A personal encounter with three brave hearts of Tibet

By Vijay Kranti |Oct. 30|

In the evening of 28th September when I was approaching the hunger strike tent of Tibetan
From left to right: Tenzin Wangchuck,
Tamdin Hrichoe and Tsewang Dolma.
Youth Congress (TYC) at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, my heart was weighed down by anxiety and apprehension. It was the 19th day since three Tibetan youths — Mr Tamdin Hrichoe (Vice President), Ms Tsewang Dolma (Secretary, Information & International Relations), and Mr Tenzin Wangchuk (Finance Secretary) — were sitting on indefinite hunger strike. Having seen Indian democracy functioning from a breathing distance, it’s very rare that a ‘genuine’ hunger striker, surviving exclusively on water, prevails beyond 15 days. In most cases various pressure groups join in to find a solution, the authorities forcibly break up the strike, or the hunger strikers’ enthusiasm fizzles out.

Jantar Mantar is New Delhi’s Hyde Park, where political groups, social action organizations and individuals with divergent political and social orientations converge from across India to express their opinions, complaints and demands. It was exactly two weeks ago when I had last met the three young Tibetan youths before leaving for my professional travel to a remote region of Jammu & Kashmir in connection with my next book. Although already in the fifth day of their hunger strike, all of them looked as cheerful and energetic as I had found them on their first day when many supporters like me had come to greet and express solidarity with them. But today it was 19th day; two weeks had already passed in between. My anxiety had an additional emotional weight because I’ve personally known each of the three hunger strikers since long.

Luckily, the very first sight was a big relief. Tenzin Wangchuk was sitting on a chair and looked cheerful as he was talking to a young Indian lady visitor and visiting Tibetan MP Karma Yeshi. Tamdin Hrichoe was lying relaxed on one of the mattresses which was spread along the footpath. Tsewang Dolma too was gossiping with one of the Tibetan girl volunteers who have been taking care of the hunger strikers by turn. Their beds, laid down neatly inside the tent, were empty.

“INDEFINITE HUNGER STRIKE FOR TIBET”, read the huge banner which formed the backdrop of the tent and supported bold close-up photos of the three brave Tibetans. Two other banners hanging from the front top of the tent neatly presented the five demands of the hunger strikers to the United Nations in English and Hindi. A blackboard with huge chalk letters announcing “DAY-19, Hrs-456”, as the latest hourly status of the hunger strike, occupied the central place in front of the tent. A big portrait of a smiling Dalai Lama on a temporary altar, flanked by a Tibetan national flag and the flag of TYC, supplied a benign environment for everything around it from behind a decoration of plastic yoghurt cups and a lamp.

Tenzing Jigme, the energetic TYC President and the running spirit behind the ongoing campaign, was busy handling the social media on his mobile while lying on one of the mattresses along the footpath. The man had a very hectic, but eventful and successful day today. He had led more than 250 supporters of the hunger strikers for a demonstration outside the UN office in New Delhi. They also presented a charter of demands to the UN Representative. This charter urged the UN to raise the Tibetan issue in its General Assembly as well as in its Human Rights Council, to urge China to address the demands of self immolators inside Tibet, to present evidence about the safety of the 11th Panchen Lama, and to release Tibetan political prisoners. It also called upon the UN to send an independent delegation to Tibet for assessment of the situation there.

As I spoke to the three brave heroes, I was amazed by the strength of their conviction and determination. While Tamdin had lost 13 kg of weight, Tenzin Wangchuk had shed 15 kg by now. But one could hardly notice any drop in their zeal. I’ve been a long time admirer of Tsewang Dolma’s love for photography. Every time I see her jumping around with her SLR, I was never sure which one of the two weighs more — she or her camera? I am sure if there were ever a contest for ‘Miss Light Weight’ in McLeod Ganj, Tsewang la would be the hands-down winner. Already an ‘underweight’ by clinical definition, Tsewang has already lost 10 kg. No surprise that despite her cheerful response to my questions, she had to make efforts to sit erect. She chose to lie down after we finished talking.

