Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tibet, India, China, and the Yearning for Freedom

Jamphel Yeshi was one of the hundreds of Tibetans who gathered in New Delhi earlier this week to demonstrate against Chinese president Hu Jintao’s visit to India as part of the annual BRICS summit. As the Indian police attempted to thwart their peaceful protest, Yeshi doused himself with kerosene and set fire to his body. Engulfed in flames, he charged through the street, screaming pro-freedom slogans – and joined the dozens who have immolated their bodies to draw attention to the brutal crackdown in Tibet by Chinese forces.

India spent the last decade trumpeting its democracy as it steered closer to the United States. And yet its response to Yeshi’s sacrifice would make a dictator proud. Eager to not offend the visiting Chinese head of state, India invoked a colonial-era law against the Tibetans in New Delhi. As of today, every Tibetan in the city is effectively under house arrest.

Students are holed up inside their hostels. Families are barred from leaving their homes. Children have been forced to miss school. Patients cannot visit the hospital. Any gathering of Tibetans – however small and whatever its purpose – is cause for arrest.

In America’s imagination, India often appears as the democratic counterweight to authoritarian China’s rise. “If America’s future competitor in the world is likely to be China,” Robert Kagan recently wrote in a celebrated essay, “then a richer and more powerful India will be an asset, not a liability, to the United States.”

In reality, it was a considerably poorer and weaker India that ever truly challenged China in the name of liberal democratic values. India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959 despite Zhou Enlai’s threats, and Beijing’s persistent demand that Tibetans be banned from protesting against China elicited a brief answer from India’s foreign office: “There is by law and Constitution complete freedom of expression of opinion in Parliament and the press and elsewhere in India”. More