November 20, 2006

Cry freedom

This article is my Monday MidDay column today (Nov 20). Couldn't find it on the Web yet, am without Web access rest of the day, so here you are.

Comments welcome.


A thought experiment: The President of another country plans a visit to yours. Just days before he is scheduled to arrive, his Ambassador announces that a large chunk of territory you think belongs to your country actually belongs to his.

That much is the context. Here's the question: In the days leading up to the President's arrival, what do you think your Government should be doing?

Well, if this is India we're talking about, if this is the impending visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao we're talking about, this is an alarmingly easy question to answer. Yes of course, the Government should certainly act swiftly and decisively to place a particular young man under informal arrest in his own town. It should certainly depute eleven police officers to watch the young man around the clock.

You think I'm just attempting a feeble joke? You find this hard to believe? I'm with you, actually. Yet this is exactly what your own Government has indeed done ahead of President Hu's visit, with the Free Tibet activist Tenzin Tsundue. "You will not leave the territorial jurisdiction of Dharamsala Town," says the police order served on Tsundue on November 12, "failing which you shall be liable for prosecution under the relevant provisions of law."

No better way to prepare for President Hu's visit.

And what's the reason for this measure? Is Tsundue a dangerous criminal, perhaps? Well, judge that for yourself.

On previous visits by senior Chinese leaders, Tsundue staged eye-catching demonstrations to focus attention on the cause he is passionate about: freeing Tibet from the clutches of the Chinese. In 2002, he climbed 14 floors up the scaffolded side of the Hilton Towers in Bombay, and unfurled a huge banner under the watchful gaze of Chinese officials. In 2005, he climbed to the top of a building on the campus of the Institute of Science in Bangalore, where the Chinese were visiting, and unfurled a huge banner again.

As a result, "Free Tibet" was plastered all over the newspapers and TV news shows. I don't know if the Chinese were annoyed or embarrassed, though frankly I can't bring myself to much care. But the issue they don't care to discuss much, that this country that has been so hospitable to fleeing Tibetans also is now uninterested in raising with the Chinese -- on both occasions that issue was, willy-nilly, in public focus for at least a short while.

Consider the language in that police order Tsundue was served. "You Mr Tenzin Tsundue," it begins, "were found indulging in agitational activities during the visit of Chinese delegations in the past and there is a credible information that you are likely to indulge in similar activities during the visit of the Chinese President w.e.f. 20/11/2006 to 23/11/2006."

What is "agitational" about climbing the outside of buildings is unclear to me. It's not your normal everyday activity, I'll grant you that. But "agitational"? Did Tsundue hurt anyone? Break anything? Burn any buses? No, he just climbed and unfurled. Sure, he did it twice. For that, his freedoms must be restricted during Hu's visit.

So how did you judge Tenzin Tsundue? Is he a dangerous criminal? Is he a threat to the health or life of the Chinese President?

Or is he a man with a passion so embarrassing to us that we would rather turn our faces away from it? Does he make us just slightly ashamed of our wide-eyed eagerness to deal with this Chinese regime? Is he a reminder to us of a honourable commitment we Indians once made, to the people of Tibet?

What happened to that commitment, anyway? Many things chipped away at it. Prime among them, that thing called "realpolitik" that's advocated by so-called "hawks." These are the guys who believe they know just how nations behave, or must behave. These are the guys who make a virtue of scoffing at sentiment and commitment, aspirations and freedom. After all, they will say, whether we like it or not China has overrun Tibet, it's a powerful and rising country that India must deal with, we cannot afford to antagonize it, so why should we waste time and energy on what's happened to Tibetans? It's in India's self-interest to stay on China's good side -- that's realpolitik after all -- and so we had better keep Tsundue from attempting any more unfurling stunts.

Yet for all their claims that they know how the world works, the "hawks" are blind to the strongest currents in history. Always, the ones driven by yearning for freedom. You don't even have to read up on foreign history to understand that. What happened on this very soil, still within the living memory of millions of Indians? What were Indian heroes as Azad, Tilak, Bhagat Singh and more doing with their lives? What was Tilak's famous resort to the Ganesh Chaturthi gatherings, if not an effort to rouse public support against the British, even embarrass them -- and therefore a definite parallel to Tsundue's own activities?

Where would we be today if we had said to ourselves, whether we like it or not Britain has overrun India, it's a powerful country that we cannot antagonize, so let's give up any fight for freedom? What if other countries around the world had said that?

But instead, we fought and found freedom. Not only did countries around the world support us in that struggle, we inspired still other countries in their own fights for freedom.

So perhaps we can then understand: Men like Tenzin Tsundue yearn for a freedom that's no less sweet, every bit as real.

After climbing to the 14th floor in 2002, Tsundue wrote in these very pages: "We know we are fighting a losing battle, with the world having given up on us." Nearly five years later, as he is trailed around Dharamsala by eleven Indian policemen, those words ring even truer. They shame us even more.


Anonymous said...

I do not know much about the history of India's commitment to Tibetans but Tenzin should get at least as much freedom as various Leftist & Islamic origanizations got during the US President's visit.


Anonymous said...

@ impulsar:

I was thinking the very same thing. As a matter of fact, if they were allowed to, there would probably be protest demonstrations if the PM visits Srinagar itself, of the same sort that Tenzin sets up for the Chinese.

Looking beyond the legalese- Inst of Accession etc. it has to be conceded that many Kashmiris view our Army as an occupying force.

However Kashmiris do have the right to peacefully protest in India and they do use that right. I remember field trips by some Kashmir leaders as far afield as Kerala where they explained their stand on independence for Kashmir at a series of talks/ seminars.

