Tuesday, May 21, 2024 08:15 [IST]

Last Update: Tuesday, May 21, 2024 02:33 [IST]

The Significance of Tibet's 14th Dalai Lama


The 14th Dalai Lama, whose spiritual name is Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, was born on July 6, 1935. Since 1959, he has been living in India. As the highest spiritual leader and most revered head of Tibetan Buddhism, his influence is profound. During my visit to Tibet, I noticed that many ordinary Tibetans subtly wore medallions bearing his image. His pictures were also a common sight in Tibetan-owned shops throughout Tibet, Yunnan, and Qinghai. The Dalai Lama's religious influence also reaches into India's border regions, including Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Ladakh.


Although Tibet's political history is closely linked with China, it has traditionally turned to India for moral and spiritual guidance. The region has long struggled with China, and the current Dalai Lama is not the first to seek refuge in India.


The British actively pursued a policy to establish an independent Tibet as a buffer against China. During the Younghusband expedition in Tibet, the Chinese Amban (plenipotentiary) in Lhasa remained passive, leading to Tibet asserting its independence. Following the establishment of the Republic of China with Sun Yat Sen as President on January 1, 1912, the 13th Dalai Lama, in April of the same year, declared an end to Tibet’s relationship with China, expelling the Amban and all Chinese troops. However, after their civil war victory in 1949, the Chinese Communists quickly reasserted control over Tibet, which had experienced over four decades of independence by that time.


Since then, India has tried to address the Tibet issue by accepting its annexation into the People’s Republic of China. Over the years, the Chinese Communists attempted to resolve the Tibet problem by trying to eradicate Tibetan nationalism and Buddhism through Mao’s Communist policies, which ultimately failed. This approach has since been replaced by gradual “Hanisation” and extensive economic development. Although these methods have been only partially successful, they have proven more effective for the Chinese than Mao’s oppressive strategies.


Although Tibet is currently relatively passive, it remains a volatile situation, and the Chinese fear any incident that could ignite unrest. For India, the policy has been only partially successful. Over 150,000 Tibetan refugees reside in India, making the country, willingly or not, the center of a global Tibetan struggle to regain their homeland. In essence, while the Tibet issue may seem dormant, it is far from resolved, and India finds itself at the forefront of this ongoing conflict.


At the heart of this ongoing struggle is the Dalai Lama's international prominence, symbolizing various ideals and values. His blend of New Age spiritualism, ethics, ecological awareness, and political activism has garnered him numerous influential and affluent Western followers of Tibetan Buddhism and supporters of Tibet's cause. Today, McLeodganj, a small suburb of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, attracts numerous young Westerners in search of meaning and purpose. It also draws notable figures such as Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, and Hollywood stars like Richard Gere and Uma Thurman.


Both China and India have concerns about the period following the Dalai Lama's passing. Tibetans view the Dalai Lama as a living deity, yet he is mortal and, at 88 years old, his time is limited. Currently, he manages to prevent Tibetan nationalism from flaring up by enveloping it in the new age Buddhism he has cultivated. However, once he is no longer there, the restrained embers of Tibetan nationalism could potentially ignite into a full-blown conflagration.


The leadership selected by the Tibetan exiles will face significant challenges. The Chinese Communists are almost certain to impose their own chosen incarnation, using all their resources to legitimize it. While this effort is unlikely to succeed, it will undoubtedly complicate matters, making any future compromise on the spiritual leadership of Tibetan Buddhists even more difficult.


Though the spiritual leadership might be disputed, it is nearly certain that a new generation of Tibetan exiles will assert their claim to the temporal leadership of the Tibetan nationalist movement. If this claim is challenged by the regency supporting the India-based incarnation, a competition for the allegiance of young Tibetans is likely to ensue. This rivalry will lead to more assertive stances as the factions vie for influence, often resulting in increased militancy, with India at its center.


Alternatively, a dual leadership may emerge among the Tibetan exiles: one focused on spiritual guidance and another on militant pursuit of political objectives. The foresight and wisdom of the Dalai Lama have paved the way for this dual leadership structure. Key figures include Ugen Thinley, the Karmapa (currently in Germany), and Tempa Tshering, the Sikyong (president) of the government-in-exile. Both leaders are highly respected among Tibetan émigré communities and within Tibet itself.


From an Indian standpoint, the emergence of an alternative religious leader in the interim could prevent the fragmentation of the Tibetan Buddhist community. The young Karmapa is a potential candidate for fulfilling this role.


Geographically and ethnically, large parts of Ladakh are akin to the Tibetan Changthang region, with a predominant Tibetan dialect spoken. On the opposite end, the Tawang tract was under the temporal authority of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa until India annexed it in the early 1950s.


It's important to recognize that the border conflict with China essentially stems from a border disagreement with Tibet. However, it's worth noting that if Tibet were genuinely independent, it might not have been able to assert its claims in the manner China did. China's assertion of claims to "Tawang and surrounding areas" is primarily rooted in a declaration made by the current Dalai Lama in the late 1940s. In a letter to the newly independent Indian government, he formally laid claim to these territories.


China's current assertiveness towards India is driven not just by territorial ambitions but also by the impending demographic shift towards an aging population. Aware of the need to capitalize on the present opportunity, China's periodic aggression towards India is primarily motivated by considerations surrounding the transition of Tibetan leadership, rather than mere land disputes.

(Views are personal.  Email: dipakkurmiglpltd@gmail.com)

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi