Saturday, August 23, 2014

Conflict reportage from Iraq

The Ballad of the guns

While I write this piece, it’s 1:17 am in war-torn Iraq’s capital Baghdad. The leader of the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq & Syria) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has merely few hours ago released a video of a sermon in Mosul asking muslims to obey their khalifa. Social media is abuzz with the Islamic state spreading its wings soon towards Baghdad. Several Shia places of worship are being desecrated across the country. While the elected parliamentarians struggle to choose a Prime minister, the ugly side of the Shia-Sunni conflict is on display in the northern as well as western Iraq.

Although 46 Indian nurses who were stranded for over a month have safely reached home, 39 Indian construction workers still remain stranded and in abduction in ISIS stronghold of Mosul. The great miraculous escape of the nurses is being seen as a diplomatic coup by the Narendra Modi government back in India. Many are asking if there was a deal with the ISIS and ransom paid for such an outcome. The key negotiators Ambassador Suresh K. Reddy and Ambassador Ajay Kumar in their old mansion like Indian Embassy in Baghdad’s Red Zone along with the First Secretary remain tight lipped.

It’s my 12th day out of India, tracking the Iraq crisis in the Middle-East. My entire equipment has been confiscated by the Iraqi customs department while I entered the airport over five days ago. Only condition to get it is to have a permission from the Prime Minister’s office. The Prime minister Al-Maliki is busy making arrangements to run for the third term. Even as there is deep resentment against Al-Maliki on the streets of Iraq, the addiction of power it seems has taken over credible governance or democracy. Luckily, I had an iPad and a small camera in hand luggage which have now become my primary tools for work.

Outside my hotel a SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) vehicle of the Iraqi forces keeps vigil round the clock with a sniper sitting on top of it. It’s a common sight across Baghdad. Check-posts, Iraqi hummers, emergency sirens. And the fear of unknown…

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Two weeks in the Uttarakhand death pool

Outside the back gate of the Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun, I found myself baffled.  There was uncertainty in the air without a ray of hope.  It was the day after the Mi17 V5 helicopter of the Indian Air Force (IAF) met with a tragic crash over Gaurikund, killing all 20 personnel on board.  The bodies, charred beyond identity, were still being tracked in the thick jungles by the paratroopers. Three of the dead, I was told, were lying beneath the chopper wreckage making their retrieval difficult. Even as TV channels reported 8 casualties’ minutes after the crash, an officer whispered the real figure in my ear, which left me numb till next morning.

At the NTRO Airbase, behind the Jolly Grant Airport, which was being used by the Indian Air Force (IAF) as the temporary operational base for Operation Rahat, a pale wave of gloom had descended.  The officers and pilots of the IAF could be seen shattered by the development. It was a disaster within a disaster, which wasn’t ever anticipated by the forces. The IAF realised the absence of its chopper, hours after the incident as the operation was on a war-footing and at times working without the directions of an Air-Traffic Control (ATC). 

Outside the NTRO Airbase, the Uttarakhand Government under pressure from media and the relatives of those missing had created an information centre which often acted indifferent to the wailing relatives. The centre was supposed to register the missing names and announce the names of those rescued by the forces. Often the officials would act like robots, without a sense of empathy for a crying father looking for his missing son or a shivering son looking for his aged mother helplessly. The back gate of the air base now resembled a notice board with hundreds of photographs of those missing, pasted against it.

A 65-year-old man, clad in a dhoti-kurta with thick glasses, holding a walking stick, turned to me as I reached the spot, asking with a sense of calmness, “My son went to Gaurikund in his car. Last we heard from him was on 16th June. And there is no news till date! Where can I find him?” Guilty of not having a satisfactory answer, I interviewed him and let it broadcast for the news station where I began working this summer. The image of that father has stayed on with me since that moment. There is only a limit to which a journalist can help a victim but the helplessness of a father shattered my heart to pieces. There was no way I could tell him that Kedarnath and Gaurikund had been cleared completely with all survivors evacuated, and what left was corpses, some on the streets, few on trees and several others under debris. 

