On April 27, 1998, a 60-year-old Tibetan doused himself with petrol, set himself alight, ran out onto a busy street in a crowded city, enveloped in flames, after. Thubten Ngodup’s last words, \shouted even as he was burning like a torch, were ‘Po Gyalo!’ (Victory for Tibet!) ‘Po Rangzen!’ (Free Tibet!).
His act of self-immolation took place in New Delhi, near the Jantar Mantar, the brilliant celestial observatory of stone and brick set up by Raja Man Singh centuries back, where Tibetan refugees were camping to protest the visit of a chief of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army. So many of us have been slightly burned or scalded while handling boiling water or cooking; the skin burns and the pain is sharp and intense, relentless if it is a bad burn. (A lot of women suffer that in our country in murders over dowry: it’s less than it used to be thanks to better enforcement of laws, societal changes and greater media support).
The writer Patrick French, who is an unabashed Tibet supporter, speaks in one of his books of how people in the crowd heard “popping noises as his body began to burn.” So he must have been in excruciating agony; he was admitted to hospital where he later died, peacefully, it appears after a visit by the Dalai Lama, the leader of all Tibetans and a man of peace, who told him not to harbour any hatred toward the Chinese. And the Dalai Lama, one of the world’s truly great figures, of humility, compassion and inner strength as well as of peace, is abused day and night by the Chinese!
That was over 14 years back – though Chinese government virulence against the Dalai Lama continues unabated, forcing his peace and politic al negotiators to quit in frustration after Beijing refused to take talks forward.
The immolation took place in Delhi, capital of a free nation, proud of its “democracy” despite all the corruption, sleaze, violence (of the State and non-State) and dreadfulness of poverty and vulnerability of the marginalized, But at least we are free to voice our protest whether peacefully like Team Anna (who are getting very repetitive) or not so peacefully like armed groups in Central, North-western (read Jammu and Kashmir) or North-eastern Indian (though the latter has substantially reduced in recent years).
The reason that Thubden Ngodup figures here is that for the past two years, a horrific set of events has unraveled in his homeland, occupied by Chinese military and political forces since 1950. Failed armed uprisings in the 1950s and 1960s led to a lull; then came the protests by monks, first in the 1980s, then in the 1990s and again in 2007, where people took to the streets, attacking Chinese businesses, nationals and others in an extraordinary set of events where the iron rule of Beijing was challenged as rarely before. On the Indian side, a Long March by Tibetan protesters was halted near the international border: but the fact that it was allowed to go that far was itself a modest message from the Indian Government to the Chinese that in a free country, free people – even if they were refugees – had the right to protest.
After each uprising, the repression got worse in Tibet – and when the outside world thinks it could be getting better, living under some myopic illusion of the nature of Chinese rule (remember, even if our Communist pro-Maoist comrades do not or don’t wish to, that Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward killed no less than 30 million people (that is almost the entire population of Assam today: that is a historical fact). Today, Tibet is shut off from the outside world again. But the question to ask is why Tibet has been suddenly cut off: there is no great revolution taking place that threatens the Chinese. Or is there?
Are unarmed religious mendicants such a threat? Nuns and monks who are sworn to a life of celibacy, meditation, chanting and prayers are a threat to the State of the Peoples Republic of China? Add to that another qualifier: nuns, monks and ordinary people committing suicide by burning themselves in front of police stations, monasteries, in public squares and streets are such a security threat to the PRC, which has one of the world’s largest arsenals of nuclear weapons, has the largest army on the face of the earth?
What most commentators, media pundits, scholars and government officials have completely missed out here is the significance of the burning: in Buddhism, it is anathema or even worse, apostate, or put simply a religious crime, to burn oneself because Buddhist’s greatest precept is respect for all living beings, including insects, and certainly one’s own body. Buddhists are buried not cremated, as any simple survey of ancient history and Buddhists texts would show.
So for a Buddhist to turn on himself or herself, to kill himself, to defy his deepest faith, renounce his greatest precept, is to denounce in that very act the brutality, illegality, impunity and the act of existence of Chinese rule in his or her homeland. In his classic, Nobel Prize winning work, “The Gulag Archipelago”, a devastating indictment of the network of concentration camps for political prisoners in Siberia and other parts of the erstwhile Soviet Union, Alexander Solzinyetsin, refers to the courage of those who refused to surrender, within themselves, to what they considered illegal: it lies in saying, “Here I am, this is my belief, I not just defy you, I do not recognize you and your so-called authority, and whatever you do to me, my belief cannot change for I am prepared to die for it.” It could also be viewed as an extreme form of desperation.
Tibet is not free – but neither is China.
Let us not forget that not less than 41 monks, nuns and civilians have burned themselves to death and in so doing have shamed China and blackened the face of the regime in Beijing, no matter how craftily its leaders and official spokespersons phrase their words. These have been the most extreme form of such protests anywhere in the world. Most ‘national’ and international leaders are afraid to meet publicly with the Dalai Lama, for fear of enraging the Chinese dragon. He and his people have given back much to this country what went out from here thousands of years ago – the qualities at the heart of Buddhism as well as dignity, compassion, health and healing – qualities we seem to have forgotten.
Since Mao’s portrait still looms large at Tiananmen Square, home of Beijing’s brief fling with democracy and its bloody crushing, it might be worth for the Chinese leaders and their followers to reflect on this little bit of his philosophy where he recognizes the immutable force of contradictions:
“All contrary things are interconnected; not only do they coexist in a single entity in given conditions, but in other given conditions they also transform themselves into each other. This is the full meaning of the unity of opposites.” That was in the 1937 essay ‘On Contradiction’.
In the North-east, it would be good, sometimes at least, to pause and reflect not just about our complex problems but of the courage and suffering of our neighbours and hope that the fragile ‘Burmese Spring’ reaches Tibet. Mao’s noting on contradictions has a resonance for our region and its neighbourhood: the more we resist being like “the other”, the more we become like him or her or them especially in the treatment of each other: we do unto others what we accuse them of doing to us, and in the process become more like them, the very idea of which we oppose!
But by burning themselves, the Tibetans have simply broken the cycle of blame and contradiction and proved that the Chairman, his Party, his Enforcers and Army, his Thoughts can be defeated, not through the barrel of a gun, but through the depth of the human spirit.
By the Brahmaputra / By Sanjoy Hazarika