‘Reaching Up, Out’
by Farida Shaikh
(Hindustan Times. January 27, 2002)
Tenzin Tsundue climbed to the 14th floor of a Mumbai hotel hosting
Chinese premier Zhu Rongji, demanding freedom for Tibet.
And he didn't use the lift, not even the stairs.
It took Tenzin Tsundue just a few minutes to make the Chinese go red in their
faces. Along with the Mumbai police, of course. Just when Chinese premier Zhu
Rongji and his delegates had settled down with industry bigwigs on the 14th
floor of the Oberoi Towers last week, they saw a long banner saying "Free Tibet"
being unfurled outside the window and Tenzin pointing a clenched fist at them.
For Tenzin, it was just another risk he had to take for a cause dearer to him
than his own life to free his homeland, Tibet, from the Chinese. 'You cannot
achieve anything in life without taking risks,' says the 26-year old.
This is not the first time that Tenzin has made news. Last year, the secretary
of Friends of Tibet won the Outlook-Picador Non-Fiction Award for an essay on
his status as a political refugee in India. Reading the essay, it's easy to
understand his passion to free his country or his anger towards the plight of
its exiled people. Tenzin's parents were road construction labourers in India,
and he was born in a makeshift tent on the street of Manali.
However, he has never celebrated his birthday. He writes, 'When I ask for my
birthday, my mother says, "Who had the time to record a child's birth when
everyone was tired and hungry?" It was only when I was admitted to school that
I was given a date of birth. At three different offices, three different records
were made. Now I have three dates of birth.'
Nowadays, Tenzin's parents live in Karnataka. In school, his teacher would tell
stories of the suffering of their people in Tibet. 'We were often told that we
all bore a big "R" on our foreheads. It didn't make much sense to us and for a
long time I believed that we really had this sign on our foreheads. Perhaps the
first thing I learnt at school was that we were refugees and didn't belong to
this country,' he says.
In fact, Tenzin's father still nurses the dream of going back home —
He refuses to repair the tiled roof of their house which drips badly in
the monsoon. 'When the Tibetans first settled in Karnataka, they decided
to grow only papayas and vegetables thinking they would definitely go back
in 10 years' time. This waiting seems to be redefining eternity,' he says.
Says Tenzin, 'My parents cannot even speak any Indian language. They do not even
know how to dial a phone number. I have told them not to expect me to take up a
nice job and provide them with amenities (he hasn't even collected his degree
certificate from Bombay University). I have promised to take them back to Tibet.
My life is now dedicated to our freedom struggle.'
On January 16, when Zhu was in Mumbai, Tibetans were asked to stage their
protest at the Azad Maidan. But what was the use when Zhu wouldn't even notice,
Tenzin thought. So he planned out a novel way to attract attention. For a whole
week before the visit, he read newspapers to learn about the Premier's
itinerary. He stitched together three Chinese national flags to make the 30-feet
banner. On the D-Day, he climbed the scaffolding near the northern gate of the
hotel with the banner hidden under his clothes.
Once he had climbed up, there was chaos everywhere. One of the security
officials even threatened to drop the material's lift on his head. 'This is
India, not China and they will never follow up on threats and kill me like
this,' Tenzin told himself and stayed put. At that moment one of the Chinese
delegates pulled aside the curtain to look at him.
'Within seconds, there was a Chinese face on every window of the entire floor
and I was showing them the banner and my clenched fist. That one moment made it
all worth it,' he says.
For a man who has a double MA from Bombay University, this is just a beginning.
'When I was climbing up, the construction labourers didn't know what I was up
to. I told them, I was protesting to free my country Tibet from the clutches of
the Chinese just as Indians had fought the British. Then they understood what I
was talking about. This is what I want. That one incident rekindled awareness in
'Now I want to create awareness about our cause and work within the Tibetan
community to reorganise the struggle. If the cause has not succeeded, it's
because we are very disorganised. There is a huge gap between the Tibetans here
and those in Tibet. This has to be bridged. We want the Tibetans to turn into
activists, not just participate in protests.' He also has a take on the
Indo-China relations. 'It is so phony. India has to make its borders secure and
Tibet's freedom is its best bet in this direction.' Till then, he refuses to
rest. His people have worn the tag of refugees for too long.
It's time to return home.