Even as I searched for an answer later that day, I noticed two cabinet ministers from Andhra Pradesh interacting with the IAF officials near the Air base. The ministers were of course concerned about people from their state who had been reportedly missing from the pilgrimage route in Kedarnath. There has been a continuous flow of politicians in Uttarakhand days into the disaster. With the two Prime ministerial contenders Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi throwing open the gates, there was no stopping for the politicians. 

While Gandhi decided to take a road trip to Gauchar from Dehradun, Modi went around relief camps looking for Gujaratis to be evacuated. '15,000' was the figure quoted of people rescued by Modi, this even as I tried to convince Gujarat Government representatives outside Jolly Grant airport to help Mr. Shah, a general surgeaon from Surat and the response was as cold as the glacier of Kedarnath. With my TV crew seated at the posh residence of Chief Minister of Uttarakhand Vijay Bahuguna, I was told that the minister was busy with looking after the road trip of the Congress PM hopeful. A control room, I was told was set-up for assisting the junior Gandhi’s road trip in the hilly terrains of the state. On his return from the Ariel survey at the Dehradun airport, when I asked him about the reaction on the death of the 20 soldiers in an air crash, the Congress VP smiled and paced into the airport. All I expected was a brief message of condolence!

...but I was used to the cold stare by politicians by now. A couple of days before meeting Gandhi, I happened to interview Yashpal Arya, the Disaster Affairs Minister of Uttarakhand who also is the President of the local unit of Congress. Arya, during the course of the interview announced that at least 5000 people had been killed in the flash floods even though his Chief Minister still quoted a figure around 500. With egg on his face, the Minister seemed to have later realised the blunder and told his people to take care of the ‘journalist’ who took the interview. With hundreds of calls from Congress and the Government pouring in throughout the night, I decided to stay on with the story without compromising an inch. Fortunately, a local PTI journalist who happened to be around during my interview also confirmed the 5000 figure in his news report which only helped substantiate my story. Later, the journalist told me how he had also been receiving calls to drop the story!

Today, the death toll has become a raging debate, with the Speaker of Uttarakhand Assembly announcing that the figure could cross 10,000. Chief Minister however maintains that we’ll never be able to know the exact number of the dead. Former Home Secretary V.K. Duggal confirmed to me that the official figure of the dead would be a little more than 3000 and only be announced after data of the same is compiled till the sending week of July.

For a conflict reporter, or a journalist covering a disaster of such magnitude there are dangers at every point. Not alone of plunging into risky areas to hear from the real victims and make the world aware of the same, but also of making the arrogant politician angry! 

Journey into the hills has always been associated with returning home; for me personally, it has always brought immense joy and excitement. In the plains of Delhi, reporting on politics, terrorism or even a scam, you never really head out of city walls into the real interiors of India. But, at times when opportunities come to head out, they are surrounded with tales of loss and pain. And we journalists are left to cover death and destruction, to give a voice to the unheard and ignored!

It was on 17th morning, few hours after the glacier behind the Kedarnath shrine almost 22,769 feet above the sea level decided to fall into the valley, that I got a call from my Bureau Chief to leave for Uttarakhand. A reporter had already left early morning, but the magnitude of the catastrophe was such that a single reporter would not be able to handle it alone. 

Days into the disaster, half of the New Delhi’s editors and conflict reporters were climbing hilly terrains or boarding IAF choppers to cover the dance of death over the much famous Kedarnath and the adjoining Gaurikund. Initial reports had suggested that Kedarnath had turned into a ghost town with dead bodies lying all over the area and all buildings destroyed as pack of cards.

On board the Mi17 V5 chopper, my pilot Wing Commander S.M. Yunus announced to the NDRF and ITBP personnel that taking media was a priority as the world was waiting to hear what was happening on ground and the IAF was not compromising on rescue or relief operations by ferrying journalists into the disaster hit zone. Few days later, a newspaper editor labelled him a ‘Muslim’, saving ‘Hindus’ in Uttarakhand. Till that moment, I had never been conscious of my religion while covering a calamity. Who would bother to wear religion on the sleeves while rescuing people out of death? I wasn’t conscious of the fact that my video-journalist, a Muslim, was working tirelessly to get the best possible visuals for the world to see. And today after spending two weeks in Uttarakhand, I’m still not conscious of my religion or of any other person’s. I don’t wear blinkers on my eyes or conscience while saving people from death or perhaps reporting on it.

