There have been several posts on the Internet about HH Karmapa Lama’s European tour being canceled because the Indian government denied him an exit visa. Barbara, John, Rev Danny and others have contributed.
I am glad to see there wasn’t a lot of conclusion-jumping and fist-waving about it initially, as was the case with the Sri Lanka situation and the detention of the Muslim writer. (That’s a complicated situation-not simply one of free speech etc) Although with the introduction of a petition now that seems to have changed somewhat.
A number of people have posited speculation on this topic as well as commentary in various forms. I want to address some of that as well as throw in some of my own.
Barbara O’Brien of the About.com Buddhism blog wrote:
the problem is that China is a major trading partner with India, and so China is a position to help or hurt the Indian economy. For the past several years it’s been pretty obvious that India is caving in to China on several issues. And China, which shares a border with India, has the largest standing army in the world.
Mr. Bill Schwartz, aka Ryder Japhy-writer at elephant journal and all round provocateur, provides the following in comments on an article in elephant journal.
Look no further than the Tibetan exile community in India itself which is perfectly content to have their best and brightest hope for the future remain a rare bird in a gilded cage.
I need no explanation of the Indian Government’s continuing to keep HHK17 under house arrest for the past decade other than this is what the Tibetan people want.
If the Tibetan exile community wanted to see His Holiness continue the work of the 16th Karmapa in the West they would be in the streets over this which they aren’t obviously.
Don’t expect Tibetans to allow their best and their brightest to be corrupted by life in the West like was allowed to happen with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and other prominent Rinpoche’s of his generation.
Until we wake up to the reality of what we are up against in terms of Tibetan xenophobia which is so much a part of being Tibetan nobody but tourists will ever see HHK17 in the West I’m afraid.
And now there is a petition (read it, sign it if you will, but I’m going to talk about its contents more) being fielded by a group calling itself FREETHEKARMAPA and advertised by Robert Thurman and others. In that petition to be sent to Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party of India (the ruling party nationally) there is evocation of certain sections of the Constitution of India (available here 471p. pdf) as well as policy of the Congress party. It was clearly written by people with little knowledge of international relations, the situation of the Tibetan people within India or the zeitgeist of Indian politics.
The following appears in the petition:
As he is not a criminal, but is in fact an important spiritual teacher for the entire world, this confinement contravenes the fundamental principles to the preservation of human dignity and respect for universal, fundamental and ethical principles. We call on you to secure his immediate and unconditional release.
We call for Orgyen Trinley Dorje’s immediate and unconditional release from confinement in India.
The unreasonable and inconsiderate practice of confining him in India is a violation of his human rights and a blatant abuse of his freedom for religious expression.
We request his right to travel freely outside of India be respected and supported.
The petition itself goes on at length trying to paint HH Karmapa’s conditions to be almost as dire as Tihar Jail in Delhi (not good) or as some kind of gulag. Hyperbole is often a useful tool but not necessarily in a petition to a government. By insulting the Indian government with these kinds of statements HH Karmapa Lama’s followers in the West can be pretty sure it will be a good long while before he can leave again if ever.
India is a benefactor to the Tibetan people. And that began at a time when no one else was willing to step up including America or any country in Europe! Not a good idea to piss on that generosity people.
Some of the Affecting Issues and Related Matters
History. One thing I have found in India is that if you don’t know history and if you don’t see it as something that still lives today with almost as much force as in the past then it is very difficult to understand politics or anything that goes on in this region. We’re talking long long chains of causality.
Tibetan Buddhism in America Now as Bill has pointed out in his numerous articles on elephant journal, the history of one branch (Kagyu) of Tibetan Buddhism in America was not without it’s problems. Some early teachers, even though dead now, still provoke controversy. That these teachers weren’t properly dealt with and even encouraged to partake in Occidental-style hedonistic abandon (how’s that for euphemism?) rankles with many still. And the results of that in terms of detriment to some students also remains cause for concern. Bill writes in detail over at elephant journal about that and having been there he knows what he’s talking about. So I’ll leave that to him rather than go into details here. You might also want to read the Dharma Mule blog for more.
Confinement. HHKL is not confined in India. No one has claimed he is a criminal except those who wrote the above mentioned petition. He speaks at many places in India freely including universities, Bodhgaya, and even at the TEDIndia conference last November. He is not shackled up in his room without contact. Who hasn’t read the article about his enjoyment of video games and the Internet? He is frequently interviewed by newspapers and holds audiences on a regular basis. The hysterical tone of the petition makes it out to be the same situation as the Tibetan Panchen Lama in China. Not even close.
