I first met His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje in the summer of 2004. One of two claimants to the title of the Seventeenth Karmapa, he had escaped to India from Tibet in the January of 2000. My audience was at the then modest Gyuto Monastery in Sidhbari, a small village near the Central Tibetan Administration’s base in Dharamsala. The soft-spoken and rather shy 19-year-old lama spoke almost exclusively through his interpreter, deflected questions about Tibetan autonomy and his own political role in exile, and modestly asserted that he was presently focused on his studies.
Monk or a Spy?
In the 15 years since, the Karmapa has emerged as one of the tallest leaders from the Tibetan Buddhist world, arguably the second after His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso. The 900-year-old Karma Kagyu order that he heads commands a sizeable worldwide following, and is the richest of the four sects in Tibetan Buddhism with assets of over $1.5 billion. Furthermore, compared to the Dalai Lama who turned 83 this July, the 33-year-old Karmapa represents change within some of Tibetan Buddhism’s old orthodoxies. In March 2017, he took the first definitive steps towards the revitalization of full ordination for Tibetan Buddhist nuns, reviving a lineage that has been broken for almost a thousand years.
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However, despite Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s popular standing and the Dalai Lama’s recognition of him as the Seventeenth Karmapa, India has remained distrustful of his political sympathies.
It has also officially distanced itself from taking a position between the two rival claimants; the 35-year old Thaye Dorje is the other. The circumstances of Ogyen Trinley’s escape from Tibet had informed India’s initial caution: He was recognized by the Chinese government as the reincarnation of the Sixteenth Karmapa in 1992, and lived at his seat in Tsurphu monastery near Lhasa under the PRC’s watchful gaze for over seven years. It seemed implausible that he had managed to escape unaided at the age of 14, thus fueling the suspicion that he was a Chinese spy.
India’s Long Tradition of Mistrusting Tibetans
The Government of India’s suspicion of itinerant Tibetan Buddhist monks has an older provenance, much like Tibetan migration into India that did not begin with the Dalai Lama’s escape in March 1959.
Ever since the People’s Liberation Army took control in 1950, Tibetans coming into India had recounted stories of forced “re-education” within monastic institutions. Some accounts had been exaggerated for effect.
In 1955, The Indian Political Officer in Sikkim reported a rumor that the Chinese proposed to bring about “500 girls trained in Communism” to Lhasa who would be made to marry monks from various monasteries: “Such monks as marry them will be given loans to carry on trade… The Chinese are experiencing great resistance from the monasteries to their regime in Tibet and to the new changes. Perhaps this is the subtle means of overcoming resistance and hastening the process of Sinification of Tibet.”
Archival records of Tibetans applying for Indian citizenship in the 1950s show an emerging bureaucratic shorthand in which markers of allegiance viz. ‘Buddhist’ and ‘Communist’ became synonymous with the territorial markers ‘Tibetan’ and ‘Chinese.’ Incoming Tibetan monks were required to prove that they had “Buddhist leanings” and were “opposed to Communism.” Four decades prior to Ogyen Trinley’s escape, the Panchen Lama’s bodyguard and Chinese-language interpreter Sonam Thargay came to India, avowedly to serve the Dalai Lama. Despite his pleas to the contrary, India extradited him on the belief that anyone who had served under the Communist regime would have been thoroughly indoctrinated into its ideology, and was likely a Chinese spy.
Karmapa’s Frustration With India’s Anxieties
Months before he acquired Dominican citizenship, Ogyen Trinley expressed frustration over India’s surveillance of his activities. Despite relaxing travel restrictions earlier this year, the Indian Government still forbade him from visiting Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, which is the site of the sacred black hat, the symbolic crown of the Kagyu lineage. The last state to be merged with the Indian Union in 1975, Sikkim was known in the Tibetan Buddhist prophetic tradition as sbas yul, or the hidden land that would serve as a place of refuge for Buddhism when it came under threat elsewhere. And so it has: both the present Karmapa and Dalai Lama’s predecessors lived in exile there.
China has long disputed its boundary with Sikkim, as well as India’s claim over the erstwhile Buddhist kingdom. Sikkim is one of the nodes of the Doklam trijunction that witnessed the two-month long Sino-Indian military standoff in the summer of 2017. Less than two years later, the Karmapa controversy is another a poignant reminder of India’s cartographic anxiety that fuels its compulsion for ascertaining ideological loyalty. It is also a symptom of competitive nation-building in the Himalayan region between the world’s two most populous states.
(Swati Chawla is a historian of modern South Asia and a fellow at the American Institute of Indian Studies. She is interested in Himalayan Buddhisms and contemporary questions of statelessness and exile. She Tweets @ChawlaSwati. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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