The Assassination of Gungtang Tsultrim

Gungtang Tsultrim was the leader of an organisation known as the ‘Thirteen Settlements’ or ‘Thirteen Groups of Tibetans’. This organisation consisted of thirteen (later fourteen) Tibetan exile groups and settlements that wished to establish themselves under Indian law, independent of the jurisdiction of the Dalai Lama’s exile government. Although this organization had its origins in a grassroots movement in Tibet, the principal impetus for its formation in India occurred shortly after the Dalai Lama’s arrival in Dharamsala.

When the Dalai Lama first arrived in Dharamsala, he held a series of meetings with other senior leaders from all the traditions. The purpose of these meetings was for the Dalai Lama to introduce a proposal for the integration of all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism into one. At the time the Gelugpa did not reject the Dalai Lama’s ideas directly because of their close relationship with the institution of the Dalai Lama; they remained neutral. But the proposal was rejected by the Sakya, Nyingma and Kagyu lamas. Practitioners of these other traditions were extremely worried about this proposal, fearing that their traditions would soon be destroyed. In response to the proposal, and against the Dalai Lama’s wishes, they organised thirteen groups which then associated to form the ‘Thirteen Settlements’.

Over the years many conflicts developed between the Dalai Lama and these thirteen settlements, until in 1976 their secular leader Gungtang Tsultrim was murdered. Without the strong leadership of Gungtang Tsultrim, and with no other leader of his capacity to replace him, the coalition disintegrated. This had been the motive for the assassination.

A website dealing mainly with controversies regarding the Karmapa adds:

‘In 1964, the government-in-exile of the Dalai Lama wanted to introduce social, economic and religious reforms to the recently evicted Tibetans. Gyalo Thondrub, the Dalai Lama’s audacious brother, decided that the best answer to Mao’s invasion and destruction of their country was to adapt Tibet and Tibetan policy in exile to the new Communist realities. He boldly proposed to abolish the old Buddhist schools, to do away with the rich, religious show, and thus bring the high lamas to the ground. “No more thrones, rituals, or gold brocades,” he was rumoured to have uttered. The spiritual hierarchies of the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and the corollary sub-orders fell victim to slander and reproach. His words struck fear into the lamas’ hearts. As more details of the elaborate plan began to emerge, it became clear that a coup against three of the schools was being hatched. The new religious body that would replace the traditional lineages was to be controlled by the Gelugpa hierarchy. The worried lamas rushed to Karmapa for help.

‘When in 1976, Gungthang Tsultrim, the political head of the alliance, was murdered, the assassin confessed to operate on orders from the Tibetan cabinet. Hired for the job, he was paid rupees three hundred thousand by the Tibetan government-in- exile in Dharamsala. The Tibetan government-in-exile had also offered him more money for eliminating the 16th Karmapa, he confessed.’282