Tibet: A story worth sharing
Human rights violations taking place in Tibet are barely reported in the Indian media, perhaps because the Indian media do not find it ‘sexy’ enough
Nihal Parashar Dharamsala
I first time visited Dharamsala and McLeodgunj, the Himalayan cities in Himachal Pradesh, in June 2011, on a tour organised by Naz Foundation, where I was involved as a peer educator. I was sad to see the rapid urbanization and commercialization of the place. This may be directly related to economic prosperity, but I feel a beautiful city ought to preserve the natural beauty it has been bestowed with. I had already been attracted to Tibetan Buddhism, but never had an opportunity to converse with Tibetans to understand their philosophy, nor indeed the politics of such an important Asian country which is under the colonial rule of the People’s Republic of China.
I visited Dharamsala or Dhasa (as my Tibetan friends call it) in March this year. The tour was organised by the Department of Information and International Relations of the Tibetan Government in Exile to facilitate the process of dialogue with young Indian journalists. The tour gave me an insight into the problems which Tibetans have faced for over six decades, and also exposed me to the brutal realities of the regime prevailing in Tibet.
Human rights violations taking place in Tibet are barely reported in the Indian media, perhaps because the Indian media do not find it ‘sexy’ enough. Also, the new wave of capitalism in China has propelled it to the ranks of the world’s most powerful economies. And this primarily is the reason why we have ignored the crucial debate about the future of Tibet. We need to engage in it and explore new possibilities for the community of human beings. The violence taking place is hardly reported. But what is more crucial to understand is the structural and cultural violence, information about which is not discussed because of the repressive and totalitarian regime.
This article is a report of an individual who is deeply motivated by the struggle stories of the Tibetan people. It is a report of my visit to Dharamsala and my interaction with Tibetan activists. I will also try to introduce readers to the existing conflicts in China and the situation in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in Exile. I will also try and evaluate the role of Indian government.
Part I: The Tour
The tour to Dharamsala was brief but well planned. The Department of Information and International Relations officials had planned to introduce us to most features of the Tibetan Government in Exile. We were not only supposed to understand the political issues but also understand the Tibetan Buddhist way of living. We interacted with the International Relations department, Human Rights department, Tibetan politicians, civil society activists as well the monastery in Dharamsala for an exposure to the Tibetan Buddhism through interactions with the monks. We also visited the Tibetan Parliament. The interactions were healthy discussions and academic seminars. A few learned Tibetan scholars spoke to us about issues close to the hearts of Tibetans.
Visit to the Tibetan Children’s Village
You enter any school with a sense of nostalgia, remembering your childhood and your school. This school was special. The children were playing basketball; young monks were walking with grace in red robes, with smiles on their faces. The school is located amidst the mountains and felt like an ideal place to study. But there was more to the romantic notion which came to my mind.
The school was founded in 1964 and presided over by Jetsun Pema, sister of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan Children’s Village is a community in exile for the care and education of orphans, destitute and refugees from China. The headmistress told us that the atrocities and biased behaviour of the majority Han population and the Chinese regime towards Tibetans motivate parents to literally smuggle their children via Nepal and other areas to India to give them the chance for a better life. This is a dangerous enterprise, because when parents send their children out of Tibet, they have no idea what the future has in store for them. Their lives are endangered in the event that Chinese soldiers intercept the children while on their way out. Many children at the school were orphans.
The children do not know the harsh reality of politics. They do not know what refugee means, although they are refugees. They do not have a country of their own, but they are patriotic, like many Tibetans and Indians. A generation of fertile minds are cultivated in the school. Words fail me when I try and describe what it was to be with them. We all felt sad that they have to live in a distant land away from their homes, away from their parents, without their families. But then their smiles answered many complex questions.
Interaction with the Sikyong Lobsang Sangay
I was able to meet the political leader of the Tibetan Government in Exile - Sikyong Lobsang Sangay. It was heartening to see the passion and love he had for his people. He was chosen as the Political Leader of the Tibetan Government in Exile after His Holiness Dalai Lama decided to step down as political leader, which was a shock for the entire world and especially the Tibetan people. But the Sikyong has been welcomed by the Tibetan people whole heartedly and after meeting him, we felt that Dalai Lama has handed over responsibilities to the right person.
