The Flight of the Karmapa is Further Proof That India Has No Tibet Card

The assumption that high Tibetan Lamas offer a degree of strategic depth for India in the Tibetan plateau vis-à-vis China is a misplaced one. It is neither proven nor will it happen in the future.

Any attempt at a dispassionate analysis of prominent spiritual figures such as the Gyalwang Karmapa is never easy, especially when one is a devotee or a practitioner of the Vajrayana tradition. Yet, it is important to sift through the critical emerging trends in Tibetan Buddhism that impact India’s national security.

As the Dalai Lama turned 83 this year, the focus of Tibet has noticeably shifted to the 17th Karmapa – Ogyen Trinley Dorje (OTD) – who had suddenly disappeared from the radar of Indian intelligence in May 2017.

Amid rumours, OTD was finally traced in Europe and later to the United States, where he has been staying under the pretext of poor health. The Karmapa is reportedly located in New Jersey’s Wharton State Forest area, where he is staying in a farm estate gifted to him by a Chinese-Taiwanese couple. Some media reports suggested the Karmapa may not return to India where he spent the last 18 years but this month in an interview to Radio Free Asia he said he was talking to the Indian government about coming back; reportedly, he may do so by November 2018. Earlier, he had promised to return by June 2018. Sources say that the mood among intelligence circles has been tense after the Karmapa’s disappearance.

The Karmapa had made a daring escape from Tibet in 1999, which had caused a huge embarrassment to the Chinese government. Many theories centring on the Karmapa are shrouded in mystery – especially about the rituals and intrigues of succession politics. The Chinese – unfazed by his flight – claimed in 2000 that OTD had gone to India just to collect the “sacred black hat” from Rumtek (Sikkim), which was left by his predecessor.

The plot thickened after his arrival in India, when the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama’s administration and the Indian establishment began to wrestle for control over the 17th Karmapa for geopolitical reasons.

In an interview in April 2001, the Karmapa said he feared the Chinese were using him for political purposes such as separating the Tibetans from the Dalai Lama. He said he would not return to Tibet until the Dalai Lama did.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama with the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa in India. Credit: kagyuoffice.org

The Dalai Lama with the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa in India. Credit: kagyuoffice.org

Considering the Karmapa’s importance in the Tibetan Lamaist order, the Dalai Lama in 1992 endorsed OTD – the candidate chosen by the Chinese – as the 17th Karmapa, possibly for a trade-off plan to get his chosen Panchen Lama released from Chinese captivity. That, of course, couldn’t be realised. Beijing, instead, installed a Panchen Lama of its own.

But the Karmapa’s sudden arrival in 2000 had raised many eyebrows in India. Many believed his escape was facilitated by the Chinese for the purpose of him getting hold of the “sacred black hat” lying in Rumtek. The Indian media was quick to label OTD a Chinese spy.

A reference was then made about the Karmapa having left behind a secret note in Tsurphu monastery in which he promised to return to Tibet soon. Interestingly, in a video message on June 26 last year, he said he desired to return to the ‘Land of Snow’ (Tibet) within the next two or three years.

In India, he was confined to the Gyuto Tantric monastery near Dharamsala under the tight surveillance of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and Indian intelligence agencies. The government had imposed travel restrictions on him, notably banning him from visiting Rumtek monastery that was built by his predecessor.

Ups and downs

In 2011, the Karmapa was caught in an insalubrious controversy over illegal recovery of a large stash of cash ($1.4 million), including Chinese currency at his monastery as well as in a benami land deal in Himachal Pradesh. Such incidents have fuelled suspicion about OTD being a Chinese plant.

Sources say even Dharamsala may have created suspicion in the minds of Indian officials to ensure the Karmapa’s popularity doesn’t dip. But it is also true that among many iconic religious masters, the CTA has played up the Karmapa’s stature to make him the next powerhouse to play a pivotal role in the post-Dalai Lama scenario.

Clearly, OTD’s escape would cause a huge embarrassment for the CTA, especially the Dalai Lama himself, for he has been vehemently defending his authenticity (as the true Karmapa) and has also dismissed accusations of him being a Chinese spy. OTD’s disappearance right under his nose raises several key questions, especially about the activities of Tibetan refugees in India.

His slip is an embarrassment for the government as well, because the decision to revoke the travel restrictions imposed on him by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in 2000 was taken only recently – inspite of intelligence agencies cautioning against it.

Not surprisingly, both New Delhi and Dharamsala seemingly tried their best, though in vain, to get him back. They sent a number of special emissaries to convince him to return.

What could have triggered the Karmapa’s escape?

In March this year, the Karmapa made some stunning revelations of his full ordeal in a 37-minute long “special message” telecast from the US that sent shock waves among his supporters and opponents alike.

The Karmapa revealed how his odyssey from the age of seven was manipulated by others; how he has been denied adequate education both in Tibet and India; how he virtually lived a prisoner’s life in Gyuto monastery (under tight surveillance) and was kept away from the main Kagyu masters scattered all around India.

Credit: kagyuoffice.org

The Karmapa also shared how helplessly he had to witness his own sect being torn into rival factions. He confessed to having tried in vain to heal the wound and seek “reconciliation” by talking to the opponent group led by Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche who passed away in 2014.

The Karmapa regretted how he was pressured to play a political role against the historical legacy of the Karmapa institution. For he also saw that politics is about seeking short-term benefits, profiting from “dividing people into factions”, whereas, dharma offers limitless prospects to serve people.

