As the winter mist begins to gather around Dharamsala and the lower reaches of the Himalayas in the coming months, speculation has begun to mount, especially within the Tibetan community, regarding the next Dalai Lama. Where he will be ‘discovered’ and what his nationality will be are the key questions. These will not only impact on the future of the Tibetan movement, started by the present Dalai Lama, but may also impinge on relations between India and China.
The present Dalai Lama, now 74 years old, has played a weak hand very deftly over the last half century from the time he completed his risky trek into India across the high Himalayas with virtually no possessions. During this time, he has worked assiduously to garner domestic and international support and created an international platform to effectively mount pressure on the communist Chinese leadership and engage them in protracted negotiations. This has helped keep Tibetan Buddhism alive, as well as sustained the aspirations of the Tibetan people both inside China and among the larger Tibetan diaspora. At the same time, the Dalai Lama has acquired an international stature which ensures him a pre-eminent position within the Tibetan Buddhist religious orders and as the leader of the Tibetan people. The award of the Nobel Prize further enhanced his prestige.
Naturally, the Dalai Lama would want to facilitate his successor’s efforts to maintain the pressure he has gradually built up on China’s leadership. He would also want his successor to be acknowledged as the leader of the Tibetan people and the head of all Tibetan Buddhist sects, and not just of the Gelugpa sect. Where the XIV Dalai Lama’s next reincarnation is ‘discovered’ will be integral to this endeavour.
From the strategic geopolitical perspective of the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation should ideally be of Tibetan stock and easily accessible to the Tibetan people inside China. The manner in which the Chinese dealt with the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation — who has not been heard of or even glimpsed after being selected in 1995 — is an ever-present reminder of how the Chinese would act to a similar situation. From the Tibetan perspective this should preclude a future Dalai Lama being born inside China.
The Tibetans would prefer that the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation is born outside China. Arunachal Pradesh, which has been described by the Chinese as ‘southern Tibet’ and has also over the centuries periodically been under the suzerainty of an independent Tibet, including at times sovereignty, could from the Tibetan point of view, be an ideal place for the reincarnation to be born. Moreover, if the reincarnation is of Tibetan stock it would afford the reincarnate Dalai Lama both ‘ethnic’ and ‘geographic’ legitimacy in the eyes of the Tibetan people.
The young reincarnation could conveniently locate himself in the monastery at Tawang which was built by an emissary sent by the Fifth Dalai Lama. The symbolism would be immense for the Tibetan people. They would recall that the Sixth Dalai Lama, who opted out of monkhood early, was also born in Tawang. Incidentally, the Chinese claim Tawang on the plea that it has an emotional appeal for the Tibetans. However, this was earlier implicitly countered by the Dalai Lama when he asserted that Tawang is an integral part of India. He has reiterated this in Tawang, barely 40 kilometres from the Chinese border, during his ongoing visit to Arunachal Pradesh.
A reincarnate Dalai Lama born anywhere in India, though he would be handicapped for many years in his efforts to acquire international acceptance and support because of his youth, would nevertheless be easily accessible to Tibetans inside China. He would be able to convey his message to them and be in a position to keep alive their aspirations and faith while, at the same time, staying outside China’s clutches. This interregnum, till the reincarnate comes into his own, is a vulnerable period that will impose severe strain on the efficacy and durability of the mechanism that the present Dalai Lama puts in place to assist his successor. It will simultaneously test the loyalty of the individuals entrusted by the Dalai Lama to teach and train his young reincarnation. Their ability to hold together the existing international coalition of support for the Tibetan cause would also be put to the test.
The Chinese leadership is acutely aware of this possibility and will be carefully assessing the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. They have already initiated fresh efforts to discredit the Dalai Lama by calling him a ‘liar’ and publicising that a niece of his is a member of the Chinese Communist Party. China will probably further increase pressure on India on a range of issues, including the border, if it senses that the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation could be ‘discovered’ in India and especially in Arunachal Pradesh. It would also try to exploit the latent discontent and factional disputes within the various Tibetan Buddhist religious sects. This would make the over 4,000 kilometre-long Himalayan belt, along the length of India’s northern border with Tibet, a vulnerable region.
Many of the region’s inhabitants are followers of Tibetan Buddhism. The belt has over 180 monasteries belonging to different Tibetan Buddhist sects, which exercise considerable influence within their traditional jurisdictions. Adherents of all the different sects inhabit this belt. For example, in the eastern stretch around and including Sikkim, the Karma Kagyu sect, led by the Gyalwa Karmapa, is predominant. The position of the currently vacant XVII Gyalwa Karmapa is presently mired in controversy and contested by three prominent claimants. There are lingering suspicions about the leading contender, Ugyen Thinley Dorje, who managed to ‘escape’ from Tsurphu Monastery near Lhasa and clandestinely arrive in India. He has been staying at Dharamsala and because of his visible physical proximity to the Dalai Lama is viewed by many as a potential successor. This is understood to be a cause for discomfiture among some Tibetan religious personages.
The other potential problem and one that the Chinese have been attempting to stir up is that of the Shugden Deity worshippers. This group favours worship of the Shugden Deity, which the Dalai Lama has banned since 1996. Internecine factional squabbles could also erupt within the various sects as well as rivalries between senior Tibetan leaders.
Against such a backdrop the initial post-Dalai Lama phase can be one of some uncertainty for India. In addition to facing up to enhanced Chinese pressure, it will have to tackle the problems of the almost one and a half lakh Tibetan refugees settled in India who will be adjusting to a new leadership. Such a scenario would also throw up fresh opportunities for India.