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NEW DELHI — A few weeks after the daring flight from Tibet to India of the 17th Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, an air of intrigue has descended on the Buddhist front.

The defection has reportedly precipitated a bitter power struggle that could well pit two figure heads: the 14-year-old Karmapa himself, who is part of the 5-million strong Kagyu sect impressively spread over 300 monasteries around the globe; and the Dalai Lama, who also escaped from Tibet in 1959 and now lives in Dharamshala in northern India and heads the Tibetan ecclesiastical order.

Historically, the Kagyus have competed with the Dalai Lamas for influence and control, though members of both groups say their differences were smoothened out some three centuries ago.

Of greater concern is the presence of the Karmapa in India, which has the potential to play havoc with New Delhi-Beijing ties. Although both nations have invoked the five principles of peaceful coexistence (called Panchsheel), Tibet has always been a point of conflict and resentment between them. China has not, even after all these years, forgiven India for granting a safe refuge to the Dalai Lama and allowing him to run a government in exile from Dharamshala.

It is in this context that one might have reason to suspect whether the Karmapa’s defection was planned by a section of the Buddhist clergy opposed to the Dalai Lama, or by Beijing itself to destabilize the Tibetans and, of course, embarrass New Delhi.

Undoubtedly, the lad’s arrival in India will provoke dormant passions between the two majors sects, and might lead to the weakening of the Dalai Lama’s authority over the Tibetans as a whole.

If the defection is indeed a Chinese game plan, it does not take much effort to see what is about to follow. Sooner or later, the Kagyus in India would pressure New Delhi to shift their leader to their own headquarters at the Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, a northeastern Indian state bordering China.

The monastery is no ordinary place: its treasures include the “Black Hat,” the symbol of the sect’s final authority deposited by the late 16th Karmapa who came along with the Dalai Lama in 1959. If the boy Karmapa wears the hat and assumes supremacy, Beijing gets a new handle to influence events in Sikkim.

China has never accepted Sikkim’s merger with India in 1975, and the Karmapa’s residence there will help Beijing to send its agents disguised as pilgrims to create trouble.

Suspicions about China’s complicity in the defection are bolstered by the role of Tai Situ Rinpoche, one of the four high priests of the Kagyus. There are indications that he was the key man behind the Karmapa’s flight.

In fact, Tai Situ was branded a Chinese agent and expelled from India in 1994, but the restriction was lifted in 1998, and surprisingly so. Tai Situ was the one who identified Dorje as the 17th Karmapa, and was singularly instrumental in persuading Beijing to recognize the boy.

Beyond the intrigue, the crucial point is, he has the potential to become a figurehead for the next generation, as the Dalai Lama has been for this. The older lama’s grip as the head of a secular Tibet is gone forever. There is an urgent need for someone who will embody the country’s religious identity and national aspirations, and, at the same time, be acceptable to Western sympathy.

The 17th Karmapa, as the focus of the Kagyus, could easily be popular in the West: the order has vast wealth and commands the strength and following that usually go hand-in-glove with such riches.

New Delhi is well aware of all this, and given its historic links with the Tibetans, India is understandably nervous about how it should handle not just the deep divisions in the community, but the fear that China has orchestrated the entire drama with a twin purpose.

If the escape or the flight — call it what you want to — will lead to a rift between two important sections of the Tibetans, the Karmapa’s shift to and stay at Sikkim will probably cause problems in the sensitive border area. India already has more than a handful to cope with on its Western border, where Pakistan-based insurgents have kept a relentless battle going on for many years now. New Delhi would hardly want another proxy war on its eastern front.

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