According to this story in the North India Times, the Indian security services have recently been limiting the movements of Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje even more tightly than before. Since escaping into exile from China in 2000, the Karmapa has been living in Himachal Pradesh at a Gelugpa monastery not far from Dharamsala. All along, the Indian government has kept an unusually close eye on him: he is constantly guarded by government security personnel, he travels in India only with permission, and he has not been allowed to leave India at all except for a brief visit to the United States in 2008. Now, according to the news story, the restrictions have been tightened further: his visits to Dharamsala are limited and he is largely prohibited from leaving Sidhbari, the town where he resides.
Moreover, the Karmapa had been planning to build a new home monastery near Dharamsala — he is not a Gelugpa, so it doesn’t make sense for him to remain indefinitely at a Gelugpa monastery, while Rumtek, the 16th Karmapa’s exile seat in Sikkim, is tied up in an interminable legal battle — but now it appears he is being harrassed by Indian tax authorities over its funding, with the result that construction has been halted. In any event, under the current circumstances, it’s not clear that he would be allowed to go live there, even if it were built.
What is the reason for all this? It’s quite baffling. To my knowledge, no other Tibetan exile lamas are treated this way. The usual reason given for the restrictions on the Karmapa’s movement is a concern for his security. There are also probably diplomatic concerns which go unstated. And yet, it seems clear that the Dalai Lama is the subject of greater threats to his personal security, and he is more diplomatically sensitive. Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama is allowed a much greater level of freedom. What’s more, the North India Times reports that the Karmapa’s security detail has actually been dramatically reduced even as his personal liberties have been restricted; it’s obvious that this is not intended to protect his safety.
Part of the reason for restricting Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s movements in India might related to the controversy over his identification as Karmapa: one of the highest Karma Kagyü lamas, along with most of the monks of Rumtek, rejects Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s claim and insists that another young man, Trinley Thaye Dorje, is the real Karmapa. This has resulted in an amazingly protracted struggle in the Indian court system over control of the 16th Karmapa’s properties, most importantly Rumtek Monastery itself, which shows no signs of being resolved any time soon. It’s understandable that Ogyen Trinley Dorje would be prohibited from travelling to Rumtek or other disputed properties until their ownership is settled. However, this cannot possibly be the main reason for the restrictions, since Trinley Thaye Dorje also lives in India, and he faces no similar restrictions, except that he cannot visit Rumtek.
What’s the real reason, then? Does the Indian government seriously believe that Ogyen Trinley Dorje is a Chinese spy? I’m sure there were rumours to this effect years ago. A Japanese journalist, Yoichi Shimatsu, has alleged that the Karmapa’s escape from Tibet was actually set up by the Chinese government to plant him close to the Dalai Lama. He further alleges that the man the world knows as Ogyen Trinley Dorje is a ringer: Shimatsu claims that the boy who was identified as Karmapa and enthroned in Tibet was switched out for another boy, ten years older, during the 1990s (it’s true that Ogyen Trinley Dorje seems to have matured quickly: he was supposed to be 14 years old when he left Tibet, and was already an imposing young man. If this bizarre story were true, he would actually be 34 years old now, which would mean he would start to show signs of aging soon). I don’t know much about Yoichi Shimatsu’s credibility (here‘s his idiosyncratic take on the 2008 Tibet protests), but the passage of time makes his theory increasingly impossible. Are we supposed to believe that the Chinese government found a young Tibetan man (or a young Han who could speak Tibetan with no accent?), aged no more than 21 years at the time, who was willing and able to go undercover as a celibate monk, living in exile in India for nine years and counting, never breaking charater, fooling the world into thinking he was a charismatic religious leader … to what end purpose? Even in the 21st century, even for the intelligence agency of a police state, that’s a comic book plot. On top of that, we are supposed to believe that the Indian government is on to him, but not willing to public expose him, and everyone else is either in the dark or unwilling to leak the story. No, I’d say some other explanation is necessary for the Indian government’s attitude toward the Karmapa.
To be blunt, unless there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye, it seems barbaric that the Indian government would treat a guest this way. Doesn’t India see itself as part of the “free world”? Didn’t the Karmapa go into exile precisely because of the restrictions the Chinese government was subjecting him to? I’m sure he hopes that the situation in India will improve in the future, but for the moment, I wonder how much difference he really sees between life in Tibet and life in India.