The Dalai Lama on Saturday said that people, not China, will decide the fate of the office of the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader. “They [his followers] will decide whether the tradition will continue or not,” he said, according to AP. His statement is a departure from his earlier stance of doing away with the centuries-old tradition. He had told the BBC that it would be better to have no Dalai Lama than to have “a stupid one”.

Addressing his followers in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang, the 81-year-old said he had no inkling of who his successor would be and that it could even be a woman. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is supposed to leave clear instructions on the process of reincarnation to avoid ambiguity and ensure that the process is not manipulated or misused by anybody for their personal or political interests. Therefore, the reincarnated Dalai Lama has to be found, not selected.

The Dalai Lama’s comment also challenges China’s claim to have the authority to appoint his successor after his death. The country had lodged an official protest against the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh with India’s ambassador in Beijing on Wednesday, shortly after the Tibetan spiritual leader said New Delhi had never used him against Beijing.

The Dalai Lama reached the state on April 4. He was welcomed by a large crowd in Tawang on Friday and will be at the monastery till April 10. China claims that Tawang is part of its territory, though India disputes this.

Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu had earlier said Beijing was not right to oppose the Dalai Lama’s India visit, as the state shared its border with Tibet, not China. “China has no business telling us what to do and what not to do because it is not our next-door neighbour,” Khandu had said.

In 1959, the young leader had escaped China and entered India via Tawang.