The problem

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AS this issue of Seminar goes to press, more than 110 Tibetans inside Tibet and elsewhere have set themselves on fire: a trend of self-immolation which began in February 2009 but has escalated alarmingly in just the past year or so. The stalemated political situation of Tibet has not changed substantially in the past 50 years, with occupation by China, exile in India, and concern but no useful intervention on the part of the international community. However, after His Holiness the Dalai Lama announced his retirement from the active political leadership of his community about two years ago, retreating to a purely spiritual role, and a new Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay, took charge of an elected government-in-exile in Dharamshala, India, the status quo broke at last.

Tibetan youth – especially those born in India or living here since childhood – felt that they might be able to assume a new stance vis-à-vis the Chinese occupation of their country now that the Dalai Lama had removed himself, along with his particular approach of non-confrontational and essentially conciliatory dialogue with China, India and the international community, from the way. The commitment to non-violent struggle remained strong even in the younger generation of Tibetans, but many felt that perhaps more vocal forms of protest, lobbying and pressure could be brought to bear on the conflict, so as to find some way to prevail upon and check the ever-growing might of the Chinese state that seems bent on ‘Sinicizing’ Tibet.

Self-immolations have increased in this most recent context, on the one hand of greater openness to and possibilities of different modes of engagement and expression, and on the other a fading hope that China will ever back down or let up on its systematic destruction of Tibetan culture, religion, ecology and identity. In a seemingly unorganized and self-motivated manner, unpredictably, spontaneously, young and old, male and female, lay and religious, resident and exiled Tibetans are making the decision to burn themselves to death. The act of self-immolation , that too repeatedly, remains not only hard to take for witnesses, survivors and community members, but is also singularly difficult to interpret as a political gesture.

Does it signify despair or defiance, resentment or revolution? Is it an act of martyrdom, madness, or terrorism? Does it bear a greater resemblance to suicide bombing or to fasting-unto-death? More fundamentally, is it violent or non-violent? According to a Gandhian logic, we cannot treat such acts as the means to an end (like, say, the liberation of Tibet), but only as ends in themselves, which signify opposition to injustice and the rejection of untruth. But the extreme bodily pain and the annihilation of life entailed by this act give it a different character than most known forms of Gandhian non-violent protest. Tibetans and non-Tibetans, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, have been struggling to make sense of self-immolation for the past four years.

In a typology of such acts, if it may be attempted, some types of terrorism are directed at others – the intention is not to die, but to kill. Yet others are suicidal as well as homicidal – the intention is to both kill, and die, simultaneously. But Tibetan self-immolation is unique in being purely suicidal – there is no intention to take any life but one’s own. The solitude of suffering, the inwardness of this act, the exercise of agency over nothing beyond the limits of one’s own body – some may read a Buddhist metaphysics at work in this kind of action. But here we see not just self-mortification, which is recognized in the ascetic traditions of all major religions; rather, we see an all-out self-annihilation.

The extreme and irrevocable nature of such an act, which does not produce new knowledge in the person performing the act, because the person ceases to exist as a consequence of the act, suggests that some sort of knowledge is desired to be produced in others who witness this act. But what is that knowledge, and can we really grant that it is inspiring and emancipatory? Do we become frightened, desperate and ultimately depressed when a nun or a mother, a teenage boy or an old man, a robed monk or a yak-herding nomad commits self-immolation, or do we feel euphoric about Tibet’s prospects for attaining freedom from Chinese subjection? What effect do these acts have on the morale of Tibetans struggling for self-respect and self-determination, autonomy or independence, willing to give their life to Tibet, yes, but not necessarily prepared to die for Tibet?

