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Why India should be worried about the Dalai Lama's health

Bharat Bhushan | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 5:18 IST

The dilemma

  • The Dalai Lama\'s health is a matter of concern for not just Tibet, but also India
  • His health will have direct bearing on Tibet and Sino-Indian relations
  • Will he come to a settlement with China?

The succession

  • The other question before the Dalai Lama is deciding on a successor
  • If he goes back to Tibet, China could have a say in who succeeds him

More in the story

  • The terms of the Dalai Lama\'s possible agreement with China
  • How will his successor be selected?
  • What will be the impact on India?

The Tibetans have reason to be worried about the health of their religious and temporal leader, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Although the Dalai Lama keeps a punishing schedule, he reluctantly decided to cut short his sojourn to the US on medical advice and returned home to India.

On the face of it, the Dalai Lama seems in fairly robust health for an 80-year-old. He apparently has slightly enhanced sugar levels, some issues with his knees and a prostate problem which may eventually require surgery. The doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he had gone for what his office called a "routine annual check-up", have ruled out prostate surgery and advised him to rest.

At one level, these are merely age-related issues. While wishing him a long and healthy life, the point is that the Dalai Lama is not immune from them.

A settlement with China?

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The Dalai Lama in action with his only hobby, repairing watches, at his residence in Dharamshala. Photo: Gerhard Joren/LightRocket/Getty Images

An ageing and possibly ailing Dalai Lama is not only a matter of concern for the Tibetans. It should also have India deeply worried. His health will determine both the future of Tibet and have a direct bearing on Sino-Indian relations.

With intimations of mortality how will he deal with China? And what will happen to the institution of the Dalai Lama after him?

It is quite possible that with age and health no longer on his side, the Dalai Lama may want to settle with China as the still undisputed leader of Tibetans. He may conclude that the conditions today are more propitious than before for a settlement.

There are several signals that suggest that the Dalai Lama views the current regime in China differently from previous ones.

Last October, he had expressed his keenness to make a pilgrimage to the Wutai Shan mountain in Shanxi Province in northern China, considered sacred by Tibetans. Although the Chinese had earlier ruled out such a visit, Wu Yingjie, a senior official from the Tibet Autonomous Region, confirmed that discussions were on for the possibility of the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet. He said that the Dalai Lama and his officials could return to Tibet subject to their giving up "splittist" policies and accepting that Tibet and Taiwan were part of China.

The possibility of a visit to China was not the only signal given by the Dalai Lama about the new regime. During President Xi Jinping's visit to India, the Dalai Lama praised the dispensation in Beijing and described Xi has "more open-minded" and "realistic" than his predecessors.

With age and health no longer on his side, the Dalai Lama may want to settle with China

In interviews the Dalai Lama suggested that he had very good relations with the President's father, the late Xi Zhongxun, a former vice-premier who was known for his liberal views. He remembered that the elder Xi had worn the Omega watch gifted by the Dalai Lama for decades. This was during a visit to Beijing in 1954, five years before he fled to India.

The Dalai Lama described senior Xi as "very friendly, comparatively more open-minded, very nice". Suddenly stories came into circulation in Indian and Western media about Xi's mother Qi Xin, being buried with full Tibetan Buddhist rites and his wife, Peng Liyuan, being a practicing Buddhist. It was also mentioned that Peng Liyuan, a famous Chinese folk singer and performing artist, had also sung a song about the beauty of Tibet, omitting mention of the fact that it was an ode to the army that invaded Tibet in 1959.

There is a religious resurgence in China and the Communist regime is no longer feeling embarrassed in proclaiming itself the largest Buddhist country in the world.

In short, a perception has gained ground that somehow a settlement could be possible with the new regime in China. Whether this romanticised view of China under Xi can lead to a settlement acceptable to the Tibetans is another matter.

What is clear, however, is that the Chinese could facilitate the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet provided he accepts that Tibet like Taiwan is and has been a part of China and limit his role to being a spiritual leader.

Essentially, if the Chinese let him return, then they can have a say in choosing his successor or his reincarnation. Influencing his succession will depend substantially on whether he passes away in China or, in India or elsewhere.