His main frustration pertained to his inability to meet the obligation of the title ‘Karmapa’ But more shockingly, the Karmapa hinted that he is being forced into the role – he confessed to not having any high “qualities and abundant realisations” of being the 17th Karmapa inspite of best efforts. He said, “I have no reasons to say that I am the reincarnation of any great Lama to meet the limitless hopes of people” – hence his desire to “give up” and live an ordinary life” and not continue “deceiving the public.”

Finally, he confessed to having run into “disharmony and disagreements” with the Indian government and regretted having spent 18 years of a “hassled life”, with the exception being meeting the Dalai Lama and other profound Kagyu masters in India.

The Karmapa appeared helpless in the video and the fact that he had to document his personal struggles and his “troubled life” through a special message from the US implies how grave the situation is.

Initially, the Karmapa cited ill-health and the ill-health of his attendant as reason for prolonged stay in America, but denied having any “insidious plans”.

That he had spent 18 years of ‘distressed’ life in India raises several pertinent questions i.e., who was conspiring against Karmapa; why was he confined to a monastery for 18 years; why was he denied Kagyu teachings; who pressed him to take up a political role; who created a rift in the Karmapa lineage; is he not the real Karmapa or was there any error in identifying the Karmapa; why is he thinking of stepping down and living as an ordinary person; and atop all these, why the ban on his travel was suddenly lifted last year.


The Karmapa’s confession comes at a critical juncture – with alarming implications for the future of the Lamaist institution and Tibetan politics. His escape also comes in the wake of new developments in China, after Xi Jinping got elected as lifetime president; declining interest in the Tibetan issue in the Western world as well as in India; the ageing of the Dalai Lama and reports of him being medically diagnosed with a terminal illness; and growing discord and divisions among the Tibetans living in exile.

Though the Karmapa shared his feelings with humility and honesty, he wasn’t sufficiently clear about what he intends to do in the future.

First, he may fear that he will not get a fair deal if he returns to India in terms of future movements. Already, many senior Kagyu monks and individuals associated with the Karmapa face restrictions on their travels within and outside India.

Second, he knows will have to confront all other odds including stiff competition in India from a rival Karmapa Thaye Trinley Dorje (TTD), who claims to carry the true soul of the 16th Karmapa.

Third, one of the reasons for his escape could have been his disappointment over multiple hindrances to get a suitable plot of land for building a replica of Tsurphu in India.

In fact, this and the issue for his visit to Rumtek may have been a key point for his return to India. In a belated attempt to woo him back, the CCS in March this year allowed the Karmapa to visit Sikkim, excepting the Rumtek monastery. There is also a lawsuit filed by a rival claimant over Rumtek and the matter is currently sub judice. The decision to lift the ban also came after monks in Sikkim went on a hunger strike.

Sources say that he was finally offered a plot in Dwarka (New Delhi) at the cost of Rs 22 crore an acre.

Against all these, the Karmapa might be weighing the option of seeking asylum in the US, thereby getting a Green Card and freely travelling to China and elsewhere and also freely meeting anybody. Sources say that hordes of visitors including top artists from Tibet have attended his birthday celebrations.

If he wishes to play the waiting game, he would rather do it from outside where he has a larger audience with a vast network of followers in the West, China, Southeast Asia and Tibet itself, rather than in India. He may possibly be trying to buy land in the US to set up the Karmapa Seat in exile.

It would be another matter if the Karmapa will end up becoming a strong asset for the US. He is already being courted by the House of Representatives, who have recently invited him to a function at the Capitol Visitor Center by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and other Congresswomen.

Fourth, the OTD’s escape provides an opportunity for China to convince the Tibetans both within and outside about the futility of them playing the ‘India Card’. Beijing can say – look what India does to Tibetan Lamas. The Karmapa episode may have allowed the Chinese to further confuse the exiled Tibetan community. On its part, Beijing will continue to support OTD in the hope that he will soon return to Tibet.

In fact, if rumours are to be believed the Karmapa may also opt to return to Tsurphu Monastery which is located 70 km from Lhasa and has been renovated by the Chinese government. In fact, last year he talked about his wanting to visit Tibet to meet his parents.

Overall, there is limited possibility of the Karmapa returning to India – the only exception that may work is the moral pressure or the trust factor of the Dalai Lama. But the efforts of emissaries who went to plead with the Karmapa have so far failed to yield the desired results.

New Delhi, therefore, needs to assess the implications and options that lie before it.

To prop up the rival Karmapa Thaye Trinley Dorje (TTD) in place of OTD can’t be an option. His recognition is not endorsed by the Dalai Lama and any attempt to do so could only alienate him, even though TTD has an equally large following – including from a vocal faction of the Himalayan Buddhist community in India.

The prospect for cultivating the other high-ranking Tibetan Lamas to ensure a succession in India is rather bleak. They remain deeply divided on sectarian and sub-sectarian lines. The Chinese may have worked to operate on their faultlines already.

The assumption that high Tibetan Lamas offer a degree of strategic depth for India in the Tibetan plateau vis-à-vis China is a misplaced one. It is neither proven nor will it happen in the future. On the contrary, the Chinese may already be acquiring a reverse strategic depth in India – there will every possibility of New Delhi getting caught off guard by such storms in the future.

The argument that various sects of Tibetan Buddhism and their Lamas of Kagyu, Geyluk, Sakya, Nyingma etc control the Indian Himalayan borderlands is only a myth. Sectarian affiliations across India’s borderland with Tibet have nothing to do their historical and political loyalties towards India. As such, any undue keenness for India seeking high-stake bidding for the Tibetan Lamas will remain an exercise in futility.

If the Karmapa is ambivalent about living in India, the Dalai Lama, who has turned 83, also wishes to return home but China is yet to give go ahead. In any case, the days of India playing any sort of great game in Tibet seem over.

The author is an expert on Trans-Himalayan affairs.