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Why India is Investigating a Reincarnated Tibetan Lama

February 11, 2011

Thursday, Feb. 03, 2011

By Ishaan Tharoor , TIME Blog

In the West, the Tibetan religious leader Ogyen Trinley Dorje is admired
for his youth (he's 25), his looks (he was once introduced at a U.S.
event as "His Hotness") and his courage (as a teenager, he fled from
Chinese-ruled Tibet on horseback). But in India, where Dorje, the
reputed 17th incarnation of the Karmapa Lama, now lives, he is seen by
many in less reverential terms. This week, the second-most famous
Tibetan in exile after the Dalai Lama found himself at the center of an
Indian media storm after government investigators confiscated around $1
million in cash kept in his monastery. The fact that a sizable chunk of
the currency was in Chinese yuan prompted manic headlines in India's
ever voluble press, querulously asking whether this was proof that Dorje
was a Chinese "spy" or "mole."

Dorje, his associates and allies — the Dalai Lama chief among them —
have dismissed the spying accusations, explaining that the money is just
an accumulation of unsolicited donations from devotees around the world,
including Chinese Buddhists living in mainland China. In Dharamsala, the
Tibetan capital-in-exile, some 2,000 Tibetans rallied in support of the
Karmapa Lama. Facing a crowd massed at his Gyuto monastery on Feb. 2,
Dorje urged his backers to "be at ease... truth will prevail." In a nod
to his hosts, he reportedly added: "The Indian government, in contrast
to the communist regime in China, is a free and democratic country." All
the while, Indian news channels documented the continuing investigation
into the matter by the Research and Analysis Wing — New Delhi's
equivalent to the CIA. See TIME's 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama.

The controversy has in part illustrated the still uncomfortable
relationship between the Indian state and the many Tibetans who live as
permanent guests on Indian soil. Decades ago, India accepted tens of
thousands of Tibetan refugees fleeing Chinese occupation, but it has
never accorded the Tibetans full rights of citizenship. Many typical
transactions, from buying land to depositing foreign currency in Indian
banks, are either illegal for Tibetans or a bureaucratic nightmare —
and, in no small part, an explanation for why Dorje's monastery held
onto the various funds it had amassed from donations. Robbie Barnett, a
professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University and an authority on
the Tibetan government in exile, is bemused by the current Indian
hysteria. "It's a bit like saying the Pope is a Chinese spy because he
has donations from Chinese followers," he says.

But to his Indian critics India, Dorje is hardly the Pope. Unlike the
Dalai Lama, who embarks on visits to remote monasteries and global tours
every year, Dorje's movement is tightly controlled and restricted by the
Indian government. His only ever foreign trip was a swing through the
U.S. in 2008. Because of challenges leveled by a couple of rival
claimants to his holy position as the Karmapa Lama, he's barred from
visiting the Rumtek monastery in the Indian state of Sikkim, one of the
most important shrines of his Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism and
the abode of the "Black Crown," one of the sect's most hallowed relics.

In a better era of cooperation between Tibetan exiles and the Chinese
government, monks from this monastery were permitted in 1992 to discover
and determine that the Karmapa had reincarnated in Dorje, the son of
nomadic sheepherders in northeastern Tibet. He remained in China with
Beijing's endorsement, but cozy relations were over by 1995 — when China
handpicked the successor to the recently-deceased Panchen Lama — and
Dorje was soon blocked from receiving the vital tutelage of the Rumtek
monks. A few years later, he and his aides escaped to India following
days of treacherous driving through mountain passes, treks around
checkpoints and a lengthy spell on horseback. "The Karmapa's escape to
India was the single most humiliating incident for China's Tibet policy
in decades," says Barnett. After learning of his flight, Beijing
initially tried to justify the trip as a mission to find "musical
instruments" necessary for Buddhist rituals. See TIME's 2 minute bio of
the Dalai Lama.

But a coterie of influential figures in New Delhi and elsewhere in India
harbor suspicions — backed by little to no evidence — over Dorje's
presence, doubting that China would have allowed him to escape. Dozens
of Tibetans with lesser means manage to slip across the border every
year. Bahukutumbi Raman, a respected political analyst and former Indian
government official, wrote on his blog this week that Dorje "could be a
planted Chinese 'agent of influence.'" Fear over China's inroads into
South Asia plays well in the Indian media. At a Feb. 1 press conference,
Prem Kumar Dhumal, Chief Minister of the state of Himachal Pradesh,
where Dharamsala is located, used the occasion of the investigation to
sound the alarm. "[China is] making air strips, rail lines [along the
border]... China is surrounding us from all sides," he said. (Comment on
this story.)

Though Dorje seems to be handling the scrutiny with calm and grace, this
expression of Indian distrust may have negative consequences for New
Delhi. Dibyesh Anand, an assistant professor of international relations
at Westminster University in London and author of Tibet: A Victim of
Geopolitics, lamented the overblown controversy in an op-ed in
theHindustan Times. "Hardline officials in China must be laughing their
heads off at the Indian media circus," Anand wrote. "They know that this
will not only create confusion in the exiled Tibetan community in India,
but will also create disenchantment about India among Tibetans inside
China."

As the Dalai Lama reaches his twilight years, a disenchanted,
disgruntled population is the last legacy he wants to leave behind. It's
unlikely Dorje would directly replace him — after all, he is supposedly
the realized incarnation of a sect that's considerably older than the
Dalai's Gelugpa order. But in the power vacuum that may follow the Dalai
Lama's death, no other spiritual leader could rival Dorje's charisma and
prestige. See pictures of spiritual healing around the world.

Though articles in the West tend to focus on the Karmapa Lama's penchant
for video games and X-men comics, Dorje is reputed to be an erudite
scholar, despite his youth, as well as a capable poet and a leader with
great "diplomatic acumen," as Barnett describes. The difficulty for him
now, though, is to what extent he'll be able to express his talents.
Hemmed in his monastery in the outskirts of Dharamsala, Dorje cuts
something of a forlorn figure, isolated from his parents in China and
devotees in India and elsewhere. In an interview with a visiting
journalist last year, he complained, "I don't see much of the outside
world." And given the current controversy, the curtailed life of the
Karmapa Lama looks likely to continue.
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