May 07, 2021
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Portrait Of A Lama As A Spy

However ludicrous the claim that the Karmapa is a Chinese agent may be, the doubts expressed at the highest levels of Indian society are a matter of concern with serious repercussions for the Tibetan community in India

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Portrait Of A Lama As A Spy
Portrait Of A Lama As A Spy

The idea of a Tibetan lama as a spy or agent involved in high-level intrigue has long been a popular theme for thriller writers and novelists. The Teshoo Lama in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim was not himself portrayed as a spy, but unwittingly becomes a part of the skulduggery of the Great Game. In recent years, two British Members of Parliament have written novels with similar figures: in the Labour MP Chris Mullin’s The Year of the Fire Monkey, the CIA recruits a young Lama named Ari and dispatches him to Tibet to work in the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, where he is tasked to secure a meeting with the Great Helmsman himself and assassinate him (it was of course fantastical to envisage any Tibetan returning from India ever rising to such heights in the Chinese system). The second novel by a British politician was The Buddha of Brewer Street, by Michael Dobbs, a former speech writer for Mrs Thatcher, in which the Chinese intelligence services and the British compete in scouring the streets of London to find the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama. In Mullins’ yarn, the baddies are the CIA and the West, while in Dobbs’ novel the villains are the Chinese and the Tibetan lama is the hapless tool of a foreign power: the stories reflect the authors’ political leanings.

And so it is with recent accusations levelled against the Karmapa, one of the most senior and important figures in Tibetan Buddhism, in the Indian media: these too could have come from the pages of a cheap spy novel, were it not for the seriousness of the charges and the high rank of those who are encouraging such suspicions.  

While the world is riveted by the news of an early Arab Spring and the drama of Tahrir Square, Tibetans are caught up in the drama of the Indian police raid on the residence of the Karmapa and the subsequent media frenzy about the recovery of foreign currency from various countries in his office. The Tibetans expressed their outrage on the internet and held vigils in support of their religious leader, accusing the Indian media of sensationalising the story, much like any religious followers who find their leaders criticized by the media. The initial response seems to have been to blame the messenger rather than address the seriousness of the charges against the Karmapa and, by implication, against all the Tibetans in India.  

In this case, the action taken by the police cannot be viewed as the work of ill-informed local officials or of a shady business deal gone wrong. Of the two central accusations made in the media and by Indian commentators, the most serious is that the Tibetans are engaged in espionage against the government of India (GOI) and the most tenacious is that they are involved in money-laundering. These accusations have serious implications that go beyond the issue of the Karmapa. Even after living in India for over 50 years, the Tibetan diaspora community fails to understand and appreciate the sensitivity of its presence to India, where these matters are seen very differently from how they are perceived within the Tibetan community. For India, the issues concern the security of the nation and the legality of financial transactions. For Tibetans, the feud over rival claimants to the Karmapa’s title seems like a religious matter internal to the refugees, but like the Shugden issue it represents for India an issue of stability in a sensitive border region: for the GOI and Indian commentators these feuds are seen not as matters of faith but through the lens of security and stability. India knows from painful experience the consequences of religious feuds, and the continuance of these conflicts among the Tibetan refugees is an unwelcome intrusion on Indian soil.

The Agent of Influence Conspiracy

The charges against the Karmapa have not just come from the media, but from senior and influential commentators as well. B. Raman, a former Cabinet Sectary of the GOI, wrote of his suspicion that the Karmapa's “escape to India was probably under a long-term Chinese intelligence operation to use him to influence events relating to Tibet after the death of the Dalai Lama”. Similar concerns were raised in a TV interview by Leela Ponappa, the former deputy National Security Adviser to the GOI. No amount of emotional denial by Tibetan devotees and supporters is going to dissipate these doubts.

