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June 12, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Ashwin Mahesh

Free Tibet

Free Tibet. It is a simple sign, a common bumper sticker around these parts. One that says very little, and is yet profound, quietly stating the desire of a conquered people to be free, and the solidarity their determination finds with decent folks everywhere. Equally, it is a constant reminder that amidst all the propriety we can muster as individuals, the systems of government that we hold up, even the ones we see as shining examples of human organisation, do not always serve the simple desires of ordinary people.

In our land of teeming millions, a few refugees are mostly little more than a distraction. But every so often their different stories awaken us to an India we never see at other times. In some corner of Assam or Tamil Nadu, in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, or even in the boulevards of New Delhi itself, the battles of our refugees occasionally spill into the streets, exposing us to problems that are not our own, and only then does the spotlight shine briefly on their plight. The recent protests of Tibetan refugees in the capital marked one such moment.

At the same time, these stories remind us how little we have progressed along the road to moral government and respect for human rights. Not very many decades ago, we ourselves were an enslaved people, subject to the whims of a foreign power which had neither the humanity to confront its bigotry nor the character to rid itself of it voluntarily. How far we have fallen from that, that we should round up hunger-strikers in the name of diplomacy, and watch men burn themselves up for freedom as we watch idly and pacify visiting tyrants.

If the gumption and decency of regular Joes must ever overtake the dithering charades of international politics, then it is important to keep such suffering in the limelight, even when it is no longer sensational and current news. And it is in this spirit that I write this piece, simply so that more of us may know, and more of us may reflect on these things as a matter of routine.

Some months ago, Chinese President Jiang Zemin toured the United States amidst much media coverage, wearing his Texas hats and strolling about Boeing plants and shaking hands with American leaders of all stripes. An unmistakable truth about his trip slowly revealed itself as he jetted about from one city to another. A gnawing disconnect between the ruled and the rulers, so strange in this land of equality, was everywhere that the Chinese president traveled.

At meeting after meeting, in one glitzy building after another, as fat cats in suits lined up to pay their respects to Jiang, ordinary citizens gathered outside on the streets denouncing the Chinese government's vicious human rights violations in China, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet. The moral divide between the financiers and the regular Joes had to be seen to be believed. And the most telling memoir to that divide occurred at that self-professed sanctuary to equality -- the United Nations. The thousands of ordinary people who raged against Chinese brutality in the streets made such a contrast with the quiet acquiescence of the stooges within the halls of the institution.

Nearly forty years ago, in the midst of a campaign of unspeakable pillaging, the middle kingdom ravaged the Tibetan people and drove them from their ancestral lands. A coordinated campaign to undermine local culture by butchering Tibetan monks, destroying age-old monasteries and settling hapless Han Chinese peasants in the region is conducted to this day. These atrocities have dramatically altered the demographic balance in Tibet, as it has in other parts of western China. Using its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and an apparent willingness to back its interest with military muscle, China has quietly waylaid all comers to ensure that no undue noises are raised about these conquests.

And so the Tibetans are left in the lurch. The Dalai Lama, widely believed by his people to be the incarnation of the Avalokiteshwara, the Buddha of Compassion, is tossed from pillar to post in the mansions of the world's power brokers, each in his turn dropping him as if he were a hot potato. As Tibetan Buddhism has gained some acceptance in the west, the Clintons and the Kohls of this world are eager to pay lip service to this faith in the name of multiculturalism and pluralism, but dare not offend the Chinese government.

Still, we must hold faith. The evidence of modern history suggests that passive resistance and adherence to principle sometimes do pay off, and we must hope that will happen in Tibet as well. While we await that day, though, let us know the enemy better, and see it not only in the missiles of foreign nations facing us across the borders, but also in the reluctance of our own selves to confront the inhumanity of our political games. And to know that if we count ourselves among the decent, then we must be willing to engage the tyrants in the geopolitical arena where the fates of the Tibetans and other refugees are being determined.

The Tibetans are a wonderful people, a peaceful and simple expression of humanity's ability to understand the world, engage the natural environment in a friendly manner, and to leave for future generations the fruits of our understanding. I love the India that gave the Tibetans some measure of dignity amidst their collapsing world. I would love even more an India that did it with pride, and not with meekness and stealth. Political settlements and sycophancy do not pass for diplomacy, and free people everywhere can tell the difference. Free Tibet.

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