KOH PHANGAN, Thailand, 31 January 2019
Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, in his New Year message to millions of his followers around the world, wished them good health, peace, and contentment. “I pray that in the year ahead we will all strive together in harmony and unity for the welfare of the earth and for the sake of all sentient beings,” he said. He released this message from Germany, although he is now based mostly in the US.
In March last year, he obtained citizenship of the Commonwealth of Dominica, an island country in the Caribbean (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, a different country also in the Caribbean near Haiti.) Since acquiring his new citizenship, he travels without restrictions, and meets with anybody who comes to see him.
Before coming to the US in May 2017, the Karmapa’s every move was watched by Indian security agencies, and he was living under virtual house arrest. India held that he was a Chinese spy. A cash seizure was made from his office in Dharamshala in 2011, and the fact that Chinese Yuan were among the currencies found was used to substantiate India’s claim. There were currencies of 25 countries which had been offered to the Karmapa by his devotees over the years, totalling 6.5 crore (65,000,000) Indian rupees (approx 915,000 US dollars). His office was unable to deposit any of it in the bank due to the refusal of the Indian government to issue a Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) certificate for him. This seized money was never returned to him.
The Karmapa’s dramatic flight in 2000 from Chinese-occupied Tibet to India captured the world’s attention, and was a massive slap in the face for China. He said that the reason for his escape was to prevent China using him against the Dalai Lama.
Enthronement of the 17th Karmapa
When the current 14th Dalai Lama was enthroned in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in 1950, China did not dispute this. But it wasn’t China who had the authority to recognise the Dalai Lama. The process of recognising the lamas is a traditional one, conducted by his followers, not by non-believers or foreign governments.
In 1992, Tai Situ Lama, the head of the search party for the new Karmapa, following instructions given to him by the previous Karmapa, located “Apo Gaga” (the child who was the reincarnation the 17th Karmapa) in eastern Tibet. Feeling certain he had found the new Karmapa, he informed the Dalai Lama, who confirmed and endorsed Apo Gaga as the 17th Karmapa. Apo Gaga was then enthroned as the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje at Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet, the traditional seat of the Karmapa, when he was seven years old.
Apo Gaga himself did not claim to be a Karmapa. He was recognised to be the Karmapa by the authorities in his lineage. As with the Dalai Lama, his enthronement was also not disputed by the Chinese government. It is absurd that he is called a “claimant” by those who only have vested interests, but lack even the most basic awareness about the Tibetan culture and issues.
Constitution says India is a secular country
The recent statement by an unnamed “source” in Indian government quoted in Indian media, that the Government of India doesn’t recognise Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa, is in essence immature and senseless. Does India have the mandate to install a lama? Is it even constitutional to proclaim who is, and isn’t a religious leader? Could the Government of India decide who could be a baba (guru) or not? By this logic, then would the Pope need Indian government’s recognition in the future? For the unnamed “source” to give his verdict when the matter is sub-judice in Indian court is a matter of contempt of court. These are some issues, but now they are almost irrelevant given that the Karmapa doesn’t live in India anymore.
Having been born in China-occupied Tibet, and accepted by Beijing as the 17th Karmapa, wouldn’t India be interfering in China’s internal affairs (after all, India recognises Tibet as a part of China) by questioning his position as the Karmapa? Ogyen Trinley Dorje is now a citizen of Dominica. Could India decide the future of the citizens of another country? These are some other issues the “source” quoted by the Indian media has no awareness of.
Ogyen Trinley Dorje has been recognised as the 17th Karmapa by the Dalai Lama, the supreme spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, by the Central Tibetan Administration, and by 99% of the Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet. He doesn’t need any other or more recognition. He is the legitimate throne holder of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetans in exile welcomed him with full reverence as he joined them in their quest for a free Tibet. Since then it has been he as the Karmapa who has participated in official functions, NGO events, media interviews, or personal guidance of the majority of Tibetans in exile.
By seeking citizenship of Dominica, the Karmapa has clearly shown that he has no interest in gaining control of Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, which again much of the Indian media seemed to think to be the traditional seat of the Karmapas. It is not. Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet is. It was built by the first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa in 1159, becoming the original headquarters and the traditional seat.
