It is certain that GyancainNorbu will act as Beijing’s proxy in the selection process of the 15th Dalai Lama. The Government of China has been doing all the spadeworks for preparing the ground in this respect. Norbu gave the keynote addresses in the first three World Buddhist Forum meetings and the Beijing government made him to offer prayers at the Lhamoi Lhahtso lake in August last year. This lake plays an important part in the selection of a new Dalai Lama as the senior disciples perform some holy rites in this lake in the midst of their journey in search of a new incarnation. This was a calculated attempt to bestow holiness on Norbu so that he can play decisive roles at the time of a new Dalai Lama selection.
Control over the seat of Dalai Lama and Buddhism has become necessary for China. More than power and pelf the seat of Dalai Lama means identity to a vast majority of the Tibetan people. Now China wants to launch itself from Tibet in order to penetrate large parts of South and South East Asia for the successful implementation of its BRI project. A railway line connecting Tibet with Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is expected to come up in 2023. This will give China the pathway for spreading the BRI tentacles. Since the lion’s share of countries in the ASEAN region and Japan and Sri Lanka also are followers of Buddhism, so a political control of this religion is necessary for Beijing. This is one of the reasons behind its desperate bid to gobble up the institution of the Dalai Lama. Moreover, it has already declared its resolve to Sinicize Buddhism in China.
The scenario is clear. After the demise of the 14th Dalai Lama there will be, in all probability, two Dalai Lamas- one recognized by China and the other enthroned by monastic disciples at Dharamshala. The China-backed Dalai Lama will be recognized by the Panchen Lama and the Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu sect, another influential Tibetan lineage. What will be India’s stand-in this drama? Confusion is likely to reign supreme in the corridors of power in New Delhi. In a recent lecture in Bodh Gaya where Lord Buddha had attained enlightenment, Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, had left enough indications that he regards Buddhism as a subsystem of Hinduism. If that is the choice for the Indian government then the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala should not expect much from New Delhi.