Tibet Telegraph caught up with Vijay Kranti, a long time supporter of Tibet and a senior Indian journalist who has extensively written about Tibet and Tibetan life. In an exclusive question answer session, the interview touches a variety of issues but the focus is given to highlight how he sees the Tibetan issue through the lenses of his political eyes and his camera.
1) Are you more of Indian or Tibetan or just a journalist or maybe an activist?
I must underline that Tibet is one of many subjects on which I've focused and written in my over four decade long professional life as a journalist and photographer. But Tibet has occupied over 80 percent of my mindscape during this period. Now to answer your question, I would say that I am an Indian who is a professional journalist with deep interest in Tibet. My interest in Tibet has encouraged me strongly to know more and more about the Tibetan issue and try to understand the Tibetan people and their thinking process. I may sometimes sound like a Tibet 'activist' because I strongly support the Tibetan national cause. But this 'support' comes more from my realization of the truth about the Tibetan people's case as an inquisitive researcher and journalist than any 'activism'. But despite this 'support' there is also a strong element of detachment which I must practice as a journalist to write independently and frankly on Tibet.
2) How did you start your interest in Tibet as a journalist and photographer? How would you define your relationship with the Tibetan community?
It started from a professional encounter. A popular Indian Hindi news magazine (Saptahik Hindustan) assigned me in late 1972 to do a news feature on the Tibetan refugee community in India. I was just a beginner in the profession. Getting a cover story assignment in the first two years of my professional work was a very big challenge. This assignment also included an interview with HH the Dalai Lama. The exercise involved some research work on the Tibetan issue, a personal interaction with HH the Dalai Lama and meetings with many Tibetan refugees, especially the contemporary Tibetan youth leaders.
I was deeply touched by the personality of HH the Dalai Lama and his commitment towards his country and people. Tibetan youth leaders' commitment and energy too was the other element which attracted me to their cause.
On photography? Interestingly, I was too short of money to hire a photographer for this news feature. So I decided to do it myself on a borrowed camera. The layout artist (late TULIKI ji) of the magazine was so happy with my photos that he encouraged me to take photography seriously. He published 17 of my photos with this cover story. It was Tuliki ji's encouragement and guidance that I've been able to document Tibetan life on my camera during past four decades.
3) Since you have been associated with the Tibetan cause for over forty years now, how do you describe the struggle of Tibetans and where do you see Tibet in next twenty years? Which country do you honestly think has a soft corner for the Tibetan issue?
Tibetan struggle 'so far' is one of the most outstanding 'success stories' of recent human history. The most interesting and inspiring part of this story belongs to the Tibetan people living inside Tibet under the Chinese colonial control. Despite all repression and inhuman treatment at the hands of one of the most ruthless colonial regimes of documented human history, Tibetan people inside today's Tibet have maintained their determination and national spirit. Rather, it has increased over past six decades of occupation. I wish the exile community could also imbibe this level of collective commitment and focus towards the national cause of Tibet.
In exile the Tibetan community's greatest achievement is their success in reorganizing themselves as a disciplined and organized community. They have successfully revived their national identity and culture from the verge of near complete extinction. This could happen mainly because of the vision and positive leadership of HH the Dalai Lama and Tibetan people's faith in him. These, supported by the evolution of a democratic system and social organization in exile, is capable of keeping the Tibetan identity and Tibetan national aspirations alive for a very long period - far beyond next twenty years.
However, all this will depend exclusively on the levels of wisdom, commitment and capabilities of the future democratic leadership in exile. The Tibetan community must now ensure good health, strength and flexibility of the recently adopted democratic system.
4) It looks like most of the Tibetan activists for independence don't really have a direct-link with the Tibetans inside Tibet whereas most of the Tibetans standing for autonomy seem are those whose parents or grandparents are still in Tibet under the Chinese oppression. Since Tibetans standing for autonomy can have better understanding or feeling of the plight of the Tibetans inside Tibet as they have to worry about their parents or grandparents every minute, don't you think that their stand is being emotionally black mailed by the situation?
I find it very difficult to agree with the assumption that those Tibetans in exile who are in favour of 'independence' (Rangzen) have lesser knowledge of the feelings of Tibetans living inside Tibet as compared to those whose stand for 'autonomy' (under Chinese constitution) . Luckily I've personal firsthand experience of travelling extensively inside Tibet during my recent private photo expeditions as an ordinary 'tourist'. I could manage to travel over 5000 km on land through Kham, Amdo, U-Tsand and some other adjoining parts of Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai in these visits. The overwhelming universal feeling of ordinary Tibetan towards the Chinese government is of deep unhappiness, hatred and anger. Not a single Tibetan I met inside Tibet during these visits told me that he/she was happy with Chinese rule over Tibet. Chinese call Tibet as 'Tibet AUTONOMOUS Region'. But ordinary Tibetans strongly dislike this authonomy.
Tibetans across the world also have now documented evidence of more than 120 (124 till this day) self immolations by Tibetans inside Chinese occupied Tibet. There is not even a single case among these self immolations in which the dying Tibetan was asking for 'autonomy' within Chinese system. Each one of these burning Tibetans was expressing only two dreams in the last moments of his/her life -- 'FREEDOM' for Tibet and 'RETURN OF H H THE DALAI LAMA' to Tibet. For me the dying statements of these brave Tibetans are the most distinct expression of what an ordinary Tibetan living under Chinese occupation today thinks of Tibet and its relations with China. This, very sadly, is in sharp contrast to the double standards and convenient expressions of an influential section among the elite exiles who are trying to redefine relations between Tibet and China on the basis of their personal future comforts and ambitions.
I hope I am not over stepping my limits if I say that the exile community today is divided into three distinct sections on this debate of 'Rangzen-vs-Autonomy'. One is the much 'maligned' pro-Rangzen section which is comprised of a major section of independently thinking Tibetan individuals. Despite a systematic campaign of misinformation against them, they stand on the strength of their commitment and the courage of conviction. The pro-Autonomy section is distinctly divided into two groups -- the majority among this group is comprised of those well meaning ordinary Tibetans who have deep faith in HH the Dalai Lama. They respectfully support 'autonomy' without any questioning simply because HH opted to test the idea of 'Genuine Autonomy' as his first choice in dealing with an adamant Chinese regime. Although I don't agree with this group, yet I respect this group's faith in HH Dalai Lama. I am sure that this group will be the first to change their opinion on the day when Chinese leaders' conduct will finally convince HH the Dalai Lama that the Chinese neither valued nor deserved his extraordinary concession of 'autonomy' over 'Rangzen'.
The third among these Tibetan groups is seemingly a united front of a section among the Tibetan elite that has been used to comforts and gains which came automatically to them simply because of their traditional elite positions. The extraordinary enthusiasm of this group to patch up with Beijing in the name of any level of autonomy 'within the Chinese system' appears to originates from the fear that they don't see any chances for themselves in the new environment of democratic competition which HH Dalai Lama has very wisely gifted to the Tibetan nation.
Interestingly, this third section is closely supported and joined by a sizeable section of those western governments and agencies who enthusiastically present a pro-Tibet facade. But their actual history shows that they would not hesitate sacrificing Tibetan interests for some petty business and political interests in their deals with the Beijing regime. Tibetan community needs to probe seriously how some of these organizations have damaged the Tibetan cause by systematically brainwashing and weaning away the Tibetan youth leadership from Rangzen to autonomy through chains of five-star workshops and projects funded with foreign money from their respective governments.
5) A section of Indian media once had described the Karmapa money scandal as a link to Beijing. As a journalist, how do you describe the scandal? Was it just a frenzy of media speculation or do you smell some dirty political hands behind the scandal?
Looking back at those unfortunate events, I think the entire episode was more a result of a chain of mistakes on the part of almost all players than a well orchestrated scandal by any specific group. My assessment is that it was caused by a messed up and poor handling of a routine land transaction which was aimed at building a monastery by the Karma Pa establishment in Dharamsala. Instead of handling through a proper bank transaction in a legal and transparent manner, the deal, amounting to millions of Indian Rupees, was transacted in cash just because local laws don't permit a refugee establishment to purchase land in Himachal Pradesh. It is now believed that business rivalries between some local land dealers in Dharamsala also contributed further towards making this matter more complicated.
