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Decoding the Dalai Lama’s Political Retirement

Prashant Kumar Singh is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • March 14, 2011

    On March 10, 2011, the 14th Dalai Lama, religious and political head of Tibetans, announced in Dharamshala that he will relinquish his political authorities in favour of an elected prime minister. The Tibetan Parliament in Exile is slated to discuss his proposal on March 14. If approved, this development may prove a turning point for the Tibetan movement in exile.1 The Dalai Lama has been enjoying enormous emotional support from Tibetans – both from inside Tibet and from Tibetans in exile. The Tibetan Youth Congress may be critical of his “middle way approach” and Western-educated Tibetans may not share Tibetan traditional and religious beliefs, but the leadership of the Dalai Lama has been unquestioned and respect for him knows no bounds.2 It is difficult and inconceivable for his followers to think that the Dalai Lama can resign or be elected! For them, he is a reincarnation. He has been the face, the leader and the glue of the international Tibetan movement. His departure from the political scene will bring an epoch to a close.

    The Chinese reaction to the Dalai Lama’s announcement has been along expected lines. Jiang Yu, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, remarked that the Dalai Lama was playing “tricks” on the world. She said, “he has talked often about retirement in the past few years…. I think these are tricks to deceive the international community.”3 The Chinese media has also quoted Tibetan legislators as saying that the Dalai Lama’s announcement was yet another “lie”, “trick” and “political show”. For Qiangba Puncog, chairman of the Standing Committee of Tibet Autonomous Regional People’s Congress, the announcement made by the Dalai Lama “is merely another political show… to arouse the attention of the international community and mould public opinion.” Qiangba Puncog further argued that since the so-called Tibetan “government-in-exile” itself is an illegal political organization and not recognized by any country in the world, the Dalai Lama’s decision to relinquish his political power and his talks about ‘retirement’ or ‘semi-retirement’ or ‘electing a successor’ are futile. Padma Choling, chairman of the Tibet autonomous regional government, has also been quoted as saying that Tibetan Buddhism has a history of more than 1,000 years, and the reincarnation institutions of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama have carried on for several hundred years. “We must respect the historical institutions and religious rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. I am afraid it is not up to anyone to abolish the reincarnation institution or not”… therefore, “what he said does not count.”4

    China cannot be as careless about this development as it would like to have others believe. The Dalai Lama’s announcement is a master stroke that is likely to unsettle China. It would unsettle India too, if Indian policy makers realize the implications. Incidentally, if media reports are to be believed, both China and the US seemed to have been aware of the Dalai Lama’s announcement; only India was caught off guard.

    Three prime motivations behind the Dalai Lama’s wish to retire from politics can be underlined. First, he knows that after his departure from the physical world it will be difficult for the Tibetan Movement to sustain itself. His death is likely to be followed by a serious crisis of succession. China has already made it known that it will participate in the search for the 15th Dalai Lama after the death of the present 14th Dalai Lama. And so will the Tibetan exile community. This in combination with the earlier mysterious disappearance of the 11th Panchen Lama (who had been named by the present Dalai Lama) in China had made Tibetans in exile perceive the danger of a great schism in the Tibetan religious universe.5 Such a schism will severely undermine the Tibetan exile movement.6 The recent announcement by the Dalai Lama caters for this possibility.

    As of now, the Dalai Lama has announced that he will cede only his political functions. Whether the religious figure of Dalai Lama will reincarnate or he wants an election to choose his successor is not clear. An election to choose the 15th Dalai Lama is not likely to be easy. Therefore, by bifurcating the religious and temporal authorities of his office, the Dalai Lama has created a separate political agency for the Tibetan community in exile which will continue to fight for Tibet irrespective of whether the 15th Dalai Lama comes from among the exiled Tibetans or Tibet proper. Tim Johnson rightly argues that the Dalai Lama’s move is aimed at deepening the authority of the movement’s democratic government. His decision is designed to give more credibility to the elected prime ministers in future.7

    Secondly, the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan community have been living outside China for the last more than five decades. The elapsed time has driven a wedge between the exiled Tibetan community and Tibetans within Tibet.8 In the last five decades, ground realities have changed within Tibet. All indicators point out that living standard has relatively improved in Tibet during this time. A sizeable middle class has also grown in Tibet and which identifies itself with Chinese prosperity and stability. Consequently, a distance has developed between the two communities. Hardly anyone in Tibet would like theocracy or hagiocracy to return. That the return of the Dalai Lama’s authority in Tibet will amount to the return of feudalism and serfdom is a serious charge levelled by the Chinese Communist Party and Tibetan communists against the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan movement.9 As time elapses, this distance is bound to increase and bring greater incompatibility between them. Robert Barnett, a scholar of modern Tibet at Columbia University, is probably right in saying that the Dalai Lama’s latest announcement has been made keeping Tibetans inside Tibet in mind. This decision attempts to highlight the contrast between the democratic convictions of the ‘Tibetan Government in Exile’ and the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party.10

    Thirdly, it is likely that the liberal, democratic and progressive convictions of the Dalai Lama may have also shaped his decision. He wants the Tibetan nation to move to a new phase that is compatible with the rest of the world. He had favoured the abandonment of theocracy in 2000.11

    China must understand that resolving the Tibet issue in the Dalai Lama’s lifetime is in its best interest. After his death, if democracy takes over the Tibetan Government in Exile, voices about negotiating with China will naturally multiply, positions will harden in competitive radicalism and the choices available before the Tibetan leadership will get constricted.12 The Dalai Lama’s death may not cause a collapse of the Tibet Movement in exile as China would like to believe. By devolving political functions to an elected leader, the Dalai Lama is guaranteeing the self-sustainability of Tibet Movement of the exiled community.

    The formal institutional bifurcation of the Dalai Lama’s religious and political powers may prove convenient for Western governments to meet the Dalai Lama without inviting Chinese ire.13 But this move is likely to create more difficulties for India. If the leadership of the Tibet Movement goes into the hands of the radical Tibetan Youth Congress, India will find it difficult to protest its innocence as it has been doing for the last few decades.