MADRAS — Tibet looks like a dream shattered. You feel this when you hear the stories of horror told and retold by Buddhist monks and nuns who have escaped from Tibet and taken refuge in Dharamshala, the center of the Dalai Lama’s government in exile in India.
Nestled in the foothills of the snow-clad Himalayas, Dharamshala is deceptive in many ways. The Dalai Lama hides deep worries behind his serene smile: He knows he is not going to live forever, and the community he leads could lose any hope, however faint it may be, of seeing a free Tibet.
The nuns and monks who have run away from years of humiliation and torture at the hands of the Chinese in Tibet also despair. They know that their sacrifice may have been in vain.
Once a supremely spiritual civilization, Tibet revered the Dalai Lama before the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. It is this religious society that Beijing is bent on destroying — maiming and killing anybody who refuses to give up his beliefs or who harbors the slightest hope of political autonomy. The Chinese have torn apart monasteries and killed roughly 1.2 million Tibetans since the annexation in 1959.
Now, however, China has adopted a more tactical approach to crushing Tibetan resistance. The country’s president, Hu Jintao, who once imposed martial law on Tibet, has realized that heavy-handed steps lead to greater rebellion as well as international attention and protests. Since Beijing covets the billions of barrels of oil and gas recently discovered in Tibet, it has begun to co-opt Tibetans in modernizing the Roof of the World, while quietly silencing the core of dissent, monkhood.
Although China has said publicly it will promote and encourage Buddhism as well as restore monasteries and palaces to their former glory, the picture behind this veneer of tolerance is still one of ruthless elimination. The Chinese hold patriotic conclaves where Tibetan monks and nuns are told to forget the Dalai Lama.
As Tibet’s capital city, Lhasa, undergoes changes beyond recognition, with even a rail link to China, Tibetans are being slowly pushed to the fringes. An increasing number of Chinese are setting up shop and home in Lhasa — with train services facilitating such relocation. Beijing knows this is the best way to control the local population.
Chinese officials often blatantly cheat rural Tibetans out of their own land, convincing them to give it up for promises of property in the city. The promise is never kept, and the farmland goes to Chinese entrepreneurs, who convert it into industrial zones.
Watching almost helplessly from afar is the Dalai Lama, who knows that if he does not set foot in Tibet before he dies, his people will be furious. His strategy of a middle path — asking for greater political and cultural autonomy instead of total freedom and holding talks with Chinese envoys — has not yielded results. His people know that Beijing is waiting for his death, after which the Tibetans may find themselves rudderless.
Many Tibetans are not willing to go down without a fight. Today, at Dharamshala, one can hear open criticism of the Dalai Lama. He is accused of selling out to the Chinese. Campaigning against the Dalai Lama, and for total freedom, is Tenzin Tsundue, a young Tibetan who has become the most important figure among the exiles in Dharamshala. He and his band of followers have abandoned the Dalai Lama’s peaceful approach and draw their strength from militants like Palestinians.
This may go against the very grain of Buddhism, whose founder believed in one overriding principle: nonviolence. But Tibetan youngsters who adore Tsundue have little time or patience for values that have gotten them nowhere.
In India, Tibetans have stormed Chinese consulates and the embassy. During a recent visit by Hu Jintao, a young Tibetan tried to immolate himself outside the Bombay hotel where the Chinese president was staying.
Tibetan hardliners are targeting the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the new train line to Lhasa. In the days to come, violence could manifest itself more intensely in various ways. When the Dalai Lama finally goes, his followers will have little to fall back upon. The hardliners may then try to convince Tibetans that since the Dalai Lama’s Buddhist doctrine of peace, love and the middle path did not fetch any tangible result for decades, violence is the only answer.
But with China ready to treat such Tibetans as terrorists in a world that is growing weary of violence and bloodshed, the new Tibetan approach to winning freedom may well come to nothing.
What seems more likely to happen is that Tibet will be firmly amalgamated with China as all traces of its ancient civilization and spirituality vanish. Tibetan culture may end up as just another chapter in a history book.
B. Gautam writes for a leading Indian newspaper.
For related reader feedback:
Critics loyal to Dalai Lama
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.