The matter took a more complex turn when the police found large amounts of cash in the form of currencies of over a dozen countries, including Chinese currency, from the building of HH Karma Pa. Later it was realized that this cash trove was actually result of accumulating cash donations which visiting devotees from various countries have been offering to HH Karma Pa over past many years. Legally speaking, the personal managers of His Holiness were supposed to have maintained this money in the form of a proper bank account after keeping the Indian government authorities informed about receipt of foreign currencies. It is well known that the official procedures of taking permission for receiving foreign currency donations are quite complex in India. But this failure on the part of managers in completing this process caused an avoidable embarrassment to His Holiness Karma Pa. Luckily the matter was settled by the justice delivery system of the State in favour of HH Karma Pa.
It is also unfortunate that improper handling of the media by some local authorities, including some police officials, added to the confusion which ended up in a series of sensational TV coverage of the event in initial days. This episode also exposed the poor levels of media relations on the part of Karma Pa establishment. In a country like India where any reference to China is treated with public alarm, it was not unnatural that discovery of Chinese currency received more media attention than far larger amounts in other world currencies.
6) How Tibetans can challenge the Chinese propaganda through media? And what do you think about the Tibetan media in exile? Shouldn't the Dalai Lama have reserved some half of his Templeton prize to boost the Tibetan media?
Although the Tibetan resources are no match to the Chinese propaganda machinery, yet the overall media coverage on Tibet in the world media has been, in general, more pro Tibet than pro China over past many years. But this is more because of the general pro-Tibet attitude of world media than a result of Tibetan efforts. Luckily the advent of internet has proved a great democratic leveller. The collective impact of media efforts by the exile Tibetan establishment, independent Tibetan websites and Tibet supporters across the world has been quite impressive. As a professional journalist, I am a great admirer of the efforts made by individual Tibetans and their groups in communicating the Tibetan case through a vast chain of innumerable websites.
I don't believe that HH the Dalai Lama should have given a part of his Templeton prize money to the Tibetan media. As much as I understand, the main problem of Tibetan media (in exile) is not the shortage of money. It is lack of professionalism and active interaction with the professional media of the world. There is a serious need of professional training for Tibetan journalists. More than anything else, the Tibetan media in exile badly needs to rescue itself from the vicious circle of poor economics, patronage and timidness.
7) Recently you have published a cartoon book on the Dalai Lama entitled Dalai Lama, the soldier of peace. Can you briefly describe the book?
I've written and published this book with a very specific purpose. For past over 40 years I have been strongly feeling the absence of a simple book or some other communication tool which can present the Tibetan case convincingly in very simple language and in an entertaining manner to any new person. There has been alwaysthe need of an interesting story book which can attract any normal person to read it till the end; enjoy it and; understand the story of Tibet and Dalai Lama with the same effect as any Tibet supporter or Tibet support group (TSG) would like the world to understand the case of Tibet and Tibetan people. I always hoped to see a book which can singularly and effectively handle the work of a TSG. Finally, I decided to do it myself.
In this book I've simply retold the story of Tibet through the story of present Dalai Lama. It tells the reader how Tibetans identify the little baby who is reborn as the reincarnate of the previous Dalai Lama after the latter's death. It tells in simple words how China occupied Tibet. It also tells the thrilling escape story of present Dalai Lama in all lucid details following Chinese Army's attempts to arrest or kill the Dalai Lama.
I am very happy that every single feedback and reaction so far has proven that this book matches these expectations. For many reasons, especially official indifference in Dharamsala, this book has yet to succeed on the finance front. But, as always, I am a hard fighter. I am soon going to launch a number of language editions of this book in the new year (2014). If things go as my team is hoping, the Tibetan edition will be launched by coming Losar. And the Hindi and Spanish editions should follow soon. But keeping in view a near disastrous financial response to the first English edition, I will publish the Tibetan edition only after I've received enough advance orders. I've also plans to launch the Chinese, Japanese, Korean and French editions --- provided I can find suitable partners or some enthusiastic TSGs to join hands.
