Dignity and belonging

Try your best to stop this process.
At this stage, even I can't guess,
Its ultimate pace.

– Ajanta Sharma in Pravah

It took 30 years for the first uprising to erupt after Chinese soldiers forced the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959. But the 1989 rebellion was short-lived. It petered out when the Tibetans realised that there was nobody in this wide-open world willing to come to their rescue, as they braved the martial law imposed in Lhasa following the mysterious death of the 10th Panchen Lama.

The same year as the uprising, the Nobel Peace Prize conferred upon the Dalai Lama represented a crude effort by the West to clear its conscience. The award undoubtedly gave some visibility to the exiled leader, but it has not done much to advance the cause of Tibet's independence. The confrontations between the protesters and the Chinese authorities this March, however, have proved that a half-century of occupation has failed to kill the spirit of freedom among the indomitable highlanders. There may have been some organised efforts to publicise the plight of Tibetans in the year of the Olympic Games in Beijing, but protests in Lhasa were too widespread, and its repression was too brutal to conveniently attribute the public's spontaneous anger to the "designs of Dalai Lama supporters", as the Han colonisers suggest.

The government-controlled Chinese media is baying for blood. It wants Beijing and its faithful agents in Lhasa to "ruthlessly crush" anti-government demonstrations. But should Chinese authorities choose to travel down that road, there is no telling where it would lead. Till now, the Dalai Lama has been willing to settle for an autonomous Tibet within the Chinese nation state. But he may have less influence over the outcome if ruthless repression transforms angry protestors into frustrated warriors willing to sacrifice themselves. Once independence is etched in the mind, no force on earth can stop it; its realisation becomes merely a question of time.

Conspiracy of silence
Mao Zedong's Red Army marched into Lhasa when the West was too preoccupied with the Soviet threat to take notice of undisciplined soldiers smashing statues of Buddha in the far-flung monasteries of Tibet. Richard Nixon assiduously courted – and succeeded in neutralising – Mao's ambitions in Asia, in order to redirect all of his efforts towards battlefronts in Eastern Europe. Tibet thus became a lost cause, as the US began famously to tilt towards Beijing in the early 1970s, under the influence of Henry Kissinger.

The high drama on the Tibetan plateau, as CIA-trained Khampa guerrillas planned attacks from their bases in Nepal, was clearly a sideshow to divert the world's attention from deals being negotiated between Beijing and Washington, DC via Islamabad. Indeed, the only people fooled by this trick were some naïve officers of the then-Royal Nepal Army. The US has never been in favour of Tibetan autonomy, and has failed to recognise the Dharamsala government-in-exile. Even now, the White House unequivocally reiterates that events in Lhasa and Gansu will not change President George W Bush's itinerary for the Beijing Olympics.

For its part, Europe has transformed the Dalai Lama into an 'alternative' emblem, and killed the political cause of Tibet by the 'oversale' of its carpets, trinkets and rituals of Buddhism. No one from the Old World would risk antagonising the commercial emperors of state capitalism in Beijing. As for the rest of the world, most countries in Africa, West Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the Pacific Rim look toward China with a mixture of hope and fear. They certainly dare not provoke a resurgent non-Western power over an issue long considered settled in the imagination of the world.

Despite being home to the Tibetan government-in-exile, India is no friendlier to the 'cause' than any other country in Southasia. New Delhi's ambivalence makes one wonder whether the Dalai Lama is a political refugee or a hostage-diplomat in his Dharamsala lair. The Indian government reiterates that Tibet is an integral part of China, even when nobody is explicitly asking the South Block spokesman to say so. The foreign-policy managers are reluctant to rekindle a 'closed' issue, fearful as they are of the antagonistic dragon from across the Himalaya, challenging India's claim to the northwestern and northeastern areas.

Even minor players in the region refuse to be drawn into what they consider an unwanted controversy. The political class of Nepal has no hesitation in marching on the streets to show its solidarity with Comrade Gonjalo in Peru, but the deafening silence over repression in Tibet is embarrassing. Islamabad lawyers sympathise with the Kashmiris, but not with the Tibetans. The Dhaka elite keep their noses out of anything that concerns the US or China, two players they consider crucial for their existence. Hawks in Colombo are too beholden to Beijing for its diplomatic support over the Eelam challenge to poke their nose into the Tibetan affair.

The international television media's focus will probably shift to the Olympic Games as soon as advertising revenue from the PRC's state holdings begin to flow in full force. But the Tibetan question has drawn global attention to the question of provincial autonomy everywhere and its relationship with hegemony of the 'centre'. If independence and self-determination were the war cry of colonised peoples during the 20th century, the chant is now going to be autonomy and self-rule. Empires that are not ready to concede even a modicum of these yearnings will have to face the rage of antagonisms – if not now, then later. The ruling classes of Southasia know that the people of Tibet, Eelam, Balochistan, Kashmir, the Chittagong Hills and Madhes have a lot more in common than they think – and, hence, the conspiracy of silence. But the lid is now off in Tibet, as elsewhere, and the secrecy cannot be sustained any longer.

The ongoing struggle in Tibet is not about democracy, free market or freedom from oppression – empty buzzwords that have long lost their meaning, anyway. Instead, it is about dignity and identity: ideas considered to be 'dangerous', ideas that scare the comfortable political elite everywhere, across ideological divides. That, perhaps, is the reason that Tibet continues to receive less press than East Timor, Chechnya or Kosovo, or at least that is how it was till the middle of March. But as the house where the free-market economist Adam Smith once lived goes up for sale in Edinburgh, and as Mao becomes a mere portrait on kitschy medallions sold in the streets of Beijing, people will look towards their roots to find the meaning and purpose of their existence. Uprisings in Tibet prove that 'belongingness' is more important than either prosperity or glory. The world will have to recognise, once again, that the most powerful force throughout human history has been the assertion of group identity.

~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian