Buddhism, China and the Indian Media

I was there in Bodhgaya in the winter of 2006, attending a busy and crowded prayer ceremony organized by the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism. Devotees and pilgrims from all over the world, including China, had come there. I saw visitors from China offering donations in Chinese currency, during a prayer session led by their spiritual leader, the 17th Karmapa Ogen Tinley Dorjee.

The donations came in small notes from the country of their origin. Helpers and translators were accepting and recording each transaction in great detail, the names of the people, whom they were praying for, for what reason. This seemingly innocuous spiritual exercise last month snowballed into front-page news after police seized more than $1 million dollars in cash, which included Chinese currency notes, at the Karmapa’s makeshift headquarters near Dharamshala in North India.

The followers of the Karmapa breathed a sigh of relief after the central government of India finally cleared the Karmapa of any wrongdoing (the moneys they found were indeed donations).

But speculations abound on what really triggered the raid last month, and there are various conspiracy theories, though it now appears that local politics had played a key role. After the money was seized, all the key figures in the state, including the head of the police, were seen on television, declaring him guilty long before the investigation was over.

Not only was he investigated for money laundering, officials and analysts told the media that he was a “Chinese plant” in India and a “Chinese agent” simply because he is the only Tibetan reincarnate lama to be recognized by both China and the Dalai Lama, and he speaks Chinese, and he has a huge following amongst the Han Chinese diaspora.

For Tibetans in India, this incident did deliver some sobering lessons. It brought into the open the dilemmas faced by Tibetan refugees and the kind of trouble they could land into, if they are not careful. It also somehow showed how they could get caught in the crossfire of a curious politics between not only the center and the state, but also between China and India.

Earlier, even after his own state’s highest-ranking civil servant gave Karmapa the clean chit, BJP’s Prem Kumar Dhumal, the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, refused to do so, telling the media that investigations would continue.

Adding insult to the injury is the highly sensationalist and commercialist media, which swore by objectivity without judgment and context. At least on this issue, the large portion of Indian media failed disastrously by acting as stenographers, indiscriminately taking in whatever was being spoon-fed to them by intelligence officials, police, local politicians involved. This is precisely the kind of journalism which informed the world about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq.

Rather than being gatekeepers of truth, the media actually became the medium through which any analyst and former official with a view on Tibet and China could fire a cheap shot. Indian government’s assertiveness vis-a-vis China is refreshing (though achieving it at the expense of refugees and Buddhist monks who actually fled China at 14 to get education smacked of bad taste and insensitivity towards followers of Tibetan Buddhism.) TV channels made the Karmapa incident a subject of talk shows where well-known Tibetan activists and politicians, offering explanations in support of the Karmapa, were grilled and mocked by combative anchors for not following the “law of the land”.

Fortunately, after nearly a month of being forced into the media headlines, the incident seems to have come to an end for now. The Indian media has provided a case study for future journalists how not to cover stories; it had unsettled the sentiments of those living in India’s predominantly Buddhist Himalayan region, who populate the sensitive border areas of China from India. There were large protests in the capitals of both Ladakh and Sikkim, as well as in Delhi, even though the media refused to give them much coverage. Western followers of Tibetan Buddhism, a significant source of tourist revenue to Himachal Pradesh and elsewhere, remain extremely disappointed, more so at the media than the authorities.

Whereas the media failed to perform its role, other members of the civil society joined the debate. (Facebook pages were quickly created; supporters put up Karmapa’s images as profile pictures.) The sheer preposterousness of the claims, about being a “spy” in particular, triggered leading Tibet specialists, such as Dibyesh Anand of University of Westminister in London and Tsering Shakya of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, to stand up to the occasion to write articles in major Indian publications.

Thanks partly to the intervention of the public and the intellectuals, the saga fortunately seemed to have come to an end for now, though it would be premature to say a happy end. The status of the Karmapa in India remains fragile and fraught with complications. (There are at least other two claimants to the seat of the 17th Karmapa, one of which, Thaye Dorjee, backed by Shamarpa Lama, is highly influential and widely travels the world as his rival remains homebound by travel bans.) The Karmapa’s official headquarters is in Rumtek, in the Indian state of Sikkim, to which he is not allowed to visit despite repeated appeals from the citizens of the state.

In the final analysis, if there is one positive outcome that transpired from the incident, then it was that the controversy has undoubtedly raised the profile of Karmapa, albeit to a giddying level. It has also formally instantiated him into the politics of India, China and Tibet, something which the Karmapas in the past have refrained from. His predecessor the 16th Karmapa preferred to remain that way. However, given the prospective role, which actually now looks more and more like an obligation, that this Karmapa could fulfill in the post-Dalai Lama period, the latest incident might not be so bad after all.

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  1. The other good thing that has come out of this sordid episode is that the Buddhist population living in the Himalayas rose with one voice to protect the good name of His Holiness the Karmapa. The faith in our Lamas and the institutions of Buddhism are alive and strong not only amongst the old but also amongst the youngsters of today.

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