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A time to stand up

The India I would be proud of would respect the right of every Tibetan refugee to peacefully and lawfully protest, writes Karan Thapar.
None | By Karan Thapar
UPDATED ON APR 05, 2008 10:58 PM IST

My congratulations to Bhaichung Bhutia. In India it’s not just unusual, it’s extremely rare, for public figures to speak out in support of controversial issues. In fact, when that issue happens to be political they resort to self-denying silence. And no issue could be more controversial than Tibet. This is why Bhutia deserves applause for identifying with the cause he supports.

In contrast, I’m surprised, actually dismayed, by Aamir Khan’s self-serving and dubious position. No one can force him to speak out for Tibet and he has, in fact, every right to carry the Olympic torch if that’s what he wants to do. But to claim that he will run “with a prayer in my heart for the people of Tibet” is not just facetious but two-faced.

It’s no secret that China is exploiting the Olympics for political acceptance. If the Olympic torch passes peacefully through all the countries it will enter Beijing and claim that Tibetan protests have failed. That’s why they’ve threatened to withdraw the torch if India can’t guarantee its security. So if Aamir wants to support Tibet, at the very least his T-shirt should proclaim the fact. Tibet needs vocal, outspoken support not secret, silent prayers.

I suspect Aamir is trying to have it both ways and that’s hardly honest. Actually it might have been better if he had kept quiet. After all he doesn’t have to explain himself, leave aside justify his position.

But let’s widen this discussion. The claim that sports and politics should not mix has never been the Indian position and, at critical moments, not that of the West either. For decades India spurned sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa. This may have seemed the morally right thing to do but it was the conscious and deliberate politicisation of sport. So too the West’s boycott of the Moscow Olympics and Russia’s attempt to do the same at Los Angeles. So, now, to argue the opposite in the case of Beijing is, at the very least, to reverse earlier principles.

In this case I would say that this is an issue for each individual to decide as he or she wants. Actually I would applaud those who support China and stand up and say so just as much as Bhaichung Bhutia. It’s the same courage of conviction in either case. What’s needed is a clear stand.

Where, therefore, does that leave the Indian government’s position? Pranab Mukherjee claims the Dalai Lama is “a respected guest in India” but warns him against actions or statements “that can adversely affect relations between India and China”. Frankly this diminishes India — as a democracy, as a nation and as a civilisation. The India I would be proud of would respect the right of every Tibetan refugee to peacefully and lawfully protest. And it’s just too bad if Beijing doesn’t like it. The India I’m embarrassed by asks Tibetans to live in New Delhi or Dharamsala on what are, in effect, China’s conditions. Pranab Mukherjee’s statement has not only shrunk the government, he’s made all of us feel small. Worse, it’s illegal.

George Fernandes tells me that in 1991 he petitioned the Supreme Court on the right of Tibetan refugees in India to protest against China. In the case which he argued himself, the Supreme Court upheld their right to do so. According to The Times of India (14th December, 1991) this is what the Court said: “The government cannot prevent people from staging peaceful demonstrations. Justice Sawant observed that shouting slogans, burning photos and squatting were not violent ways of demonstration.” I’ve also spoken to Justice Sawant. He says Pranab Mukherjee’s position is a violation of the Supreme Court’s judgement.

Of course, China wasn’t a super power in 1991. Today it is. But so what? Principles don’t bend before power — or do they? Is that the real message from Pranab Mukherjee?

Last month when China praised India’s handling of Tibetan refugees I felt embarrassed. Now they’ll shower praise on us for silencing the Dalai Lama. It will make me cringe.

I wonder how Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi will feel.

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