Saturday, May 25, 2013


By Veer AnkurKasima Lodgey

Another visit by a Chinese leader, another round of tall promises, another episode of shadow games. Perhaps India should take a few lessons from the Tibetans who have seen the real face of the dragon. No amount of talk can build ‘strategic trust’ between the two nations, no amount of assurances should make us forget China’s policy of ‘creeping acquisition’ and no banner headlines will wash away China’s legacy of human rights abuses. The living example of which is an entire civilization of people, living in India as saranarthi’s (refugees).
Within a few years of India having its midnight tryst with destiny, Tibet started its long and arduous entanglement with darkness and deceit. The year 1950 onwards, Mao’s China began making rapid inroads into the mountain kingdom promising modernisation, reforms and prosperity. In less than a decade, Communist China managed a vice-like grip over Tibet, while not delivering any of the promises made.

Resentment against the ‘occupational forces’ brewed for years, but things came to a head in March 1959 when the streets of Lhasa erupted in protest, after it became apparent that the Chinese were getting ready to curb the movements of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (perhaps even arrest him). The protests came on the back of Chinese oppression and the realisation that traditional institutions of Tibet were being systematically eradicated since Buddhism was at odds with the vision that Mao had for China. In a final bid to assert themselves, scores of Tibetan protesters gathered close to Potala, and issued a formal ‘Declaration of Independence’.

The response was on expected lines; the Chinese military machinery used the only tool it had; reinforcements poured into Lhasa, and even the Dalai Lama’s summer palace was not spared. The rapidly deteriorating situation and the shelling of the NorbulingkaPalace, made the arrest of the spiritual leader imminent. It was under such trying circumstances that a young Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama) heeded the advice of his council, and secretly exited Lhasa and headed towards India.

With no leadership to guide and inspire them, the popular uprising fizzled out. China called it a conspiracy of ‘armed rebellion’ and used this pretext to execute a violent crackdown on the Tibetan independence movement. The occupational forces made sure that the Tibetans did not have the ability or the capability to launch a full-scale rebellion ever again.

Today for the international community, Tibet is a forgotten agenda. It’s too busy battling extremism, oil prices and an arms race, China’s economic and military predominance has only scuttled voices of protest against the nation’s blatant human rights abuses. As for Tibetans themselves, it’s a civilisation living in exile, many of them were born as refugees or saranarthis, most will die that way. Ironically the essence of Tibetan culture can now be found more widely in McLeodganj than in Lhasa. The town was one of the thirty-seven settlements that the Government of India had allotted to Tibetans fleeing Chinese oppression.

McLeodganj still retains the essential charm of a hill station, and also has the Parliament of the Tibetan government in exile and the residence of the Dalai Lama. But most of all, this tranquil town serves as a base for the Tibetans to launch their movement.

Despite international insensitivity and isolation, the Tibetans have persevered. One would expect that after half-a-century they would accept their fate and move on. But while the Tibetans have been grateful to India for being a magnificent host, they want to shrug off the tag of being saranarthis. The younger generation Tibetan may not have seen Lhasa, yet they would prefer to return to their motherland – but on their feet, not on their knees.

Sadly, the Tibetan government in exile over the years has seen even the limited support it had, slip away. The rising power of China and its vast markets made any sort of censure impossible; what’s worse was India’s rather meek admission under the former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that Tibet was indeed a part of China. Not only did India lose a stick to threaten China with, the move totally shattered the belief of the community in exile that their host would proactively engage China on their behalf.

It might not be omnipresent, but anger and resentment is increasing in the otherwise peaceful Tibetan community in exile. Organisations like the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) have come to the fore, often taking a more radical approach to the continued occupation of Tibet. Using innovative techniques that also get media attention, Tibetan protesters have continuously managed to embarrass the Chinese government in the international fora, so that the world does not forget about their gradual extinction.

When I reached McLeodganj in November 2006, I found that the mood was quite restive. The Indian government was treating the impending arrival of Hu Jintao as the most significant visit by a head of state to India in recent times – a Chinese premier was setting foot in India after a decade. But the Tibetan community was understandably outraged to see the same India that had given them shelter, now hobnob with the Chinese at the very highest levels.

