Former Research and Analysis Wing special secretary Amitabh ‘Tony’ Mathur had been handling Tibetan matters for the Indian government till last September as adviser on Tibetan affairs to the ministry of home affairs. In a first-time interview, Mathur spoke on the Dalai Lama’s importance, the future of Tibetans and how India messed up its dealings with the 17th Karmapa.
How do you see the future of the Tibetan community?
The Tibetan community is at a crossroads. There are a few factors that are causing the dilemma. India does not have a refugee policy, and the Tibetans are facing certain restrictive procedures when they move around within the country and abroad. The employment opportunities here are shrinking. Settlements, which used to survive on agriculture, are no longer able to sustain themselves or provide opportunities to the Tibetans. Finally, the big question, where are they going to go? It has been 60 years, from independence to a middle-way approach [as advised by the Dalai Lama] and the various organisations which are springing up. They are a little confused about their future. What binds them is their unflinching faith in His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Is the dwindling Tibetan population a concern?
There has been a lot of migration out of India. The numbers are fewer than what they were ten years back. This is largely because of employment and other factors. How this will affect the Tibetan cause remains to be seen. It is something the Central Tibetan Administration has to see and analyse closely, and work with Indian authorities on how to get over it. The other factor is their own style of managing their settlement. If they think by knitting sweaters or carpets or growing maize is going to see them through, they are mistaken. Some reports have been written, commissioned by the CTA, on the way forward. But I don't think much work has been done to implement the suggestions.
How do you see the way forward for Tibetans after the Dalai Lama?
Clarity on this will only come after His Holiness spells out what his wishes are. He keeps saying it depends on the people whether they want to continue with the reincarnation system. He has been critical of it in the past, and sometimes supportive of it. The overall desire of the Tibetan people is that he must be reborn. Given this desire, will the Chinese prop up one of their own? I think the next Dalai Lama, if identified according to the wishes of His Holiness, will command respect and following of the Tibetan people. But then there will be a big gap between the passing on of the 14th Dalai Lama and the coming of age of the 15th Dalai Lama. That is where the rub lies—as to how they will manage Tibetan affairs and keep hopes alive during the interim.
As adviser to the Union Home Ministry, what issues have you been tackling? Do you see any difference between the BJP and the UPA regime?
I was advising the government on the overall procedures that affect the existence of the Tibetans in India. I am not sure whether there is any difference between governments' approach. I think their commitment to His Holiness and respect for him has been there throughout. I do not see any dilution.
What role can India play in the ‘’middle-way’’ approach advised by the Dalai Lama?
I don’t think we have ever officially expressed a desire to intervene in the matter. But I think the widely held view is that China should deal with His Holiness, who has ensured that the Tibetan struggle remains a civilisational one and a peaceful one. One cannot say which direction it will take after the 14th Dalai Lama and without his tempering hand. We just hope that it does not become a violent one, as the Uighurs who are struggling in China today.
China has always viewed the Dalai Lama’s visits to Arunachal Pradesh as a provocation.
The Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh is one of the largest monasteries outside Tibet. It has a special place for His Holiness as he came to India via Tawang. Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India. So, given the importance of the monastery and the following His Holiness commands in the Himalayan belt, he is well within his rights to go there, and the government is well within its rights to help him visit these places. I don’t see why the Chinese should see it as a provocation. It was not intended to irritate the Chinese, it was intended to allow His Holiness to visit places where he is worshipped. And, it is not just the Dalai Lama. Earlier, the 17th Karmapa also went to Arunachal Pradesh precisely to fulfil the wishes of the devotees there.
When President Xi Jinping visited India in 2014, there were reports that the Dalai Lama was not allowed to meet him because the Ministry of External Affairs developed cold feet.
I cannot comment on this because I was not involved. But given the fact that the Chinese president visited India immediately after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, it would have been a little odd for the focus to shift from that important visit in which the prime minister had invested much, to the meeting with the Dalai Lama. So, if a request of this sort was at all made, I don't think it would have been entertained. I don't think in a similar circumstance, any country would have entertained it. But I really don't know if a request was made or Xi Jinping had agreed, or the MEA said no.
It has been 60 years since India gave refuge to the Dalai Lama. How do think it has affected India in the long run?
India has historically opened its arms to anyone who is fleeing facing persecution. Even at the tender age of 24 when he came to India, he commanded a lot of respect in the world among Buddhist followers. India would certainly have looked bad had it turned its back on him. Over the years, whether this has served us in good stead or not I don't know. But this is one of the factors in our relationship with China. Even if the Tibet issue were to be sorted out, we have other issues with the Chinese. I think both countries are mature enough to put this aside to develop our relations.
