In a recent speech, the Dalai Lama posed a seemingly innocuous question. Should his successor, the Dalai Lama wondered aloud, necessarily be a reincarnation of himself?
The speech drew a stern response from the Chinese authorities. A Chinese government spokesman observed that "the reincarnation of living Buddhas is a form of succession special to Tibetan Buddhism… The reincarnation of any living Buddha, including the Dalai Lama, should respect the religious rules, historical standards and state laws and regulations."
That the Communist government of China should rally to the defence of Tibetan religious customs may seem surprising; but it actually reflects Beijing's growing unease with the issue of the Dalai Lama's succession.
This is not the first time the Dalai Lama has suggested the possibility of a modification to the traditional method of identifying his successor. He has, on various occasions, indicated that his successor need not be chosen in Tibet, and that the next Dalai Lama could be chosen in his own life time.
The Dalai Lama's stance reflects two large considerations. First, there is experience of the reincarnation of the other major Tibetan Buddhist ecclesiastical figure, the Panchen Lama. In 1995, the Dalai had picked a boy in Tibet as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama.
The Chinese responded by taking the boy into custody and by appointing another person of their choice as the Panchen Lama. Although the Chinese appointee has apparently failed to secure the confidence of a majority of the Tibetan people, the longer term consequence of the dispute has been a dilution of the office of Panchen Lama.
The Dalai Lama clearly wishes to avoid a similar outcome over his succession.
The second, and perhaps more important, consideration is the current state of relations between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. Since 1979, the Dalai Lama and the Chinese authorities have been engaged in a sporadic dialogue. The then Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, suggested that short of granting independence the Tibetan problem could be resolved through negotiations.
Over the next decade, the Dalai Lama gave up his earlier demand of independence for Tibet towards the 'Middle Way' of Tibetan autonomy under the Chinese constitution. But this shift in stance did not evoke an enthusiastic response from the Chinese government.
The Dalai Lama's airing of his proposals in Western capitals did not go down well with China. Besides, his idea of Tibetan autonomy aroused Beijing's suspicion.
A key component of the Dalai Lama's idea of autonomy was — and remains — to unite under a single administrative entity all the areas populated by ethnic Tibetans. More specifically, he wants the regions of Kham and Amdo that currently fall under four different provinces of China to be grouped with the area that is called the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
The Dalai Lama's position reflects his conception of the Middle Way as a means of preserving Tibetan cultural identity. In any case, other minority nationalities in China — such as the Mongols and Uighurs — are part of a single autonomous region.
The Chinese, however, believe that the Dalai Lama's stance is tactical. The creation of such an entity would merely serve as a stepping stone to eventual independence for Tibet. The Chinese insist, therefore, that the Dalai Lama must not only renounce independence, but also accept that Tibet has always been a part of China.
The Tibetans are wary of making such a concession, as it might further undermine their case for autonomy. The Dalai Lama has emphasised the need to look to the future rather than the past. But Beijing is unwilling to do so. The Chinese authorities have stated that serious negotiations are feasible only if the Dalai Lama recognised Tibet and Taiwan as "inalienable" parts of China and dropped his demand for "Greater Tibet".
Neither of these preconditions is acceptable to the Tibetan leader.
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Furthermore, China's mistrust of the Dalai Lama has deepened in the last past few years. Beijing regarded the unrest in Tibet in March-April 2008 and the accompanying worldwide protests as orchestrated by the Dalai Lama. The Chinese media unleashed a vitriolic campaign against the "Dalai clique".
Since then contacts have resumed between the Dalai Lama and the authorities in Beijing, but there has been no progress. It is safe to assume that the Chinese are only interested in dragging out the negotiations. They believe that once the Dalai Lama passes on, the Tibetan cause will be deprived of its momentum. It will simultaneously lose a venerated leader and his charismatic appeal to international audiences.
The Dalai Lama, of course, is aware of these assumptions. This is precisely why he has recently paved the way for an elected prime minister to assume political leadership. This is also why he is keen to ensure that the question of his succession is not hijacked by the Chinese leadership.
New Delhi must follow these developments closely and carefully. Since 1954, India has held that Tibet is a region of China and has kept itself out of the dealings between Tibetans and Chinese. It does not formally recognise the government-in-exile, but it allows the Dalai Lama and his followers to function in India.
In consequence, Tibet remains a thorny and sensitive issue in India's relationship with China. The succession of the Dalai Lama will pose a challenge for India's delicate balancing act on Tibet. The best way for India to avoid a major crisis may be to give up its hands-off approach and work quietly to help advance a serious dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.
Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.
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