Refugee Issue. Refugees have no rights. Anywhere. Period. Some countries may grant a right to asylum but that does not extend the rights given of citizens to those refugees. Nor does it bring them under the rights granted to citizens in other countries. And even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as endorsed by the United Nations is non-binding on anyone let alone refugees. They are not guaranteed a right of travel under the Constitution of India nor under any other constitution, declaration or bill of rights. Refugees are essentially stateless. Statelessness means that there is no one to defend any rights in any way whatsoever. The Tibetan government in exile (article is not completely correct regarding the history of the Central Tibetan Authority-CTA) has no power on the international scene. They are not signatories to any binding treaties. They are not a member of the United Nations or any other international group such as ASEAN or others. They have founded a small group called Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) but it has little clout. They are not recognized as a political entity by anyone. Their political function is mainly limited to administrative work in terms of handling the needs of the Tibetan refugees within India.
A big reason some of the commentary above is erroneous is that the Indian Government doesn’t really give a shit about what the Tibetan people want. Slightly overstating yes-they have not got the means, opportunity, functionality or the will to give them all that they may want. They have plenty enough to concern them with the Indian population as well as neighboring countries. Tibetan refugees are pretty far down the list. At times it appears that they sometimes only suffer the presence of these refugees in the country because to do otherwise would make them look very bad in the eyes of the world. Especially after so much time has passed.
You can be quite sure that if the Tibetan community voted to move out of India and any other country accepted them the Indian government would be sending people to help them pack their bags. The Tibetans are quite segregated from the majority of the Indian population with their own settlements, schools and other amenities. These amenities are paid for by the Tibetans themselves not by the Indian government. The only way they could be deemed equal, and have equal rights under the Constitution of India, is if they abandon refugee status and become Indian citizens. In that case they are deemed to have abandoned the Tibetan cause by both the Indian and Tibetan communities generally. Citing the Constitution of India as the petition does, with regard to people who are not citizens of India is a pointless endeavor. It does not cover them. Refugee status is very shaky ground.
Protest in India by Tibetans. The Tibetan people are not allowed to protest without permission in India. And they are prohibited from engaging in any sort of political activities or even those that look like political activities. Same is true of any foreign group. Some leeway is given occasionally but any ongoing protests are strongly discouraged. Protests against the Indian Government are not undertaken nor would they likely be tolerated if they were to occur. And as for wanting to see work continued of the 16th Karmapa in the West, quite likely most couldn’t care less because they are too busy trying to put food on the table. People in most of the world have more pressing things to do than worry about the enlightenment of whiny spoiled Westerners.
Indian Government Visa Regulations There have been extensive changes to visa regulations in India. Any foreigner who leaves must stay out for 2 months before being readmitted. This is becoming the norm for all classes of visas. I am not sure why this rule has been brought up but possibly it might be due to foreigners abusing the visa system and the hospitality of the Indian government as well as disrupting wildlife and the local people, blatantly violating the law in a wildlife sanctuaries and religious areas and generally fucking things up for other foreigners as well. (here’s an example going on right now from the Kumbh Mela in my area- Times of India, Yahoo News India, Chennai Online, India Today-video – This seems to be one of these Rainbow Gatherings-their motto might be Disturbing the Peace Wherever They Go. The news media is fairly tame in it’s criticism compared to what people say on the street. Someone I know thought the army should go in and shoot them. I am so holding back a mega-rant at the moment about these self-indulgent air-headed foreign idiots! )
Leadership. The Tibetan government in exile needs to keep a “leader” even in name only in India (HHDL is out of the country for considerable time to come) This indicates the increasing importance of HH Karmapa Lama. With new duties continually being given to the Chinese Panchen Lama it is obvious he is being groomed to lead Tibetans in Tibet. This is a threatened power struggle.
If something happened to HHDL & HHKL (do you ever see them together in a public appearance-very rarely) which is far more likely outside of India than inside of India due to the tight security here, the Chinese government is poised to set the Chinese Panchen Lama up as figurehead. To in effect thrust his political leadership upon the Tibetan population. Should that ever occur the refugee population would have no spokesperson with any sort of standing. India would be in something of a quandary then. The Tibetans would be under great pressure to either be assimilated into India or return to Tibet under strict conditions and the leadership of the Chinese Panchen Lama. Further then any future Karmapa or Dalai Lama would be coming from that tainted situation.