Why have there been no talks post 2010 between the envoys of the Dalai Lama and China?
Yes, I do not think there have been any formal talks for some time, but informal talks continue between His Holiness and the Chinese. Some are completely informal when Buddhists from China are visiting India. China is the largest Buddhist country in the world with 300 million Chinese Buddhists, perhaps even more. So, growth of Buddhism in China also leads to a better understanding. There have also been informal contacts with people claiming to represent high-ranking officials of Chinese government coming over here. But the Chinese have taken a hard stand and the issue has become one between China and the Dalai Lama, and not China and Tibetans. In a recent statement, a high-ranking Chinese official is learnt to have said that the door to Dalai Lama is always open indicating that he can come back to China but remain in China and not go to Tibet. Attached are conditions which His Holiness will not concede—that Tibet was always part of China among other things. Since it is a conditional offer, His Holiness is tough on his stand and Chinese are tough on their stand. The Chinese may also think that after the 14th Dalai Lama, it will be easier for them to sort out the issues.
Does the Tibetan struggle have a ray of hope?
Certainly there will be a void because all hopes rest on the person of the 14th Dalai Lama. All the self-immolations that have taken place in Tibet are for the return of the Dalai Lama and not for independence of Tibet. So, it will be a tough task for the people to find a moral beacon. There are many important Tibetan monks, high-ranking lineage holders who would have to come together to provide moral leadership after His Holiness is not there. I can't take all names but certainly the 41st Sakya Trizin, the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje and other influential monks of Nyingma school are some of the many who command a lot of respect and following among the Tibetans. Their views and opinions are heard with respect. So, it is not that the void cannot be filled temporarily till the 15th Dalai Lama comes of age. These high-ranking officials of the Sakya school and Kagyu school are completely devoted to His Holiness. They have made common cause with the Tibetan struggle unlike those who have remained aloof.
Do you think India mishandled the Karmapa issue as Trinley Dorje has left India and has taken up citizenship of another country?
India has dealt with him very badly. To accuse him of [being a Chinese spy was bad]. No one would entrust such a task to a 14-year-old in the first place. I think the reasons he gave for coming to India—to get the best education, religious teachings and learning from the masters based in India and to be close to His Holiness—are true and should be accepted as such.
By subjecting him to unnecessary restraints and curtailing his movements, we have only lost a good friend. He is the only important lineage holder who does not have a place of his own to stay. New Delhi should convince him that his return to India will be unimpeded and the circumstances of his return will be far better than what it has been all these years.
So, the 17th Karmapa has not got a home in India?
He is a tenant in the Gyuto Monastery in Dharamsala. We have dealt with him very poorly. We have failed to acknowledge the wide following he commands, cutting across sectarian lines and the positive role he can play in the future. As far as citizenship is concerned, as I mentioned earlier about Tibetans leaving India, if there will be restriction on his movement, he is likely to look elsewhere for ease of travel. And he is not the only one. Almost all the high-ranking Tibetan monks are travelling on documents other than the identity card issued by the Indian government.
So, I don't think we should hold that against him. It is no indication of his loyalty or disloyalty to India or to His Holiness, or his commitment to the Tibetan cause. It is merely a document to enable him to travel. Whether he is based permanently in India or not is also irrelevant as long as he remains one with the Tibetan cause and I have no reasons to disbelieve that. He has, in fact, attended condolence meetings in Dharamsala organised by the Central Tibetan Administration for people who have committed self immolation in Tibet. On a visit to Arunachal Pradesh, he presented khatas (a traditional ceremonial scarf which symbolises purity and compassion) as a mark of respect at the war memorial for those who died in the Indo-China war. So, I don't think there is any more special guarantee of his commitments to India that can be expected.
But why have we been so wary of the 17th Karmapa?
I don't know, it perplexes me too. Sometimes overzealous mid-ranking officers keen on making a mark, goof up. In the instant case, just before his departure from India that was something that broke the last straw on the camel's back. Immediately prior to his departure and immediately after his departure, there were things said that had upset him immensely which could have been avoided by some more mature handling.
What do you think New Delhi can do now to salvage the situation?
The 17th Karmapa is currently in strict retreat for several months now. I think there is no need to initiate talks. What New Delhi need to do is to convince him that his return to India will be unimpeded and the circumstances of his return will be far better than what it has been for all the years he has been in India. More than the return, it is the circumstances of his return that matter. Will he be subjected to same procedures, curtailing the freedom of his movement? What we also have to recognise is that only His Holiness and the Central Tibetan Administration can comment on political matters of Tibetans. So, unless the Karmapa is entrusted with political responsibilities by His Holiness, he is merely a religious teacher. Neither should we press him to enter the political domain nor does he wish to do that.