Poet and writer Tenzin Tsundue, 33, is perhaps the most acetylene and mesmeric new voice of the Tibetan struggle. A slight man — spectacles held in place with cellotape — he first shot to limelight in 2002 when he declared his “personal war again st China” by scaling the Oberoi Hotel in Bombay while the Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji was visiting, and unfurling a Free Tibet banner down its fac ade. He won the court case that followed; the banner was returned with dignity. In 2005, Tsundue repeated this in Bangalore while the Chinese Premier was visiting.
Always dressed in jeans, black shirt and a red bandana he says he will not take off till Tibet wins back its freedom. Tsundue was born in a roadside tent on the Kullu-Manali highway to construction labourers. His father, a Tantric master from the Kham region of Tibet, was in his teens when the Chinese invaded. He joined the legendary cavalry resistance and was separated from the family for nine years, before he fled to India in 1959. His father died a few years later on a construction project. Tsundue grew up in a refugee camp in Karnataka, before attending the Tibetan Children’s Village School in Manali, and getting degrees later from Loyola College in Madras and Bombay University.
Tsundue does not hold any official post, but he is an irrepressible moving force, an undeclared leader moulding the future. Committed to a life of brutal frugality (Rs 35,000 can keep him going for two years), Tsundue says as kids, Tibetan are constantly remin ded they have ‘R’ — Refugee — written on their foreheads. Tsundue grew up and wrote a poem that changed that ‘R’ for ‘Rangzen’: freedom. Here, he talks of why he thinks that is his destiny.
You went back to Tibet as a student. How difficult was that? What made you do it?
It felt like a young man attempting a ‘mission impossible’. I had always dreamt of getting involved with the struggle inside Tibet. I wasn’t prepared enough, but my dream overwhelmed me. This was March 1997. I was teaching at this school on the border, in an area called Dhungse. I was sent with Indian army trucks that pick up children of nomads from across the border for schooling. I got talking with some traders and got names of traders on the other side. After dropping the kids off, I went back in secret on a hay truck. But when I got to the border, my contacts had left. I was alone in the mountains. My only fear then was of having to return to India without stepping into Tibet, so I kept going. I walked for five days without food. It was March, bitterly cold. When I was eventually arrested, I just collapsed. I was like any other Indian graduate — what would I know about Tibet? It was almost like walking into a dream, but I was determined. Once I was arrested, I was blindfolded and thrown into prison on March 10 — the National Uprising Day. I was confused. I had stepped into my own country for the first time but I was also in prison. I felt as if I was in a game. Could I tell the people outside, ‘mujhe bahar jaane do, bahut ho gaya’? I am used to the freedom in India. I missed my Indian friends, idli-sambar, and walks on Marina Beach. Slowly, I figured this was the reality. I had to make sure I didn’t die, no matter how much I suffered. There were things to do. I was being kept in a jail in Ngari town, a cold desert region, endless grassland, beautiful in the summer. There are nomads there who don’t know what a tree looks like. At first, I was badly beaten by the police. I used to cry quite often but it made me stronger from within. I learnt how to maintain my personal dignity against all odds. Later, I was taken to Lhasa and jailed for three months. Then I was handed back to India. I was desperate to come back. I needed to rethink many things. I was of no use in Tibet. In India, I went to the Indo-Tibetan Border Force office and handed myself in. I was in jail for a month. Tibetans in India have this paper, a Registration Certificate (RC) that permits us to stay for a year, and has to be rene– wed annually. It’s a constant reminder that we are outsiders. After my time in jail, I was very disturbed. My parents weren’t happy with me. Not receiving the consolation I sought from the community, I moved to Bombay for five years. The city had so much in store for me. Poets, writers, mentors, people I looked up to. I started writing myself. Today, I know it is only with my education that I can fight China. I have no political background, no money, nobody I can go to for support, but I feel strong. I think revolution begins with the experience of poverty. For me, it really began with that. I wrote to my parents in the fourth grade telling them not to send me money.
Are your parents supportive?
It is a difficult relationship. They came to meet me in jail recently and cried on my shoulder. I told them, ‘This is the time to be brave. I have a duty not only as a son but also as a young Tibetan.’ I am not of huge help to them. I have no salary, family, house or children to give them. The only thing I am giving is a dream that I will take them back to their country. I tell them it is my duty to take you back and you must maintain that hope; do not lose it. Then, you will not die here. You will not die in sadness. I have been away so much, in boarding school and also in the struggle, I have hardly met my parents. There is no detail in the relationship. There are a lotof things missing. But this is how the struggle has shaped our lives, for them as parents and for me as a son. It is part of the nature of our scattered life.
What explains the sudden upsurge in the Tibetan struggle? Is it a new moment?
