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OPINION: The wisdom of surrender

March 20, 2011

Indian Express
Posted: Wed Mar 16 2011, 02:27 hrs

The Dalai Lama is a rare figure in human history. Celebrated as a preeminent spiritual leader by millions and respected as a statesman for our troubled times, he has, on the singular strength of his moral authority, succeeded in keeping the cause of Tibet alive on the international scene. This — in the face of ever-growing Chinese economic, military and political clout — is no mean achievement. The Dalai Lama is in exile in India as a “revered spiritual figure” — and that has been his visiting card at numerous capitals and seats of power. However, it has also circumscribed his political space.

While still a young man of 28, a product of traditional monastic education in the isolation of Tibet and newly exiled in India, Tenzin Gyatso envisioned a democratic Tibet in which he would have no formal political role. In 1963, he presented to his people and the world a draft constitution based on the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His recent pronouncements, relinquishing all formal political authority, are of a piece with that vision.

For Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, now 75, who describes himself as a “simple Buddhist monk”, the March 10 announcement is in consonance with a process that he set in motion nearly five decades ago, not a “jasmine moment”. He has been consistently exhorting the need to nurture representative democratic institutions, transparent electoral processes and robust governance structures for the Tibetan community.

In May 1990, the Dalai Lama accelerated reforms that heralded a democratic administration-in-exile for the Tibetan community. The Tibetan cabinet, Kashag, which till then had been appointed by him, was dissolved along with the Tenth Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies, the parliament in exile. In the same year, exiled Tibetans in India and over 33 other countries elected 46 members to the expanded Eleventh Tibetan Assembly on one-person-one-vote basis. The assembly, in its turn, elected the new members of the cabinet. In September 2001, a further step in democratisation was taken when the Tibetan electorate directly chose their prime minister (Kalon Tripa) who happened to be a senior monk. In Tibet’s long history, this was the first time that lay people elected the political leadership of Tibet. The Dalai Lama assiduously refused to indicate a preference or influence the outcome.

He has stated that his decision to devolve his formal authority to an elected Kalon Tripa has nothing to do with a “wish to shirk responsibility”. To see it as abdication or, as in the case of the former king of Bhutan, a retreat from the domain of political influence could be shortsighted. On the one hand, it could mean a less fettered role for him and a space to circumvent the tremulousness of official protocol the world over, and facilitate more informal tracks for engagement. The Dalai Lama, after all, has had to contend with visa denials, regrets from heads of state and last-minute cancellations of invitations often under pressure from China. He has borne these with characteristic dignity, always mindful not to embarrass friends and supporters across the globe. On the other hand, the shedding of key political functions signals a separation of the secular from the religious in the formal structures of governance, possibly to also counter Chinese allegations of feudal obscurantism.

On almost all issues that pertain to the history, mythology and beliefs of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama has been willing to push the envelope. This includes interrogating the contemporary relevance of the institution of the Dalai Lama itself, maintaining that it is important “only so long as it serves the cause of the Tibetan people”. As a possible riposte to the practice of the Chinese government to choose and appoint “reincarnations” of senior lamas, he has suggested that he could choose a qualified spiritual leader to inherit his mantle or appoint one through a referendum that reflects the will of the Tibetan people. At any rate, he remains sceptical of the possibility of his “reincarnating” in Tibet as long as he and his community are in exile. The vexed issue of succession will undoubtedly add both strain and complexity to the Sino-Indian dynamic and will require deft handling by India, as the recent Karmapa episode has amply demonstrated. Should the Dalai Lama’s successor too step back from political authority as he has done, then a substantially different set of possibilities and calculations will be at play.

The real challenge now is to find in the current generation of Tibetans a leadership that is modern and secular with a deep empathy for Tibetan culture and values, along with the skills needed to negotiate and pilot the future agenda of Tibet. In the fray for the elections for the Kalon Tripa scheduled for March 20 are three candidates: Tashi Wangdi, Tenzin Namgyal Tethong and Lobsang Sangay, all with substantial international exposure and varying degrees of experience in serving the Tibetan community in exile. Significantly, none of them is currently resident in India, where 90 per cent of the community in exile now lives. In fact, a large proportion of the intellectual and professional elite of the small talent pool of the Tibetan community in exile has moved to greener pastures in the US, thanks largely to the generous number of visas and scholarships that the country has made available.

Will the new political leadership revisit or modify the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach — “genuine autonomy” within the People’s Republic of China — which radical Tibetans have been impatient with? How will it position itself to engage with governments and political leaders as the formal face of the Tibetan community? Or, will the Dalai Lama continue as the acceptable channel for dialogue even in a changed role? More important, how will the Tibetans in China, who look to him as the unifying symbol of their struggle, connect with the new dispensation? These are valid concerns.

A couple of things are clear: the Dalai Lama’s decision belongs to a leadership trajectory that calls for a nuanced understanding of political power. And it represents a leap of faith in the Tibetan community’s potential for democratic responsibility. What remains to be seen is how it collectively responds to this aspiration.

The writer is principal, Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, and honorary director of Women in Security Conflict Management and Peace, which is funded by the Dalai Lama’s foundation

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