Even China recognises the young Tibetan Buddhist leader now gaining an international profile. Ashis Ray met him

‘Tibetans want the Dalai Lama back in Tibet,’ declared Ogyen Trinley Dorje, known as the 17th Karmapa, said to be only second in importance to the former in the hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism. Dorje, 32 in June, was on a long planned, deliberately low key, but noticeably high security visit to Britain.

The Dalai Lama is both despised and feared by communist-ruled China, which annexed Tibet in 1951 and thereafter designated it as an autonomous region within its country. After an uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, this temporal and not just titular head of ‘the roof of the world’ escaped to India, where he has been in exile since.

Notwithstanding his long absence, the reverence for him in his homeland is undiminished. After strenuous efforts, Beijing has diverted a section of the younger generation in the direction of modernity and materialism; but the bulk of Tibetans continue to worship the Dalai Lama.

‘There are very significant restrictions on people’s freedom in Tibet,’ said Dorje. ‘This has increased since 2008.’ The human rights situation and protests against it, including self-immolation, are well known. But for him to discuss these, in response to a question, was a notable departure.

On the territorial dispute between China and India, his words were music to New Delhi’s ears. He firmly pronounced: ‘Arunachal Pradesh [to which Beijing lays claim, calling it South Tibet] is a part of India.’ He advised: ‘China should come to terms with practicalities and ground realities.’

Dorje’s is a fascinating tale of belief in reincarnation. When his predecessor, the 16th Karmapa, died in the United States in 1981, he supposedly left behind a letter broadly identifying his successor, and where he was to be found. A search ensued. He was finally found in a remote part of Tibet. ‘I do not recall the prediction letter, but the 16th Karmapa is said to have left [one]… My most memorable moment is only of the group of people arriving in my nomadic home in June 1992 saying I am the Karmapa – after that my life changed,’ he recollected.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama with the Karmapa in India
His Holiness the Dalai Lama with the Karmapa in India

Dorje, too, dramatically fled to India in 2000. But prior to that, China had recognised him as the Karmapa. The Chinese government generally never agrees with the Dalai Lama, but on this they were on the same page. ‘This is indeed rather unusual,’ the dignified young man admitted. ‘As I was in Tibet at the time [when the Dalai Lama confirmed him as the 17th Karmapa], my formal enthronement took place in Tsurphu [65 kilometres west of the capital, Lhasa] in September 1992. The Government of China was also represented at the event and formally accepted me as the 17th Karmapa.’

At the same time, communist minders kept a close watch on him, and restrained him from performing his duties as a preacher. One day the teenager, abandoning his monk’s robes, climbed out of a window of his monastery in Tsurphu and gave them the slip. Travelling by car, foot, horseback, helicopter, train and taxi, negotiating the barrier of the Himalayas between Tibet and the Indian subcontinent, he arrived in the town of Dharamsala, seat-in-exile of the Dalai Lama.

At first the Indian government suspected he was a Chinese spy. When they discovered a sum of $1 million at his monastery, the authorities were even more convinced he had been planted by China. But in 2011, India revised its views, stating the money was from bona fide donations.

After a heady start to their bilateral relationship, boosted by slogans like ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’ or ‘India and China are brothers’, Sino-Indian ties unravelled. The Panchsheel Treaty of 1954, founded on five principles of peaceful co-existence, began to fray and took a definite turn for the worse after the Dalai Lama was sympathetically received in India. By 1962 relations had deteriorated so drastically that China invaded a section of the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh before retreating under international pressure.

After three decades of frozen relations, a 1993 Peace and Tranquillity Treaty between the two countries put the vexed border dispute on the back burner. But despite India accepting Tibet as an autonomous region of China, Beijing has refused to reconcile itself with the Dalai Lama, or, for that matter, India granting him sanctuary. Almost a quarter of a century later, however, Sino-Indian trade has burgeoned from less than $1 billion to $100 billion.

Against this background, there is speculation about how China will react to Dorje, whose international profile is on a steady upward trajectory. Since he decamped to India, the Chinese, he said, ‘have maintained no relations at all’ with him. After visiting the United States, he was on his first trip to Britain. No British government minister received him, but if he was disappointed, he didn’t divulge it. In the library of a five-star hotel overlooking the Thames, he said the main purpose of his visit was ‘dharma’, or spiritualism. Besides, he said, the politicians were ‘quite occupied in the run-up to the British election’.

In an uncertain post-Brexit world, the British government is bound to be ultra-cautious about upsetting China. One day, perhaps, a British prime minister will shake hands with him outside 10 Downing Street. ‘I will have the opportunity to return [to London] again and again,’ he claimed.

Dorje yearns to return to Tibet, which to escapees like him has become forbidden terrain. ‘It has been a long time since I have seen my family,’ he said. ‘My parents are getting old and I worry about them. I would like to see them… [but] the situations and conditions for my return have to be right.’

In the past 58 years, however, circumstances have never been conducive for the Dalai Lama to tread on his home soil. It would seem unrealistic to expect a change of attitude from the Chinese in the foreseeable future, but Dorje is undaunted. ‘If everything goes in a good direction, then within two or three years I would like to return,’ he said.

Given the fact that Beijing did not withdraw its recognition of him as the Karmapa, even after he bolted to India, is he privy to something the world isn’t?

Ashis Ray has worked for the BBC, the Ananda Bazar Group and the Times of India. He was CNN’s founding South Asia bureau chief in Delhi and is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent

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