Rediff Logo News Rediff Book Shop Find/Feedback/Site Index


The Rediff Special / Amberish K Diwanji

Forty years ago, a young man came to stay in India with the explicit intention of returning home one day. He is still in India, and still dreams of returning home. But in these years, he has grown from being just an exiled leader of the Tibetans to a leader with a world stature and a Nobel Peace Prize.

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso.

E-Mail this feature to a friend Born Lhamo Thondup on July 6, 1935, he was chosen Dalai Lama when only three years old. The Dalai Lama is considered the reincarnation of the Buddha, and is the highest spiritual and temporal ruler of the Tibetans. The Tibetans revere him above all else save the Buddha. The Dalai Lama's smiling face can be seen on every wall, in every hall occupied by a Tibetan today. In Tibet though, the Chinese have banned his pictures.

The Dalai Lama is today an international celebrity, having won the Nobel in 1989 (earlier in the same year, Chinese troops opened fire on students demonstrating at Tiananmen Square in Beijing). He regularly meets political leaders and non-political stars, addresses parliaments and governments, continuously espousing the cause of a free or "genuinely autonomous" Tibet.

Yet few people know him on a personal basis. After being chosen the 14th Dalai Lama, he led a sequestered life in the Potala palace in Lhasa, taught by teachers and guides. As he recalls in his autobiography, Freedom in Exile his best friends then were the palace sweepers and most of his time was spent studying metaphysics. Regents and the kashag (cabinet) aided his reign over Tibet. Life was peaceful until the Chinese invasion turned the young boy into a man, forcing him to flee a decade later when he feared that the Chinese would imprison him.

Today, the Dalai Lama, while a globetrotter, lives in a heavily guarded house in Mcleodganj, a hill station in Himachal Pradesh. Outside is the Namgyal monastery with a beautiful Buddha temple, a popular tourist site. It is also a place where people often throng with a view to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama on his way to the temple for prayers.

The Dalai Lama is perhaps the greatest strength and symbol of the Tibetan movement. His message of non-violence, his willingness to accept the 'Middle Path' in dealing with China, and his message for a world of compassion and tolerance has won him a fan following across the world that is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. He, more than anyone else, has ensured that Tibet grabs the media headlines and the world's attention. And a world tiring of terrorist killings and mayhem for various causes welcomed him for shunning the violent path.

"While the Dalai Lama is Tibet's greatest strength, it is also our weakness because it makes the entire case dependent on one person," said Thubten Samphel of the department of information and international rfelations, Tibetan Central Administration.

"He is the inspiration and guiding light and keeps the Tibetan movement going," said Jetsun Pema, the Dalai Lama's younger sister. Pema never knew her brother as a sibling. She was born after he was selected as the Dalai Lama and hence always knew him as the leader.

Yet, the movement for independence has made little headway. In 1978, the Dalai Lama suggested the Middle Path: genuine autonomy for Tibet rather than outright independence. This meant that China could oversee defence and foreign affairs while allowing the Tibetans to look after their internal and cultural issues.

"I can tell you when he first made this suggestion, there was a tremendous uproar among the Tibetan people who felt sort of let down. Yet, the strength of His Holiness is his inner conviction. He knew that he was taking the right step," said Tenzin Geyche Tethong, secretary to the Dalai Lama, for the past 30 years.

Many Tibetans opposed the Dalai Lama's stand, but he stuck to it. "It was really the only practical route available," pointed out Tethong, "because after being exiled and with the Chinese people migrating to Tibet, our primary concern was and is to keep alive the identity and culture of Tibet. He was also concerned with the human rights violations and the killings taking place, the destruction of monasteries and the forced migration of Chinese that had reduced Tibetans to a minority. He feels that all this must stop before there can be any thought on independence."

Unfortunately for the Dalai Lama, Beijing did not show much interest. In fact, China's lukewarm response to many of the Dalai Lama's suggestion has disillusioned him and his people. "Certainly it is very frustrating, but His Holiness is a very patient and farsighted person, willing to wait for the right moment. He takes a view with a wide perspective. In fact, it only proves that if the Chinese are averse to autonomy, independence is even more remote," said Tethong.

Pema added that if, from among the Dalai Lama's many positive qualities she had to pick the best, it would be his patience. "He has admitted to being very frustrated at China's stonewalling tactics, but never has he given in or suggested more radical tactics. This is the mark of a great man," she said.

The Dalai Lama is also a revolutionary in a different way. From being the absolute leader of his people, he has now given them democracy. Today, the Tibetans in exile vote for a parliament, which in turn elects a kashag (cabinet), the earlier kashag was selected by the Dalai Lama and his regents.

In his autobiography, the Dalai Lama has lamented how after being chosen as Buddha's reincarnation, he was schooled in subjects that left gaps in his education. The emphasis was purely on theology and philosophy with no reference to politics, economics, strategic studies, etc. This at a time when the world had changed and World War II was on. It made him realise how important it is to have citizens aware of the new trends in the world and felt that democracy was a step in that direction.

