“The Dream to Go Back to Tibet Is More Important Than Getting Indian Citizenship”: Tenzin Tsundue
Tenzin Tsundue is an Indian-born Tibetan whose parents were forced to leave the country following the Tibet uprising in 1959. Since his youth, he has been an activist fighting for Tibet’s freedom and the Tibetans’ rights inside the country. He has authored three books, including poetry and essays.
The Manipal Journal had the chance to interview Tenzin, a poet, a writer, an activist, and winner of the first Outlook-Picador Award for Non-Fiction, during the second edition of Manipal International Literature and Arts Platform (M.I.L.A.P.). He sat down with us and gave us an insight into the current scenario of the China-Tibet issue.
As a second-generation Tibetan living in India, do you think you or for a matter of fact other Tibetans in India will move back to Tibet after its freedom, considering how they have found a sense of home in India?
We have a place to stay; we have houses, schools, refugee camps, and means for an income. Legally, we are not citizens of India. We are not refugees as the government of India has no policies for aiding refugees. In India, you can have only two identities – a citizen or a foreigner. Therefore, we are foreigners. As I was born in India, I am a foreigner born in India. Because we are not citizens, we don’t own any property. Thus, when the Tibet issue is resolved, most Tibetans will return home. If His Holiness, the Dalai Lama goes back then most of the Tibetans will follow him. The Government of India recently declared that Tibetans born on Indian soil between 1950 and 1987 have the right to seek Indian citizenship. However, many Tibetans including me wouldn’t apply for Indian citizenship. We feel that the dream to go back to Tibet is more important than getting Indian citizenship.
It’s been in the news that many Tibetans in India are opting for Indian citizenship because they feel that Tibet is unsafe due to government repression. Could you briefly explain the issue?
Yes, I am aware of this. In many of these news reports and articles, you would have seen me objecting this. Around 1,400 Tibetans have applied for Indian citizenship from Dharamshala and sought for a voter’s card, but at the time of the elections they did not vote. After the Himachal Pradesh elections this year, they submitted their voter’s card. Some Tibetans might opt for citizenship and desire to settle for the benefits but for most of them going back to their own country is far more sacred. Out of the one lakh Tibetans in India, a few might have registered for Indian citizenship, but most of the Tibetans still maintain their identity.
There have been talks about Tibet obtaining the status of an autonomous state as Tibetans are willing to be ruled by the Chinese if their religion and culture are protected. What are your thoughts on this?
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama has been speaking about this proposal which is called the genuine autonomy within the People’s Republic of China. He calls this the middle-way approach, where His Holiness is trying to avoid the two extremities. On one hand, you have the Chinese saying that Tibet has always been a part of China and therefore it must remain a part of China. His Holiness sees the other extreme where Tibet was an independent country and hence must become independent. He believes that these extremities will find no resolution. This proposal of autonomy will benefit both the parties involved. The Tibetan Government-in-Exile is also supporting this middle-way approach of His Holiness. Although the middle-way approach seems plausible for us but for China, it’s not doable. They see both autonomy and independence as one and the same. They think that if you ask for autonomy today, you will demand independence tomorrow. China sees the autonomous policy as a medium for Tibetans to fight for independence. There have been many debates in the Tibetan community regarding autonomy and independence. I believe that China is not going to give anything to us. We must secure independence and independence is the only future for Tibet. Temporarily it may be difficult as China is economically and military-wise powerful and they are trading with over 150 countries across the world. But China is not going to be like this forever, it will change.
You have been quite public about your experiences in prison. How were you treated? Additionally, are the basic human rights of citizens being violated in Tibetan jails?
I have been to Tihar jail twice. In India, the situation is quite different. At the time of the protest, the police must show the media that they are being strict with Tibetans when they protest against Chinese ministers coming to India. They do ‘lathi charge’, grab us, throw us into police vehicles, and take us to jail. Once we are inside, they sit with us and we have chai together. They admire young Tibetans, as they see them fighting for their homeland. India wants to trade with China and doesn’t want any conflict with it. The situation in Tibet is horrific. People go missing, in the blink of an eye. They are tortured. There is no free press and the media is run by the State. The media will carry all that the State wants it to. If you’re found indulging in the struggle for independence, you become an enemy of the State. They even use tourists to ask questions to the locals and these answers go back to the State. I continue to hear from other political prisoners who were later released and they escaped to India. All of them have harrowing stories of torture and deprivation of sleep. Women are made to stand naked on ice and because it is extremely cold, their feet get stuck to the ice. They are beaten and made to forcibly get out of the ice. This way their lower heel gets ripped off and sticks to the ice. They use unimaginable ways of torture.
Can you elaborate more on your experiences with the freedom movement for Tibet? What according to you is the future of this movement?
My main work as an activist is to keep the freedom struggle alive from within the community. I don’t think any support from the big countries will amount to anything. The main fight should come from people within the country. Majority of our people are running the freedom struggle from Tibet. Maintaining the movement from exile is my first duty. In this freedom struggle, we cannot rely only on the emotional quotient. We need to bring in intellectual strength and answer questions like – “How should we make Tibet better in the future compared to what it is now?” Intellectually working towards a genuinely free Tibet, that’s our main aim of the freedom struggle. We need to talk to communities outside Tibet, like India. Gaining support from India is one of my main duties as an activist as I was born in India; to be the voice of Tibetans inside Tibet is another. Indians are genuinely sympathetic to the issue of Tibet. There is a deep cultural affinity between Indians and Tibetans in India. Indians are also troubled with the Chinese and thus they lend their support to Tibet. We have an Indo-Tibetan border police and not an Indo-China border police in that region. The Indian education system doesn’t address the China and Tibet issues and hence many Indians, are unaware of the matter and the updates in the Foreign Policy. It is only recently that universities have taken up the initiative to spread the message by calling speakers like me to talk about it.
Featured Image Courtesy: Annwesha Shyam
Edited by: Karthika Venugopal