January 22, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

Climb Every Crane

'He hasn't seen the bees!" someone near me said. Within seconds the whole gathered lot of us were shouting and waving, doing our best to attract his attention. It was difficult. The young man was most of the way up an enormous crane that towered above us, probably couldn't hear us that high, and wasn't looking down at us anyway. So he couldn't see us waving. Trouble was, he wasn't looking up either. If he didn't do so quickly, the way he was going he would very soon climb straight into that hive. We didn't want to think about what the consequences of a run-in with thousands of angry bees would be, that high and that precarious.

Luckily, the young man saw either us or the hive or both in time. Manoeuvring gingerly past it, he kept going steadily higher. When he was satisfied that he was high enough, he carefully unfurled a large blue flag, tied its pole to one of the struts of the crane, finally held up a fist to us all. All while clinging tightly to the struts himself. Wild cheers broke out among the rest of us. Not for the first time, I asked myself: What makes a young man climb up a crane like this one had just done?

We were on the Man Dam in Madhya Pradesh, under construction on the Man river, tributary to the Narmada. This was the March 2001 "capture" of this dam that I wrote about in my column "Up On The Dam". A few hundred men, women and children from nearby villages, most of whom faced the prospect of losing their homes to this dam, had swarmed onto the dam just after daybreak. They were determined not to allow any construction to happen that day. They sat on top all day, shouting defiant slogans at the gawkers and police who gathered on the heights above the dam.

The protest ended that evening, when the police moved in and arrested over two hundred people, including 52 children. They spent several days in jail in Dhar. But they had made their point: the way this dam is being built, the way it plays with their lives, disgraces India.

I was there that day, and one of my abiding memories remains the young man scrambling up the crane. I still ask myself: what drives someone like him to attempt something so clearly dangerous, to risk his life even had there been no bees?

And last week, nearly the same question popped up again. Right here in Bombay. No protest on a faraway dam, no villagers, nothing that might seem so remote as to be happening on another planet. This time, it was all over all our papers. This time, another young man climbed the scaffolding on the Oberoi hotel in Nariman Point, made his way right up to the 14th floor, unfurled a banner and a flag.

I know this young man slightly. His name is Tenzin Tsundue, and he is Tibetan. A thoughtful, articulate and passionate Tibetan. The banner he unfolded up on the hotel read, in letters large enough to be seen on a thousand front pages, "Free Tibet". And why did he choose the Oberoi, on this particular day? Because the Chinese premier, Zhu Rongji, was in town. He and his entourage were guests at the hotel. "In no time," Tenzin told Mid-Day, "every window on the entire floor had a Chinese face looking at me. I was proud to show them the Tibetan flag. That one moment was worth it all."

Some of Bombay's finest eventually dragged Tenzin off the scaffolding and kept him in custody for part of the evening. But like the young man who climbed the crane in Madhya Pradesh, Tenzin had made his point. He had reminded the Chinese premier, his entourage, and those Indians who cared to notice, that Tibet will not be swept under some bland Chinese carpet, forgotten forever. And yes, I was left wondering: what drives a man to take a risk like that to make a point like this?

The simple thing to do is to write these two off as stunt artists after some publicity for themselves, kooks who have nothing better to do. I know plenty of people who would say just that, some of whom will probably read this and dispatch cogent letters to tell me so. That the name of the man who climbed that crane is unknown beyond a small circle of his friends -- I have deliberately not mentioned it here -- and that Tenzin is already back in the obscurity that enveloped him before his climb, why, these little details matter not in the least to confident writer-offers. Far easier to disparage a certain commitment than try to come to grips with the cause, the injustice, it represents.

Still, that's just one more risk to be taken. When you're trying to awaken consciences, you have to know that many prefer sleep instead. Tenzin writes in Mid-Day: "We know we are fighting a losing battle, with the world having given up on us."

But really, why should the world have given up on people like Tenzin? Why should India?

One reason: we have been persuaded of the futility of their efforts by our self-appointed hawks. You know, those fellows who will, at the drop of a hat, spout such profundities as "jis ki lathi, us ki bhains" ("he who has the stick owns the buffalo"; or, as MS Golwalkar once wrote, "a not-so-graphic translation into English would be, 'might is right'"). These fellows think we should nod our heads at such ditties, recognizing the way they capture the essence of that thing called "realpolitik", their spot-on description of the way the world works. China has taken over Tibet, it is a powerful country, so why waste time considering the plight of a few hundred thousand Tibetans?

And yet, for all their claims about the way the world works, these same fellows forget the innumerable lessons of history, of a thousand struggles for freedom and justice. Of our own Indian struggle for freedom, the battle that defined us as a nation. After all, the British certainly had the might, definitely owned all the "lathis". Where would we be today if the hawks had surveyed the scene, announced that might was right, and convinced such Indian heroes as Maulana Azad, Lala Lajpatrai, Shahid Bhagat Singh and Lokmanya Tilak -- not forgetting Patel, Gandhi and Nehru -- to give up the fight? Because what they were doing was, given the ownership of the lathis, futile?

My history is too feeble to know if there were hawks doing just this while the British ruled us. But if they were, we are fortunate that their efforts failed. Despite the lathis, India won freedom.

And that's why I admire people who climb cranes and scaffolding.

These days, it seems it's convenient for us in India to deal with China, to welcome its assorted leaders when they visit, to admire its progress and development. It's that realpolitik all over again, you see. We think we can emulate China's progress by doing the things China has done. So just as China is anxious to sweep under bland Chinese carpets the shame of what happened in Tibet and move on to a shining superpowerdom, we think we can ignore our own catalogue of injustices and also find our way to superpowerdom.

Only, the world really doesn't work that way. And yes, and again, that really is why I admire these guys who climb cranes and scaffolding.

Dilip D'Souza

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