In her book, Lea Terhune talks in glowing terms about the help that
Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches received from the government of Sikkim
under Chief Minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari in gaining control of Rumtek.
“Bhandari was a controversial figure in Sikkim ,” Terhune admits,
“often criticized for corruption.” But then she goes on to praise
the then chief minister's actions: “However, he respected the Sixteenth
Karmapa and frequently assisted Rumtek Mona stery [under Situ and
Gyaltsab Rinpoches] while he was in power.” (p. 193)
discussion raises many questions. Did Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches
have the right to take control of Rumtek? Why would Chief Minister
Bhandari help them do so, even when it meant violating the well
known prohibition enshrined in India 's constitution against government
interference in religion? How did Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches convince
the chief minister to assist them? Why were they so eager to take
Rumtek, in whose administration they traditionally had no role?
And why are they so eager to keep it now?
will answer these questions here and also talk about the response
of the Karmapa Charitable Trust. The Trust filed a court case for
the return of Rumtek that has been successful in both District and
High Courts. Now, the verdicts favorable to the Trust face one final
challenge in the form of an appeal by the group of Situ and Gyaltsab
Rinpoches in the Supreme Court. The first case was filed a full
five years after the seizure of Rumtek. We will discuss here why
the political climate in Sikkim prevented it from being filed earlier.
Rights Did Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches Have Over Rumtek?
answer this question, it is necessary to understand something about
the legal structure of Tibetan monastic administrations.
each high lama has his or her own labrang , or administration,
to govern the monasteries and other properties under his control.
The Karmapas have had their own labrang which has always been separate
from the labrangs of other high lamas. Situ Rinpoche led the Palpung
Labrang while Gyaltsab led his own Chogong Labrang, named respectively
after each rinpoche's traditional monastic seat.
the Tibetan system, lamas from one labrang had no administrative
authority in another administration. Thus, the two rinpoches, Situ
and Gyaltsab, would never have been able to legally gain control
of Rumtek Mona stery, which was part of the Karmapa Labrang rather
than part of either of their own administrations.
the only way open to lamas to take property from an outside labrang
would be, simply put, to conduct a kind of coup d'état there.
They found a powerful ally in the Sikkim state government of NB
Did the Sikkim State Government Assist the Rumtek Take-over?
believe that Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches secured the assistance
of Chief Minister Bhandari's government by making two large contributions
to his party totaling $2.5 million.
believe that an initial payment of $1 million was made to Bhandari
before his police went into Rumtek. While we lack direct evidence,
the indirect evidence for a large advance payment seems very strong.
The Indian Constitution established India as a secular state and
prohibits government officials from interfering in religious affairs.
So, we have to wonder, why would Bhandari violate the Constitution
and assist Situ Rinpoche's group in seizing Rumtek? We can come
up with no other explanation than that Situ Rinpoche bribed Bhandari
to do this.
we do have direct evidence that another payment was made by Situ
Rinpoche's group to Chief Minister Bhandari after Rumtek was seized
by Situ Rinpoche's group in 1993. This payment was delivered by
the Taiwanese millionaire Chen Lu An, a follower of Situ Rinpoche.
The payment was for $1.5 million. This donation has been documented
by newspapers and government investigators in both Gangtok and New
Delhi . The ensuing scandal led to investigations by the New Delhi
government against Bhandari that helped bring about Bhandari's ouster
Could a Whole State Government Be Bought?
is an understatement, as Terhune says, to call Chief Minister Bhandari
“a controversial figure.” History shows that the Sikkim government
during the Bhandari years, from 1979-1995, was perhaps the most
corrupt in India . Through a combination of payoffs and intimidation,
the chief minister ran Sikkim as his own private fiefdom.
Sikkim , stories of those bold enough to risk Bhandari's wrath during
this period abound. First, there was the opposition leader, Madan
Tamang, who dared to circulate pamphlets accusing Bhandari of corruption
and womanizing. In response, Mandan was arrested and died in custody.
His body was later found in bushes alongside the Rongpo River .
