Tibet’s New Warriors: Less Love, More Politics

Forceful rhetoric. Modern tactics. A hyper-articulate generation of Tibetan leaders is overturning every stereotype. An exploration of the new mood

April 26, 2008 in People, Politics
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Hemmed In A staged incarceration at a protest in New Delhi

Hemmed In A staged incarceration at a protest in New Delhi Photos: Shailendra Pandey

JANTAR MANTAR in Delhi — unique site of struggle, open air podium for the distressed, a kind of safety valve for India’s myriad pressure cookers — is awash with colour. Five thousand Tibetans from across the country are camping on the street. Every few minutes, a new procession is launched, renting the air with slogans in Hindi and English and Tibetan. Occasionally, the mood is deepened by sonorous chants. The fervour is unmistakable; it seeks release. Beneath the surface, deeper currents are gathering.

For five decades — ever since his historic flight from his homeland in 1959 — only one face has symbolised the Tibetan community for the world: the kindly, almost childlike face of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, resolutely speaking of non-violence and absolute compassion. It is a face that has evoked global warmth and admiration, a face that has kept the Tibetan issue kindling on the international stage, a face that has commanded absolute reverence from its own people. For five decades, His Holiness has been the unchallenged star of his people: he has won the Nobel Prize for Peace, he has enlisted glamorous ambassadors, he has kept
his scattered tribe together with a wise sense of tradition. But curiously, at the same time, he has leached the Tibetan predicament from hope of any resolution. Unlike the canny apostle of non-violence he is commonly compared to, he has failed to convert his ideal of nonviolence into effective political action.

Now, as a younger, more self-confident generation of Tibetans has become adult, the levers of the Tibetan struggle seem to be shifting. In the last two months, this struggle has come to a white heat that is unprecedented in its history. It is a heat that is being driven ground-up, a heat that has lain like growling lava for years, but has never yet found cogent voice. It is a heat that is ready — rather, is straining — to bypass the traditional acquiescence to the Dalai Lama, even as it continues to hold him in utter reverence.

Lhasang Tsering, a stirringly eloquent 55- year old (a stellar student who sacrificed a scholarship at Johns Hopkins University for the
cause), is credited to be among the first to sound the note of dissent. In 1989, as President of the influential Tibetan Youth Congress, he challenged the Dalai Lama’s Strasbourg Statement: an articulation of His Holiness’ Middle Way policy made to members of the European Parliament, in which he said he was not seeking independence but “genuine autonomy through peaceful negotiation”. “This was unrealistic and unacceptable,” Tsering says. “If I were the Chinese, I’d have had a good laugh.” Six years ago, as the Middle Way policy trud – ged on endlessly, on March 10, 2002, in a kind of scorn born out of despair, Tsering retired from active politics to run a bookshop in Dharamsala. The immediate provocation was Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile. March 10 is the commemorative day of His Holiness’ flight. At this annual milestone, Rinpoche asked his people not to offend the Chinese, reiterating that the Middle Way was achievable “through peaceful negotiation on equal footing.”

“This is not even worthy of a bedtime story for kids,” Tsering fumes. “Even bedtime stories today need to be realistic, you cannot get away with yarns about hobgoblins and fairies! HisHoliness and Professor Rinpoche recognise that there is no scope of an equal footing between China and Tibet, but they say Tibetans have a unique source of power: the capacity to generate total compassion. What are the leaders of a nation struggling for survival doing, talking about compassion? I thought the compassionate ones go to heaven. What do they want to do in that cold mountain country?”

Tsering might have removed himself from active politics, but he is voicing the restiveness of a new generation — many of whom are featured later in this story — when he says, “I have no problem with non-violence, but this endless waiting, this life of inaction is not worthy of the name of non-violence.” The Dalai Lama’s presence at a conference on compassion in San Francisco last week, while his countrymen were on a boil, reinforces that impatience. “This is not just a new moment in the struggle, it is the moment,” he says. He is right. In a misjudged column in TEHELKA last week, this writer asserted the furore around the Olympic torch was a flash in the pan that would typically die out without lending the struggle any real momentum. But clearly, it has been a tactical
masterstroke.

In the last six months, several significant things have happened. Apart from the flare-up in Tibet itself, for the first time five key NGOs— the Tibetan Youth Congress, the Tibetan Women’s Association, the Gu Chu Sum Former Political Prisoners Association, the National Democratic Party of Tibet, and the Students for Free Tibet — who represent the Tibetan diaspora have come together as the Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement. In India one of the key goals is to march back to Tibet in time for the Olympics.

THE DISSONANCE between His Holiness and the hyper-articulate young men and women who are leading this phase is evident: His Holiness does not wish the Olympic flame to be disrupted; he does not wish his people to even make the Olympics an issue; he does not wish them to confront authority or break rules in their host countries. His wishes may have injected notes of hesitation — flickers in the white heat (unanimity on the march to Tibet has been diluted for the moment, for instance) — but it’s unlikely that he will be able to extinguish the momentum as in the past. The continuing pressure on the torch — the breached security, the build-up to April 17 — is just one case in point.

“We are a democratic society,” says Rinpoche. “Two referendums on the Middle Way had complete support. If we find the mood is really shifting, we’ll change our position. But you must remember that the Tibetans you speak to at Jantar Mantar are not necessarily representative. It’s fine to talk of Gandhi, but he was in his own country. We are guests bound by the laws and sensitivities of this country. If we were in Tibet, we could also have called for mass action.” The young are tired of such niceties, tired of the stereotype of the “good but simple-minded and disenfranchised Tibetan.” They want to raise the ante for themselves and for India and the international community. They are deploying a new vocabulary for this: Tibet is strategic in containing China from spilling onto India’s borders. It is the source of all major rivers in India and neighbouring countries. How can the world look the other way while China overruns Tibet and its fragile ecology?

Unqualified commitment to non-violence binds all Tibetans, but clearly, much like India’s own multi-layered struggle for independence, the Tibetan struggle has entered a new phase of creative internal disagreement. Independence or autonomy? Both shackled and strengthened by their piety for the Dalai Lama, the young leaders TEHELKA spoke to were in turn fiery and confused, articulate and reflective. Together though, they refract a potent moment, replete with the exhilarations of a revolution in the making.

Also Read: Tenzin Tsundue: It’s time to break rules

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