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.