A Curious Question of Legal Strategy: Where to Go Next on the Rumtek Case?
On July 5 of this year, the Indian Supreme Court in New Delhi dismissed the request of the Tsurphu Labrang, a group supporting the Karmapa claim of Orgyen Trinley Dorje, to insert itself as a party in the case over possession of Rumtek Monastery, the seat of the 16th Karmapa located in India’s northeastern Sikkim state. This decision put the Rumtek case back into the hands of the District Court in Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital, for execution of that court’s original decision given in 2002.
In that decision, the District Court concluded that the Karmapa Charitable Trust was the legitimate administrator of Rumtek, and that accordingly a process should begin to return the monastery and all of its land, buildings and moveable property to the Karmapa Trust.
On August 17 of this year, Judge A.P. Suba of the District Court announced that in early September he would appoint a “Settler” as provided under Section 18 of the Indian Civil Code, to conclude the Rumtek case and carry out the orders of the court.
This means that the Karmapa Charitable Trust has a choice to make.
In the early days of this case during the 1990s, the party opposing the Karmapa Trust–known in the latest court decision as the Tsurphu Labrang but in fact no more than a loose conspiracy of lamas and others seeking to benefit from possession of Rumtek–thought that it would take many years to conclude this litigation. Led by Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches, this group anticipated that it would have ample time to complete its plan to remove all the significant valuables from Rumtek for possible sale abroad, place Orgyen Trinley on the Karmapa’s throne and then slowly reduce the influence of the office of the Karmapas.
This plan was intended to enrich these lamas and their allies in the Sikkim government and elsewhere while increasing the spiritual prestige of these lamas. By diminishing the office of the Karmapa, Situ and Gyaltsab would effectively move one rung higher in the Karma Kagyu hierarchy. And Gyaltsab would become the chief lama in Sikkim, consolidating that turf as his own sphere of influence.
Both Defendant #1, the Sikkim government Home Ministry, and Defendant #3, Gyaltsab Rinpoche, thought that the case would continue for decades (Defendant #2 was the Sikkim Department of Ecclesiastical Affairs).
Then, the District Court ordered an inventory of all the moveable valuables held at Rumtek. When this inventory began in 2001, Situ and Gyaltsab’s group realized that they were mistaken and that the case was proceeding much faster than they had anticipated. They worried not only that their plan would be foiled, but that it would be discovered and that they might face repercussions including criminal prosecution.
In this tense situation, this group’s immediate concern was to shield Gyaltsab Rinpoche from criminal charges. To do this, they got the idea to create an organization with the name of the historical body that had managed Karmapa’s affairs back in Tibet before 1959, the Tsurphu Labrang. This group would substitute for Gyaltsab as defendant in the Rumtek proceedings, allowing Gyaltsab to excuse himself from the case, and thus, hopefully, avoid criminal liability.
So, Gyaltsab Rinpoche admitted to the District Court that he had no jurisdiction over Rumtek, and asked to be excused as a defendant in the case. The Karmapa Trust did not oppose his request, and the court allowed Gyaltsab to withdraw. Then, the Tsurphu Labrang applied to take Gyaltsab’s place, claiming that it was the rightful administrator of Rumtek. This claim was rejected by the District Court in 2002.
Not wanting to abandon its claim on Rumtek, the Tsurphu Labrang appealed this decision to the High Court in Gangtok. This court initially consented to allow this group to participate in the case, and continued to do so for some months before also declaring in 2003 that the group had no standing in Rumtek’s affairs. Finally, the group appealed this decision to the Indian Supreme Court, which dismissed the appeal in its July decision, denying the Tsurphu Labrang its last chance to gain standing in the Rumtek case.
This leaves the Karmapa Trust without any opposition in this case aside from the pro forma defendants in the Sikkim state government, the Home Ministry and Department of Ecclesiastical Affairs.
But it is only the position of Defendant #3 that can be held responsible for the management of Rumtek over the last decade since Situ and Gyaltsab’s group seized power there on August 2, 1993. Gyaltsab Rinpoche already excused himself from the case in the District Court, and the Tsurphu Labrang has been rejected by all three levels of courts that have subsequently heard this case. So this means that there is no one outside of the Karmapa Trust in this case who claims ownership over Rumtek. As things stand now, if the Karmapa Trust does not exercise its right to file an objection to excusing Gyaltsab from the case, then the case for possession of Rumtek should conclude shortly.
This course of action would probably be the most expedient way for the Karmapa Trust to regain possession of Rumtek. If the Trust were to object to Gyaltsab Rinpoche excusing himself from the case, and try to bring him back, then it would be necessary to repeat many of the proceedings of the case with him as sole defendant, and in particular, to subject him to hours of testimony and cross-examination. This could add two or three years of delay to the case. Since regaining Rumtek as quickly as possible is the main aim of the Trust in this case, recalling Gyaltsab and enduring additional court delays is not attractive.
However, allowing Gyaltsab to withdraw would leave the Trust with another problem. The District Court in Gangtok is expected to order that the inventory of moveable valuables at Rumtek begun and then suspended in 2002 be concluded. At this time, the inventory may discover that valuable objects are missing from Rumtek, particularly the Black Crown of the Karmapas, or at least its original priceless jewels. If the court has excused Gyaltsab Rinpoche from the case but has recognized no other defendant to replace him, then there will be no one to hold responsible for any losses at Rumtek. This would make it difficult to recover missing objects and prosecute people involved in any thefts.
The Karmapa Trust is now considering the best way to proceed. It is seeking a compromise that will not delay the conclusion of the case but will still require the leaders of the opposition party, who have illegally occupied Rumtek for more than ten years, to account for all valuables that should be present at the monastery. The Trust will announce its strategy shortly.