Though Hu Jintao’s itinerary would not take him anywhere close to McLeodganj, it would be this town from where large scale protest and the descent would be organised. Having burnt its fingers earlier with diehard Tibetan protesters, the government this time clamped down the movements of TYC leaders. So even as TYC leaders were put under police surveillance, other activists fanned out to get the attention of Hu Jintao (and the world media).

China: The Human Rights Abuser
Not just the visit of the Chinese premier, but the immediate provocation for the Tibetans also came in the form of a video that blew the lid on China’s scant regard for human rights. The shocking video, broadcast first on Romanian TV, captured how the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force (CAPF) shot dead a group of Tibetans trying to cross into India from the Nangpa Pass on 30 September 2006.

By the time I reached McLeodganj, the video had gone viral on YouTube and had been creating headlines. Filmed by mountaineers who happened to be in the area, the video showed in graphic detail how a group of Tibetans, struggling against the knee-deep snow, suddenly came under attack without warning. As a shot rang out in the mountains, a young girl fell lifeless into the snow (later identified as Kelsang Namtso, a seventeen-year-old Buddhist nun), and the group panicked and tried to scamper up the mountain. The CAPF had had good training, this time the bullet zeroed in on twenty-three-year-old Kunsang Namgyal; despite being hit, he tried to move forward, only to be shot at again. Namgyal was eventually captured. (Though initially presumed dead, he was apparently released by the Chinese authorities after months of torture.)

Only a handful of the seventy-three Tibetans, who were attempting to cross the border into India through the 6,000-metre-high NangpaPass, managed to make it. Many others were arrested by the CAPF but were never seen again. The most shocking incident was that this group was just several hundred yards from the CAPF unit and had their backs facing the unit, yet they were fired upon, without any warning whatsoever.

International law requires that the use of firearms by border patrols be used only as a last resort – when life is at risk. From the video it was evident that none of the lives of the CAPF squad had been endangered. It was obvious that the soldiers were doing some sniper shooting practice with live targets, human rights be damned; the video even went on to show Chinese policemen smoking casually after the killing.

Lobsang Choeden was another member of the group who had a miraculous escape that day. Members of a mountaineering team hid him in their tent and gave him food to eat. The footage clearly revealed the fear on his face as he evaded the CAPF squad that came looking for him. Choeden saved his life by hiding in a makeshift toilet.

When I caught up with Choeden in Dharamshala, he explained to me in broken English how the whole group had come under fire, and how the lives of Tibetans were of no value to the Chinese. Today, even if Choeden wishes to go back to Tibet, he cannot afford the thought. His photographs have been splashed all over Tibet, and one sight of him can cost him his life. After speaking to the international media, Choeden feared for his family, which was still in Tibet; but he did get an audience with the Dalai Lama and he considers himself lucky for that.

The mountaineers who captured the video were obviously stunned; they successfully managed to sneak out photographic evidence of the Chinese soldiers in ‘action’. Most crucially, a video of the firing managed to create international ripples and became public just weeks before Hu Jintao’s visit to India.

The Chinese responded with standard protocol, ignoring the bad press and wishing it all away. But with growing international condemnation over killing innocent people, the official press agency reacted, claiming that the Tibetans had refused to pay heed to orders to back down. According to the government’s version, it was the Tibetan group that attacked the CAPF; the CAPF ‘forced to defend itself’, had to fire at the Tibetans.

Voice of Tibet
The Chinese propaganda machinery is a behemoth; keeping its military might and economic muscle in mind, the dragon usually takes an unaccommodating diplomatic position. The Chinese are clear that propaganda is a potent counter to the truth, and that opinion can or should be moulded to suit national interests. But in Tibet, the flow of information has been virtually impossible to stop; it’s one area where the Tibetans have managed to give the Chinese a tough time.

China has increasingly been able to control the flow of information in and out of Lhasa, even managing to control the tide of the Internet and electronic media. But an ancient technology has been used to create a wormhole into the Chinese universe; a tiny shortwave radio station in McLeodganj prevents Tibet from becoming a forgotten agenda and assures those who still suffer under the Chinese oppression that all is not lost, and the struggle is very much on.

Operating at 15.430 Mhz the shortwave broadcasts of Voice of Tibet (VoT) keeps a tab on the latest developments in Tibet, the happenings in the Free Tibet movement, and spreads the message of the Dalai Lama. But does the existence of a shortwave radio station in the age of the Internet serve any purpose? That was the first doubt that crossed my mind.

