“In the Tibetan community, people refuse to think politically”: An Interview with Tibetan Writer and Activist, Tenzin Tsundue

Theo Constantinou
01 December, 2015

Tenzin Tsundue, a 42-year-old Tibetan poet, writer and Rangzen (freedom) activist, first caught the attention of the international media in 2002 for registering an unusual form of protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. During the Chinese premier Zhu Rongji's visit to Mumbai, Tsundue climbed the scaffolding outside the hotel at which Rongji was staying and unfurled a 20-foot banner that read “Free Tibet: China, Get Out.” Tsundue was the first recipient of the Outlook-Picador Award for Non-Fiction in 2001 and has authored four books that have been translated into several languages. His poems and other writings reveal a frank awareness of the Tibetan situation, and are marked by an emphasis on what it means to grow up in exile. Now based in Dharamshala, Tsundue has dedicated his life to the cause of Tibetan freedom, as symbolised by the trademark red bandana that he has vowed to take off only when Rangzen has been achieved.

Last week, Ishan Marvel, a web reporter at The Caravan, met Tsundue a day after his session at the Indian Languages Festival Samanvay. In this interview, Tsundue spoke to Marvel about his life in India and journey to Tibet, the curious fusion of religion and politics that has marked the region’s freedom struggle and his views on the Dalai Lama.

Ishan Marvel:Could you tell us about your early life?

Tenzin Tsundue: I was born in the Spiti valley of Himachal Pradesh, where my parents were working as road construction labourers at the time. Soon after, in 1975, we were rehabilitated to a refugee camp in Kollegal, Karnataka. I grew up there before being adopted by a small school in the Kullu valley of Himachal Pradesh that housed about 300 Tibetan children. After seventh grade, I finished my schooling in Dharamshala. I then moved to Madras for a Bachelor of Arts degree and to Bombay for a Master of Arts. I lived in Bombay for five years and completed a double major in literature and philosophy. When I was 22, I went to Tibet. The idea was to go there, fight for freedom, and perhaps die. But I got arrested. I was blindfolded, beaten and interrogated in jail for three months before being thrown out of Tibet. That was a kind of rebirth for me.

IM: Could you describe the journey to Tibet and your subsequent imprisonment?

TT: I walked to Tibet from Ladakh on my own without telling anybody. It is around four to five kilometres from the Ladakh border, across the Indus river. I was supposed to meet people on the other side of the Himalayas, but things didn't go as planned. Still, I met a number of fellow prisoners and we exchanged stories from across borders. These were “prisoners of conscience,” people who are jailed for their opinions, not for crimes.

I was first imprisoned at Ngari town [in western Tibet] for around 11 to 12 days after which, I was sent to a jail in Lhasa that is meant for political prisoners, for three months. There were about 68 other prisoners. I saw people being chained; everyone was usually locked up throughout the day, and often denied any social interaction or sleep. We were given just ten minutes in the morning for fresh air. It was the worst situation of my life, but I knew I had to survive. I used to sing film songs in broken Hindi to entertain myself, like Suhaana safar. . . (Tsundue sings).

I would imagine that I was a hero—a freedom fighter in jail. At 22, you are always your own hero. There was a mouse that would visit my cell and I used to give it some of my rice. It was a huge source of inspiration and entertainment. I survived somehow, by doing exercises, sweeping my cell, reciting prayers that I had learnt in school—not because I thought they would save me, but because these were daily activities that kept me alive and busy. Finally, after three months, they said that they were releasing me. They took me back to the Ladakh border, to the point from which I had entered Tibet. I handed myself over to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and told them my story. Again, I was interrogated for a month.

IM: The predicament of being a refugee and growing up in an alien country often features in your writings. How did this awareness and the determination to fight for the Tibetan cause take shape?

TT: The idea of being a refugee and having to fight for freedom came very early. I was born in India, but the idea of Tibet came to me through the songs and stories my grandmother would narrate to us in our refugee camp in Karnataka. I learnt about snow-mountains, yaks, sheep, and the life of nomads and farmers. Plus, there were traditional games and food. So, we grew up imagining Tibet through these. Then, in school, our teachers, ayahs, and cooks told us about how Tibet is under Chinese occupation. They told us that we must return to our country one day; that freedom will not come for free or by killing the Chinese; and that it cannot be bought, but will be possible only when we empower ourselves with education and reason. After the games and stories, this was my first serious education about Tibet. Our teachers told us that the world doesn't know about Tibet, and that to inform them, we would need to learn English. I must have been in fifth grade when I took a pledge to be a freedom fighter when I grew up, and tell the world about Tibet through my writing.

IM: How have your views evolved over the years since then? How would you evaluate the Tibetan situation against the backdrop of international politics, and the relations between India, Tibet and China?

TT: It didn't take much time to understand that it is not that the world doesn't know. The world knows too much, and too well. All the countries are playing their politics, and satisfying their own interests, whether it is America, India or Europe. China runs a capitalist economy in the name of communism, with no basic human rights even for its own people. But it feeds much of the global economy. For example, most governments do not want to set up dirty industries in their country, so they do not mind setting these up in China to buy products that come from cheap labour and free natural resources from the occupied lands of Tibet, East Turkestan, and parts of Mongolia and Manchuria. Therefore, I keep stressing that whoever is trading with China must be accountable for the human rights violations in Tibet and the 143 cases of self-immolation. Everyone knows the history of Tibet, that it was an independent country until the Chinese invasion. But this is how it's going to be if the status quo benefits other countries. If it doesn't, they may actually support us.