Who succeeds the Dalai Lama?

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Dalai Lama meeting Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: Murali/Pix Inc/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

The Dalai Lama's statements about his reincarnation have differed at different times creating some confusion. At one point he said that he will only reincarnate in a free country. This means that his reincarnation will not be found in China - thus effectively preventing the Chinese from choosing the 15th Dalai Lama.

At another time, he said that he may not reincarnate at all as the institution of the Dalai Lama is a man-made one. The question then is: who will lead the Tibetan people in such an eventuality? It is quite unlikely that the Chinese will deal with the Tibetan government-in-exile or its designated Prime Minister.

China could facilitate the Dalai Lama's return if he accepts that Tibet is a part of China

On yet another occasion, the Dalai Lama said that he may "emanate" in someone else during his own life-time - which means that he may appoint his successor or recognise someone young as his "emanation". Emanations of Lamas in their life-time are not unknown to Tibetan Buddhism.

Whichever scenario comes to pass, the succession of the 14th Dalai Lama is bound to be a disputed one. Controversies have already surrounded the succession of the 11th Panchen Lama in China and the 17th Karmapa in India.

A disputed succession of the Dalai Lama would divide the Tibetan independence movement spiritually and politically.

There could be other complications if the reincarnation is discovered some years after the Dalai Lama's passing away. Historically, the reincarnates have been children or minors. The present Dalai Lama incarnate, for example, was discovered when he was barely five-years-old. Such an eventuality would entail the appointment of a Regent or a Regency Council. The future of the Tibetan struggle would depend on the competence of the Regency Council to chart its course.

There are those who believe that the Dalai Lama's outfit is like a feudal court. Manned largely by people of his clan, it has the shortcomings that such coteries suffer from. Differences might, therefore, crop up on the appointment of a Regent.

The Regent or a Regency Council may also face questions of legitimacy in representing the political leadership of the Tibetan movement across the different sects of Tibetan Buddhists.

While the Dalai Lama represents the Gelug sect, there are three other major sects, the Nyingma, the Kagyu, the Sakya and a minor branch of the Sakya tradition called the Jonang. Not all of them are followers of a single Lama.

At present Tibetans of different sects defer to the leadership of the Dalai Lama because of his personality. The question is whether they will take directions from a toddler or a child Dalai Lama or the Regent/Regency Council?

What the Dalai Lama must do

To prepare the Tibetan people for a post-14th Dalai Lama situation, the present Dalai Lama must do two things immediately:

One, spell out the terms that he would like the Tibetan people to stick to in negotiating with China; and two, give clear directions/indication about his succession or reincarnation.

The Dalai Lama had good relations with President Xi's father. He describes Xi as open-minded

As for India, its biggest concern will be the consequences for India if the Dalai Lama accepts the political tenet that Tibet was always a part of China. These would be extremely adverse for India, as it has the potential of knocking the bottom out of India's negotiations with China on demarcating the Sino-Indian border on the basis of the McMahon Line.

The Shimla Accord of 1914 between Great Britain, China and Tibet defines the boundary between "Inner Tibet" and "Outer Tibet" with the understanding that while China will have suzerainty over Outer Tibet, it will not interfere in the administration of Inner Tibet. The annexures of the Accord define the boundaries between Tibet and China. More importantly, from the Indian point of view, they also define the boundary between Tibet and British India, later known as the McMahon Line.

Although China did not ratify the 1914 Accord, as the Chinese representative withdrew himself from the convention organised in Shimla, India's position has been that the Accord is valid because it was signed by Tibet as a sovereign country.

If now, the Dalai Lama were to say, as the Chinese want him to, that Tibet had always been a part of China, then in the Sino-Indian border talks, India's insistence on McMahon line would become extremely weak.

First published: 3 October 2015, 6:38 IST
Bharat Bhushan @Bharatitis

Editor of Catch News, Bharat has been a hack for 25 years. He has been the founding Editor of Mail Today, Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times, Editor of The Telegraph in Delhi, Editor of the Express News Service, Washington Correspondent of the Indian Express and an Assistant Editor with The Times of India.