Security and the Dorje Shugden Issue. The Dorje Shugden situation is very complicated and involves what can only be called infighting within the Tibetan religious community. There were a number of murders in Dharamshala that were linked to this controversy. Some people believe that they are still a great threat to some members of the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy. The Indian government takes this matter very seriously and where the Dorje Shugden faction has thrived, mostly outside India now, there is concern that there may be assassination attempts. Many in the Shugden movement have disavowed violence now and wish only to continue their practices in peace. However some still remain attached to the more vitriolic rhetoric and activities. (see Tricycle article Dorje Shugden: Deity or Demon? -with over 2500 comments for examples of the passion this subject engenders)
Xenophobia. It stands to reason that the Tibetan people are somewhat protectionist of their culture and those who are icons of that culture. Their country was invaded and many were forced to flee or chose to flee due to the restrictive environment including HH Karmapa Lama.
In a later article though Ego, Where Art Thou? , Bill wrote:
When I look at the past 30 years’ history of the Karma Kagyu in America I can hardly find fault with Tibetans taking care of Tibetans.
This is in part reference to Tibetan Lamas who came to America early on and experienced some difficulty. OK I’m talking about Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche mostly and I believe this is what Bill is referring to also. Read his article for more on this.
And it is not surprising as well since it is only very recently that the West has taken any interest in the Tibetan’s plight at all. How can foreigners be trusted when they profess all these high ideals and only when celebrity status is wafting around do any of them try to manifest all that lofty talk into action? The Tibetan people are not stupid.
Security Concerns. The Indian government would hold HH Karmapa Lama under excessive security because of his past. He came to India barely 10 years ago. There have been sleeper agents and moles who didn’t emerge for 20+ years. I am not saying that is the case here by any means but from the point of view of international relations and the intelligence community there would be a good deal of suspicion. And believe me the Indian Intelligence community is as paranoid as they get. I know because I’ve been visited by members of the Local Intelligence Unit inquiring as to what I am doing here and I’m only a middle-aged house-wifey-type Canadian citizen with no titles or followers or anything even remotely like that. But can you blame them? There are a lot of disruptive elements here. (Maoists, Naxals, terrorists and other hostile elements from at least a dozen neighboring countries, land Mafias and other organized crime, corruption at an unbelievable level, international drug lords, smugglers of every type, international human trafficking at an astounding level, etc.)
Right now in fact there is a huge increase in security due to the Kumbh Mela and the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi in the fall. I came from a trip to Delhi 2 weeks ago and at every crossroads were at least half a dozen police and/or troops. We got stopped once by the army and they checked our vehicle even though it is locally registered. As well at this time of year there are spring troop advances into Himalaya. As the passes and roads open huge convoys move up to border regions to fortify positions there.
All border regions especially in the North East and Kashmir (Ladakh) require permits for anyone, not just HH Karmapa Lama to visit. They are disputed areas and have come under fire on numerous occasions. There is also the potential problem of political kidnapping in those areas. In some comments people have discussed the issue of HH Karmapa Lama’s previous denial of a visit to the North East. This is not particular to him. These permits are very hard to get for ordinary folks never mind anyone who has serious security concerns attached to them beforehand.
Chinese Incursions into India. The Chinese have invaded India before. This event called the Sino-Indian War caused the Indian government to move HH Dalai Lama from the proposed place of residence, Mussoorie, where I live currently, to Dharamshala which is not within such easy reach of Chinese troops should such an incursion occur again. Mussoorie has the first temple and school built by Tibetans in India. There has been speculation that one of the impetuses for that incursion at the time, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, was to reach HHDL and bring him back to Tibet or to assassinate him.
There are currently continuous border incursions in the Ladakh area of Kashmir as well as other border areas. These are often propaganda type exercises meant to demoralize and/or provoke Indian troops in the area. Here are some recent reports. (Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Express Buzz)
Trade with China and the Chinese Military. Increase in trade seems to mean increased interference in domestic issues by the Chinese government all over the world. All too often the Chinese government, when questioned about human rights for example, falls to the position of “internal matter” yet has the audacity to try to meddle around in everybody else’s business. India is no pushover when it comes to China. There may be some small concessions made but the Indian government is very much it’s own. It doesn’t cave to Russia, the U.S. or China very often. And in the past India has been far closer to Russia than to China. Should China become too much the big brother that could easily happen again. With Russia’s free markets now more in accord with the Indian free markets, both easing up on the socialist agendas a lot, there is more of an attunement with Russia than with China anyways.
