MOHAN GURUSWAMY | 14 MAY, 2018
The Importance of Being the Dalai Lama
The Importance of Being the Dalai Lama
Despite a historical political identity entwined with China, Tibet has traditionally looked towards India for economic and spiritual sustenance. Tibet has also had a long history of struggle with China and this Dalai Lama is not the first one to seek refuge in India. The British had an active policy to create a buffer against China in the form of an independent Tibet. The Chinese Amban in Lhasa watched the Younghusband expedition’s exertions in Tibet passively and one immediate consequence of this was an assertion of Tibet’s independence.
Almost immediately after their civil war triumph in 1949, the Chinese Communists reasserted control over Tibet, which had by then enjoyed over four decades of relative independence. Since then India has tried to head off the Tibet problem by accepting its annexation into the Peoples Republic of China. In the years since the Chinese Communists tried to solve the Tibet problem by attempting to wipe out Tibetan nationalism and Buddhism with Mao’s Communism. It didn’t succeed.
This policy has now been replaced by creeping “Hanization” and massive doses of economic development. These too have worked only partially for the Chinese, but they seemed to do better with this than with the Maoist iron hand. Though Tibet is now relatively passive, it still remains a dry tinderbox and the Chinese dread the likelihood of any spark that may set off a fire.
For India too the policy has worked partially. Nearly 150,000 Tibetan refugees now live in India, and India has willy-nilly become the fulcrum of a worldwide struggle by the Tibetans to regain their nation. In short the Tibet issue, though dormant now, is still very much alive and whether India likes it or not, it is being played out in its front yard.
Central to this sustained struggle has been the ever-increasing international stature of the Dalai Lama who has become the symbol of many ideals and images. The mix of new age spiritualism, ethics, ecological values and politics has won for the Dalai Lama many influential and wealthy western adherents to Tibetan Buddhism and supporters of Tibet’s cause. Macleodganj today is a magnet that draws large numbers of young westerners seeking a new meaning to and purpose in life. It draws top political personalities like Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader in the US Congress, and top Hollywood actors like Richard Gere and Uma Thurman.
True the Dalai Lama has become many things to many people but what should be relevant to us is that he has emerged as a man of great stature and influence. Presidents and Prime Ministers now vie to receive him and the pictures that get transmitted world over electronically reminds the world that there is still a Tibetan nation still yearning to be free and peacefully struggling for it. This is a powerful image. Both, China and India must worry about a post Dalai Lama period.
Tibetans believe the Dalai Lama to be a living God. But he is also human and must die like all humans. He is now in his eighth decade and time is certainly not on his side. As long as he is alive he keeps the embers of Tibetan nationalism from conflagrating with the blanket of the new age Buddhism that he has woven. When this Dalai Lama is gone, the embers might just combust.
We can be certain that it is the present Dalai Lama’s stature that keeps the lid on Tibetan militancy. After him the political power of the next Dalai Lama will almost certainly be challenged. Many of the younger Tibetans in exile will not accept the legitimacy and leadership of another incarnation. The incarnation will in any case take many years to grow into mature adulthood and till then some manner of bureaucratic regency will actually be in charge. This regency may not have the moral and spiritual stature of the present Dalai Lama. That will have to be earned and only time can tell if the next incarnation chosen by the regency will fit the bill.
The chosen leadership of the exiles will not go unchallenged. The Chinese will almost certainly try to foist their own incarnation and will try to legitimize it with all the power available to them. It is unlikely that they will succeed, but it will certainly obfuscate the situation and preclude any future compromise on the issue of the spiritual leadership of the Tibetan Buddhists.
While the spiritual leadership may be contested, it is almost inevitable that a new generation of Tibetan exiles will stake a claim for the temporal leadership of the Tibetan nationalist movement. If this is contested by the regency around the India based incarnation, then we will almost certainly see a competition for the hearts and minds of young Tibetans and this will inevitably lead to more assertive postures as the factions jockey for power. Such internal struggles often result in greater militancy.
On the other hand we may see a duality of leadership emerging among the Tibetan exiles, a spiritual leadership that tends to the soul and a militant leadership that leads the struggle for attainment of political goals. It is due to the Dalai Lama’s foresight and sagacity that the contours of such a dual leadership is emerging with the second tallest Buddhist ecclesiastical figure, Ugen Thinley, the Karmapa and the just re-elected Sikyong (Prime Minister) of the government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay. Both now enjoy much stature among émigré Tibetan groups and within Tibet.
The splintering of the exile leadership into two or even more factions would be a desirable objective for the Chinese. From the Indian perspective the rise of an alternate religious leader in the interim would well prevent the splintering of the Tibetan Buddhist movement. The young Karmapa might well provide this.
This will not be without consequences for India. People who have closer ethno-linguistic links to Tibet than to the plains populate the entire Himalayan region from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. Geographically much of Ladakh is an extension of the Tibetan Changthang and the main language spoken is a Tibetan dialect. The Tawang tract in the other end was, till it was annexed by India in the early 1950’s, under the temporal control of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa. The Bhotia’s of Sikkim are also a Tibetan race speaking a Tibetan dialect. The term Tibet derives from Tho Bhot, the original denotation for Tibetans. It is not difficult to see the relationship between Tho Bhot and Bhotia.
We must not forget that the border dispute with China is in reality a border dispute with Tibet. It is another matter that if Tibet was independent, it would have been unable to assert its claims in the manner the Chinese did. The Chinese claim of the “Tawang and surrounding areas” is largely based on a claim made by the present Dalai Lama in the late 1940’s when he wrote a letter to the government of newly independent India laying formal claim to it.
The new post-Communist China thus reserves the highest premium to “internal harmony” while it is embarked on the rapid transformation of its economy within the window of opportunity its current demographics offers. Two decades from now, China will be an aging nation and hence it feels that it must make the best of the present opportunity. This is the dominant mood among China’s leaders and they would be extremely loathe to let the ambitions of a relatively small number of Tibetans distract them from the goals they have set for China.
China has shown it can contemplate two or more systems within one nation, as is now the case with Hongkong and on offer to Taiwan. This is essentially a common economic system with a fairly generous allocation of administrative power, as we see in the case of Hongkong.
What system can the Chinese offer the Tibetans? The Dalai Lama is increasingly speaking about a Buddhist way of life in Tibet within China. How can China agree to this when it essentially undermines the political authority of the center?