6 June 2008

A Long Walk Uphill

On Tibet

One recent afternoon, roughly three hundred marchers were setting up camp in a small, dust-layered town in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, a two-weeks’ walk northwest of Delhi. There were three or four Europeans among them, and the requisite bearded young Californian with a guitar, but the rest were Tibetans. Most of them had been born in India to refugee parents and were now in their twenties or early thirties; many of them were monks. They had been walking for fifty-three days, and had just covered the twenty-seven kilometers from the city of Rudrapur in one-hundred-degree heat, passing stubble fields, rubber plantations, mango orchards, smoke-belching furnaces, a family or two of lethargic monkeys, and a Tata car plant. The town had little in the way of sights or amenities, but a principal of a local school had agreed to let them use a large patch of gravel in the schoolyard, on which the Tibetans had assembled their canvas tents and laundry lines, a makeshift infirmary, and an impromptu kitchen. Except for a few who had escaped through the mountains at a young age, most of the marchers had never set foot in their homeland. The Olympic torch had already passed through Delhi on its way to China, when hundreds of young Tibetans had been arrested for unauthorized protests (including scaling the walls of the Chinese embassy, to the embarrassment of the Delhi police), and Delhi’s always-delicate relationship with Beijing had been strained, yet this group was determined simply to walk across the border into Tibet.


Tenzin Tsundue is the one marcher who has already accomplished something similar. A small, slender man of 33, he sat on his haunches in a corner of the schoolyard as the marchers found shade from the afternoon sun. “His Holiness doesn’t want this march to go on,” he said, referring to the Dalai Lama’s efforts to negotiate with China. “The exile government doesn’t want this march to happen.” Ten years ago, Tsundue snuck across the border into the mountains of Tibet, walked for five days without food, was captured by the Chinese, and beaten and imprisoned for three months before being returned to India. This day he wore jeans, a black shirt, glasses held together with tape, and a red bandanna that has become his hallmark-he’s worn it continuously for six years and has sworn not to remove it until Tibet is an independent nation. He holds degrees from Loyola College in Madras and Bombay University, but today lives on the $440 a year he makes as a writer and poet. Among the younger generation of Tibetans in exile, he is something of a legend-a “one-man army,” according to a fellow marcher; “perhaps the most acetylene and mesmeric new voice of the Tibetan struggle,” in the words of one Indian publication; and “a fiery Tibetan crusader who has hogged the limelight,” in the words of another. In person, his careful gestures and his quiet voice suggest something closer to a philosophical Mesmer than a fiery torchbearer, but his flare for dramatic action is what first brought him renown.

Tsundue made news in 2002 when he climbed up the Oberoi Hotel in Bombay during Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji’s visit and hung a ‘Free Tibet’ banner from the hotel’s facade. He pulled a similar stunt in 2005 for Wen Jiabao’s official visit to Bangalore, hiding in a tower at the Indian Institute of Science for twenty-four hours and then unfurling another banner and dropping leaflets on the crowd while shouting ‘Free Tibet’ during the Prime Minister’s remarks. (He claims he was beaten by twenty Indian policemen afterwards—“Usually in India we look at beatings like that as part of the protest, and we just take it.”) When President Hu Jintao visited India in 2007, Tsundue was preemptively detained by the Indian authorities.

He was arrested again at the beginning of the current march and held for fourteen days before he rejoined the group. “That was the seventh time,” he said. Tsundue, like many of the younger Tibetans in exile, was raised on healthy servings of Gandhi. The march to Tibet was consciously modeled on Gandhi’s famous Salt March to the sea. “Buddhism has this passivity,” he said. “I felt there was no method to confront injustice except to say prayers. In Gandhi you are seeking freedom, but freedom within the world, while in Buddhism you are seeking freedom from the world.”

He broke off as two uniformed Indian policemen entered the camp. Tsundue greeted them warmly in Hindi and showed them papers permitting the group to camp there. In other corners of the schoolyard, a volunteer nurse was administering iodine and bandages to several pairs of damaged feet. A young monk massaged the legs of one of the oldest marchers. The talk was more concerned with whether the Indian authorities would shut them down before they reached the border than with what the Chinese would do when they arrived. “Either we’ll stay in Tibet or we’ll be arrested or we’ll be killed,” one young woman said flatly. “That’s for the world to watch. Almost all the marchers, if they’re able to cross the border, don’t expect a warm welcome in Tibet.”

When the police had left, Tsundue shook his head. “We’ve already been over this. We’ve already spoken with the district officer. You just have to be friendly, but not be afraid. You joke with them.” Half an hour later, the police returned in greater numbers, along with another man, who identified himself as Indian intelligence and demanded to see the papers of a foreign journalist. Tsundue grew more animated; after a heated discussion the documents were returned. The police retired to their vehicles just outside the perimeter of the schoolyard, but did not leave. Tsundue sighed. “I look around and I see people reading newspapers, playing music, talking. But I don’t know. Tomorrow, or at the border, things will be different. I don’t know how we will be. We are not an army.”

By four thirty the next morning, the calls of early risers had begun to wake the rest of the camp. People stirred beneath their mosquito netting, marchers struck their tents, monks donned their red robes. Tsundue quietly packed. “I used to have a rented room, five of us living together in an ashram,” he said. “My last bit of possessions, some books, are given up. Now I have only this-this is my office,” he said, indicating his backpack. He wanted to clarify one point about a division he’d drawn between himself and the Dalai Lama. “Whether the government, or Dalai Lama, or young people-so long as we adhere to that principle of nonviolence we remain unified. And that is the strength of the Tibetan struggle. Only six million Tibetans. China has never been challenged so boldly as this year-nobody has really been able to challenge them. And we are really proud.” By six o’clock, everyone was walking.


Postscript (from the June 5th New York Times)


India broke up a march to China by Tibetan exiles, arresting 260 protesters from a restricted military zone stretching to the border. The exiles began walking on March 10 from the northern town of Dharamsala, the seat of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to join protests against Chinese rule inside Tibet. The march and other anti-China protests had become an embarrassment for New Delhi, which has growing trade and cultural relations with China.

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