The assumption that a teenage boy was groomed by Chinese intelligence operatives to go to India as a covert agent seems utterly fantastical. However, the concerns of the officials go much beyond the identity of the Karmapa: what is being expressed at the highest levels of the GOI and among other influential figures in India is an underlying doubt about the role of Tibetans in India and their liability to India’s long-term security. This doubt coheres around the fear that after the death of the Dalai Lama, under the influence of the Karmapa, the Tibetans could become a Trojan horse, abandon their political struggle and run into the open arms of China; or, that they will be fragmented and in some other way be used against Indian interests. This assumption does not speak well of the Tibetan political movement but for hard-nosed India analysts it is not a farfetched scenario – they view Tibetans as blind followers of religious leaders who will not question their Lama’s ruling on what is right or wrong, including in political affairs. The emotional response by Tibetans to the latest Indian media coverage confirms their piety and faith in their religious leaders, and they, as a result, for outsiders, seem no different from any other religious fundamentalists who allow religious leaders to obtain political influence. 

The current moves against the Karmapa also reflect growing anxiety in India about China’s plans and a worsening in the Sino-Indian relationship. The Indian media has been at the forefront of voicing fears of Chinese encirclement and the recent arrest of Chinese nationals in India’s Northeast has further exacerbated the perception of intrigue by Beijing against India. This perception has been shaped by decades of dealings with Pakistan, where Indian security officials have experienced the use of agent provocateurs to sow social unrest and discord within India’s borders. Officials assume China operates in similarly old-fashioned ways, not aware of much more developed forms of political strategy.  

There are two aspects to the assumptions found amongst Indian officials. One concerns the influence of Tibetan Buddhist leaders among their followers in the foothills of the Himalayas. Brahma Chellaney, professor at the Centre of Policy Research, noted the influence of the Kagyu schools of Buddhism in these sensitive regions. Indian officials have long known that the Tibetan exile monasteries in India are mostly populated by monks from Ladakh, Spiti, Sikkim and Northeast India, and this is particularly true of Kagyu and Nyingma monasteries. The Indian authorities are concerned about social stability and such an issue is legitimate for any government.  

However, the assumption that this influence could induce people in the border regions to turn against India because of their religion fails to appreciate the deeply-felt Tibetan opposition to China. In addition, among the peoples in the Himalayas who follow Tibetan Buddhist lamas, there is a growing resurgence of local identity and increasing differentiation from the Tibetan diaspora. In all these areas, devotion to Lamas has never translated into politics. The people in the regions know too well where their interests lie: with India. And the Buddhist populations of the Himalayas constitute a tiny minority – even in Sikkim, where the Karmapa’s main monastery in exile is located, the Buddhist population is a minority. The entire Buddhist population of the border regions does not even make up the size of a mid-sized urban area in India. The ability of the Buddhist population to pose a major threat to India’s security is at best negligible. The festering perception in India that Tibetan Lamas could be a Trojan horse among the peoples in the border regions is thus clearly a misplaced apprehension.  

The second fear – that one of the senior most lamas could be a Chinese agent and woo the Tibetans into siding with China – implies that senior Indian officials have serious doubts about the effectiveness of the Tibetans as a strategic asset for India in its dealings with China. The Indian security establishment sees Tibetans as loyal to their Lama rather than to the idea of Tibet itself, and so assumes that the influence of a turncoat Karmapa could turn the Tibetans easily against them. But in fact the Tibetan political movement in India and worldwide has matured towards a largely secular movement: its opposition to China’s rule is deep-rooted and it is unlikely that any Lama could counter that. The community supports the Dalai Lama because he represents that view, not just because he is a religious leader.

Another reason for suspicion among Indian commentators has been the Karmapa’s supposed lack of vocal opposition to the Chinese regime and the reluctance of the Chinese government to lambaste him as they have done repeatedly with the Dalai Lama. But this is true of all senior Tibetan Lamas: none of them make frequent anti-Chinese speeches or lead political campaigns abroad, since this has always been a task delegated to the Dalai Lama, who for centuries has had a formal political role as well as a religious one, unlike the other lamas. Inevitably, the Chinese attack him primarily as their main enemy, rather than other Tibetan lamas, whose followers would turn against them if needlessly attacked. In any case it seems likely that if the Karmapa were a planted agent, the Chinese would have encouraged him to camouflage himself as a firebrand activist. And if they had a long-term plot to undermine India through an agent of influence, why would they use a Tibetan whose ability to affect Indian society and its security concerns is almost non-existent? China would do far better in establishing alliances with a host of other insurgent groups in India.  