Yes, what is really happening now is that the struggle has changed hands. What has traditionally been perceived as the Dalai Lama’s responsibility has now been taken up by the Tibetan people. The struggle inside Tibet has united the community and made us feel no sacrifice is too big. Now no one can douse the fire. There is another important development. Every year we commemorate the Tibetan National Uprising on March 10. This year the mood was very intense. With the Olympics coming up in Beijing, we wanted to focus international attention on the injustice in Tibet. China is trying to look like a developed country, where peace and harmony reigns. This is propaganda, and we are here to fight it. I don’t mean taking up guns. I think shooting and bombing people, carrying out suicide attacks are archaic ideas. We are totally committed to non-violence. That is the first principle of our lives. So what were we to do? Presently, in the world and in India, there isn’t much awareness, let alone support and political intervention for Tibet. We wanted to change this and achieve something concrete. His Holiness and the Tibetan government-in-exile don’t want confrontation, so some of us began to work on creating internal unity. We worked on bringing the five key Tibetan NGOS together. There has never been a common programme between them. The Youth Congress, which is the largest outfit, is committed to total freedom, while the Women’s Association, which is the second largest, is closer to His Holiness’ ‘middle way’ position and wants only autonomy. It took months of discussion before we presented an idea which brought people together. The idea was to march back to Tibet. We were going back to our own country. That is our basichuman right. The Indian police and the Chinese could do what they want. We were to remain resolute. Even if they cracked our skulls, we were not to retaliate. Tibet azad ho ya na ho, we must uphold our values of non-violence. On this we agree with the Dalai Lama. So on January 4 this year, we announced the Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement and the march to Tibet. Right upto February, the government said it was disassociating itself from the NGOs. But there was such a swell in public mood they were forced to say they are willing to work with us. This is a major turn of events.
Are the young restless with the Dalai Lama’s stand?
Yes. Even if I met him now, I would prostrate myself before him — that is an act of faith. But I think people are getting tired of being goody-goody. You might get patted for being nice, but it will not effect change in the struggle. If you want change, you have to look a little dirty, and it’s okay to look dirty. It’s time to break rules, both from inside and outside. It’s not enough just to go out and protest, we have to protest creatively. Because we’re not shocking the world with bombs, we can only build public opinion through this. Since it started, His Holiness has twice told the march’s leaders to stop because it is almost sure the Chinese will shoot at us at the border. But His Holiness’ sense of compassion is that of the Buddha. I’m a human being looking for freedom in this world. As a Buddhist, my attempt is to be a better person, not to renounce the world. I love the freedom, the romance, the contradictions, the politics, and the diversity of this world. I want to live in it. So His Holiness might want to avoid confrontation and reduce pain and suffering, but we are determined to push forward. I think it’s okay to die for this. Death would bring justice in the community. As children, we had this sense of urgency about growing up and getting involved with the struggle, that His Holiness was alone. There were few in the older generation who could do anything. They had no education. I remember our elders holding press conferences, and if even five journalists turned up, they would serve chai and momos with such gratitude. Now the equation has changed. We, who were born in the 70s and 80s and got educated in India or other foreign countries, are now taking up leadership. Thankfully, a culture of democracy has set in. There is no charismatic, all commanding leader other than His Holiness. Leadership has come from organisations. That is why it was so important to bring the five NGOs together.
Was there a build up to this mood, or is it quite sudden?
I think there was a major problem from 2002 for three years when it was very difficult to work with the goal of independence. There was a restart of the dialogue process with the Chinese and His Holiness came out very strongly saying, ‘Don’t protest’. The exiled government also requested the same. It was only a request, but when a request goes to the people, it becomes an order. We are still trying to create a culture of political activism in our people. There is this old-fashioned demonising. If you don’t listen to His Holiness, you are a Chinese spy or anti-Dalai Lama. In the 90s, leaders like Lhasang Tsering and writer Jamyang Norbu had very difficult lives in the community. They were the first batch of intellectual Tibetans who also had an English education. This allowed them an expression that was much less respectful and more open. They were a big inspiration for us. Right through 2002 to 2005, Tibetan delegations to China would make statements that China is making very good gestures and we should not antagonise them. But the Chinese government wasn’t even acknowledging that they were talking to Tibetans. After six rounds of this, people got tired.
We had no power in this dialogue. The process had no credibility because the Chinese didn’t make a single statement that they were talking to Tibetans. Also, our delegations were meeting the lowest rank of Chinese officials. Absolutely nothing was happening. People who were standing up for independence started to become stronger. The real activism, though, started from the Nangpa-La Pass incident in September 2006. A group of Tibetans escaping were shot at the border. This was caught by a Romanian channel that was shooting someone climbing Mount Everest, and shown all over the world. There was an international outcry. How could the Chinese shoot Tibetans who had been walking for 20 days without food? This incident brought all our people together. Even the exiled government issued a strong statement. This was followed by Hu Jintao’s visit to India in 2006. This time they did not stop our protest. They said Tibetans are in a free country, they can do what they want. During this time, under pressure from the Indian government, I was tailed by six security men and detained by our own government. This catalysed the NGOs to come together. They organised a huge rally. This was the beginning of the people’s movement.
Who are your political models?