One of the reasons that India is not hand in glove with China is because of the Chinese army. India has a huge army too, and from some reports a much better trained, armed and disciplined army. The Chinese military is beset with numerous problems that will take a long time to address. (here’s a couple of articles. Defense News, Facts & Details, The Strategy Page, Chinese Gov’t White Paper on Military Improvements, Civil-Military Relations and Domestic Power and Policies (policy and strategic analysis), Chinese role models and classical military philosophy in dealing with soldier corruption and moral degeneration (scholarly paper from the Journal of Third World Studies)
Frankly I think India would win a war with China if such a horror would ever take place. India has more allies (the Commonwealth Nations for example, many of which are also in NATO). Who are China’s allies? That is the problem with closed societies. One must spend a huge portion of the GNP on simply controlling and policing one’s own population. Defense against external threats or offense as the case may be, suffers because of it. Compare the American military. Huge budget, thought control is left up to the corporations.
[A bit of an aside-With the advent of the Security and Prosperity Partnership and other integrative programs in a similar vein (NAFTA and it’s subsequent amendments and partner agreements), increasingly the term American comes to mean North American of which Canada and Mexico are a part. (Not an NAU-North American Union-by any means but the SPP has been a cause for concern for many-here’s a couple of articles for those interested Toward a More Corporate Union of the Americas?, Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America)
China can and always will try to influence domestic policy and decision making with all of it’s trading partners, particularly by using it’s economic clout. But the more it tries to interfere with small issues such as visa granting and the like, if indeed that had any bearing on this matter at all, the more likely it will begin to lose the larger battles. There is a much greater arena to consider and to waste time, resources and partners patience on these small matters is to lose focus on larger goals.
The fact is most Westerners have no idea who HH Karmapa Lama is or of his significance. And even if they do the majority of those have more pressing matters on their minds. The same is true of most Indian people.
The only reason I am writing about this is that I know and care about it and happen to have the time to put down some of my thoughts here. I would like to see the Tibetan people in a better and more secure position than they are. Some of the commentary that has transpired, I feel, will not assist in that situation.
HH Karmapa Lama Responds
HH Karmapa Lama himself has made a blog type letter on the topic. He does not address any reasons and only expresses his regrets. It is available at A message from His Holiness
Asking the Questions of Those Who Might Have an Answer
I sent a message to Shashi Tharoor on Twitter.
He is “author, humanitarian, peacekeeper, columnist, former UN Under-Secretary General, now Minister of State for External Affairs, Govt of India.”
He is also well known to HH Karmapa Lama. They both recently shared a stage at TEDIndia. TEDIndia Session 9: Within You, Without You Shashi Tharoor’s talk from that session is available but HH Karmapa Lama’s is not. Perhaps someone wants to talk to TED about that.
As the Minister of State for External Affairs of India the visa issue is well within his pervue.
I asked him the following at 5:12 PM Indian Standard Time on Wed. 7 April, 2010:
It is not that I expect an answer by any means. And I’ve not gotten one at the time of publication of this post. Maybe you want to tweet him yourself. Or RT mine if you want. Perhaps he’ll make a blog post on his blog to give us some further understanding of the situation. Or perhaps not.
If HH Karmapa Lama 17 so deeply wishes to continue the work of HH Karmapa Lama 16 in the West why don’t his followers arrange that. What I mean is why don’t they arrange to have his asylum taken up in one of the Western countries? Why not lobby the American government to allow his acceptance as well as that of other Tibetans into America as refugees? Why not sponsor these folks?
[China would have a total breakdown over it for sure. It might be worth it just for that alone.]
Write to opposition ministers in the Indian Parliament. Parties in power don’t worry much about these kinds of issues. Opposition parties like to have barbs to throw at them. But make a case for the votes it may attract. Not easy in the Tibetan situation since refugees don’t vote.
[Now I get to really piss some people off.]
Visit India. If you want the teachings and the teacher is here make arrangements to come. The Buddhadharma is not like some fast food joint that you can just call up and have a teacher arrive on your doorstep.