As young journalists we discussed his plans for the movement. He said that he was hopeful for a better future and planned to reach out to support groups. The Middle Way approach and the change in the Chinese regime gave him hope for the process of dialogue with the colonial power. He said Tibet’s policy of non-violence will never be compromised and Tibetans would always try to look for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. He criticised the policies of Chinese regime, especially on matters relating to the environment and rehabilitation of the Tibetans.
He reminded the young journalists about the freedom struggles across the globe over centuries, when people fought to ensure that future generation had an honourable and dignified life.
While discussing Sino-Indian relations, he said that India’s relation with China will be focused on ‘Competition versus Cooperation’ or most likely ‘Competition and Cooperation’ because of commerce. But security issues would always be present, making Tibet a crucial issue. India has the longest border dispute with Chinese territory which was Tibetan land until a few decades ago. The question of water sharing also made the Tibetan issue relevant. Tibet is the source of ten Indian rivers. Tibet always respected the natural water sharing process. But now water has become a matter of conflict. China is building dams over Brahmaputra River because of its shortage of water. This will have severe consequences for those Indian people whose livelihoods depend on this river.
He said that it is also in the interest of China to solve the Tibet issue because Tibet will always be a blot on China’s history. If a nation wants to be great then it has to earn respect. For this China needs to respect Tibet. How can anyone respect China when hundreds of Tibetans are self immolating? He sounded extremely confident for the freedom of Tibet when he ended his note with the phrase, “We are meeting this time in Dharamsala, next time in Lhasa.”
Interaction with the Tibetan civil societies
On the second day of our visit we interacted with different civic groups. The interaction took place in the community centre at Dharamsala. Major NGO’s such as the Tibetan Youth Congress, Students for a Free Tibet, Tibetan Women’s Association and The GuChuSum Political Prisoners Movement of Tibet – spoke with us. It was interesting to know that although they respect the Sikyong and the Parliament, they oppose the middle way approach. The groups shared their stories and experiences of mobilising people across India to voice the cause of the oppressed.
Part II: The Key Issues
By the end of the tour, I had developed an opinion about the Sino-Tibet conflict. It was time to return and indulge in personal research for an unbiased understanding. I had always admired Chairman Mao’s ideas of revolution. I had read Mao’s poems when I was in college, and had joined an ultra left group in Delhi University. However, I always remained attached to my deeper questions; and made sure not to follow any ideology blindfold.
The Tibet issue has given me more reason to question all the ‘brands’ of political ideologies. I find it very ironical for any ideology to claim that it possesses superior knowledge. An ideology which is inclusive is better than one which excludes others. The Sino-Tibet conflict is full of such contradictions in form of the idea of ‘liberating others’. The biggest blunders of human civilisation were result of the belief in one’s superior power. This conflict reeks of political motives and the effort to acquire greater power by acquiring more resources. But do we not have the courage to question the greed of men who rob others and justify it too?
The history of the Sino-Tibet conflict is extensive. It is difficult to comprehend it in a single essay. Tibet has had relations with China for centuries. China, Mongolia and Tibet were major countries in the region. This region was known for cultural and religious growth. Not only Buddhism and Bon (the earliest and native religion of Tibet) but Islam and Christianity also had a presence here. Religion forms a very important part of Tibetan history because it was essentially a theocratic country with Dalai Lama as the head and Panchan Lama as the second most important person in the country. China on the other hand had a different mode of governance after the PRC (People’s Republic of China) came into existence – it became a communist country. Even today China claims to be a communist country, but the economic reforms that have taken place in the late 20th century cast doubt on this claim. The growing number of Chinese billionaires gives us some food for thought.
On the Sino-Tibet conflict we need an understanding of the wars that took place in the early 20th century, the causes for which were border disputes. The PRC and its predecessors always maintained that Tibet belonged to China. The PRC also had an ideological motivation to ‘liberate’ Tibet from a theocratic feudal system. The most important event was the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the year 1950. This resulted in Tibet being incorporated into the People’s Republic of China. The 14th Dalai Lama realised that this was nothing but colonial rule that would eventually kill the centuries-old culture of the Tibetan people. Nine years later, in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama with 85,000 followers fled to India. The incident is known as the Tibetan Uprising. Tibet had good political relations with British India and also with independent India. India supported the refugees from the neighbouring country. The city of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh became the second home to the people from Tibet. One year later Dalai Lama announced the Tibetan Government in Exile which remains functional.
