(This is Part 1 of a two-part series on the waning relevance of Tibetan monk Dalai Lama and the subsequent rise of Buddhism in its colonizer China and the political implications these may have.)
Flounced out of my political appointment in the Prime Minister's Office with Narasimha Rao-led Congress losing the elections, and with nothing to do, I gladly accepted the request of Rinpoche Duboom Tulco—the Director of Tibet House, to be a member of the organising committee of the "World Festival of Sacred Music" that was to be inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in April 2000 in Bangalore. During the festival, I was given charge of the Dalai Lama’s security which was in the safe hands of the Karnataka Police—and I still had nothing to do.
One afternoon, I found myself alone with His Holiness as he waited to shower his blessings on a small group of mystified westerners. I reminded him that I had launched my book SILK ROAD ON WHEELS: Travels Through Central Asia, Chinese Turkestan and Tibet through his pious hands during a sermon he delivered at the Buddha Jayanti Park in New Delhi. “That was a naughty book,” he said, giggling.
Tibet's Mounting Resistance Against 'The Holy Monk'
Knowing that time was short, I asked him a question that was bouncing in my mind: “If you accept Chinese suzerainty over Tibet on the condition that you be allowed to return to Tibet and, as a Chinese citizen, be free to travel anywhere within the country, would you go back? My feeling is that deep inside, the Chinese are profoundly Buddhist— despite the communist ban on religion. You may not teach or sermonise but you will surely attract crowds wherever you go. Soon, you will have the whole country at your feet. Would you consider returning under that condition?”
“The Chinese will never allow that!” said he, flapping his hand and shuffling out of the door.
On my three visits to Tibet between 1994 and 2010, I had seen Dalai Lama’s shine fading. During my first visit, hordes of Tibetans would assemble outside the hotel gate wanting pictures of the Dalai Lama.
At the Drepung monastery, some young, impish monks manning a medieval kitchen, flashed the inside of their robes to expose secretly pinned, hand-painted flags of "Free Tibet" and a picture of Dalai Lama. They insisted I take a video of them displaying the flag and flashing the ‘victory’ sign to show to His Holiness back in India.
A young shopkeeper said to me: “Even to this day, many of our elders, when they go to sleep at night, never point their feet towards India. For it is the land of Buddha. It is also the land where the Dalai Lama now resides.
Police Crackdown Rampant
On Dalai Lama’s birthday on 6 July, I joined the Tibetans making merry on the roads of Lhasa, rubbing barley flour on each other’s faces, as is their custom.
Laughing white faces were everywhere on the street, dancing and shouting joyously. A happy Tibetan boy threw a pinch of flour on the face of a passing Han Chinese, irritating him. Suddenly, a police patrol appeared from nowhere, and in a flash, four policemen flew out of the van, swooped down on the teenager, threw him to the ground, kicked him, and mercilessly beat him with their batons.
The ruffled boy, protecting his face and head with his arms, demonstrated tenacity, suffering the blows bravely and not pleading for mercy. Lifting him by his collar, the policemen booted him into their van and drove off with their siren blaring.
I passed by a police station. Its tall gate was locked. Inside, the compound was packed with Tibetan revelers who had been hauled up. Outside, their wailing relatives and concerned friends were being intimidated by the riot police. A policeman, beating the palm of his hand with his baton, stepped up and warned me not to take pictures.
Standing on the roof of the Potala Palace, I got a commanding view of Lhasa. Around 1:30 pm, I heard the explosion of firecrackers, honking cars, and people beating their metal utensils. Lhasa was toasting the Dalai Lama on his birthday. The din continued for a while, till it was downed by the police sirens chasing the smoke rising from the bursting crackers.
Is Tibet Reeling Under China’s Colonial Hangover?
I was impressed by the reverence that the Dalai Lama inspired in the Tibetans—though not all of it was veneration. Tibetans also use these occasions to tease their Chinese masters.
On my subsequent visits, economic development and consequent dilution of political aspirations were clearly visible. Knowing that independence is a far-fetched illusion, they seemed to have made peace with the Chinese dragon, slowly sunk into its embrace and begun to enjoy the traditional benefits bestowed by colonial powers: new world-class infrastructure, roads, and trains that bring in tourist money and transport the produce of the herders to faraway markets, schools for the bright-eyed kids and medical centres for the sick, and a mobile network and an electricity grid that reach the remotest corners.
As productivity and incomes rose, herders were now rich enough to move out of their black yak-hair tents into built houses. They had gotten off their slow-plodding yaks and ponies and rode swiftly and smilingly on motorcycles to roast some Beijing Duck, pull open a can of beer, or buy shares in one of the state-owned Chinese companies listed on the stock exchange.
As the Tibetans drove boldly on the road to prosperity and economic freedom, the movement for political independence had fallen into a ditch.
The Many Perceptions Around Dalai Lama
During my circumambulation of Mount Kailash in 2010, the altars of inns and roadhouses on the way to Manasarovar Lake had some prayer lamps and pictures of pensive Buddhist abbots – but none of the Dalai Lama. “It is best not to rub the Chinese on the wrong side. Not good for business,” whispered one innkeeper. “People have realised they cannot fight the Chinese. As long as they don’t interfere with our religion and continue to extend to us the benefits of development, people will play along,” he confided, in a dropping voice.
Chiu Gompa, high above Lake Mansarovar, was empty of monks. The Chinese had offered a scholarship of 400 Yuan a month to every monk who vacates his gompa and goes home. Tibet-wide, the response to this scheme had been immediate.
A growing number of Tibetans feel that the Dalai Lama perhaps prefers a quiet life to political heroism; that he rubs shoulders with international leaders and parties too much; that his easy manner and fetching smile attract the press and useless western converts but show no sign of cracking the Chinese grip.
As the Dalai Lama’s shine fades in Tibet, Buddhism is rapidly reviving in mainland China.
Continued in Part 2. Read here.
(Akhil Bakshi a Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Fellow of Explorers Club USA, and Editor of Indian Mountaineer, has authored 27 books including three on Tibet: Silk Road on Wheels, Train to Lhasa, and Stairway to Heaven. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)