Losing face: India's Tibetan problem

China is not the only country with a Tibet problem. India, whether it admits it or not, also has a Tibet problem.

Jamphel Yeshi burned himself alive to protest Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to New Delhi. Hu is in Delhi, impassive as ever. The Chinese brushed this off as just another nefarious plot by the Dalai Lama.

The country that really loses face is India. Tibetans were once the feel-good symbol of India’s democratic munificence. Now they have become India’s democratic headache, the inconvenient poor relation who refuses to stay discreetly out of sight. India wants the BRIC summit to go off without a hitch, the interactions with Hu Jintao to be photo-op perfect.

But instead an unemployed Tibetan refugee grabs the international media spotlight, dying  with 98 percent burns and leaving behind a handwritten call to action.

The fact that Tibetans are setting themselves on fire in the 21st century is to let the world know about their suffering, and to tell the world about the denial of basic human rights.

The gesture seems noble but futile. "Those who have committed self-immolation in other countries at other times have been dealing with very different circumstances, either in terms of trying to wake up a world that knows very little of their conditions, or in terms of possibly galvanising mass demonstrations against an already shaky government," says Pico Iyer, author of The Open Road - The Global Journey of the XIV Dalai Lama. "These conditions don't apply in China today." Nor is Yeshi the only one setting himself ablaze. There have been 30 or so self-immolations in the last year, mostly in Tibet. “But those were far off and remote, we might have seen pictures or a little video, but this really brought it home to the Tibetan community,” says filmmaker Tenzing Sonam. “This literally fired them up emotionally.”

A Tibetan exile shouts slogan from a police vehicle after being detained during a protest in New Delhi. Reuters

It worked because it happened in India, in the full glare of the BRIC summit media spotlight. India prides itself on giving Tibetans refuge and the freedom to protest. However it cannot afford to have its BRIC summit hijacked by Tibetan protesters any more than China could afford to have its Olympics derailed by them. But China does not pretend to democracy and the freedom of expression. When India has to heavy-handedly order the house arrest of  Tibetans till 31 March, sweep activists into preventive custody and seal off Tibetan enclaves in Delhi, that’s a PR disaster.

“Our voices have been gagged and we can’t even attend college,” Dorjee Tseten, a college student told the Hindustan Times.

The young Tibetan today is no longer the docile Tibetan from a few decades ago, grateful for the tea and scraps sympathy it got from New Delhi. The world is still enamoured of this romantic image of the noble saffron cloaked monk, perpetually turning the other cheek. But after half a century of exile, there is now another kind of Tibetan – frustrated, angrier and more aggressive. The irony for India is that this new Tibetan, who is proving to be such a headache, is very much a creature of India.

“We thank India. It’s because of India that we’ve been able to stand on our feet,” Tibetan poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue, who was taken into custody by the government before the BRIC summit, told Tehelka back in 2008. Asked about his political heroes, he did not hesitate. “Gandhi and Bhagat Singh. Bhagat Singh’s courage, Gandhi’s tactics. The difference between Gandhi and His Holiness is that His Holiness is non-confrontational.”

There is another difference. Gandhi led millions against a British minority. The Dalai Lama knows the math does not favour his people. When Tibetan activists in India decided to march towards Tibet in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, he  asked them to stop. “It was a huge dilemma for the marchers,” says Tenzing Sonam who filmed that march along with his teenaged son for the documentary The Sun Behind the Clouds. “But they continued with the march. That was a very rare moment.”

The adventure came to naught. The Indian police, as expected, blockaded the marchers in their campsite. But the psychological effect was profound. A new generation was saying it still prostrated itself before the Dalai Lama but was as Tsundue puts it “getting tired of being goody-goody.” “It’s time to break the rules, both from inside and outside,” he said. Playing nice, within the rules, goes down well in Beverly Hills but it has yielded neither political gains nor material comfort for a restless young generation growing up in a stateless limbo.

The older generation that remembers a pre-China Tibet is almost gone. The exile was supposed to be temporary. But  almost no country, even the ones that lionise the Dalai Lama, recognises the independence of Tibet. The separate Tibetan schools in India have produced a generation that has grown up instilled in Tibetan values. But they still live in India unless they are lucky enough to nab a visa to America. “As more and more young people come out of college there are not enough jobs for them in the Tibetan community,” says Sonam. Yeshi, a refugee, was also unemployed.

These restless Tibetans, a part of India, yet apart, put New Delhi in a fix. "I think India is playing the Tibet card consciously. But it should not allow it to burst. This  kite-flying is part of our diplomacy,” Indo-China expert CP Bhambhri told The Telegraph.

When a Jamphel Yeshi sets himself on fire, that card goes up in flames as well because India loses control over the diplomatic ping-pong game. Yeshi’s gesture, noble or futile, might not make much difference to the ground reality in Lhasa. But it signals something more worrying for India. The Dalai Lama has always exhorted his people to take on the responsibility for their community. Now, as he steps back politically, they might be doing just that.

“They are ready to put themselves on the line,” says Sonam. But is India ready for that?

Updated Date: Mar 29, 2012 15:08 PM

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