In Europe, Holocaust survivors and writers Primo Levi and Jean Améry both committed suicide, though this happened long after they had come out of concentration camps and written about their life-altering experiences of incarceration, torture and forced labour. In India, the Manipuri woman Irom Sharmila has been on a fast-unto-death for the past 12 years to protest the imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the Northeast. In retaliation, the government has placed her in solitary confinement and with a nasal tube attached to her person in order to force-feed her, rendering her a medical prisoner. In all these instances, the degree of bodily injury inflicted by the state upon the individual is extraordinary. The only mode of resistance left to the victim appears to be to try to exercise control over the final choice to either continue to live despite and with extreme pain, or to die – also painfully – in order to put an end to that lived pain.

Irom is released from her prison-cum-hospital room for one day every year (her birthday, in mid-March), and for the duration of that day she invariably resumes her voluntary fasting, thus resuming her protest against the AFSPA exactly where it had been interrupted by the forced delivery of I-V fluids to her system 364 days earlier. She is promptly rearrested, and the tubes are reattached. The implication of her resumption of the fasting is that left to her free will, she would carry on protesting, to death if necessary. The state in turn shows no sign of repealing the offensive law: instead, it persists in treating her as being culpable for the intention to commit suicide through the eschewal of food. By literally shoving nutrition down her throat, against her will, the state is keeping her alive, but also torturing her in an almost unbearable way at every moment during which she remains alive. No one should be under any illusion about the absolute cruelty involved in treating a citizen, albeit a dissenter, one who has chosen a non-violent form of protest, in this way.

Indian stances to the predicament of Tibetans run the gamut from complete ignorance (Tibet? Where’s that?), to outright hostility and xenophobia (the same that greets Afghans, Nepalese, Bangladeshis, Iranians, Burmese and Sri Lankan refugees and illegal immigrants in India), to indifference based on a putative realism (It isn’t possible to resist China, so why bother with a pointless struggle?), to well-meaning but ultimately self-congratulatory sympathy (It’s because China is authoritarian and India is democratic that the Tibetans are persecuted by the Chinese and sheltered by the Indians). Rare are the Indian friends of the Tibetans who will relate to their situation not out of a secret sense of moral superiority (to the common enemy, China), nor because of a greater cultural identification with Tibet’s Buddhism than with China’s Communism (the former being seen as an affirmation of India’s historical primacy as the progenitor of Buddhism), but because they recognize that their own state is not that much better than China in its treatment of minorities and dissenting groups.

Populations in every corner of India have been struggling in vain for rights, justice, recognition and in some cases self-determination, and the Indian state is no less harsh than the Chinese state in how it deals with dissent or refusal. But the accumulated moral capital of India’s own freedom movement against British colonialism, as well as the language of postcolonial democracy (which brings its own fresh supply of even more moral capital), help to draw a veil over the excesses of our state, even while China’s tyrannies against the Uighurs, the Mongols, the Taiwanese, and the Tibetans, among others, stand out in vivid detail. How many Indians stop to ask whether farmers in the Deccan who commit suicide by swallowing fertilizers and insecticides are all that different from Tibetans who self-immolate? How many of us are willing to acknowledge that both the acts of desperation and the causes of those acts in the Indian case and the Chinese case could be or are similar? And that the victims, in both instances, Indian farmers or Tibetan subjects of China’s brutal rule, are so vulnerable as to have control over nothing whatsoever except the last, inalienable right that any individual has (though most of us never exercise it), to choose our own death before death chooses us?

What’s happening to Tibetans is happening to us too, if only we would be prepared to see it. In the scheme of every strong modern state, whether democratic or undemocratic, some lives simply do not have any value: they are at all times liable to be annihilated. Refugees from Africa and the Middle East, fleeing the violence and poverty of their own countries, will infect themselves with the HIV virus to be admitted as legal migrants in France, which will not allow such people in unless they can establish that they are terminally ill and need the palliative care that only the French medical system can provide. Indian farmers reeling under debt will kill themselves in order for their families to claim compensation from the government to then pay off that debt. Tibetans will self-immolate to keep alive Tibetan identity that is threatened with extinction.