India is in this position too. I believe it wants Tibet to be free in the future, but at the moment, if India can make money out of China, it doesn't mind saying that Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is part of People's Republic of China (PRC). But in the long run, it would be very expensive. Even now, India is spending thousands of crores on the Himalayan border because of the Chinese military on the other side. If Tibet is regained as an independent country, much of that expense, along with the danger, will not be there. Besides, the Tibetans and the Indian population in the Himalayas have always had marital, trade, and cultural ties. In fact, people across the Himalayas have more in common with the Tibetans than with the mainstream Indian culture found in the plains.

IM: Could you comment on the curious mixture of religion and politics in Tibet, and the Dalai Lama’s role in this movement?

TT: Much of the Tibetan culture is faith driven. Interestingly though, faith here is not faith in a god, because in Buddhism there is no god. It is an atheistic religion. But the Tibetans have turned their lamas into gods, which I think amounts to the degeneration of a sane, rational, and meaningful religion with no place for blind faith.

In the Tibetan community, people refuse to think politically. They say that the Dalai Lama knows of the past, present and future. Whatever he chooses for Tibet is also their choice. When someone like me tries to argue for independence vis-a-vis autonomy, he is asked, “Why do you unnecessarily bring your reason in front of the wisdom of the Dalai Lama?” The Dalai Lama is our leader, and I have respect for his wisdom. But at the same time, there are a number of other factors to consider: possibilities of change within China, or in international trade and politics, for instance. His Holiness is not making decisions for Tibet, and it is not his desire or wish to do so either. He has nurtured democracy for the past 56 years. In 2011, he relinquished his political authority in order to strengthen and empower a genuine system of Tibetan government.

To bring all these factors together in favour of Tibet, we have to work! The People of Tibet, whoever they are—monks, students, sweater-sellers, people in the army, writers, intellectuals or artists—have roles to play in constructively bringing together the Tibetan entity. We can't depend on His Holiness forever. Otherwise, when he dies, that will be the end of everything, adding to the tragedy of Tibet.

IM: Tibetan writers, intellectuals and artists are gaining prominence. Could you give us a brief account of the evolution of Tibetan poetry?

TT: Tibetan poetry has a rich oral tradition. People kept on singing and adding to the songs—beautiful lines of poetry were created, but nobody knows who authored them in the first place. The Tibetan script itself is new. It was created out of necessity only in the seventh century when we embraced Buddhism, and needed to translate Buddhist texts from Pali or Sanskrit. Therefore, our written literature is very recent. Content-wise, traditionally—owing to the nomadic or farming culture—much of it was pastoral with nomadic sensibilities, along with an emphasis on music, theatre and performance. Most of these songs and stories are not available in the written form, and so we are losing them.

Coming to the present, exile writing, particularly Tibetan writing in English, is more existential and is still nascent. It delves on questions of identity, because we may be born and brought up in India, but we feel very strongly about Tibet. In the 1970s and 80s, when the first batch of Tibetan graduates were writing in English, much of it was a response to the condescending elder generation that kept on saying, “You are young, you don't know. You have not seen Tibet.” Writers such as Kay Thondup, Tenzing Sonam, and Gyalpo Tsering were responding to the elder generation that interestingly, could not speak or read English.

Now, for my generation—the second generation, that was born and brought up in India—English is still a second language, but closer. Much of our response revolves around speaking to the world about Tibet and claiming the Tibetan voice. We are telling our own stories, and saying, this is who we are, and these are our choices. Similarly, a third generation is emerging. These are the people whose parents, from my generation, were born in India. We are yet to fully realise what this new breed is saying and what is going to be the content of their literature.

IM: Apart from your writing, you are known for your distinct brand of activism. An example of this would be your protest outside Zhu Rongi’s hotel. How did you decide upon this unusual form of agitiation?

TT: When you stand on the road and shout “Free Tibet,” nobody will listen to you. But when you say it from the fourteenth floor, everybody is going to notice. Inside, the Chinese prime minister was giving a lecture to Indian businessmen, and outside was this small man waving a banner for Tibet. It was a poetic idea, and I was always inspired by such creative means of protest, for they also bring a sense of humour. It brings a smile on people’s faces. They see courage, and they are inspired.

IM: Finally, returning to your identity as a refugee, what does it mean to be an exile living far away from one’s homeland?

TT: In one of my poems, My Tibetanness, I wrote “I am Tibetan / But I am not from Tibet / Never been there / Yet I dream / of dying there.” So, even while you’re living, you’re always talking of the desire to die in Tibet. Most of us, wherever we may be living, we are used to calling it a house, not home. Because home is sacred, and will be set up only when we return—home is Tibet, and we live in hope.

The life of a refugee is inspiring. It teaches you a lot and makes you humble. It makes you sensitive to other causes and beings. But it’s a life lived between the dream and the reality: the dream of a free Tibet and the reality of being a refugee in India. It’s like the Tibetan concept of bardo, or the intermittent time between life and death, in which one exists before entering the next life.