“Anyone reading these lines is obviously in a privileged position of having access to the Internet and a wealth of information, even to tuning in to a large number of domestic and foreign stations.

In Tibet where much of the population is illiterate and poor the power of radio is particularly obvious. Radio broadcasting is the main medium for mass information and education. In Tibet, the Chinese Communist government has monopoly control over the mass media, and with lack of an independent information source, the general public has no access to free information and total lack of a channel to voice their right to speech. As such, getting reliable information from an outside source is as critical for the survival of the Tibetans and its culture.”

It may really be a drop in the ocean, but it shows how a modest two-room set-up, with a staff of less than half a dozen, can give sleepless nights to the massive Chinese propaganda machinery. And talking of machinery, when I was given a guided tour of the station, I could not hide my surprise at the equipment that VoT was using. The station head had explained to me beforehand that they managed with meagre funds and donated equipment, yet VoT used antique broadcast technology, analogue amplifiers and spool tapes. But despite the handicaps, VoT had become a crucial link that bound Tibetans in exile with those who are still living there under Chinese oppression.

Everyday VoT broadcasts a thirty-minute news service in Tibetan language, also a fifteen-minute service in Mandarin Chinese for those who would like the perspective from the outside world, and not just what the state machinery was dishing out. Radio stations like VoT have become empowering tools for vast masses of the illiterate and the poor in Tibet, and has allowed them to keep in touch with their roots by listening to features on Tibetan culture, music and folk tales. Twice a week VoT airs His Highness the Dalai Lama’s latest public speeches in serialised form. Also developments in the Free Tibet movement give them hope that not all is lost.

So concerned was the Government of China with the prospect of rogue radio stations, that it built a ‘great wall of airwaves’ to block access to non-state controlled radio stations like Voice of America, Voice of Tibet and Radio Free Asia. Broadcasts on these frequencies are jammed by drowning the station in music, official broadcasts or just remain static. Just like the Tibetan struggle, this radio station continues to function despite all odds. No advertisements or other sources of revenues for VoT, just money that comes in from NGOs, but its broadcasts are eagerly lapped up by those who are living under Chinese control; that is what makes the effort worth it.

China’s Problem Child
When I first met Tenzin Tsundue on the streets of McLeodganj, he came across as a rockstar. Large mop of hair, red bandanna on the forehead, classic black frame specs, the only thing missing was the guitar. What set Tsundue apart was the fact that he did  not sit around and mope about the fate of Tibet, he was actually doing something about it.

I witnessed him address a protest rally against the visit of Hu Jintao, his voice hoarse from all the screaming that he had done. Obviously it had been days since he had his last proper sleep, yet there was a remarkable energy about him. Also around him was a retinue of policemen – not guarding him, rather guarding against him.

While dissenters in China have traditionally disappeared without a trace, in India they are allowed to operate with a significant degree of freedom. Tsundue is a product of Chinese oppression and Indian permissiveness; born to parents who were fleeing Tibet, Tsundue studied in India and dared to go back to Tibet, where he was incarcerated and tortured before being deported.

Over the years his relentless pursuit of a free Tibet has made him a darling of the exiled community. Not for nothing was he referred to as the ‘hope of the young Tibetans’. I spent my first evening in McLeodganj cocooned in a cybercafé, pouring over Tsundue’s past, trying to understand why the Indian state would want to guard a Tibetan dissenter day and night.

One would not be wrong in saying that no single person has managed to embarrass the Chinese government over the Tibet question as much as ‘poet-warrior’ Tsundue. In 2002, he scaled fourteen floors of a five-star hotel in Mumbai, where the then Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji was giving a business presentation. Deftly evading the Indian police (and a beehive) Tsundue managed to climb to the floor, where the presentation was going on, and unfurled a massive ‘Free Tibet: China, Get Out’ banner. That antic got him the attention of every camera team on the ground, and every Chinese official in the building.

Then as the police scrambled to get him, he unfurled the Tibetan national flag and shouted pro-Tibet slogans.

In 2005 Tsundue did it again; this time the new Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, was at the receiving end. Tsundue managed to evade the preventive detention of the police, and managed to sneak himself into a 200-foot-high tower at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) – a full two days before Jiabao was to meet Indian scientists there. At the opportune time, Tsundue appeared in public and unfurled a ‘Free Tibet’ banner and threw pamphlets at bystanders, even shouting at Jiabao that he could not silence the Tibetans. Again all television cameras were opportunely present, allowing for the story to make international headlines.

