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Middle Way or third way?

Tracking the new conversations in Tibetan politics.

Written by Nimmi Kurian | Published: March 25, 2011 12:21:48 am

With the Dalai Lama’s recent announcement to relinquish his political responsibilities,the importance of the recently held elections to the post of Kalon Tripa,or prime minister,goes far beyond the right to choose the political head of the community. Indeed,these are choices of the Tibetan community in exile that will go a long way in defining its sense of self,both at symbolic and substantive levels. Which way this conversation of change is headed will depend on how it tackles several tricky transitions.

The separation between monastic institutions and the state that is being attempted is one such critical transition. The future of Tibetan democracy crucially hinges on the capacity of the elected to wield effective political power and its potential to create separate realms for spiritual and political legitimacy. The introduction of elected political leaders will have progressive spin-offs in terms of giving the people the right to criticise and disagree. This will be an advance in itself,given that the centring of religious,spiritual and political authority in the Dalai Lama has worked to inhibit open criticism,as any critique may be seen as challenging the spiritual leader himself.

What is interesting is that the push for democratisation and secularisation of the Tibetan governance structure has come from the Dalai Lama himself. The moves towards instituting a rational-legal framework go back five decades,starting with the removal of hereditary privileges from the government and the holding of direct elections to the legislature as early as 1960. The Tibetan constitution even contains provision for the impeachment of the Dalai Lama. With the introduction of the Tibetan Charter in 1991,the traditional right of the Dalai Lama to appoint ministers to the Kashag,or the cabinet,was discontinued as was the right to appoint the Kalon Tripa.

Another critical transition will be to see if a new generation of leaders is able to introduce a new agenda and shift the debate on key issues. For instance,who will step on the thin ice of polarised positions and explore a creative space for dialogue? For the Tibetans,if the Middle Way approach has not delivered during the Dalai Lama’s lifetime,can it be realistically expected to outlive him? And as disillusionment with lack of progress grows,what possible alternative ideas exist? Interestingly,Lobsang Sangay,senior fellow at the Harvard Law School and one of the leading contenders for the Kalon Tripa,has referred to the merits of a rights-based approach in his writings and speeches. It remains to be seen if a third way is likely to emerge,one which shifts the focus away from either complete independence or autonomy,towards civil rights,protection of minority rights under the Chinese law and greater “representation in government”. The question is: does the political system have the bandwidth to debate these new questions or will it be stretched thin by competing pulls and strains?

How will the norms of legitimacy,representation and unity fare in this contested realm? Traditionally,the Dalai Lama has seamlessly personified these three values. Any move to de-centre the power structure is bound to throw up new tensions and contradictions. In such fraught times,what trade-offs are likely to be made between these key norms? For instance,will the push for democratisation prioritise representation or will diversity of opinion be frowned upon in a bid to preserve unity? Unity has always been a prime concern and there will be several occasions in the coming days when this will be seriously tested. And it is not as if there have been no rumbles or pulls in the past. The Dorje Shugden controversy saw violent clashes over the worship of the protector deity and the Dalai Lama had to issue an “explicit ban” in 1996 to suppress the practice. More recently,the move by Kalon Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche to resign from his post in 2009 was interpreted by China as “troubles within the Dalai Lama’s circle”. Again,it took the direct intervention of the Dalai Lama to persuade Samdhong Rinpoche to serve his full term.

A new Tibetan identity is in the making. Each of the transitions is highly complex and open-ended,with the potential to transform Tibetan politics. Depending on how these are managed,these could either create spillover benefits or go quite wrong. Either way,these conversations on change are best attempted during the 14th Dalai Lama’s lifetime so that he can lend the process his credibility.

The writer is associate professor at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi express@expressindia.com

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