Since 1959, the single most important failure for China in Tibet has not been the protests but the defection of the Karmapa. His flight to India in 2000 was a major setback for China’s policy in Tibet. Endorsed by the Dalai Lama as well as by the Chinese state, he would have been far better used for their purposes as a means of subduing the Tibetans inside Tibet. When the boy was installed in Tsurphu monastery, the traditional abode of the Karmapas, in 1992, it was a major propaganda coup for China’s United Front Department. Now that he has fled, not a single senior Tibetan Lama remains under their control – all have voted with their feet to come to India. For China, Tibetan Lamas are seen typically as agents of India and other foreign powers, since the vast majority of the famous ones reside abroad. One is reminded of the farmyard bluntness of the Lyndon Johnson, who is supposed to have said: “I'd rather have him inside the tent, pissing out, than outside, pissing in”: the Karmapa was infinitely more valuable to Beijing inside China than outside, because the Chinese have never succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people and cannot do so without the moral authority of the Lamas. The Karmapa was the greatest asset the Chinese had, and they would have dearly loved for him to have stayed in Tibet and to have endorsed their rule and their message of stability and unity.

Of course, it is right for the government of India to be concerned about stability in the border regions, and they are also right that the ongoing religious feuds within the Tibetan community have not helped. But these disputes are not an issue of international manipulation or something that the Indian security services cannot contain. They are conflicts created by Tibetans and by competing lamas, not designed by China. Those conflicts are now subsiding, with the respective factions burrowing themselves into their holes to consolidate such power and resources as they have been able to gain, and only history will show how these groups will reconcile their differences.  

As for the Tibetans, they need to recognise that their internal feuds have implications beyond their own community and have served them badly in their political struggle – if they continue to have a system which integrates religious figures within political leadership, then religion will inevitably impact on their political aspirations and ideals. For example, Tibetan lamas from the Shugden group have already exported the feud over that issue to Mongolia and forced Mongolian Buddhists to take sides. The government of Mongolia is now wearied of this feud and maintains a distance from all the Tibetan Buddhists. As a senior Mongolian official told me recently: Mongolia does not want Tibetan religious conflicts exported to its country, and the Tibetans have now lost a potentially sympathetic nation as an ally. 

Unaccounted Crores

Any story involving huge sum of money makes for a sensation: in a world of banks and credit cards, we associate cash with criminality. But among Tibetans, there is no sense of public accountability for the vast sums often accumulated by monasteries and their lamas, because they witness cash being donated every day by faithful followers in almost every monastery and temple. There is nothing mysterious or unexpected about it to any Tibetan, and probably if the Indian police were to raid any mandir, they would also find large bundles of rupees given by devotees. Equally, it is a legitimate concern of government agencies to check the source of any large sum of money and to ascertain how that money is accounted for and used. Just saying it is a donation is an explanation but not a defence, and the Tibetans, enjoying hospitality on Indian soil, have to be cognisant that we are accountable to the Indian public, not just to our community.  

For the press, the fact that much of the currency in the Karmapa’s office was in foreign denominations only added to the long-held suspicion in India regarding foreign money and currencies. No doubt, Tibetans would likewise be the first to accuse a lama from the Shugden cult – usually seen as being opposed to the Dalai Lama – of being a Chinese agent if he were found with bundles of Chinese currency.  It should be remembered that the Tibetans in India today are dependent on foreign donations and increasingly on Tibetans living in the West, and our refugee community has become a part of the global remittance economy. But Tibetan refugees in India can rarely become Indian citizens and so face complex regulations regarding fund transfers from abroad, and often have no choice but to resort to cash dealings rather than bank deposits. This has been an open secret and the Indian authorities are fully aware of this, as is the case with many business deals in India.  As Sunanda K. Datta-Ray points out in the Telegraph:

