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.
Also Read | Free Speech series
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.
Photo: Priyanka Parashar / Mint
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.
Loud and clear: Tsundue protests in Bangalore in 2005.
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...it 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.