Rumtek monastery in Sikkim (which is close to an old monastery built in the 1700s under the direction of the 12th Karmapa Changchub Dorje) became the exile seat of the 16th Karmapa in 1966 after he fled to India from Tibet via Bhutan. For this reason, Rumtek Monastery has great historical significance, particularly given the fact that it was once under independent Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim (later to become an Indian state in 1975). The Indian court is now free to decide about the future of Rumtek monastery, as Ogyen Trinley Dorje has left India.
Tibetan refugees in India
The Karmapa’s decision to get a travel document needs to be read in the context of the life of Tibetan refugees in India. In a statement in November to his devotees, the Karmapa said that he had sought citizenship of Dominica to make it easier to travel. He travelled out of India with a document called Identity Certificate, (popularly known as the Yellow Book, because of the colour of the cover of that document). This document enables a Tibetan living in India to travel abroad. What the officials, like the “source” and the Indian media, don’t seem to know is the enormous difficulties associated with travelling on this document, as well as many other problems such as land-grabbing by local Indians of land allocated to Tibetans, discrimination against Tibetans by locals, increasing resentment towards Tibetans, unemployment among Tibetans, and more.
A Yellow Book is issued to a Tibetan if that person is holding a Registration Certificate (RC), another document which is the stay permit for Tibetan refugees in India. The problem is that it takes at least a year, or years in some cases, to get the Yellow Book. Once it is processed, the holder needs an “exit permit” to leave the country. To process this may take weeks to months, and often involves shelling out thousands of rupees to Indian officials. Then, there is the need for a “return visa”, which follows the same procedure as the “exit permit”, and again involves wasting a lot of time and shelling out thousands of rupees.
The hardships related to the Yellow Book don’t end here. Even the Indian immigration officials often have no clue what is the Identity Certificate, let alone officials of other countries. Facing harassment is common at the immigration in Delhi. Overseas, a Yellow Book holder is brought out of the queue, causing embarrassment and discomfort in front of other travellers at the immigration gate. The holder is usually released after some questioning and confirmation. Many have wished that the Government of India change the name of “Identity Certificate” to “Travel Document”, which would make a lot more sense. But that hasn’t been done, and may never happen. For the officials concerned, it’s not their problem, and they don’t care.
Tibetans prefer to get the job done with the rupees rather than complain, as there is nowhere to bring this issue up, nor are any officials dealing with Tibetans at all interested (or who even try to understand the matter). Officials like this “source” who think they know the Tibetan issues and problems well, may not have any knowledge about such matters, or, again, would not be interested in understanding these issues. They must surely know that there are now only about 60,000 Tibetans living in India as compared to 90,000 according to the 2009 census of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). This number would gradually shrink as the exile community naturally disintegrates against such odds and existential threats. They don’t know the real reason why. The Karmapa’s statement that he sought passport of Dominica to ease travelling problems could be used by the Government of India to reassess the situation of Tibetans in India.
Making travelling easier was indeed a good reason by the Karmapa to leave India — but could it also be the distress he felt for all these years with a “Chinese spy” tag, restrictions in travelling and meeting people, being confined to a two-room accommodation? It well could be all these causing him suffocation that led him to decide to leave India.
Benefits of spying for China
If the Karmapa was truly a Chinese spy, that would make the CTA, the Dalai Lama, and all the Tibetans who revered him complicit in this spying, as they recognize and support him to be the Karmapa. After 18 years, India, without any speck of evidence, didn’t change its position. But what the “source”, Indian intelligence, think tank, and the media do not explain is, what and how much could China pay the Karmapa to spy for them? What doesn’t he already have that China could give for working as a Chinese spy, putting his own life at risk? And what information could he possibly “spy” that could be of any use to China at all?
What Tibetans would say is, the “source” is shooting from the shoulders of the media. And to borrow Donald Trump’s favourite catch phrase “fake news”, the “source” is spreading fake news and misinformation when he says that the Karmapa didn’t apply for a visa. When the Karmapa clarified that he did apply, then the “source” changes his statement, saying the application was not complete. Should the government of India afford to keep such mediocre officials, when the matter concerns the important issue of India-Tibet-China.