No one mentions the Karmapa’s Saraswati Charitable Trust into which all unsolicited cash donations would have been paid if permission to do so had not been withdrawn after the first $100,000. He then registered the Karma Garchen Trust but the application to receive foreign donations under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act has been pending since 2002. Forced to retain donations as they come, the monastery ensures that every penny, cent or yuan (under 10 per cent of the total despite the hullabaloo over Chinese currency) is “diligently recorded”. Even one-yuan notes from humble Tibetans without access to any other currency are recorded

The explanation given for the Chinese currency by the Karmapa’s office is plausible: this cash came as donations from followers from Tibet or China, for whom the offering of donations to a lama is an expression of their devotion. The quantities involved should not surprise us either, not just because  the Karmapa has tens of thousands of followers, but because the economy in Tibet and China has changed drastically. In the 1980s, Tibet was far poorer than India and donations flowed exile lamas and Tibetans in India into Tibet for the reconstruction of monasteries there. Today, this balance has changed. The Tibetan region has been benefited in some ways from China’s economic growth and today, the people in Tibet enjoy a much higher standard of living than their counterparts in India, and have disposable wealth to send to lamas and to relatives living in India. They can rarely donate to lamas or build monasteries inside Tibet because of heavy restrictions on religion there, and so see India as an alternative base for their temples and monasteries. Both China and India look to these ties with suspicion. The lamas in India are caught in the middle, accused by both sides as agents of the other. 

The economic question is one that worries Indian strategists, for the Indian side of the border remains poor and neglected relative to the rapid economic and infrastructural development on the other side of the Himalayas. But rather than seeing the flow of money as an index of espionage, Indian leaders increasingly recognise that disparity in economic development on either side of the border poses a great danger to India. That is why last year vast sums were allocated by New Delhi for development of roads and other facilities in Arunachal Pradesh and other northern border areas. For India's security, cash donations to lamas in India are insignificant compared to India’s all-important task of speeding up infrastructural development and growth in the border regions.

The questions raised in the Indian press have serious implications for the Tibetans. On one level, the Lamas and monasteries must be accountable and maintain transparency over their funding. It is clear that the Tibetans in India are among the largest recipients of foreign donations, yet there is very little accountability to the larger public in India, or indeed to their own followers. The Tibetan settlements and monasteries are often located in poorer parts of India and their finances have a large impact on the local economy. The huge increase in land prices in Kangra and other parts of Himachal are driven by the flow of money into the Tibetan community, an imbalance that has created resentment and unfair competition for some of the local community. Without transparency, lingering doubts will remain about the sources of Tibetan funding and donations. However, such transparency cannot be maintained without clear-cut legal protection and the bureaucratic will to enable Tibetans to operate within India’s financial systems.  

However ludicrous the claim that the Karmapa is a Chinese agent may be, the doubts expressed at the highest levels of Indian society are a matter of concern with serious repercussions for the Tibetan community in India. India is engaged in a hard debate regarding its policy towards China, and those who argue for rapprochement with China view the presence of the Tibetans as an obstacle and those who are suspicious of China, and once saw the Tibetans as an asset, are now beginning to doubt their reliability. The media accusations against the Karmapa have galvanised the public perception in India that the Tibetans are a liability to India’s security. The Hindi-language website Janokti described the Karmapa as “aasteen ka saap”, a phrase invoking a hidden snake. These are issues that Tibetans must address calmly and in depth rather than speaking of hurt feelings and attacking the Indian media whose job is to ask hard, unthinkable questions. Nobody likes being in the media spotlight, but in a democratic society the duty of the press is to raise questions and not to pander to religious sentiment. The onus is on the Tibetans to demonstrate beyond doubt that their religious feuds and financial activities do not pose a threat to India's security and stability.  

Tsering Shakya is professor of Tibetan History at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia and the author of the Dragon in the Land of Snows

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