In every case, the perversity, pointlessness and irrationality of these decisions to die must be regarded with compassion. The odds against the perpetrators (who are also the victims) of these acts of self-annihilation are so high as to break the critical linkage between survival and victory, and extinction and defeat, making it seem (to those who decide to take such a step) that to live is to be defeated and to die is to win. It’s a mind-boggling predicament, an inhuman one, in the sense that it attenuates the humanity of those who confront a world in which they must lose in order to win, must die in order to live. Each of these ways of dying – self-infection by a deadly virus, ingesting poison, self-immolation – is also physically painful in a manner that makes it hard for most of us to even contemplate such a death in the abstract.

The Tibetan community in exile in India is remarkably active, producing a steady stream of poetry, paintings, essays, speeches, films and peaceful sit-ins, besides a vast scholarly and policy discourse, from its headquarters in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, as well as other places like the Indian capital Delhi and Bylakuppe, a refugee settlement and a monastic centre of Tibetan Nyingma and Gelugpa Buddhism, in southern Karnataka (near Mysore). A veritable avant-garde of Tibetan artists and activists flourishes in India as well as in the United States, the United Kingdom and Switzerland. An earlier reliance on sympathetic foreigners – scholars, explorers, mountaineers, and celebrity converts to Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism and followers of the Dalai Lama – to tell Tibet’s story and carry its message out into the international community has now given way to a more robust desire for self- representation and a direct appeal to the world by Tibetans themselves.

Young Tibetans, like young Kashmiris, use the Internet and social media in creative and effective ways, managing to get news out of their censored and sequestered homeland, and often penetrating even into mainland China, where web-based activity of a politically controversial nature is next to impossible to carry out. Tibetan dissent is articulated not just in Tibetan and English, but also in Chinese and Hindi, since younger Tibetans know the languages of global communication, colonialism, occupation and exile better than their own fast disappearing language. Using all of the languages, media, genres and methods available to them, Tibetans of the generation of the 45-year old Prime Minister in exile, Lobsang Sangay, as well as younger Tibetans, have been resolutely putting out both information and opinion on the continuing self-immolations.

This issue of Seminar brings together leading young Tibetan writers, poets, artists, politicians and activists, living in India, the US and in a couple of instances, even in China. It is not for them or anyone to ‘explain’ what self-immolation means, but it is imperative that they and others – friends, fellow-travellers, sympathizers, observers and critics – take cognizance of this phenomenon that appears to be on the rise, or at least shows no sign yet of abating. The invitation for scrutiny, attentiveness, self-reflection and witnessing also led some contributors to examine aspects of Tibetan politics, history, environment and culture that are not necessarily connected with the spate of self-immolations. A few pieces have been translated from Chinese. A Japanese painter living in Canada has given us some of her delicate, heartbreaking miniatures, where she mourns those who self-immolated through a repertoire of traditional symbols drawn from Buddhism, blended with stark and horrifyingly real photographs, videos and narratives we get from the news media. One of the most renowned artists of Tibetan origin who lives and practices in the US especially made for us a powerful image of a young nun in the act of self-immolating, her burning shaven head surrounded by a white khatak, a ceremonial scarf symbolizing peace that was offered to her by another nun even as her body was already alight.

We hope that the collective power of these visualizations, meditations, reports, poems and arguments, will make a dent in the conscience of a world that has for too long left an ancient people with a rich and evolved civilization and delicate eco-system exposed to the depredations of a bellicose state that combines the authoritarian power of communism with the ruthless greed of capitalism. India under Nehru had the correct instinct to give refuge to the Dalai Lama and his people as they fled in the face of the Chinese invasion. But half-a-century on, India is not doing enough, not taking care of the Tibetans who live here, nor acknowledging their anguish as their distant homeland is slowly but surely destroyed. Tibet is burning: each of us needs to help in putting out these searing fires, whose flames consume our humanity and leave us diminished.