AsiaB&WStoryJoydip Mitra ; A Long March—Uprising Day celebration of the exiled Tibetans, in India

Rinzin, is not sure to which side of China is Tibet. Neither Rinzin, nor her parents, had ever been either to China, or to that part of China that was once Tibet. Now for three generations they fought and flourished in several refugee camps in India
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Rinzin, is not sure to which side of China is Tibet. Neither Rinzin, nor her parents, had ever been either to China, or to that part of China that was once Tibet.

Now for three generations they fought and flourished in several refugee camps in India, born and raised in a different political climate in which democracy is revered above all, whatever erratic its form is. But this doesn’t deter Rinzin from leading her classmates in a huge rally against a backdrop of big mountains where there is still snow.

All through her march from McLeodganj to Dharamshala—about 11 kilometers—Rinzin and her friends were shouting China to evacuate Tibet, calling with hysteric frenzy the Chinese Government butcher and killer. Monks and Activists and Students and Tourists were all keeping pace with Rinzin, coming down the mountains through thick suburbs and occasional pines, sloganeering and gesticulating with the same fierce emotion that seems a bit out of place. Though on the 10th of March every year the same rally descends down to enact Tibet’s Uprising Day, asking for freedom from Chinese occupation, it clearly lacks in the piercing-power to bother any occupier—let alone a contemporary superpower.

The ‘Uprising’ took place on the same day of March 60 years back, in Lhasa. Immediately after coming into being, the People’s Republic of China noticed that within its fold or just outside there are 53 Minority Nationalities—Tibetans’ being one– that occupy the Republic’s 60% territory but accommodate just 6% of population. So the Chinese Communist Party adopted a Minorities’ Policy to distribute the population more evenly and exploit the resources of these mostly uncharted lands. Grabbing these lands first in the name of protecting them from imperialist influence and then bringing in the process of liberation and democratic reform and—finally– communist collectivization, China tried to transform these Minority Nationalities into the Han mould, politically and culturally. Trouble started in 1950 when China took hold of Tibetan provinces Amdo and Kham, and the Dalai Lama—then just 15—had to take refuge in India. A delegation was sent to Peking to negotiate with the Chinese and it in turn was forced to sign a 17-point agreement, through which Tibet ceased to remain a Nation State any further and China took it under its fold—both in administrative and military terms. Han soldiers were transported to Lhasa in huge number and just within a few months they were almost one-third of the city’s population. Tibet had to feed all Han ‘protectors’ guarding it from ‘imperialist influence’, and consequently suffered a famine in 1955—for the first time in its history. In the meanwhile the Dalai Lama got back and even went to Peking to talk to Mao, but Chinese expansion continued. Though the young Dalai Lama tried to act as a buffer between the Tibetans and the Chinese occupiers, his own people were fast losing their patience. Things came to a head on 10th of March, 1959 as the Chinese insisted that the Dalai Lama should come to one of their theatres without his guards. Tibetans anticipated the worst and all Lhasa came out to form a barricade around Dalai Lama’s summer palace. With whatever they can lay their hands on, they attacked the Chinese army and were, in retaliation, fired from machine guns. This ‘Uprising’, strangely, dragged on for a week when, on 17th, the desperate Chinese fired 2 shells into the Dalai Lama’s summer palace. That very night the Dalai Lama, with his family and Cabinet and hundreds of Tibetan nobles, escaped from Lhasa–towards India. About 500 Kham Guerillas made the rear of this strange caravan to resist the Chinese. Rinzin’s granddad and granny were both part of that escaping caravan. There lies her legacy of a refugee.

On my march with Rinzins I felt that this annual commemoration of Tibetan Uprising Day is not violent though but far more tragic. This demand for a land that is irrevocably lost sounded paradoxically surreal. But still to stand by this demand 153 Tibetans by now have immolated themselves– the highest for any cause, political or otherwise. Emotion runs so high on this day that the Dalai Lama prefers not to come before the marching party– plainly afraid that his presence may ignite one or two human bodies more. ‘Free Tibet’ demonstrated in flags and banners in which a pair of dragons are found holding on to the three institutions of the Buddha and the Dharma and the Sangha simply looks too lyrical a campaign to make sense. Walking down the mountain with several generations of exiles, their faces painted in the Tibetan color of red and blue, with hundreds of dragons flapping in the air in pairs, it certainly was a march into the fairy land of dancing dragons.

About Joydip Mitra

A freelance photographer based in Kolkata, Joydip Mitra specialized in documenting people, fairs and festivals from all states of India and used to contribute travel pictures frequently to Jetwings, Outlook Traveller Guides, India Today Travel Plus, SAEV US, and many other magazines. Turning into documentary photography rather recently, he has worked extensively on the Ramnamis—India’s Tattooed Agnostics. Right now he is working on ’60 Years in Exile—Escape tales of the first generation of Tibetan Refugees’ and ‘ The Siddis—Is India pushing its Africa back into the Jungle?’ Joydip Mitra shoots exclusively in color. But while walking with exiled Tibetans in India, in support of their claim for getting back Tibet from China, he realized that this demand is so futile and yet so legitimate that it doesn’t seem real. To stress on the abstract form of Tibetan’s demand for a Free Tibet, Joydip opted to do their story in black and white. This is Joydip Mitra’s first attempt to present something devoid of reality and color. [Official Website]

Tseko Tugchak immolated himself in Eastern Tibet on the 7th of March, 2018, protesting against Chinese occupation. He is the last so far in a series of 153 self-immolators. A candle-light march of silent mourners was taken out in McLeodganj the evening before the Uprising Day rally.

