We were ready to jump, all 48 of us — mostly young Tibetans, some elders too — ready to pounce at the Chinese Embassy in Delhi. We waited with bated breath, lying low, communicating in signals and whispers on mobile phones. On the count of 3, we charged towards the gate screaming “Free Tibet!” The two lonesome Indian policemen at the gate were caught unaware; in shock, they threatened to fire at us. There was much commotion and within minutes, police reinforcement rushed in from all sides, lathi-charged us, and in 20 minutes we were packed off to the police station nearby.
This happened in January last year, when China executed Pawo Lobsang Dhondrup. We refused to remain silent. We were few in number, but determined, ready to face any consequences. But the planning was bad, as a result neither were we able to significantly register our protest at the embassy nor was there good media coverage. This column attempts to understand and estimate the nature and effectiveness of Tibetan political activism in India. Since we are in exile, most of our direct actions have been symbolic and non-violent. Most of them are meant to draw the world’s attention to the injustices China is subjecting Tibetans to, while others target resident or visiting Chinese officials.
After the embassy protest, we were solemnly collecting ourselves at the Chanakyapuri police station. The initial excitement, nervousness and uncertainty had been defused. The blows from the police batons we received on our heads, shoulders and butts had started paining. The younger boys were showing each other their bruises and black eyes, excitedly narrating their part of the story, not betraying any signs of pain. In my 10 years of activism, I have not seen anyone express pain or remorse, only a sense of achievement.
There have been cases of Tibetans returning home from protest rallies with broken hands and cracked skulls after clashing with the police. Still we believed sometimes rules need to be broken, and we continued to speak up for Tibet, risking limbs and lives. A typical case is Tashi Phuntsok and Pasang Tsering, who were wounded by police fire during a protest in Delhi, when the then Chinese Premier Li Peng visited India in 2001. What follows in police custody isn’t very exciting. The police make a personal record of each protester and our youngsters give them names that cannot be mentioned in here. The police then file a case and summons are served to individuals or organisations.
Tibetan Youth Congress still faces some cases that are yet to be resolved years after the protest. The case of 11 protesters who walked to Delhi from Hunsur Tibetan refugee camp, hurled petrol bombs at the Chinese Embassy in 1992 is yet to be resolved. Samphel and Jamyang of TYC confirmed that the case of 7 RTYC members from Chandigarh storming the Chinese Embassy in 1999 has been resolved already. The most irritating part of attending a court case is that nothing really happens, one simply gets another Tarik (date) after the personal appearance.
I have been called thrice in two months to attend the case regarding my Oberoi climbing protest when Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji visited Mumbai in January 2002. Besides small expenditures and frequent long-distance travel, such appearances are one of the most drab and ridiculous human exercises. Many friends were excited about the “court case in a freedom struggle” — they fantasised a Bollywood-style court drama, where the lawyer screams his guts out in a palatial dome, with hundreds of people seated in suspended animation!
My case was one among 36 the judge heard that morning before lunch. The 47th court of Mumbai Magistrate at the Esplanade looked like a classroom with a hundred people in attendance. The judge sat in his chair behind a huge brown wooden desk. The black coat lawyers sat in front and faced the judge like dutiful students. Two policemen maintained order in the “classroom”. My name was called out in between and I was asked to stand in the witness box. The bespectacled 60-something judge said something to my lawyer and then whispered something to his woman assistant and then declared “23rd April!” That’s it. My case is heard. Another date is given. No decision taken yet again. Everything ended within those 2 ridiculous minutes. I could have stayed back in Dharamsala and cooked Maggie noodles instead! Fighting a case at the court is like opening your mouth for the dentist with a leap of faith; you never know what is being done to you!
Attending summons is boring and yet it is an essential part of the protest work. It is important to perform the rigmarole at the police station and at the court responsibly and with dignity. Dealing with court cases has no charm, that’s why the clean-up process remains the backstage story. For that, one should deal with lawyers and media with patience and sensibility.
Jail is a novel experience and I strongly recommend it for your personal growth. I have been to five different prisons and each has been a unique experience. It’s an honour receiving a jail term, however small, for having worked for a cause as noble as a freedom struggle. Here even robbers, murderers and cheats respect you. You must taste the dal-roti and sleep in the blankets that have perhaps never seen water. It is thick and heavy, sodden with dirt and smell. Criminals of all kinds and reputation have slept in it. Tihar jail, the favourite destination for protesters in Delhi, serves dal-roti that has become a hit with Tibetan youth. On an emotional note, it is endearing to see friends coming to meet you at the jail, especially with food.
Most of our activism has been reactions to Chinese activities, rather than proactive initiatives. Protest rallying have been one of our old tricks, but with very little creativity and updated slogans, the rallies hardly inspire our own people. And yet, “the show must go on,” opines Karma Yeshi, former TYC Vice-President, “These actions keep our issue alive and remind our people here in exile of the struggle.” We need to bring in creativity and novelty in our activism, which can inject dynamism to the struggle, especially now, when most of the organisers in RTYCs, RTWAs and student associations are youngsters. Many people tell me that they are not interested in traditional protest rallies and demand other kinds of action. The future of activism is difficult to predict. With the coming of young leaders, we are undergoing a transition.
All said and done, I ask the essential question — what is the ultimate goal of the struggle? The usual Middle Way vs Independence debate seems to have created confusion in our community. I pray your love of Tibet gives you the wisdom to understand and make your own decision, stand by it and get into action. That will give birth to a genuine democracy, which will nourish our community in the long run.