Today Tibet is a part of the PRC. The Tibetans have been reduced to an ethnic minority in their homeland. The Tibetan Government in Exile maintains that it has a colonial relation with the PRC, and it is fighting non-violently for the freedom of Tibet. In a recent development, it has changed its demand from freedom to autonomy under PRC. Hong Kong has a similar relation with China.
History is always written by the victors. China’s version is that when Mao asked for Stalin’s support in order to attack Tibet in January, 1950, Stalin replied that China was doing great work because the Tibetans need to be taught a lesson. Tibet learned a lesson, in fact many lessons. It was a weaker military power. And the world always respects the mighty, the powerful.
Sino-India relation and Tibet
Tibet plays a crucial role in India’s polity. The McMohan line is a major issue of difference between the Indian government and the PRC. Recent developments in Arunachal Pradesh give us reason to believe that China considers the area a part of their country. The Shimla Accord of 1914 was signed between British India and Tibetan government. It is generally referred to as the McMohan line which clearly establishes the de facto border of Indian Territory –although its legal status is disputed by PRC. The 1962 war between India and China was a result of this dispute as well as the fact that India gave refuge to the Tibetan people who fled from their homeland because of the Chinese atrocities.
Times have changed. China has established a strong economy and military. India is a huge market for China. India and China share many platforms together in world politics. Both countries possess have economic motives to maintain good relations. The Tibet issue has taken a backseat. India never openly criticises the Chinese regime on Tibet. Yes, it has a certain political position on the issue, but when was the last time we heard our political class discussing Tibet? If India criticises China on Tibet, it will be vulnerable to accusations about Kashmir. More ironically the different factions of the Indian Communist parties never question Chinese atrocities. They may talk about egalitarian values and a better society, they may think of attaining Utopia, but if you ask them about China then they perform a reality check. Obviously not all the Communist Parties support Chinese atrocities. But they do not consider it an issue to be discussed. The Kashmir and the Tibet issues are intertwined. There is a mutual understanding between India and China to not talk about them. “I will not talk about Tibet, you shall not talk about Kashmir.”
Environmental loss in the Tibet land and impact on the native people
During my visit to Dharamsala, we attended sessions on issues of grave concern in Tibet. On the second day we were introduced to the environmental situation. The agenda was to discuss the deteriorating condition of the Tibetan plateau, whose predicament has been ignored by the Chinese regime. Environmental degradation can be seen in the contrasting images of the Halong Glacier in 1981 and 2005.
Tibet’s glaciers of are source of water for many important Asian rivers. Global warming is a heart wrenching reality for the area. This will soon have serious results. Even in the present, environmental deterioration has changed the way of life of the native people. Many areas have turned into deserts. The ice is melting, and melting fast, leaving the people to face severe consequences.
Tibet is known as the Roof of the Earth because of its high altitude. It has its own lifestyle and culture because of geological conditions. The Nomad people of Tibet have been living there for almost 9,000 years and more. The Chinese government is forcing the nomad people off their land, which is leading to increasing poverty, environmental degradation and social breakdown. Everything is now for ‘economic growth’. The nomads are forced to resettle in different areas of the country. A pamphlet which I got in Dharamsala read, “Chinese government is using the impact of climate change as a means to whitewash their politically motivated reasons for forcing Tibetans nomads off their land. They blame the nomads for their ‘over-grazing of land’. In reality the Chinese government wants to clear the grasslands in order to achieve a range of social, political and economic goals: greater political control over Tibetans and exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources such as mineral and water.” I have every reason to believe this. Rapid urbanisation throughout the world has led to environmental degradation. China is no exception.
