In just a few days from now, the Olympic torch will arrive in Delhi, bringing to a head the debate whether it is right or wrong to carry it.
The debate, in fact, was kicked off weeks before the torch was anywhere in sight. Indian football captain Bhaichung Bhutia’s early decision to opt out of the Olympic torch relay to protest China’s crackdown in Tibet was hailed nearly unanimously as an “unusually conscientious decision”.
On the other hand, film star Aamir Khan’s decision to run with the torch with a “prayer in his heart for the people of Tibet” has met nearly as unanimously with derision and condemnation. Over the next few days, the debate will only become more strident and shrill.
It seems clear to me that the Tibet cause has left most middle-class Indians cold. These are the same middle-class Indians who turn a blind eye to routine abuses by state power whether in the form of encounter killings or brutal crackdowns on public protest as seen in Nandigram, West Bengal.
Aamir Khan’s assertion that there are very few countries, including our own, that are not guilty of some form of human rights abuse has its basis in truth. So, why are we now so worked up over the torch relay? Why are we now so quick to condemn those who choose to run with it? And where does our new-found sympathy for Tibet spring from?
At the heart of the debate, I suspect, lies a deep-seated mistrust of the Chinese by many of those same middle-class Indians, at least those of a certain age. I remember growing up with the notion that the Chinese had cheated us of our sovereign territory, betraying Pandit Nehru’s overtures of friendship with a military invasion. My mother always ended that unfortunate story with a lament that Panditji died soon after. In my young mind, the Chinese were inextricably linked with his death.
Things haven’t improved over the years. For another generation of Indians, the image of tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square in 1989 remains firmly embedded. A year ago, the Chinese themselves promised to improve their abysmal human rights record. Xinhua news agency quoted a Chinese official, Wu Bangguo, declaring to International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge: “We not only want to display before the world an even more open and more harmonious China, but also want to extensively carry forward the Olympic spirit in China.”
In fact, what is now being reported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch is exactly the opposite. According to Amnesty International, much of the current wave of repression within China stems not in spite of the Olympics but because of it. To cite just one example, in Beijing, 34-year-old AIDS activist Hua Jia has just received a three-and-a-half year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power”. Proof of his guilt? He posted five articles on the Internet critical of the Chinese government.
There’s every danger that over the next four months, this sort of repression will increase as the government struggles to present a sanitized, feel-good face to the world. Activists are being rounded up, “undesirables” are being transported out of sight and new measures are being introduced to increase government controls on the Internet and there are reports that even mobile phone communication and SMS messages are being monitored. This is what is happening within China—Tibet, Darfur, and global warming are separate issues.
The torch, which left Greece on 24 March, will arrive in China in time for the opening ceremony, after travelling 137,000km through six continents for 130 days. What it is leaving in its wake so far is a tortuous trail of protest—different voices for different causes, not just Tibet, even though the Dalai Lama seems to loom larger than life.
In Paris, the torch was snuffed out three times; in San Francisco, runners had to take refuge in a cloak-and-dagger run; and, all this while, the number of heads of state from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown opting out of the opening ceremony is growing (as an aside to Messrs Sarkozy and Brown, economic sanctions would produce notably better results than a symbolic boycott).
The Chinese government is caught between a rock and a hard place. The Olympics was to have been its showcase event, trumpeting the arrival of a new economic power, complete with glitzy buildings, Starbucks cafes and new model cars. As part of this agenda, it had issued invitations to more than 100 heads of state, an unprecedented number in the history of the Olympics, to its opening and closing ceremonies.
But the public relations agenda has gone horribly wrong. Yes, the heads of state and international media will see signs everywhere of a globalized, bustling powerhouse, but one that remains, for all of that, a police state that doesn’t permit dissidence even among its own citizens.
For China, there is no going back. There is no backing out of the Olympics or of the fact that for the next four months, the world’s media will continue to count up its human rights abuses along with the medals that individual athletes bring home.
For those who stand for human rights and for Tibet, the torch is a godsend, delivering a message that has failed to have gone through all these years. The battle for sympathy, propaganda and awareness is already won. Ban the torch and boycott the Olympics? Not a bloody chance.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org