The indefinite postponement of the 13th Religious Conference of the Schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon Tradition, which was scheduled for November 29 and 30 in Dharamsala, has once again turned the spotlight on differences between the government and the Karmapa, the head of one of the four main sects of Tibetan Buddhism, over his return to India, officials confirmed to The Hindu.
According to officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs, the two sides have reached an impasse over the 34-year-old Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s decision to acquire citizenship of Dominica earlier this year. As a result, despite several requests from the Karmapa for a visa, he has been unable to visit India as planned.
The officials, who asked not to be named, confirmed that the Karmapa had written multiple letters to the Indian consulate in New York and to the Dalai Lama asking for a visa. The Karmapa said he wants to surrender the Identity Certificate (the yellow card issued by India to Tibetans for ease of travel) since he has already acquired Dominica’s citizenship.
A senior government official told The Hindu that the Karmapa was welcome to visit India but the government would not agree to his demand to surrender the Identity Certificate. “He can come here on the Identity Certificate issued to him, there is no bar on him visiting here,” said the official.
Another source denied any delay by the government in processing the papers, but said that in its opinion, “the Karmapa doesn’t need a visa.” With its tough stand, the government is understood to have made clear its annoyance with the Karmapa’s decision to overstay in the U.S. , where he travelled in March 2017, and acquire another country’s passport, rather than return to India.
Since 1999, when the Karmapa and his sister fled to Dharamshala, the government has hosted him and allowed him to set up his congregation. Since then he has grown in prominence and is now considered as a possible successor to the Dalai Lama’s political clout over the Tibetan refugee population around the world.
Confirming the impasse, the government’s former advisor on Tibetan Affairs Amitabh Mathur, who has been a key interlocutor said the matter has now been put on hold. “Karmapa is in a retreat now; it is not known when he would like to visit India. There are no restrictions on his travel, however” Mr. Mathur told The Hindu. A government official who had dealt with the Karmapa also said he hasn’t reverted on India’s response, and is “in penance” at present.
The confusion over the Karmapa’s return is now casting a shadow over other issues in the community like the November conference of Tibetan religious leaders, which was postponed ostensibly after the death of a senior monk, Kathok Getse Rinpoche, head of the Nyingma School, in an accident in Nepal.
While officials of the Central Tibetan Administration as well as government officials deny that the absence of the Karmapa had any role in the cancellation of the conference, most accept that it will be difficult to reschedule the conference without including him.
Keen to attend
In an interview to Radio Free Asia in July this year, the Karmapa had underlined the importance of holding the conference as well as of his presence there.
“I have no doubt or question that my return to India is absolutely certain. In November of this year, there will be an important meeting of the heads of the major Tibetan Buddhist traditions in Dharamsala, India. Therefore, I must attend,” he had said.
In the interview he had also spoken of differences with the Indian government when he had first entered India, over accusations that he was a Chinese agent, and the fact that the government engaged with him for a long time via “lower-level officials”.
The cancellation of the conference has come as a major surprise given the stakes involved in bringing together various streams of Tibetan Buddhism and their leaders in particular. The Dalai Lama was due to address the gathering on the last day of the conference organised by the CTA in Dharamshala, where a discussion on a successor to the Dalai Lama was also expected to be held.
When asked about a date for the conference, officials said the conference has now been “indefinitely postponed” which led to speculation that New Delhi had bowed to Beijing’s sensitivities on the issue.
Mr. Mathur said China was playing an influential role in the Buddhist circle in Nepal and Sri Lanka. “We have to take note of this growing Chinese engagement in our neighbourhood. They will do what’s in their interest. What we need to do is to expand and intensify our own engagement,” he said.
In February, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had cautioned government officials and ministers against attending Tibetan conferences, which had led to the cancellation of several planned events to commemorate the 50th year of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India, as well as a major parliamentarians conference on the Tibet issue.
When asked, MEA sources however, denied that the Chinese government had ever raised concerns over the 13th Tibetan leader’s conference.