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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Modern day warrior

August 20, 2010

Poetry and high-wire acts that grab media
attention are the tools of this Tibetan activist’s trade
Tenzin Tsundue
The Wall Street Journal
August 13, 2010

In 2002, Tenzin Tsundue climbed the scaffolding
of the Mumbai building where Chinese premier Zhu
Rongji was staying during his state visit.
Tsundue carried a banner that read “Free Tibet:
China, Get Out” and shouted slogans even as the
police were carrying him out. He repeated the
performance in 2005 when Chinese premier Wen
Jiabao was addressing a conference at the Indian
Institute of Science in Bangalore, standing on
the balcony of the 200ft-high tower with a red
banner that read “Free Tibet”. This time the
police were not as prompt. “I knew they would
have to arrest me and I only wish they’d done it
sooner," says Tsundue, flashing a rare smile. The
young Tibetan activist had hidden himself in the
balcony overnight—and stayed there without food
or water—because it would have been difficult to
get past security on the day of the official visit.

In a 2006 essay published in The Guardian,
Tsundue wrote, "We Tibetans have no political
strings to pull, no money power or crude oil: but
we are willing to sacrifice everything for a free
Tibet.” He is acutely aware of the meagre
resources he has on call. And for him, the media
is the main weapon to amplify his activism. Of
this, he talks in frank terms. “Why would the
media cover a small guy like me shouting ‘Free
Tibet’ on the streets? I have to find ways to
make my protests stunning.” So, in his words, he
“borrowed” the Chinese premier’s media. Every big
media house had representatives stationed to
cover Rongji’s visit. All of that got diverted to Tsundue’s high-wire stunt.

Tsundue has taken the 12-hour bus ride from
Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, where he stays
these days, to meet us at north Delhi’s Tibetan
camp. Our conversation meanders between Tibetan
history, the dynamics of the Indo-China
relationship and the merits of Tibetan butter
tea. The important thing is that we talk of
things Tibetan, even if it is the tailoring of his Tibetan shirt.

For the last eight years, Tsundue has been
wearing a red band around his head as a pledge to
his commitment to the Tibetan freedom struggle.
“All we have is identity,” he says with a quiet
ferocity. While he believes that his brand of
activism is essential for the Tibetan movement,
Tsundue is encouraged by young Tibetans wearing
their heritage on their sleeve, singing more
Tibetan songs, being actively involved in
theatre, arts, academics. He mentions the
activist and writer Jamyang Norbu, who currently
lives in exile in the US. Every little expression
is a part of what he calls the great struggle.

Tsundue even has a positive spin on the current
divide among Tibetans -- those who’re at peace
with the Dalai Lama’s stance of autonomous rule
under the People’s Republic of China, and those
like Tsundue, who continue to bat for an
independent Tibet. But, according to him, this
difference in opinion is liberating because it
allows for an intellectual discourse within the Tibetan community.

The elite Indian media has been kind to him.
Tsundue puts his finger on the fact that Indian
journalists draw parallels to their own country’s
freedom struggle. The international media still
views the issue of Tibet as a lost Shangri-La.
“But it’s a real breathing country with real
breathing people,” says Tsundue. Nothing he does
is subtle: His modes of expression, though
non-violent, are loud. Like Tsundue himself, who,
despite his slight frame, is a large presence—red
band, black shirt, a Tibetan flag badge pinned on
his lapel, a prayer bell’s conch ring strung around his neck as a talisman.

He has just attended a week-long conference of
the Tibetan Youth Congress, founded in 1970, in
which its over 30,000 members charted a
three-year road map for the NGO’s activities.
Apart from Tibetan and English, Tsundue speaks
Hindi and Tamil fluently. He has done everything
he can to become an information resource, a
self-appointed press relations officer, for the Tibetan freedom movement.

Tsundue was born circa 1975 (no formal records
exist) near Kullu, where his parents—forced to
leave Tibet after the uprising in 1959—worked as
road construction labourers. After
scholarship-aided schooling in Dharamsala, he
moved to Chennai for his bachelor’s degree in
English literature. He then attended
master’s-level classes in literature and
philosophy at the University of Mumbai. It was
here that he had his real education, here that he
built his networks and made the acquaintance of
poets such as Dilip Chitre and Arun Kolatkar,
thespians Sanjna Kapoor and Alyque Padamsee. All
through this quest, he wanted to be a journalist.
He’d been told that a journalist is someone who
spreads the message. The message here was the
history and origin of Tibet, one that he found
conspicuously missing from his school textbooks.

Tsundue has published essays in newspapers in
India and abroad. In 2001, he won the
Outlook-Picador Award for non-fiction for an
essay on the Tibetan struggle. He also
self-published his first book of poems, Crossing
the Border, while still a student at the
University of Mumbai. Then there were two more:
Kora and Semshook. He prints these for Rs10 in
Dharamsala and sells them for Rs50 at events he
is invited to talk at. This is his primary source of income.

He has been to Tibet once. After his teaching
stint in Ladakh, at the age of 22, he attempted a
crossover mission which resulted in four months
of imprisonment. That experience of being jailed
in Lhasa broke him. “I was beaten continuously
and so afraid that no one knew where I
was all terribly frightening,” he recalls.

Thirteen years later, it seems Tsundue knows no
fright. Part of it is because he has accepted
Gandhi’s non-violent methods. After the two
incidents with Chinese officials that breached
security, 15 plainclothesmen were deployed to
make sure that Tsundue stayed in Dharamsala when
Hu Jintao, the President of China, visited India in 2008.

Tsundue has been a bipolar critique of India’s
civil liberties. On the one hand, he is immensely
grateful for what India has done for Tibetans.
But he is confused. “India wants us to speak
about Tibet but in a controlled manner.” He is
still bitter about the cancellation of the permit
for a group of Tibetans to protest peacefully in
Bangalore during Wen’s visit. The permission was
revoked a day before the event and it gave way to
Tsundue’s tower-top protest. The Indian
authorities also intercepted Tsundue and about a
hundred others on the fourth day of their march
to Tibet from Dharamsala, which was timed to
protest the Beijing Olympics. Speaking out is all
he can do, and Tsundue believes the Indian
government allows him to do so, but in measured doses.
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