Nineteen years ago, when I was still at school, there used to be a photograph plastered across my bedroom wall, where it shared sizeable space with other emblems of teenage angst. At the time it was perhaps the world’s single-most recognisable image: a slightly built young man about to be crushed under the might of a giant tank, refusing to move, staring the might of an entire Nation State in the eye.
The ‘Tank Man’ — as the unknown rebel came to be known globally — was an icon for my generation. The fact that no one knew who he was only multiplied his magnificent courage in our minds. Whether or not you knew your Mao from your Deng, Tiananmen Square became a universal theme song for rebellion, inspiring elegies and ballads from Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez, among others.
But like much else in life, it didn’t take long for the romanticised idealism of youth to be jolted into cynical adulthood.
The protests of 1989 failed to evolve into a coherent ideology for change, the rebel leadership combusted from self-destruction and economic reforms catapulted China into political stardom. It was clear that the anger in the aftermath of the massacre at Tiananmen Square had been more sound than fury.
Even the Google boys, who inspired us into believing that a great idea could change the world, succumbed to the mundane compulsions of the market. In mainland China, if you’re ‘googling’ the internet for details of the Tiananmen killings or ‘independence’ for Taiwan or Tibet, you won’t find anything but a list of rules and regulations.
Google agreed to censor itself and became a complicit partner in the erasure of history. An episode of the Simpsons (owned ironically by the Murdoch media empire that caved into every major media restriction demanded by the Chinese government) summed it up the best. As the holidaying Simpson family strolls through Tiananmen Square, they stop at a plaque reading, “On this spot, in 1989, nothing happened.”
Today, nearly two decades later, as we applaud the dimple-faced Dalai Lama’s gentle pragmatism and are shamed into guilt by the helpless tears of red-robed monks, I can’t help feeling a horrible and cynical sense of déjà vu. Yes, op-ed writers and ‘thinking’ actors have been passionately outspoken about the Tibet cause. And yes, an otherwise impassive regime in Beijing seems momentarily on the defensive.
Yet, one can’t help thinking that history will spin once more in a cycle of liberal rage and paramount indifference. We are sentimental (and simultaneously ignorant) about Tibet just as we were about the Tiananmen struggle back in the 90s. We respond with empathy to the Tibetan search for identity, not because we necessarily understand the complex political history that drives the movement, but almost entirely because of the benign grace of its leadership.
In fact, scarred by partition and bruised by violence in Kashmir and the North-east, Indians are by and large notoriously unsympathetic to separatist causes anywhere in the world. The middle-class Indian is scarily enamoured of the idea of a mighty Nation State that rules with an iron fist.
Take away the twinkling eyes, soothing spirituality and chuckling irreverence of the Dalai Lama, and his measured calls for non-violence, and ask yourself, would you still care about Tibet if he were not at the helm? Or would you be obsessing instead about Chinese goods flooding the Indian market and swallowing domestic companies in tsunami-like waves? Last month, when the Prime Minister was in China, crafting the theatrics of a changing relationship, Tibet wasn’t even loud enough to be a stage whisper. But I don’t remember any of us being especially upset. Instead, there was relief that the dragon could be a friendly animal too.
The truth is, that while there is much hand-wringing and chest-beating about Tibet, trapped in our own our dysfunctional love and loathing for China, we are uncertain about how to respond — sometimes cautious, sometimes impulsive and, sadly, often indifferent.
Diplomacy though cannot afford to be maudlin or unpredictable. It is by definition much more strategic and self-serving.
Step back then and stack up the varied responses of the world to the current crisis. You may lose count of the number of hypocrisies that have come to haunt the China-Tibet debate.
There’s America — lofty in its criticism, supposedly generous about how the Olympic Games must ‘go on’, furiously calculating trade volumes with one hand and how to contain Beijing with the other. Democracy isn’t Washington’s favourite word when it comes to oil-rich Saudi Arabia or a pliant Pakistan. But it’s thrown about as a selective philosophical principle when needed. There’s France and its playboy President who is asking for a boycott of the Olympics, but leads a country that has simultaneously been trying to persuade the European Parliament to lift an arms sale embargo against China.
Closer home, the socially liberal communists — so quick to condemn ‘State brutalities’ and human rights violations within India — haven’t just been silent, but they’ve actually termed Tibet an ‘internal matter’ for their ideological compatriots to tackle on their own terms. Then there’s the BJP — filled with well-meaning rage at the government’s effete lack of intervention, but stubbornly blind to the parallels the people of Kashmir may draw from the Tibet struggle.
And finally, there’s the Congress, unable or unwilling to respond coherently. Till the churlish midnight missive was delivered to our Ambassador in China, the government actually seemed a trifle pleased to receive a pat on the back from its northern neighbour on how it had ‘handled’ the protests. The Indian government prides itself on the hardball it has played with the world’s superpowers on demanding a seat for itself at the global high table. But we are too timid and tentative to even allow a meeting between the Dalai Lama and the Vice-President.
And then, of course, there is the rest of us — captivated by the poignant photo-opportunity of the Present, till we turn the page and forget all about a tragedy called Tibet.
(Barkha dutt is managing editor, ndtv 24x7)