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  Opinion   Columnists  18 May 2024  Mohan Guruswamy | The importance of being Tibet’s 14th Dalai Lama

Mohan Guruswamy | The importance of being Tibet’s 14th Dalai Lama

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : May 19, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : May 19, 2024, 12:05 am IST

As the 14th Dalai Lama ages, Tibet and its exiled community brace for potential power shifts and increased tensions with China.

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)
 Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)

The 14th Dalai Lama (spiritual name: Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso), who was born on July 6, 1935, has been resident in India since 1959, and is the highest spiritual leader and most revered head of Tibetan Buddhism. When I had visited Tibet, it was common to see ordinary Tibetans discreetly wearing his medallion. It was also very common to see his pictures in most Tibetan-owned shops in Tibet, Yunnan and Qinghai. The Dalai Lama’s ecclesiastical influence extends into India’s border areas such as Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Ladakh.

Despite a historical political identity entwined with China, Tibet has traditionally looked towards India for moral and spiritual sustenance. Tibet has had a long history of struggle with China and the present 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 (plenipotentiary) in Lhasa watched the Younghusband expedition’s exertions in Tibet passively and one immediate consequence of this was an assertion of Tibet’s independence. After the establishment of the Republic of China with Sun Yat Sen as President on January 1, 1912, in April that year the 13th Dalai Lama declared the end of Tibet’s relationship with China and expelled the Amban and all Chinese troops. 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 independence.

Since then, India has tried to head off the Tibet problem by accepting its annexation into the People’s 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 the creeping “Hanisation” 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. Over 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 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. Today, the tiny enclave of McLeodganj, a suburb of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, 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, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, and top Hollywood actors like Richard Gere and Uma Thurman.

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 88 years old, 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.

The chosen leadership of the exiles will not go unchallenged. The Chinese Communists will almost certainly try to foist their own incarnation and will try to legitimise 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 different factions jockey for power. Such internal struggles often result in greater militancy, with India has its base.

 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 now emerging, with the second tallest Buddhist ecclesiastical figure, Ugen Thinley, the Karmapa (now in Germany), and the Sikyong (president) of the government-in-exile, Tempa Tshering. Both now enjoy much stature among émigré Tibetan groups and within Tibet.

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.

Geographically and ethnically, 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 1950s, under the temporal control of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa.

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 truly independent, it would have been unable to assert its claims in the way that the Chinese did. The Chinese claims to “Tawang and surrounding areas” is largely based on a claim made by the present Dalai Lama in the late 1940s, when he wrote a letter to the government of newly independent India laying formal claim to it.

Two decades from now, China will be an aging nation and hence it feels that it must make the best of the present opportunity. Its periodic aggressiveness with India has more to do with this, than any parcels of land. The transition of Tibetan leadership is a major consideration.


Tags: dalai lama, china and tibet, india tibet ties