Tibetans have high regard for nature. His holiness the 14th Dalai Lama once said, “Taking care of our planet is like taking care of our houses. Since we human beings come from Nature, there is point in our going against Nature, which is why I say that environment is not a matter of religion or ethics or morality. These are luxuries, since we can survive without them. But we will not survive if we continue to go against Nature.” Alas, Chinese government takes pride in going against every word of Dalai Lama. The nomads, who are considered very close to nature, have been moved to ‘new homes’. In fact in January 2011, Chinese state media reported that 1.43 million farmers and herders have been resettled in the new homes which were nothing but reservation-style housing blocks. This resettlement is causing massive social and economic problems including unemployment, alcoholism and suicide. The policy is having a disastrous impact upon the Tibetan herder’s ability to maintain their traditional livelihoods and it threatens a distinctive form of Tibetan cultural identity.
Human Rights violations and the Issue of Self Immolations
During the workshop session at Dharamsala, I interacted with the Executive Director of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, Ms Tsering Tsomo. She discussed various issues relating to human rights violations in Tibet. I was deeply motivated to hear the stories of individuals who have lost their lives just because they loved their own culture and people. Nowhere in this world can this be justified. The case of Sino-Tibet conflict is a perfect example of how a bigger power tries to destroy the smaller power, even in spirit. The recent cases of self-immolations by individuals in Tibet have made it to the international news, and also got some attention from the human rights activists from across the globe. The Chinese regime has maintained that self-immolations are planned by the Dalai Lama’s faction in order to give a bad name to the Chinese administration. Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile have asked the people of Tibet not to indulge the activity of self-immolations.
Can the acts of Self-immolations be justified? This is a question which can be debated. Anyone who stands for the cause of human rights will never justify it. But what option is left for a young Tibetan boy who is treated as a non-citizen in his own land? Who is deprived of the basic needs of a human? Is this not violation of human rights? But the larger question is: is death a final answer to a problem, and who is the real culprit? Today more than 100 people had to leave this beautiful planet because in acts of resistance to atrocities - who otherwise would have enjoyed the beauty of nature just like you and me.
Ironically, by the end of 1998, the PRC had signed three covenants comprising the International Bill of Rights, but it is still to implement them domestically and in Tibet. Human Rights abuses continue to challenge the Tibetan people and their future survival. Today the Central Tibetan Administration (functional from Dharamsala) maintains that the Chinese government’s treatment of Tibetans in Tibet is in breach of the freedom of expression, religion, culture and education. Today, in Tibet, any expression contrary to the CCP’s ideology can lead to immediate arrest. This is direct violation of freedom of expression. PRC has systematically covered all the religious institutions in order to eradicate allegiance to His Holiness Dalai Lama and Tibetan Nationalism. Tibetans are subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, and torture still prevails in Chinese prisons. Those imprisoned are often denied any legal representation. Children, women and older people are not exempted from all this. Enforced disappearance is a reality in China where a person is taken into custody and details of his/her detention is not disclosed. It is also a matter of grave concern that more than 70 percent of the Tibetans in Tibet live below the poverty line. All of these are visible in typical fascist regime where the minorities are reduced to sub-humans.
We were exposed to all the tragedies that have taken place in Tibet - environmental degradation, the changing lifestyle of the nomads of Tibet as a result of the atrocities by the Chinese regime and the cultural annihilation of the Tibetans. The recent phenomenon of self immolations is of serious concern for peace builders. Imagine the quantum of violence- cultural, structural or direct- on the Tibet people for people to have resorted to self immolations! As of now over 100 people have burnt themselves in Tibet, and the Chinese regime has taken no step to solve this problem. A greater international pressure can certainly help the Tibetans, but who will raise a voice against the ‘mighty China’, who also has a veto in the United Nations.
The conflict is of extreme relevance for India. Tibet’s boundary with India is India’s longest international boundary. Today we have not-so-good relations with China, because it has taken control of Tibet and have access to Indian territories, especially in Arunachal Pradesh and can be seen wandering in Ladakh these days. It is important for us to engage in dialogue process to understand the conflict in a better manner for a better future.
The tour ended but it will have a long lasting impact on me. As a personal commitment I will continue to be a part of the struggle throughout my life in whatever little capacity I can be. Today I am honoured to be friends with many Tibetans. We also meet in Delhi. But I wish to see my friends go back to their homes. I stand for the freedom of Tibet people. I stand for free Tibet.
Editor’s Note: This essay is a document of a student’s journey and his feelings and insight on the struggle of the Tibetians. This is part of our series called Student’s Notebook. The views are that of the writer.
Pic: Nihal Parashar