A girl playing the tune of Free Tibet’s national anthem in her flute. Every official event of the Tibetan Government in Exile starts with Free Tibet’s and India’s national anthems being played simultaneously.

Boys and girls descending down a steep slope on their march to Dharamshala, holding aloft Free Tibet’s national flag. About 50% of the protesters were young students who demand freedom with unparallel intensity.

Because of a Delhi High Court ruling delivered in September 2016, all Tibetans born in India are eligible to apply for Indian passport. In other words they are considered citizens of India and can now refute their refugee status. These young girls are raised in India among Indians, and are quite conversant with IPL or Bollywood dhakamas. Not to let them forget their origin pamphlets with history of Tibet written in Tibetan are being distributed among them.

Anti-China slogans make for the marching tune of this protest rally. Students lead the sloganeering and others duly go along. Many of them appeared conscious about what this kind of showing dissent would have led to in Tibet now.

People with Tibetan flags and even with babies strapped at the back have gathered outside the Dalai Lama’s residence to start the march. Some cover their faces, probably to avoid identification. They seem to have just crossed over into India. They fear that if they are found here, their keens–who have stayed back in Tibet–will face the consequence.

Many westerners join in the Uprising Day rally, showing concern of the outside world for Tibet. In 1950, while Tibet was first attacked, the USA declined to stand by it, arguing that Tibet’s status as an independent ‘Nation State’ is not clear. Only after the Uprising in 1959 the USA came to realize that the Tibetans have the potential to harm Communist China, and they brought the CIA into play. About 400 Tibetans were secretly smuggled to Camp Hale, in Colorado, for extensive training on espionage techniques and guerilla warfare. They were then sent back to Tibet, through Mustang in Nepal, to ambush Chinese convoys on the Xinxiang-Lhasa Road.

Monks and civilians march together in demand of a still elusive freedom. Sincerely they know that they are fighting against all odds, and that China doesn’t care. So now they are pinning their hope on some probable ‘movement-for-democracy’ inside the People’s Republic itself, though it has to be thousand times stronger than the Tiananmen Square agitation.

Rinzin leading her friends through the busy streets of Dharamshala. Shopkeepers and onlookers sympathize with the nation in exile. In many places they distribute sweets, biscuits and soft-drinks to the agitating mass.

Young ones are quite keen to join the rally. Situation has made them picking up a positive political consciousness very early in life.

Strapped at mom’s back and still holding on to the flag of free Tibet, this baby seems ready to be a part of the protest.

Tibetans love to dress up for the occasion, and this Uprising Day rally is no exception. They particularly dress their kids in traditional Tibetan style, in ‘chuba’ (long-sleeved jacket made of silk) and all. This seems a conscious effort to keep alive a culture, and through it a sense of nationality.

Tsering Yangtso, 82, is a first-generation Tibetan refugee. She left Tibet in 1959, in the Dalai Lama’s caravan. Still able to recount graphically what happened during those 15 days she was on her escape route, Tsering Yangtso is now too old to risk this 4-hour march. But with religious reverence she clings on to the flag of Tibet on this Uprising Day.

Kids tired of walking are picked up by a van, from where they are radiating their usual enthusiasm and activism.

Being matrilineal a society, the Tibetans’ spontaneously bring active women into the lead. Most of the clusters of protestors, of whom the entire rally is made, are found led by women.

First-generation refugees and also those born in exile waving Tibetan flags under a grey sky. For them freedom is no free air inhaled in every breath. Some once knew freedom, some never did. Of the 122 thousand Tibetans now settled in India, only a couple of hundreds had sometimes been to Tibet.

Still smart traders, the Tibetans are. The NGO ‘Free Tibet’ raises considerable sum of money by selling flags to participants in the Uprising Day rally. Tee-shirts inscribed with angry slogans are also being sold—1 for 150, 3 for 350. Non-Tibetans aggressively collect these weapons of protest as souvenirs.

A combination of brilliant colors, serene marching route, ecstatic costumes and an overall carnival atmosphere even in the cause of protest is what this Uprising Day rally is. Even in exile the Tibetans seem to know how to be happy.

Every year on 10th of March the Tibetan Government in Exile organize a protest march against Chinese occupation of Tibet. This rally walks down to Dharamshala from McLeodganj—a distance of about 11 kilometers. This march is meant to honor the Uprising in Lhasa on 10th of March, 1959, when ordinary Tibetans protested the presence of Chinese occupiers and were killed in thousands. The Dalai Lama had to escape to India as a result of the Chinese retaliation against this Uprising.

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