They were hosted by civil liberties groups and generally allowed all the space & freedom for expressing what can be considered a secessionist view... (however all the talk hasnt led to any change in the ground situation).

If in a free and fair referendum, Kashmiris overwhelmingly choose independence, I dont think we have a right to continue there.

I too would like to know Dilip's views on the subject.


Anonymous said...

A wonderfully written post Dilip! It articulated everything that one should know about this current situation. Also you did not mention the deportation threat given to Tenzin Tsundue. Isn't it absurd to threaten a person born on Indian soil to a country he has never lived in? for me it's like a moral betrayal by India to Tenzin.

wise donkey said...

instead of just Free Tibet banner for the Chinese
perhaps we need the Free Tenzin Tsundue for the Indian officials..

Arthur Quiller Couch said...

Perhaps "agitational" is a cop term for "anti-gravitational".


Anonymous said...

There is a dearth of pride in the way our country conducts her foreign policy.

If we support a community indirectly and cannot stand up for them, we cannot be relied on.

I guess Tenzin knows that already. But he has the right to express his discontent. Even if the nation shirks him off as a major embarassment.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for OT discussion on Kashmir. The only links, the parallels and title of the post.


If DDS does not expand the scope here to Kashmir as per our request, this will be my last comment on this.

Its heartening that Kashmiris dont have a grudge against Indians in general.

My brother had been to Srinagar last year and described the place as pretty much like a military camp:
- machine gun outposts all over.
- govt staff driven in convoys with military escort.
- his vehicle accidentally got in the way of this convoy and they had the escort pointing weapons at them for an instant. The soldiers were ready to GO.
- his driver was vocally pro-India, a Pandit who claimed that a whole stretch of property there had belonged to Pandits before they were forced to flee, and was now taken over by others with no hope of it ever being returned to the owners.
- this guy did say that all Indians were at risk. He didnt get a chance to speak to any other locals.

A very complex issue this one.


Dilip D'Souza said...

impulsar, while I think the Kashmir situation is every bit as vexed as Tibet, I think the closer parallel to Tibet is Sikkim. We went in and claimed it, much as China did with Tibet.

Why shouldn't Kashmiris from PoK demonstrate when the Indian PM goes to Pak, what about this amounts to "internationalising" and what's the problem with internationalising it anyway? People must have the right and space to protest.

There's much to understand about Kashmir, and I've just been at panel discussion today featuring several people from there -- Farooq and Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti, Pervez Imroz, Ashoke Pandit, KC Chaudhury, Amitabh Mattoo ... what's clear is that passions are so high and so polarized that common ground is near-impossible to find. Yet what choice is there but to try to find answers, put the past behind, stop pointing fingers? Or do we want to continue with the bloodshed there, with tragedies like the persecution of the Pandits, indefinitely?

One of the Pandits in the audience asked Mehbooba what guarantees her government would give for their security, if they ever had to return. It's a legitimate question. But what guarantees can any of our governments give us for foolproof security anyway? I sometimes wonder, perhaps Pandits and more of the rest of us just need to go to Kashmir, take the risks and see things for ourselves. I did so a couple of years ago, several times, and it opened my eyes. The more we treat it as normal, the more normal it will become. Just one small suggestion that occurs to me.

aqua, thanks. My feeling is the deporation threat was just bluster -- it wasn't in the order and has no basis in law. That's why I didn't mention it.

Anonymous said...

Sikkim? Perhaps you can explain, Dilip. Where is the "Free Sikkim" movement? Sikkim joined India after 97% of its people voted in favour, in 1975.

That 97% does sound Mugabe-ish, I admit. But I haven't read of any controversy about the fairness of that vote. There is no separatist movement there and the Sikkimese people seem perfectly happy. India is not invading their culture. The only country that has a problem with Sikkim is China and I doubt any Sikkimese want to move to China.

India always had close ties with Sikkim, like with Bhutan. Bhutan has not chosen to join India, and India has not chosen to go in and claim it.

But perhaps you know something that I don't. In that case, you could expound on it.

Anonymous said...

1. --->perhaps Pandits and more of the rest of us just need to go to Kashmir <---

A few years back, the Pandits were being invited to return by some of the Hurriyat leaders I think, on certain terms & conditions- such as they should forget the past, just mind their own business and not get involved with the resolution of the dispute etc.

Reminded me of another context, where the Hindutva clans asked M. riot victims to return, provided they drop all cases and take their appointed second-class slots. Very nearly the same wording: forget the past, just stay here quietly etc.

That doesnt look like a good way to move forward.

Rest of us:
Am reminded of the attack in Srinagar recently that targeted tourists.

2. Another factor ( I think) is that there is a lot of diversity within J&K itself; the animus against India is perceived to be strongest in the Vale and the others are not so into it.

3. Dilip, w.r.t your travels, did you meet/ interact with the common people.

Most people I have discussed this with, who are sensitive to the Kashmir issue care more about what the common Kashmiri thinks and distrust their political leaders.

Your inputs will be helpful... perhaps in another post if you feel this is going off-topic.


Dilip D'Souza said...

Rahul, actually I don't know any more than you do! Perhaps, therefore, I was hasty with that remark. Though what I meant was not a Free Sikkim movement, but Sikkim becoming part of India as a parallel to Tibet becoming part of China. A couple of years ago China finally actually agreed to recognizing Sikkim as an Indian state, in exchange we pronounced that we finally recognized Tibet as part of China.

I've always been suspicious of that 97% figure.