"One idea of having a cabinet is that it will keep alive the Tibetan struggle along with a leadership to guide the people. The second is also to get the people more involved in politics and the cause," said Thubten Samphel.

"I can tell you when the idea of a democratically elected government was first mooted in 1970, most Tibetans were aghast. But even here, it was His Holiness's farsightedness and his adamancy that democracy is a necessity for the people that it actually became accepted," said Tethong.

In that sense, the Dalai Lama used his absolute power over his people to reduce some of that power and set up alternate centres of power. Today, exiled Tibetans elect the parliament members every five years, and the parliament is the scene of many debates and discussions. "The last session in February 1999 was really acrimonious but we have not yet reached the stage of abusing each other," laughed Samphel.

"He set up a process for democracy because he really believes in it. He truly feels that it is the people who must choose and decide the future course of action," said Pema.

Tethong said so strong was the Dalai Lama's belief in democracy that he had even declared the office of Dalai Lama open to debate. "His Holiness has told the Tibetan people that it is up to them to keep this office or to shut it down. Remember that with the kind of authority he wields, it is very easy for him to become a demagogue but he never has," insisted the secretary.

Years ago, anyone seeking to meet the Dalai Lama had to prostrate himself and would be seated on a chair placed a level lower than the Dalai Lama. On reaching India, the young Dalai Lama did away with such ceremonies and rituals.

"We have got reports that Chinese authorities have been trying to force people to criticise the Dalai Lama and torturing those who don't. So when His Holiness met some refugees who had escaped recently and were planning to go back, he told the refugees that they should criticise him (the Dalai Lama) and save themselves from the Chinese. At heart, he is a really simple man, and despite all the pomp and glory over the years, he is accessible to all," said Tethong.

Today, a request for an interview with the Dalai Lama entails a three-month wait. And the stream of visitors include some of the planet's greatest names alongside its humblest denizens. "His Holiness will never discriminate. All are welcome and we who man his office know how difficult it is. He is really very busy, yet he tries to find time for everyone," added Tethong.

How important the Dalai Lama is to Tibetans can be gauged from the fact that many Tibetan refugees spoken to said they had risked the Himalayan heights and Chinese guards only to have a darshan (glimpse) of His Holiness. Non-Buddhist Indians have also joined the rush. In a hotel in Bombay where the Dalai Lama was staying, some hotel staffers (all non-Buddhists) desperately sought his blessings and Tethong had a tough time explaining that His Holiness badly needed some rest.

"Despite his advancing years, he keeps a busy schedule," said Tethong, "knowing that as long he is there, it is Tibet's best chance for some sort of a rapprochement with China. One really cannot say what will happen afterwards."

Yet, despite the Dalai Lama's efforts, his single-handed success in raising the profile of the Tibetan cause, his meetings with top Western leaders (something virtually impossible a decade or two ago), the fact is that there has been little progress, is frustrating many Tibetans.

The Tibetan Youth Congress, an association of young Tibetans, has warned that while they respected His Holiness, they were not constrained from taking up arms for Tibetan independence. Last year, dozens of Tibetan people went on a hunger fast demanding independence while one man, Thupten Ngodrup, burnt himself to death. The Dalai Lama, while saying that he did not approve of such tactics, had added, "But I have no alternative solution to offer them."

"We remain hopeful," said Tethong, "and one positive indication is that in recent times we have found that even Chinese dissidents have begun to speak up on behalf of Tibet. This was unheard of 10 years ago. And this too is part of the Dalai Lama's policy when he said that Tibetans may hate the Chinese government but must not hate the Chinese people."

Tethong said on his visits abroad, Chinese people have begun to attend his lectures and speak to him. The Dalai Lama had encouraged interaction among the Tibetans and Chinese residing abroad and while initially the Chinese were somewhat hesitant to meet the Dalai Lama, over the years that began to change.

"Many Chinese come up and say they had never heard of all that happened in Tibet and that they would like to help out," he said. "His Holiness has always said the Chinese people too are prisoners of the government, just like Tibetans. And the fact that abroad Tibetans and Chinese have begun to understand each other might prove beneficial."

Today, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans are pinning their hope on the emergence of a liberal government in Beijing to resolve the Tibet question. And hoping that as a new crop of leaders emerge in Beijing, so will a new approach. Going back to Tibet, no doubt, remains the ultimate dream of the Dalai Lama's and thousands of Tibetans. It will be another victory for the way of non-violence, for the compassionate way, a success through rapprochement rather than a win-lose situation. Hopefully, it will be in time for the Dalai Lama to realise his dream of returning home one day.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

The Flight From Lhasa, 40 Years On

Dharamshala: A refuge from Shangrila

The Rediff Specials

Tell us what you think of this feature