Spending sixty minutes in Kedarnath, four days after the flash floods, I got the first-hand experience of how the forces were rescuing people from the unreachable areas. Without road connectivity, and frequent bad weather, it had constantly been a race against time. As I flew over the holy Kedarnath, I could see the devastated shrine and the piled up dead bodies which are now being cremated in a phased manner. 

It was there in Kedarnath that I heard Second Commandant of the NDRF Nityananda Gupta, who was martyred in the chopper crash over Gaurikund. Over wireless, he tried his best to convince his commander from NDMA Vinay Kajla to leave as he was competent enough to handle the final phase of evacuation. The convincing may not have worked, but what I heard on the wireless will stay on with me forever life-long. 

Nityanand Gupta's voice echoed on the wireless, “Sir, I’ll be the last person to leave Kedarnath”. He did leave us all, saving hundreds of those stranded in Kedarnath for several days.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Documentary - "Inside: Red terror: India's biggest threat to democracy?" - Times Now

Aditya Raj Kaul, In Darbha Village, Bastar (Chattisgarh)

 (Part 1)

Heavily-armed Maoists ambushed a convoy of Congress leaders in Chhattisgarh's Sukma district on May 25, killing 27 people including Congress leader Mahendra Karma, ex-MLA Uday Mudliyar, state unit chief Nand Kumar Patel and his son. 32 others, including senior party leader V C Shukla, were injured. The audacious assault carried out by Maoists on Congress workers in Chhattisgarh appears to be the first major organised attack on the leadership of a political party by ultras. Chhattisgarh is considered as hot-bed of left-wing extremists. The Maoist attack on the democracy of India is a grim reminder of how red terror has made a comeback. There is outrage across the nation even as the self-appointed peacemakers continue their crusade. The biggest challenge for the security forces is to ensure a peaceful atmosphere in the Naxal infected Chhattisgarh state.

Rattled by the incident in poll-bound Chhattisgarh, top leaders including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi and party Vice President Rahul Gandhi visited the state. Banned outfit CPI (Maoist) claimed responsibility for the massacre of Congress leaders in Bastar region and demanded immediate suspension of all operations against it across the country. CPI (Maoist) in a statement accused slained leaders Karma, architect of Salwa Judum (people's movement against naxalism) and Nand Kumar Patel, Pradesh Congress Chief of corruption and implementing anti-people policies in Chhattisgarh. The outfit accused senior Congress leader V C Shukla, who sustained serious injuries in the attack and at present undergoing treatment in a hospital in Gurgaon, of playing an "active role" in framing pro-industrialist measures in the state. While condemning the attack by Naxals on a convoy of Congress leaders in Chhattisgarh, the People's Union for Civil Liberties has said the government must understand the grim human rights situation prevailing in the area before launching a counter-offensive. Left parties condemned the brutal Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh saying they disapproved violent retribution against political opponents, but opposed the killings of and atrocities against innocent tribals there.

(Part 2)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Did India give China upper hand? - Times Now Exclusive

It has been 96 hours since Chinese troops dismantled their tents in Ladakh region. But what provoked China to set camp in the DBO sector in the first place? After several failed meetings, what led to their sudden return? The government had rejected the reports of any negotiations with China but TIMES NOW reveals the complete inside story behind the standoff and how the government's version may be far from the truth.

