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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Opinion: Compassion Lama

March 19, 2011

RENUKA BISHT, Financial Times, India

Posted: Thursday, Mar 17, 2011 at 2350 hrs IST

Sometimes the brickbats hurled at the Dalai Lama sound exactly the same as those that Sachin Tendulkar takes. What’s the value of the Little Master’s centuries if they don’t win a victory for the Indian team? However extraordinary may have been the accomplishments of His Holiness, as far as carrying awareness of the Tibet issue across the globe, what’s their value if they don’t yield an autonomous Tibet?

And sometimes the censure is akin to that directed against Aung San Suu Kyi with increasing frequency these days. She is also admired around the world, championed by celebrities and has a Nobel Prize in the bag. But has her long vigil yielded democratic fruit for Myanmar’s people? Perhaps the lama and the lady’s attachment to non-violence has only served their cause, rather than that of their people.

Even as the above charges were already hanging over his noble pate, the Dalai Lama went one step further in courting controversy. He announced retirement from political life, not a small step for someone who is credited with becoming a world leader without an official political base. After all, even when India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru welcomed Tenzin Gyatso into India, the gesture did not mean acknowledging the latter as a fellow head of state. More recently, PM Manmohan Singh clarified to the Chinese premier that the Dalai Lama was an honoured guest in his capacity as a religious leader, rather than a political agent. The Tibetan government-in-exile’s Cabinet has accepted the Dalai Lama’s decision to retire as its political head, but a majority of the Parliament members were expressing opposition at the time of writing.

The interesting thing now is that charges 1 and 2 are being turned on their head to build up charge 3. How does the Dalai Lama expect Tibetan unity to survive if he abdicates political responsibility? Any new political leader, likely to be a layperson, will not be able to speak (a) to Tibetans inside and outside Tibet in the same way as the Dalai Lama or (b) marshal international sympathy with the same grandeur that the Dalai Lama has commanded.

The above questions are asked against the backdrop of a popular history of Tibet, wherein the greatest rupture took place on March 17, 1959, when consultation with an oracle instructed the Dalai Lama, “Go tonight!” This popular narrative boasts a clearly delineated good guy and bad guy. China is bad, His Holiness is good (even if unable to really deliver to his people’s expectations). But we get a very different picture if the history of the Free Tibet movement is traced back to an earlier date. Let’s go back, as an illustration, to the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso.

The Great Thirteenth passed away in 1933, and here’s how his final testament reads: “ may happen that here in Tibet, religion and government will be attacked both from without and within. Unless we guard our own country, it will not happen that the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, the Father and the Son, and all the revered holders of the Faith, will disappear and become nameless. Monks and their monasteries will be destroyed ... All beings will be sunk in hardship and overwhelming fear; the days and nights will drag on slowly in suffering.” This was prophetic only because it was written against the backdrop of both bloody, internal divisions and external threats, as much from the British as the Chinese. Tibet was no Shangri-La even back then. And surviving popular images of calm were shattered during the Beijing Olympics.

It’s time to move beyond popular images, to recognise that after the 14th Dalai Lama’s ascension, India, the UK, the US and the UN were all asked to appeal to China on Tibet’s behalf. No one came through. China is not the only bad guy. Every head of state that gives the Dalai Lama a hearing today does this at his own convenience. If His Holiness were to ask India for asylum today, it would likely not be forthcoming. After all, we refuse to host Taslima Nasreen.

So, yes, it’s great that Tendulkar hits centuries. It’s not his fault if the South African team turns out to be stronger than the Indian one. The Dalai Lama has done an extraordinary job of winning global support for a constituency that wasn’t making any magazine covers 50 years ago. It’s great that, like Suu Kyi, he has firmly held on to pacifist ideals. Responding to recent events in the Middle East, he said: “I am a firm believer in non-violence and people power and these events have shown once again that determined non-violent action can indeed bring about positive change.” This is not just a moral or religious position; it has socio-political implications. Witness the world wondering how the Japanese are responding to their crisis with such calm. His Holiness knows that the Tibetan struggle is of the longue durée. That he has kept it peaceful and will now make it more democratic qualifies him as a great statesman.

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