India should close ‘Tibetan file’ and move on

(17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje and the Dalai Lama)

At times, good things happen due to bad reasons – such as the “indefinite postponement” of the 13th Religious Conference of the Schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon Tradition, scheduled to take place on 29-30 November in Dharamsala. According to media reports (here and here), quoting officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs, the Dharamsala event had to be put off because of the insistence of 34-year-old Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, head of one of the four main sects of Tibetan Buddhism, on surrendering the Identity Certificate (yellow card issued by GOI to Tibetans for travel) and instead travel on a Dominican passport. Unsurprisingly, the government finds the Karmapa’s decision unacceptable.

Indeed, without the Karmapa’s participation, the planned event at Dharamsala would have been like staging the play Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark and it is only proper that government scuttled it altogether. At any rate, the proposed conference, main purpose of which was to elect a successor to the Dalai Lama, was an audacious move that would have provoked Beijing. For, it would only have conveyed the signal that Delhi desired to keep the ‘Tibetan file’ open even after the Dalai Lama departed. It would have sullied the ‘Wuhan spirit’.

Much is shrouded in mystery. Clearly, it is inconceivable that the CIA didn’t get to know that a controversial VIP from Tibet had arrived from India and was staying in America since May last year. It is simply preposterous that the CIA didn’t make contacts. The Karmapa is not known to play golf or baseball. Nor is he an Aga Khan belonging to the international jet-set. Of course, controversies surrounded him. Yet, why, of all places, the Dominican Republic?

(Dominican Republic beaches)

Someone evidently advised the Karmapa that a Dominican passport is just what he should have. It is as good as an American passport for moving in and out of the US, which is the Caribbean island’s closest ally in the Western Hemisphere. The US surely knows that the Karmapa is a likely spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism after the exit of the Dalai Lama. But the saga of the Islamic preacher Fetullah Gulen (who is holed up in Pennsylvania for the past 20 years) is a stark reminder for the CIA of the folly of flaunting its assets openly – it only ended up complicating the US-Turkey relations beyond repair.

It is difficult to be judgmental whether the GOI really felt annoyed by the Karmapa acquiring Dominican citizenship or whether that came handy as an alibi to scuttle the Tibetan conference at Dharamsala. It doesn’t really do any good to nitpick. Perhaps, the logical thing would be to telescope time future and introspect whether the Karmapa settling down in India would have been a good thing to happen. He appears to have had a rocky past with the Indian establishment as well as an intriguing present with the US establishment.

It is about time Delhi took a long-term view. The lesson from the 3 bygone years of ‘muscular diplomacy’ (which ended with the denouement to the Doklam faceoff) is that India’s ‘Tibetan card’ didn’t impress the Chinese. Since then, much water has flown down the Ganges. India-China ties are apparently passing through a good period and there is hope that a new type of relationship is emerging.

On the other hand, even if the problems in Tibet (or Xinjiang for that matter) are not to be regarded as inconsequential, the fact remains that time works in China’s favor. Fundamentally, the Chinese approach is a sound one – that the answer to such problems is best found through development. Suffice to say, as time passes, the scope for any outside power manipulating the Tibetan issue is only narrowing. The democratic transformation of Nepal and the paradigm shift in Sino-Nepalese bilateral relations is a defining moment. Instead of being a revolving door for Tibetan militants, Nepal is poised to turn into a window for Tibet to the outside world (and vice versa.)

All things considered, therefore, India must show greater realism and foresight and prepare to close the ‘Tibetan file’. Foreign interference in Tibet with the aim to destabilize China and subvert the communist revolution in 1949 has been, arguably, a core issue complicating Sino-Indian relations through the past seven decades. There is, on the contrary, no trace today of any Chinese interference in India’s internal affairs. From all indications, China is keen on fostering an equal and ‘win-win’ relationship with India based on mutual respect. The Xinhua account of the meeting between PM Modi and President Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires on November 30 on the sidelines of the G20 summit was notably forward-looking and suggestive of the relations between the two countries steadily moving on to a higher level.

If the present tempo of strategic communication between Delhi and Beijing is kept up, one should not rule out anymore that a fair and lasting solution to the border dispute could be found in a conceivable future. In the circumstances, it would have been incongruous if the conclave in Dharamsala had gone ahead, which was in the making for a long time by far predating the present improvement of Sino-Indian relations. The Americans would have been probably the only beneficiaries.