A few of the comments I’ve come across on this and similar issues just smack of (YES!) white privilege, colonialism, Orientalism, classist arrogance and outright ignorance. It’s as if to say,
“Hey I’ve done them the honor of taking up their religion so they should scurry on over here and serve it up to me as per my order. And if they don’t then there’s something wrong with them….And everyone else better just get out of the way to make that happen.”
Some of the rhetoric is just that off putting. I don’t really want to go there too much right now-got another post brewing on a related topic-but some of the language of that petition and surrounding comments has that flavor to it.
- From the Petition:
- …the Karmapa’s capacity to perform as a spiritual leader in our world has been significantly compromised. ["our world"-interesting phrase. Actually it hasn't been compromised-he can teach and receive audiences in India pretty freely for a guy with security concerns]
- …Thousands of tickets for the important teachings in nine European countries had to be returned and large groups were left disappointed. Many dharma centers suffered economically due to the unexpected cancellation. [Do you realize you are making this plea to a third world country? Why should they give a shit about some upscale dharma centers in the West?]
- From elsewhere:
- …HH has been abused by the Indian gov’t in this fashion for years now (two canceled trips just last year). Now everyone knows HH’s plight. ["abused" -being given safe asylum from a totalitarian regime is not exactly abuse]
- We need to see Karmapa! NOW! [stamps foot and throws something!]
- I appeal to all people of the world irrespective of age, color, caste, religion, bank balance and political preference to join us in stirring the global consciousness in an international arena concerning the Karmapas unwarranted confinement in India. Through this dedicated campaign we will free the Karmapa, make headlines, move illogical policies and change many lives. Stop the religious and political suppression of the Karmapa. Free the Karmapa now! (from the petition organizers website-italic emphasis mine-also stamps foot and throws something!)
So you get the gist of my issue with some of the rhetoric around this situation. That’s all I feel like writing about this right now.
In comments someone asked me to support this petition. I am not and here is my response.
Concerned supporters are a good thing. Methodology is another matter. I am not questioning anyone’s motives in this project, I’m sure they are the highest. I’m questioning the way it is being rolled out. To have any kind of significant impact in any activist cause supporters need to inform themselves of as many of the prevailing conditions as are applicable. Sometimes do-gooders do more damage than help because of their naivete.
This particular petition won’t have my support because:
- a) the language smacks of First Worlder entitlement
- b) the implication that he is being held captive is wrong
- c) the missed opportunity is one of the petition writers
- d) I don’t jump on every “noble” bandwagon just because the crowd suggests I should particularly when the wheels aren’t that stable
- e) sometimes “the majority” is just a mob.
- f) the tone and even some of the statements insult the country that has been my host for nearly 10 years
- g) the petition is addressed to Sonia Gandhi. She is still considered a foreigner in India even having been the wife of Rahul Gandhi and having his children and being a citizen. She is more of a figurehead, albeit a powerful one, than anything. That it wasn’t addressed to the Prime Minister, President, Lok Sabha ministers (the lower parliamentary house), Rajya Sabha (the upper house), cabinet ministers or anyone actually in government makes it a moot document. It is foreigners calling upon a non-elected foreigner with some connections to interfere in decisions made by the Indian government. This is part of the First Worlder issue as well. It says “We can’t talk to you Indians so we’ll talk to one of our own.”
It is not that I am against a petition. One that were appropriately worded and addressed to parties that could do something (Sonia Gandhi may be president of the Congress Party but technically she is powerless) I might be inclined to promote it. As it stands that is not the case.
Addendum April 20, 2010:
The Kagyu office has issued an announcement here
However, we would like to request the many followers and devotees of His Holiness to take heart and not cast aspersion on any organization or government body for the cancellation of the tour.
We wish to thank the Government of India for all the assistance, hospitality and kindness that His Holiness Gyalwang Karmapa has received after his arrival to India in the year 2000.
Addendum April 23, 2010
The Kagyu office has issued another announcement
An announcement regarding the petition from the Kagyu Office. It doesn’t get much more explicit than this.
In this petition some false accusations are made. While it is true that the proposed Karmapa’s Dharma tour to Europe in mid-May was not approved, it is not correct that the Karmapa is kept under any confinement or duress in India nor is he under any harassment. Therefore, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa and Tsurphu Labrang categorically deny these unfounded accusations.