Shortly after this, a reporter in Siliguri, RK Baid, published a
story detailing some recent examples of corruption in Bhandari's
administration. After this, Bhandari sent undercover police into
the neighboring state of West Bengal —outside of their legal jurisdiction—to
kidnap Baid and bring him to Gangtok. There he was held in prison
and tortured. Afterwards, he was offered an amount of money said
to be as high as five million rupees to sign a statement denying
that he was kidnapped or mistreated. This reporter later opened
a hotel in Siliguri using this hush money. Finally, Hamelal Bhandari
(no relation to the chief minister), an attorney in Gangtok, took
it upon himself to circulate posters again criticizing the chief
minister's actions. In responses, he was abducted by party bullies,
taken to prison, tortured, and then thrown naked off a truck the
next day onto the main street of Gangtok. He was lucky to escape
with his life.
was the atmosphere of open corruption and intimidation in the state
in the eighties, that these heinous acts and many others were well
known to the Sikkim public. Yet, all were afraid to take any action
since they knew that the police were his personal enforcers and
any action in the courts would be punished.
this background the elections of 1989 took place. Bhandari's systematic
campaign of intimidation had so terrified the opposition that no
other candidates stood against his party—something quite unusual
in a democracy as lively as India 's. Sikkim is one of India 's
smallest states, with a population of only 400,000, and the couple
hundred opposition leaders who might have run for office were easy
to intimidate. As a result, Bhandari's party won all 32 seats in
the Sikkim parliament, giving him a third term in office with unprecedented
power over all branches of government, including of course, the
judiciary. All of these events are a matter of public record in
Didn't the Karmapa Charitable Trust File Its Case Sooner?
Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches' group seized Rumtek with Chief Minister
Bhandari's help in 1993, the Karmapa Charitable Trust did not successfully
file its first case against them until 1997, a full five years later.
Why the delay?
before Bhandari's rule ended, there were those who were bold enough
to file cases against his new friends Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches.
Karma Gunbo, a former member of the Sikkim parliament and a devoted
student of the late Sixteenth Karmapa, filed a case in Gangtok District
Court in 1993 against Situ Rinpoche for forging his Karmapa-prediction
letter. Once Chief Minister Bhandari was informed of this, he arrested
Karma Gunbo's family, including wife and children, and held them
in prison for two weeks during which they were subjected to physical
and psychological torture.
perhaps to ensure that they would not make trouble for Situ and
Gyaltsab Rinpoches, Bhandari initiated an intimidation campaign
against all the trustees of the Karmapa Charitable Trust. He expelled
from Sikkim the two members who were not Indian citizens, Shamar
Rinpoche and Topga Rinpoche. And against the two trustees who were
residents of Sikkim , TS Gyaltsen and JD Densapa, both formerly
high officials in the state government, Bhandari sent thugs to stone
their houses and cars.
Minister Bhandari's campaign of intimidation against the trustees
was successful. JD Densapa in particular became so afraid to file
a case in Gangtok that he attempted instead to file the case at
the High Court in New Delhi in 1994 on behalf of the monastic community
of Rumtek led by Ngedon Tenzin. The High Court responded that since
this was a civil case, it should be submitted in the local state
court, in Sikkim (the case was not in fact dismissed as Terhune
stated in her book). Filing in Sikkim of course was out of the question
while Chief Minister Bhandari remained in office.
Could a Case Be Filed in 1997?
1992 was the beginning of the end for Bhandari. While Bhandari began
interfering in Rumtek's affairs, PK Chamling, one of Bhandari's
ministers, began to plan a campaign to replace the chief minister.
He publicly accused Bhandari of corruption and began to refer to
him as a “dictator.” In response, Bhandari arrested Chamling's assistants
and tortured them in prison. Fortunately, Chamling himself escaped
and went into hiding.
this time, Shamar Rinpoche's secretary, Khedrub Gyatso, met with
Chamling to offer his support, presenting a loan to assist with
Chamling's election campaign, and requesting Chamling's future assistance
in regaining Rumtek for the Karmapa Charitable Trust. Chamling,
however, had quite a different character than Bhandari. He responded
that he was not in a position to remove Situ and Gyaltsab's monks,
but that he would guarantee that the Karmapa Charitable Trust would
receive a fair hearing in the courts.