For the benefit of those who might be keen to know how one feels along the course of such fasting, all the three confirmed that first six days were just ‘normal’ as the body slowly got used to surviving on plain water. But for for next three to four days each of them suffered from loose motions which did not get under control easily. Following the ninth day, lack of sleep has been overwhelming for most of them. Pain in the chest and nausea are the only two things which sometimes tax their enthusiasm. Tsewang has been feeling a bitter taste in her mouth, while Tamdin’s mouth goes dry frequently. However, all these problems didn’t show any impact on the way they conduct themselves while interacting with the unending stream of visitors and supporters. “It’s just a small irritant. I can go on indefinitely like this,” says Tsewang with her signature smile, that has been always attracting everyone with whom she would interacts on behalf of TYC as its official public relations person.

As I inquire about their respective families’ reactions to the step they have taken, they tell me that none of them let anyone in the family know in advance about their plans to sit on an indefinite hunger strike. “You know how emotional the families are on such matters,” says Wangchuk. However only Wangchuk’s mother has visited them since they started the fast. She lives in Nainital, whereas Tsewang’s mother lives in Kathmandu and Tamdin’s mother lives in the farthest corner of Nepal in Pokhara. But thanks to the mobile, all of them are in regular touch with their families.

Talking about his interaction with his mother during her solo visit to Jantar Mantar, Wangchuk tells me that initially she was surprised that he did not inform her about his decision in advance. But she was neither angry nor unhappy. “Rather she told me that she is proud of me, and that members of our Nainital community, especially of the Regional unit of TYC, are feeling very proud of my participation. She also told me that being an active member of TYC, I must maintain the courage that is expected of a TYC member,” says Wangchuk. “She also had some simple advice to offer. She asked me to say my prayers and do some meditation every morning. Just before leaving she also told me not to forget that people inside Tibet are suffering far more that what you would be suffering during your hunger strike,” he adds.

This is not the first time that I am witnessing a Tibetan hunger strike first hand. I have many memories of the first of this series in 1977 when a batch of TYC activists went on a long hunger strike outsude the UN office at Lodhi Estate in New Delhi. Then there was one in a parachute tent on the India Gate lawns along the Rajpath. I’ve been to at least four other similar hunger strikes at Jantar Mantar too. It was during one such hunger strike in 1998 when a Tibetan protestor immolated himself at Jantar Mantar when police tried to forcibly wind up the strike.

One remarkable dimension of the ongoing hunger strike that reflects the present TYC leadership’s wisdom is the choice of the issues taken up by them as the main demand. Unlike most other social actions undertaken by various Tibetan groups in recent years which witnessed an unfortunate but avoidable divide among the community on ‘Rangzen’-vs-‘Middle Way Approach’, this action has been completely successful in circumventing any such controversy. It is purely focused on the situation inside and the world’s indifference, especially that of the United Nation to over 149 self-immolations inside Tibet against the Chinese colonial attitude.

As an old observer of the Tibetan scene and a close friend of Tibetan exile community, it saddens me to note that by the 19th day of the hunger strike only 13 out of a total 42 members of Tibetan Parliament found time to visit the hunger strikers. This number is shockingly low because almost each of them had to pass through New Delhi on their way to the Tibetan Parliament in Dharamshala which held its latest session during the hunger strike days. Believing that this miss was mainly due to their other occupations during the travel, they make it up on their way back to their homes in India and abroad. The CTA officials too, look too conspicuous by their absence to be missed. One only hopes it is just a coincidence — not by design.

In the meantime, as I admire the courage and commitment of these three brave hearts, I hope the world leaders, especially those sitting at the UN, will listen to their conscience and collect their courage and wisdom to ask the Chinese leadership the answers to the questions posed by the hunger strikers.

NOTE:  Vijay Kranti is a senior Indian journalist, photographer, and Tibetologist, based in New Delhi. He blogs at VijayKranti.com and he can be contacted at v.kranti(at)gmail.com. This article is originally published on Tibet Sun. 

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