The offer to the Karmapa of land in Delhi by the Government of India sounded like a desperate act to woo him back to India. But why would Karmapa want to build his centre in Delhi? Given the choice, he surely would like to be close to the Dalai Lama, and the main Tibetan hub McLeod Ganj, in Himachal Pradesh. Another indication of non-thinking on the part of the Government of India, was the refusal to accept the surrender of his Yellow Book when it was brought to the Indian mission in New York City in October. It is clearly mentioned on the Yellow Book itself that once a holder of the Yellow Book obtains any other travel document, it ceases to be valid, and must be surrendered to the nearest Indian passport-issuing authority.
In a new statement last week, the Karmapa clarified that attempts to surrender his Yellow Book to the Indian Mission in New York City were unsuccessful, with the chief official at the Mission saying that he needs to seek advice from Delhi. His India visa application was also not processed. The Karmapa further stated that there was some discussion between him and the chief. Learning about the situation, Tibet Sun reported on the same in November. It has now been learned that the chief insisted that the Karmapa withdraw from surrendering his Yellow Book, and that he should continue to travel on the same document, despite the fact that this would be against the rule enacted by the Government of India itself.
It should be known that the Karmapa is needed by Tibetans in the US, Canada, and European countries, as much as he is needed by Tibetans in India. Such frequent travels are extremely challenging and almost impossible on the Yellow Book. He has been busy attending Tibetan events in these countries since moving to the US in May 2017. Since then he has been able to perform his duties as the Karmapa without any restrictions. He is free to travel anywhere he wants, and meet with anyone he chooses to. He even met with the claimant-Karmapa Thinley Thaye Dorje in France, stunning all the stakeholders — something that would have never been possible to do in India.
Shooting from the shoulders of media
The Karmapa has made his choice clear, and gotten himself a citizenship (which more or less, just a travel document), and wants to live outside India. He has made the right choice, one that anybody would choose if they were in his situation. India could choose whether it wanted to issue him a visa or not. But resorting to the usual cheap tactic of shooting from the shoulders of media without any clarity, let alone the name of the “source” shows a sense of confusion, desperation, mismanagement, as well as lack of sophistication and professionalism, by the handlers of the issue of Karmapa in the Government of India. In all earnestness, the Government of India should come out with an official statement through a spokesperson or even a press release to confirm the official position on the Karmapa, rather than giving silly comments such as that he had not applied for the visa, then later changing to the effect that he has not completed his visa application. Ogyen Trinley Dorje is the head of a global network of spiritual centres. He has top class people working for him. To say that his visa application was incomplete strikes as nothing less than ludicrous.
Indian officials shooting through media’s shoulder is counter-productive and the media mess confuses the situation further. It only prove India’s heavy-handed big brotherly strategy, especially without any sensitivity when dealing with religious minorities. Karmapa will have to clarify the fake news, and that would not reflect well on the image of the Government of India. Instead, if the officials could try to understand, they will see that the Karmapa had taken the passport of Dominica, not US Green Card. With his stature and circumstances, he could have easily sought asylum in any developed country of his choice (the US, Canada or Switzerland) within months. He didn’t because he did not want to complicate matters further, and it was not his goal to be exiled for the second time. All he needed was a travel document, and that is what he got.
Fair deal for possible return
If India wants him back, it should drop the “Chinese spy” tag, let him set up a centre according to his choice, lift all travel restrictions, and let him meet his followers, including the Chinese, without any paranoia. Indian government needs to move from being an arrogant big brother to be a wise elder brother and stop using the media as a manipulation tactic to control him. A proper diplomacy and dialogue, with some time and space, could easily bring a breakthrough. Or else, he is free now, and it wouldn’t make sense to go back to India to live where it suffocates him and face the security and media tamasha all over again. But if New Delhi’s plan is to keep the Karmapa away from India, then it is clearly succeeding!
About the author
Lobsang Wangyal lives in McLeod Ganj, India, with some travelling overseas, and edits the Tibet Sun website.