India-China standoff - Aditya Raj Kaul Reporting for Times Now from LAC


Sarabjit Singh dies in Lahore hospital - Times Now

Reporting on May 2nd, 2013

Indian death row prisoner Sarabjit Singh died of cardiac arrest in a Lahore hospital in the wee hours today after being comatose for nearly a week following a brutal assault by other inmates of a high-security jail, officials said.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Partial relief for 480 Pakistani Hindu refugees in New Delhi - Times Now

Aditya Raj Kaul, Times Now

Watch it here - (Click link, wait for advt. to play)

What comes as some relief to the Pakistani Hindus staying in India, the Ministry of external Affairs has granted a one-month visa extension to all those who failed to return after expiry of their visas on April 8. But, the rufugees do not want to go back to Pakistan, say they would rather die in India than go back.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Halfway House

Life has become nocturnal. It seemingly has condensed for now. As days and nights pass by, the dawn has escaped into a permanent dusk. It isn’t darkness forever, even though bringing in gasps of hopelessness from the eerie cigarette puffs. It’s a state of conscious slumber perhaps. Yes, it is. This time, it is. For time cannot stand in stillness. And the heart cannot just remain floating forever on a coffee mug.

But, today, there is stillness in the heart and everywhere else. The sinking hasn’t ended for days. It might not very soon. In a solitary sea like a lost island, sorrow has girdled the heart.

As Orhan Pamuk writes in The Museum of Innocence, “In poetically well-built museums, formed from the heart's compulsions, we are consoled not by finding in them old objects that we love, but by losing all sense of Time.”

The sense of time has been lost in these empty, uncounted days, in anticipation of spring. The spring that once was. And that will be.

As a friend scribbled recently, “So that we’re never alone after sunset” on a book, it set a sense of euphoria within. There was hope beyond the heart’s aching corridors. Today, the heart may be a halfway house amidst hollow forts of hope. Tomorrow, the lost will be back.

The shadow of hope quivers in these days and nights. In this city, abuzz with celebration every day, the moon glances through the window each night as if sparkling with innocence.

And then, came the commercially celebrated, day of love. Roses swung at each other. Hearts crossed with an arrow. As I stood amidst the chants of promises and lively discourses on relationships, there was everything, even happiness but love visible to the naked eye. Love had become a ‘hookah bar’ today.

It’s been pouring heavy all through the weekend. The sound of raindrops brings peace. It mustn’t stop. There is calmness in the air, as these raindrops fall on the trees across the window in the darkness of the night. Even the leaves, creating a sound of chuckle, are forlorn. ‘I want to live in this melody forever’, the mind wonders. It’s however, a time when loneliness torments you much more than ever. And you pass out, dreading the silence.

As Pablo Neruda writes in his poem ‘White Bee

“Ah you who are silent!

Here is the solitude from which you are absent.

It is raining. The sea wind is hunting stray gulls.

The water walks barefoot in the wet streets.

From that tree the leaves complain as though they were sick.

White bee, even when you are gone you buzz in my soul.

You live again in time, slender and silent.

Ah you who are silent!”

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fanatics and hypocrites

Afzal Guru's hanging showcases phony drama, crocodile tears and genuine grief. 

Aditya Raj Kaul paints an evocative picture.

“We all are Afzal”, read a poster held tightly by a JNU Kashmiri Muslim student at a hurriedly-organised protest march by pro-separatist and ultra-leftist groups in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, hours after Mohammad Afzal Guru, key conspirator of the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, was secretly executed at Tihar Jail on February 9.

The air was full of anger, betrayal and fury. ``We won’t forget our martyr”, proclaimed a poster held high by a Kashmiri girl in a veil. By the time the protest was dispersed by the Delhi Police personnel, Guru’s last rites had been carried out inside Delhi's high-security Tihar central prison and the Kashmir valley was clamped down under a curfew not seen since the tense summer months of 2010.

Naturally, it was a busy day for all who have a stake in the omnipresent Kashmir story, especially in the Indian republic's capital – and there are many. While TV anchors tried to grab brownie points by determining the timing of when Guru had been informed about the hanging, a speed post was silently booked by the government at the New Delhi GPO in the name of Tabassum, wife of Afzal Guru, telling her what the world already knew. Shockingly but not surprisingly, in this age of online mobility, the speed post reached Baramulla in Kashmir precisely three days after Guru’s death.

There is little doubt that the action on Afzal Guru has been carefully crafted in the run up to the 2014 General Elections. To stave off immediate repercussions in the valley, the government ensured that the three key vocal separatist voices in Kashmir were sent on guided vacations.

