The Tibetan freedom movement, as seen by rights activist Tenzin Tsundue

By Pratheebha*

Around the 70th Anniversary of China’s annexation of Tibet, we sat down with Tenzin Tsundue to understand the Tibet-China conflict, India’s responsibility towards Tibet and the way forward for the two countries.

Tsundue, as he prefers to be called, is a poet, writer and Tibetan refugee and activist who recently led a march to Delhi seeking change in India’s one-China policy. He is best known for staging a very public protest against the Chinese Premiere Wen Jiabao during his 2005 visit to India. Identifying as a Tibetan Indian, Tsundue lamented his fellow Indians’ ignorance of the Tibetan struggle and wished for increased awareness and support.

The annexation

Tibet, located on the lofty Tibetan Plateau sandwiched between India and China, has always been one of our most important neighbours.

In 1914, India and Tibet signed the Simla Convention that gave birth to the McMahon Line that separates Tibet from India in the eastern sector. China was also consulted in these accords, and Chinese authorities made it sufficiently clear that they did not object to any article other than the one about the demarcation between inner and outer Tibet. They raised no questions about the autonomy of Tibet nor its border with India.

For the ensuing forty years, Tibet existed as an independent nation, with its distinct language, religion and culture. However, in 1951, the Chinese backtracked on their stance and invaded independent Tibet. Since then, the country has been occupied and ruled over by China and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in “a calculated and systematic strategy aimed at the destruction of their national and cultural identities” (14th Dalai Lama, 1997).

Eight years of occupation and repression resulted in the Tibetan Uprising of 1959, in which the Tibetans rebelled, attempting to overthrow the Chinese government. This resulted in the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the country’s spiritual leader fleeing to India for his life with a few hundred other Tibetans. Since then, thousands of others have followed suit, and India currently houses the largest Tibetan refugee settlement in the world.

The current scenario

Currently, every aspect of Tibetan life is under siege, with Tibetans having even fewer rights than their Chinese counterparts, who the Chinese Communist Party also rules. The Chinese government maintains an iron grip over the nation through the threat and use of arbitrary detentions, punishments and severe violence. The citizens face stringent surveillance in their daily lives, and no form of protest is tolerated, with even peaceful protesters being imprisoned, tortured, and shot in extreme cases. Tibetan Buddhism is seen as a threat to the state, and possessing Dalai Lama images or teachings can result in imprisonment and torture.

Unfortunately, global support for the Tibetan cause has been minimal due to China’s sway over international commerce and politics.

The Tibetan freedom movement in India

One thing that sets the Tibetan community apart is the burning passion they hold towards the Tibetan cause generation after generation. When questioned about the curiously intense commitment young Tibetans show towards a country they have never visited, Tsundue said:

“The story of Tibet is similar to the story of the moon. Most of us have grown up listening to lunar legends, no matter which culture we come from. None of us has been there, but this doesn’t stop us from passing on these stories across generations. The power that the tale of Tibet carries is similar to the magic of the moon. It inspires though it is away from us.”

The first generation of Tibetan refugees carried memories of their early life in Tibet, the Chinese invasion and the excesses committed by the Chinese authorities. They had close family members stuck in Tibet, unable to escape and carried strong feelings of nostalgia and anger with them.

The second generation, which is the one to which Tsundue belongs, and the third generation inherited these stories from the elders in their family and community caretakers or “aayas”. They are among the first in their community to grow up with a distinct feeling of statelessness despite belonging to two states, Tibet and India, in this case. However, their desire to see a free Tibet burns bright, fuelled by stories of their loved ones’ struggles.

“On your forehead
between your eyebrows
there is an R embossed
my teacher said.
I scratched and scrubbed,
on my forehead I found
a brash of red pain. I am born refugee.
I have three tongues. The one that sings
is my mother tongue.
The R on my forehead between my English and Hindi
the Tibetan tongue reads:
RANGZEN
Freedom means Rangzen”

Interestingly enough, though there is not one Tibetan who doesn’t want independence, most of the community is currently fighting for a more realistic solution in the form of autonomy. This is the political stance that the Dali Lama and his followers are presently championing. Every Tibetan wants independence. However, securing genuine autonomy within the People’s Republic of China is the immediate goal Tibetans are fighting for.

India’s role

Approximately 85,000 Tibetan refugees currently live in India and are directly affected by Indian policy and awareness. Despite this, there is an appalling lack of awareness concerning the Tibetan issue among even the most educated section of Indians. Across boards, very little textbook space is given to Tibet compared to India’s other neighbours.

The Indian government also oscillates frequently with regard to its stance on the Tibet issue. Though it currently has an executive policy on Tibetans in India, this is devoid of any legal backing on core issues of Tibet. It is high time that the government corrects this with a more comprehensive replacement.

By educating the Indian population and having a clear political stance on this issue, we can do our part in supporting our Tibetan brothers and sisters in their struggle for Rangzen.

References

1. Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. (n.d.). The McMahon Line: A hundred years on (https://idsa.in)

2. Chawla, S. (n.d.). Chinese Cultural Policies in Tibet: A Perspective from India. The ASAN Forum. Chinese Cultural Policies in Tibet: A Perspective from India – The Asan Forum

3. Human Rights Watch. (n.d.). World Report 2020: China. World Report 2020: China | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org)

4. (A short history of Tibet). T.T. Moh. the original. Tibetan History (archive.org) 5. Tenzin, T. (n.d.). Kora – Stories and Poems (6th ed.).

*Alumni and External Relations Secretary, IIM Ahmedabad | Class of 2022

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