Bhandari is defeated, then the courts in Sikkim will be approachable,”
Chamling said. “You should then file a case in the court. My duty
is to defeat Bhandari--to end his dictatorial rule and return democracy
to Sikkim --let you file your case in Sikkim and then pay you back
the money you have loaned me. This is my job for now. I will not
remove Situ Rinpoche's monks from Rumtek—that would be illegal,
and I am determined to abide by the law.”
began working with the New Delhi government to put pressure on Bhandari
for his cooperation with the Taiwanese millionaire Chen Lu An and
for shady dealings with the Chinese government. Pressure continued
to mount and the central government asked more and more questions
that Bhandari could not answer. By August 1995 things had gotten
so bad for Bhandari that he was forced to resign in disgrace. This
was an event of such import to the Karmapa controversy that devout
Buddhists in Sikkim said at the time that Karmapa's protectors must
have inspired Chamling to conceive his coup.
still the Karmapa Charitable Trust could not file its case because
its trustee JD Densapa was afraid that Bhandari's party would return
and exact revenge. Tired of waiting, in August of 1996, the legitimate
monks of Rumtek held a hunger strike to call on the state government
to restore them to their monastery. New Chief Minister Chamling
invited 40 senior lamas to his residence for a conference. There
he suggested that there was “no point in sleeping on the road” and
continuing their protest. The government could not legally remove
the monks of Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches from Rumtek. Instead, their
only remedy was to request a court order to return them to their
Was the Basis of the Case Filed by the Trust?
in early 1996, Shamar Rinpoche convened a meeting of the Karmapa
Charitable Trust trustees at the Sinclair Hotel in Siliguri. He
requested permission from the other trustees to file a case on their
behalf, since they were all either elderly or had ailing relatives
to attend to. The other trustees agreed and gave Shamar Rinpoche
authority to file a case.
on July 27, 1997 working on behalf of the Karmapa Trust, Shamar
Rinpoche filed a case in Gangtok District Court accusing Situ and
Gyaltsab Rinpoches of unlawfully seizing Rumtek from the administration
of the Trust. In the case, the Sikkim state minister of home affairs
was defendant #1, the Sikkim minister of religious affairs was defendant
#2 and Gyaltsab Rinpoche was listed as defendant #3, since Situ
Rinpoche had already been expelled from India for his suspicious
dealings with China.
took several years for the court to agree to hear the case because
of preliminary issues raised by Gyaltsab Rinpoche's lawyer: First,
that the Karmapa Trust, with assets of only 200,000 Indian Rupees,
did not have sufficient resources to maintain the land and facilities
of Rumtek; And second, that since the events referred to in the
filing took place in 1993, four years earlier, that the statute
of limitations had expired to file a case. Finally, at the end of
2002, the Karmapa Charitable Trust answered all of these preliminary
issues and the case could proceed. The court appointed a commission
of the Reserve Bank of India to conduct an inventory of the assets
on site at Rumtek.
was Gyaltsab Rinpoche Afraid Of?
a proper inventory of the moveable assets at Rumtek meant that some
treasures might be discovered missing. Apparently this made Gyaltsab
Rinpoche nervous, and perhaps he was afraid that a criminal charge
would be filed against him if anything was found missing. Therefore
he submitted a new application to the court, asking that he be excused
from the case, claiming that he had no rights to manage Rumtek and
that he was part of a separate Labrang , or monastic administration,
from Karmapa. In an attempt to shift the blame away from himself,
at this time Gyaltsab Rinpoche created a new entity, which he called
the “Tsurphu Labrang.” Gyaltsab Rinpoche hoped that this invented
entity would stand in as administrator of Rumtek for the purposes
of the case. The new pseudo-group was headed by Tenzin Namgyal,
listed as general secretary of the Karmapa.
the case was heard, it became clear that this group had no documentation
to prove its stewardship of Rumtek, while the Karmapa Charitable
Trust could produce minutes of meetings dating back to 1983 concerning
its administration of the monastery after the death of the 16 th
Karmapa. Accordingly, the District Court decided that the group
had no standing as administrator of Rumtek and that the monastery
was the property of the Karmapa Trust.
Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches and Tenzin Namgyal appealed this decision
in the name of this same empty group to the High Court in Gangtok.
The High Court denied the appeal in a decision made on March 19,
2003 . So that meant that Gyaltsab Rinpoche could not escape being
a defendant in the case.
Losing in Court Twice, Did Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches Try to Settle?
failed to escape responsibility as a defendant in the case, Gyaltsab
Rinpoche again feared criminal prosecution. To escape this fate,
he now became eager to settle the case out of court. He sent word
to the Karmapa Charitable Trust that he wanted to negotiate a settlement.
In response, Shamar Rinpoche proposed a seven-point settlement:
the original commission of the Reserve Bank of India was unable
to finish its work, a new inventory of Rumtek's assets should be
conducted to ascertain whether the Vajra Crown was present at Rumtek.
Rinpoche should account for any missing assets, whether transferred
to another location or sold, to avoid criminal prosecution.
the exception of 14 lamas who were legitimate residents of Rumtek,
though they did collaborate with Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches' seizure
of the monastery, all lamas and monks should vacate the premises.
legitimate monk who had been wrongfully evicted from Rumtek should
be paid 50 rupees compensation for every day of the last 11 years
that they had to live in other accommodation.
Rinpoche would have to cover all legal costs incurred by the Karmapa
and Situ Rinpoche and their monks should not interfere in Rumtek's
affairs or try to return to Rumtek at any point in the future, recognizing
that they come from a separate labrang and have no standing at Rumtek.
- Situ and
Gyaltsab Rinpoches would have to make a public apology for all
the violence and trouble they had caused at Rumtek and all the
allegations they had made against the trustees.
Gyaltsab Rinpoche was ready to accept all except points 4 and 5,
those concerning financial compensation for the expelled monks and
the Karmapa Trust respectively. However, just before Gyaltsab Rinpoche
was able to accept the remainder of Shamar Rinpoche's terms, Situ
Rinpoche summoned him to New Delhi . There, Situ Rinpoche convinced
Gyaltsab that Shamar Rinpoche's terms would be just as bad for their
cause as losing a third time in court, and therefore, that they
had nothing to risk by mounting a final appeal. Thus, Situ and Gyaltsab
Rinpoche's invented group, the Tsurphu Labrang, took its appeal
to the Supreme Court in New Delhi . That is where the case rests
now, and a decision is expected in July.
Do Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches Still Fight On?
do Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches want to hold onto Rumtek so badly?
For two reasons, we believe. First, Gyaltsab Rinpoche knows that
Situ Rinpoche has removed several valuable relics from the Rumtek
treasury. That these objects have gone missing was demonstrated
by the inventory conducted by the Reserve Bank of India . We believe
that Gyaltsab Rinpoche is afraid that if his party loses control
of Rumtek, then the thefts will be discovered and he will be blamed,
opening him up to criminal charges. Second, both rinpoches know
that in the minds of Himalayan believers, whoever sits on the Sixteenth
Karmapa's throne and wears the Vajra Crown is the Karmapa. They
do not want Thaye Dorje to enjoy these privileges, as this would
significantly diminish popular faith in their candidate Orgyen Trinley.
indeed, the stakes in this case are very large. And the outcome
does not look good for Situ and Gyaltsab's cause. With two losses
to their record, and no new arguments to present in their final
appeal, July's outcome could bring them bad news. Perhaps that is
why Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches have launched a misinformation campaign
to confuse their followers about the progress of the court cases
and prevent them from losing hope. We will discuss this in our next
Secretary of the International Karma Kagyu Buddhist Organization
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