Dalai Lama cedes power, but not responsibility

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The Dalai Lama’s decision to quit his position as temporal leader of the Tibetan people and retain that of their spiritual master and guru — and inter alia, that of many Buddhists across the world — may not be a surprise to his close followers, but to the majority of Tibetans, especially in exile, it has come as a shock, something they had not expected to happen with such abruptness.

The Tibetan Parliament (in exile at Dharamsala, where his headquarters is located at a bustling village which goes by the quaint Scottish-Indian name of McLeodganj) first rejected his decision, but then finally honoured it. One can only imagine the consternation that news about the Dalai Lama’s decision must be causing in his homeland, under Chinese occupation, where information is controlled and any public expression of support to him is forbidden under strict laws that prescribe tough prison terms for dissenters.

Things have not been helped with the recent immolation of a 21-year-old monk in Tibet, to mark the third anniversary of a Chinese crackdown on Tibetan monks and protesters in Ngaba; his death triggered a protest by hundreds of monks against Chinese police and troops and a number of arrests were reported to have been made. But that’s not news in a time of WikiLeaks, storms and couplets in Parliament, as well as the fighting in Libya and elections in five state Assemblies at home.

The immolation, and the subsequent outpouring of anger, shows how much bitterness is suppressed in Tibet. And how little our media here and policymakers in Delhi are thinking about this deep dissatisfaction and how it could play out in Tibet and China over the next years.

The Dalai Lama’s retirement, naturally, has drawn fire from the Chinese who can’t probably figure out why he was giving up what he didn’t have (political power in Tibet), forgetting that politics is as much about symbolism as it is about control and although the Tibetan leader has “bowed out” of office, his hold on the hearts of his people is as strong as ever. He made clear that shedding power “has nothing to do with shirking responsibility”.

His “resignation” — something unprecedented in the history of his order — was not sudden. His office was well prepared, had printed a beautiful six-page booklet of the speech on handmade paper with a covering letter and sent it out extensively. He said that “the spirit of realism” shown during Chairman Mao Zedong’s time was missing in the new regime and that the discussions and “reasonable proposals” made to the Chinese officials who met his delegation had not resulted in “any positive response”.

This, he said, raised the question whether the officials of the “United Front Work Department” — a rather odd title for a group that was to negotiate with the Tibetans — had “fully and accurately conveyed” his proposals to the top leaders.

The Chinese try to dismiss his decision as a “drama”. But the truth of the matter is that it is the Dalai Lama who’s changed the rules of the game deftly and both New Delhi and Beijing need to understand this. He has taken away China’s rationale that the only problem in Tibet is the “personal privileges and status of the Dalai Lama”. That’s a lie and he nailed it in his blunt remarks: “The reality is that the ongoing oppression of the Tibetan people has provoked widespread resentment against official policies.”

But let’s look at what he’s also done: he is giving space to a new elected Tibetan Government-in-Exile, which would not to be bound by his authority and instead be able to directly discuss issues with the Chinese. The latter would not be dealing with the Dalai Lama’s nominees, but people who had been elected independently of his influence. That is a point they must ponder and resume meaningful serious dialogue with the new Tibet leadership. The Dalai Lama would remain in the background, but he’s taken himself out of the politics of negotiations as someone the Chinese don’t have to contend with directly.

Secondly, he’s telling India that it also needs to see how an elected government will strengthen Delhi’s position on the key border issue of Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese call Southern Tibet.

SANJOY HAZARIKA is a columnist, author, filmmaker, Saifuddin Kitchlew Chair at the Academy of Third World Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia.

This column was published in  on 27 March, 2011



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