8) H.H. the Dalai Lama in recent months has publicly stated that China's policy towards Tibet is loosening up despite Beijing's objection that nothing has changed. What makes His Holiness so positive about the new leadership in Beijing?
I am a great admirer of HH Dalai Lama for his positive and hopeful approach towards everyone, including the Chinese leadership. But I am equally aware of the negative, rather dismissive and arrogant response of the Chinese leaders towards him. This has been going on right from the days when he adopted the policy of dialogue with Beijing in late 1970s. Many times I am confused when HH Dalai Lama praises the Chinese leaders on a ground which the Chinese refute blatantly immediately. This present case also does not appear to be different. Sometimes I feel that this praise is one of his humble Buddhist ways of reminding the Chinese leadership what acts they are supposed to do.
I've seen His Holiness admiring Mao, Deng and many other leaders on such assumptions which later on proved to have originated either from his own good heart or from misinformation fed to him by some vested interests. I don't think his positive opinion about Xi Jinping and his new team has any different reason this time. In reality there is nothing on record which shows that Xi Jinping thinks any different way on Tibet as compared to most of his predecessors. Unfortunately, such positive statements of His Holiness have many times resulted into causing more confusion among Tibetan masses and Tibet supporters than generating any positive vibes in the minds of Chinese leadership.
9) What changes would you like to see in the exile Tibetan community?
I would love to see some basic changes in the personal and collective attitude of major Tibetan action groups as well as the Tibetan bureaucracy in exile. Over past forty years I've sadly seen some of the best Tibetan organizations and individuals suffering from a disease which I've termed as the 'Gaggal Syndrome'. Competition among Tibetan groups like TYC, TWA, SFT, Gu-Chu-Sum and NDPT to perform better than each other in Dharamsala or other Tibetan settlements is a welcome sign. But taking this competition to the levels of rivalry and non-cooperation with each other while working among non-Tibetan communities is very undesirable and self defeating. Unfortunately this tendency has been frequently on show at many places in the past. I wish that every Tibetan, as individual or organization, should conduct only as a 'Tibetan' when they are working in Delhi, New York or any other place. Their internal competition should vanish after they have crossed Gaggal which happens to be the last village after you drive out of Dharamsala. That's why I call this ailment as 'Gaggal Syndrome.'
On the bureaucracy front, many friends of Tibet like me are shocked to observe feudal tendencies and official arrogance among a substantial section of Tibetan officialdom in exile. Not only that they demonstrate these tendencies frequently towards ordinary Tibetans in their official dealings, but it is not uncommon to see many among them demonstrating same bureaucratic rudeness in similar situations to outsiders, including those who are old friends and well known supporters of Tibet. I wish they could borrow at least a fraction of humility which HH Dalai Lama demonstrates every day in his dealings with others.
10) Do you have any message for the budding Tibetan journalists in exile?
The main job of Tibetan journalists, including the budding ones, is to keep their respective audiences well informed on developments and issues related to Tibet. A good professional journalist can do this effectively only if he/she has the eye and motivation to find the truth and the courage to tell it to the audience. A journalist's job is not to act like a postman by transferring information from some important people to the Tibetan masses. He/she must understand the purpose and motivation behind release of any such information and must also analyse the impact of this information on the Tibetan issue and the society.
Younger Tibetan journalists should seriously focus on developing the art and habit of asking questions. Unfortunately questioning is not considered 'polite' in the traditional Tibetan society. It is even labelled as 'improper' and 'indiscipline' if someone asks questions, especially when the questions are inconvenient and are aimed at higher authorities. This looks very 'anti' Buddhism because this religion encourages questioning more than most other religions.
Tibetans are lucky that they have a leader like HH Dalai Lama who has shown the courage and magnanimity of handing over his own political powers to elected leaders so that democracy can grow its roots in the Tibetan society. Tibetan journalists should realize that asking questions and analysing issue without fear or favour is the best way of showing respect to the faith of Dalai Lama in democracy. Indian media's unfortunate experience of emergency period (1975-77) has proved beyond doubt that obeying the leaders timidly and unquestioningly in the name of 'discipline' or 'unity' is the most dangerous path towards destruction of social and national interests as well as the spirit of democracy. Tibetan exile society cannot afford this mistake.