Of course, the Chinese were left flummoxed and red-faced; phones were worked and words exchanged. Needless to say that Tsundue’s stay at the police station this time was much longer and more tortuous. But the hardy Tibetan later told me that after Chinese hospitality, Indian jails were child’s play.

It was Tsundue’s penchant to show up in unexpected places that forced the government to take abundant precaution during Hu Jintao’s visit in 2006. In fact weeks before the Chinese premier’s arrival, Tsundue’s movements were restricted to Dharamshala; cops were on rotational shifts, watching his every move, making sure that he was not out to embarrass the visiting dignitary.

It’s not difficult to grasp why Tsundue had become one of the most visible faces, after the Dalai Lama, for the Tibetan community in exile. Though His Holiness commanded absolute respect and obedience from the community, there was increasing realisation that his way of working out things with the Chinese had come to naught. There had been a ‘softening’ of position by the Dalai Lama over the years; even when sustained attempts at gaining independence had met with humiliating failure. In 1988, His Highness chose not to oppose Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, and agreed to settle for a mirage called ‘genuine autonomy’ within China.

Two decades down the line, there was no hope of that demand being met either. For years the Dalai Lama would frown upon anti-Chinese protests, his logic being that the community should appear conciliatory towards the other side as talks were being conducted.

In a community where speaking against an elder is frowned upon, Tsundue took a road less taken, challenging the view point of His Holiness. The young rebel had nothing against the Dalai Lama, but demanded radical action for freedom. Initially there were not many who either thought like him or supported him.

When I finally caught up with Tsundue for a recorded interview, he was leading a candlelight march down the streets of McLeodganj. We settled down next to a cluster of candles that had been lit in memory of their brethren killed in Tibet. I don’t know what burnt brighter – the flicker of the candle flames being reflected off his glasses, or his eyes with the gleam of rebellion.

And he did speak like a rebel.

‘Look Akash,’ he began, ‘there aren’t many people who say that they don’t agree with His Holiness’s viewpoint. It’s a big thing to contest the opinion of the Dalai Lama, since he is Buddha for us. If India follows Gandhi, then Dalai Lama is more than Gandhi for us. Naturally, when he says that “autonomy” is the best solution, people believe that, they take a leap of faith and leave the decision to the Dalai Lama – specially the older generation. I, however, with due respect to His Holiness, defer in my viewpoint; there are many like me who believe in more vigorous action to free Tibet, no autonomy, only freedom.’

‘But why the demand of freedom when the Dalai Lama had compromised with the autonomy formula?’ I asked.

‘There has been a lot of debate over this question, but honestly there is a change in the thought process that is coming about. The younger lot is now tired of waiting. Look what “dialogue” has got us, only humiliation!’

Clearly the firebrand independence fighter was reflecting the frustration of a community that had seen two-dozen rounds of talks with China – only to be strung up high and dry.

Tsundue continued, ‘They promised autonomy before too and made us exiles; we can’t run the risk of making the same mistake again by asking for autonomy. When you are begging, your hand is stretched outwards. When you don’t get anything, your hand is still empty. When you demand for independence, you are being in control of the situation and you are taking matters into your own hands.’

‘But Tenzin,’ I interject, ‘the path you are following, you are not very far away from using violence as a means of gaining independence.’

Tsundue looked hard at me, measuring his words before speaking. ‘There is no question of violence during His Holiness’s lifetime, he is too peace loving to allow for it and people will not galvanise without his call. But that makes it all the more important that this issue be sorted out in his lifetime. Because after him, there is no telling what will happen.’

His cold hard stare said it, but I reiterated my point, ‘You’re saying that the movement can become violent in the future?’

‘Yes, if this issue is not sorted out and there is no direction after the Dalai Lama, there is a possibility that might happen.’

It’s possible to relate to Tsundue’s passion, not only because of his daring acts or his emotions, but also because he pens them down with equal élan and ease. One of his numerous poems, called Betrayal, can be found as a much-watched clip on YouTube. In a couple of lines he tells you what urges him to revolt against the Chinese, and it’s difficult to fault him from straying from the Dalai Lama’s path of peace.

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