Gandhi and Bhagat Singh. Bhagat Singh’s courage, Gandhi’s tactics. The difference between Gandhi and His Holiness is that His Holiness is non-confrontational. He says truth is important, the ultimate goal, but Gandhi said truth should prevail and there should be human effort toward this. He confronted unjust authority, risked others’ lives and called for sacrifice. This is how he created mass mobilisation. In Tibetan, when we say awakening, it is gyerlang, which means to individually rise up and volunteer. So it’s not just about awareness. You may be aware of something but may not sacrifice anything for it. That awakening is something Gandhi was able to do. When he said, ‘Swadeshi! Non-Cooperation!’ everyone took off their clothes and burnt it. Such direct confrontation, based on truth, puts the perpetrator in a very difficult position. That is where China is today. The Dalai Lama had not wanted us to make an issue of the Olympics, but I think we have really opened up Tibet in such a way that people will watch Tibet more than the Olympics itself. Understanding this, we said ‘Let us walk to Tibet’ and create even greater awareness and awakening. I believe in His Holiness, but when it comes to political activism, I follow Gandhi. When Tibet was up in flames recently, His Holiness sent messages that he would abdicate if there was any more violence, but I believe Tibetans inside Tibet were acting in self-defence. When you protest under a strong military power, you are vulnerable, you know the Chinese can shoot you. This is a kind of courage and sacrifice and non-violent action that you see very rarely today.
How did you get these burns on both your hands?
Cigarettes. I did it to myself in jail a few weeks ago. I had a very troubling time. We had started on our march from Dharamsala, we were arrested on the fourth day. The police charged us with ‘breach of public peace and tranquility’. A hundred Tibetans trained in non-violent activism, who have committed to themselves that even if the police crack their skull, they will not retaliate — and we are charged with breach of public peace. What was most frustrating was that while we were hearing that the whole of Tibet was rising up and the Chinese police was butchering them, I was supposed to be in a free country but I was in jail and couldn’t do anything. We were in jail for 14 days; all 14 days, people were being killed in Tibet. It was a most frustrating time. I urged our leaders to call a hunger strike so things would go out of hand and the police would have to release us. But they thought this would further aggravate the situation and create tension. I said, this is the time to create tension, but they said it would lead to more problems. So it was a very difficult time.
But why burn yourself? Was that to internalise the anger?
Yes, I think so (Long silence). It’s not just anger but also how to maintain peace (Laughs). We were 102 of us in jail, all on false charges. The Indian government just wanted to arrest us to be able to tell the Chinese government they were doing their duty. Only the Indian government was congratulated by China in the whole world. I think that ‘thank you’ was a humiliation for India. In the end, only three of us remained. I was not a leader actually, I was only a marcher, but somehow the Chinese government thinks I can be a potential problem. I’m under constant watch. They are afraid. I think it’s nice that a huge country is afraid of a man who has no money to eat. Tell me more about the march and its conception. We announced the idea on January 4 this year. The plan was to march for six months to draw media attention, gather support, and eventually try to march back into Tibet. I was the first to register. A lot of us were friends and had made a collective decision to join. We were not worried about what would happen to us. We started getting rid of our personal belongings, whatever little we had accumulated from our scattered lives in exile. I am 33, but I have no permanent address. I own two pairs of jeans, two shirts. This bag here is my office. I gave away everything else. One of my friends was a chowkidar with a construction company, another worked on screen-printing T-shirts. They gave these up to join the march. As word spread, more people were inspired. This is the sort of commitment I have been witness to. We started marching on March 10, and then the unexpected happened. The same day we heard Tibetans in Tibet had started to protest, then similar marches worldwide. Now we are at a stage where His Holiness is asking us to scrap the march. The Youth Congress has said they won’t.
The other four organisations have temporarily called off the march to participate in the campaign organised by the Tibetan government-led Solidarity Committee. The exiled government has never done this before, so it’s inspiring. But 200 core marchers remain committed to the original plan.
What is the Tibetan community’s relationship with India?
We thank India. It’s because of India that we’ve been able to stand on our own feet. In the 60s when my parents arrived, they couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw people on bicycles! Nehru, in fact, had offered His Holiness mainstream schools for Tibetan children. But His Holiness wanted separate Tibetan schools for the children so they would grow up as Tibetans, and the responsibility of the struggle could be passed on to them. Thanks to his vision, people like us came to the fore. The Indian government has played an important role in this resurgence. It provided land, schools, mon asteries. With this strong educational backing, 1,40,000 Tibetans are now challenging and shaking China.
When you talk of your Tibetanness, what is important?
It’s not just Buddhist cultural values, there is a distinct Tibetanness which looks very simple from outside. But it has a lot of courage, simplicity and strong honesty, which says I am willing to die for a value I believe in. It looks simplistic but there is honesty in it. We have the minds of mountain people. It isn’t about bank balance or insurance. These are interesting Tibetan characteristics. At least I have been to Tibet. But for many young Tibetans, including me, there is this sense of belonging to an ethos. We don’t belong to the land today because it’s all controlled by China. We go back to a rented room, not our own. There is a sadness in this, thinking of the temporary life we are living here. So every day of our lives we have a sense of belonging elsewhere. Sometimes it seems like I belong to a problem, not to a land. I belong to the Tibetan issue. A problem, a problem called Tibet. It is a very strange kind of belonging but that is the reality of life.