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Tibet: A nation in exile

As the Chinese president visits India, Tibetans worry about the future of their homeland, writes Amitava Sanyal.

india Updated: Nov 19, 2006 04:14 IST

"I am not proud to be among the most successful refugees in the world. I am ashamed that we have failed as freedom fighters." These are the words of a disillusioned 55-year-old for whom exile has become the cruellest form of imprisonment.

Lhasang Tsering came to India in 1959, the year Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, escaped Mao's China. He has served his government in exile in its information department, as principal of the Tibetan Children's Village, and as President of the Tibetan Youth Congress. His family now runs on the income from a small bookshop in Dharamshala.

Tsering's is a known voice of dissent within the community. But his words raise an issue that has split down the middle the 1.4 lakh Tibetans living outside their homeland. Kashag, the Tibetan Parliament that has been elected into a second term by more than 83,000 registered voters, does not encourage those who do not walk along the Middle Way chosen by the Dalai Lama.

In the late 1980s, the Dalai Lama changed the discourse within the community by trading the call for outright freedom for "meaningful autonomy" under Beijing's leadership—the Middle Way. Tibetans old and young—those who followed their leader into exile, and those who were born in exile—have been riven on this point even since.

Poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue says, "Only an independent Tibet can guarantee the freedom we seek." Kashag member and editor of the Voice of Tibet radio, Karma Yeshi, agrees. So do most of the 15,000 active members of the Tibetan Youth Congress, an organisation Yeshi co-led till a few years back.

Phuntsok Wangchuk, general secretary of Gu-Chu-Sum and one who has spent five years in the dreaded Drapchi prison of Lhasa, says, "The situation (in Tibet) is getting worse by the day; the government is not doing enough."

Whatever the worries, it is not contested that this Dalai Lama is the force that binds this dispersed community together. Almost all of the 2,000-3,000 Tibetans who flee into India risking their lives every year, do so primarily to have an audience with the Dalai Lama. This intense popularity is like a millstone around Tenzin Gyatso's neck.

What happens when he is gone? The Tibetan system allows for a council of regents to take over between the death of one Dalai Lama and the anointment of the next. But Tenzin Gyatso has repeatedly expressed concerns over the system of reincarnation. What if the next incarnate is found inside China? More likely than not, he would meet the fate of Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the six-year-old boy chosen as the 11th Panchen Lama by this Dalai Lama.

When the choice did not match that of the Communist regime, Gendun went missing. Amnesty International fears he is just one of 50 such incarnates detained by China at present.

To avoid the vacuum that could follow his death, the current god-king has been working towards democracy. Samdhong Rinpoche, the Kalon Tripa or head of the Kashag, who was voted into a second term with 90.7 per cent of the votes, says, "China is waiting for the Dalai Lama to die. So a democratically elected leadership is the appropriate answer." But he warns that the Tibetan people may not agree with a non-religious approach to succession.

Negotiating a difficult way

To pursue the chosen Middle Way, Samdhong Rinpoche has abandoned his earlier idea of 'Gandhigiri' within Tibet, a non-violent uprising. No aberration is allowed to "vitiate the atmosphere" set delicately in place for the informal talks going on between the representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. Samdhong Rinpoche says, "The fifth round concluded last February. But numbers are less important than the fact that the two sides understand each other better now. We are looking to the next round, which is likely to be held by the beginning of the next year."

Answering Sunday HT's  queries over mail, Chris Ballance, member of the Scottish Parliament who convenes a cross-party group on Tibet, says, "The results have been reported differently, with the Chinese consul in Edinburgh giving a more negative report than what I have heard from Tibetan sources."

Sethu Das, president of Friends of Tibet India, gives the purpose of the talks another twist. He says, "They have less to do with autonomy than with getting the Dalai Lama over to Beijing before the 2008 Olympics." Ruth Gonseth, former member of Swiss Parliament and president of Swiss Tibet Friendship, also feels that the time to put pressure on China is now, before the Games that Beijing wants to be a showpiece.

Deadline Tibet

Many even see the talks as a waste of precious time. Tsering, who visited Tibet incognito for more than three months in 1980, says, "The coming of the railway (from Beijing to Lhasa) this year put a time limit on us for regaining Tibet for Tibetans. I hope I am wrong, but it seems we have one decade or two left."

He is referring to the daily influx of thousands of ethnic Han Chinese into Tibet—the biggest worry to several Tibetans Sunday HT talked to. The trickle Tsering saw when he was there has now turned into flowing trainloads. As a result, much like the Uighurs to the north-west of Tibet, the outnumbered Tibetans are a poorer lot in their own land.

Time is running out in India too. Most of the 58 settlements here are on 99-year leases. The assurance of renewal is not something even the ever-grateful Tibetans would want to bet on. In 1904, Britain's Francis Younghusband recognised Tibet as a separate nation in return for a few trading posts. A century later, India's AB Vajpayee recognised it as a part of China and reopened Nathu La. The Tibetans are hoping this history will not repeat itself when Hu comes calling.

Email amitava.sanyal@hindustantimes.com