JKLF chief Yasin Malik, a self-confessed terrorist claiming Gandhian lineage, was allowed to visit Pakistan to pay his in-laws a courtesy visit; eventually he sat on a hunger strike at the Islamabad Press Club against the hanging, in tandem with who else, but India's most-wanted terrorist Hafiz Sayeed, himself on a courtesy call to Malik.

Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani, never happy with Kashmir's harsh winters, decided to stay put at his daughter’s Malviya Nagar home in New Delhi, as did chairman of the moderate faction of the Hurriyat Conference, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, at his apartment in south Delhi's Kalkaji area. Both of them were under house arrest by the Delhi Police and all efforts to reach them by TSI have so far remained fruitless.

While India’s liberal elite mourned the death of a man who they called victim of a “flawed judicial process”, the right-wing swung into action as only they can - by a liberal distribution of sweets and an even more liberal thumping of chests. The BJP, woken up from its slumber and rounds of internecine warfare, stood with the government, but added a caveat saying the hanging was `12 years too late'.

The National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – both in direct line of fire -  decided to act outraged, accusing New Delhi of acting in haste without realising the negativity it would generate amongst the Kashmiris. The PDP national spokesperson was seen empathising with the family of Afzal Guru and warning New Delhi of further `alienation' of Kashmiris from the Indian mainstream.

As for the oratory skills of Kashmiri analysts and politicians of all shades, their opinions were most difficult to comprehend. Any TV debate, ended inevitably in a fish-market brawl, lacking logic and facts, high on decibel quotient and wholly suited to the demands of light and sound entertainment.

According to insiders, when much crocodile tears had been shed in the day time, a few among the moist-eyed separatists decided to hit a posh south Delhi restaurant known for its Kashmiri delicacies - listening to the famous Kashmiri singer Rashid Hafiz, who belted out one popular number after the other.

Exactly 29 years after Maqbool Bhat was hanged at the same place and about the same time of the year, it seems the central government has learnt no lessons. Bureaucrats at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) seem to have simply copy-pasted the Maqbool Bhat hanging formula, denying the basic right for the family to even meet Afzal Guru.

While there may be wide-ranging similarities between Bhat and Guru, who amongst other commonalities, were recruits of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and were trained in arms across the border in Pakistan, the UPA government has left no stone unturned to make Guru a martyr for the separatist plank of azadi. The babus of MHA, generally known to engage separatists cleverly, have provided fodder to the virtually dead spectacle of the separatists. Separatists cheerleaders are now crying hoarse from their comfortable bungalows in New Delhi. Afzal Guru, they believe, will be the new Che Guevara - if not in spirit then on on t-shirts.

Among other things in question is the legal representation given to Afzal Guru by the state, even though the two-man Supreme Court bench of P. Venkatarama Reddi and P.P. Naolekar found “no substance in this contention”. The same apex court had earlier acquitted Delhi University professor S.A.R. Gilani of all charges in the same case citing technical grounds.

“Those who are intervening in the campaign to save Afzal but have no commitment to Indian nationalism are not doing any service to his cause”, wrote Supreme Court advocate and human rights activist Nandita Haksar in her book ‘Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal’. Her conclusions: “We must never underestimate the appeal of nationalism”. Even though she poignantly remembered and wrote about the sufferings of a prisoner accused of ‘waging war against the state’, the reflections were convoluted with anger, raw emotions and a discourse which few could identify with.

A pusillanimous campaign now underway, instead of demanding reform in criminal laws, continues to question the Indian state’s position on Kashmir. Those postulating over the Kashmir issue may do some good by asking local Muslims to internalise on who they strive to be with – a crumbling nation crippled by internal strife or a country which stands for secularism and diversity.

A debate within the stakeholders on Kashmir is need of the hour. Not necessarily the Aman Ki Asha model, neither the misnomer of Kashmiriyat, nor even meetings like those organised annually by Dr. Ghulam Nabi Fai in the Capitol Hill, United States, where he invented reasons to abuse India till he was arrested by FBI on charges of being a Pakistani spy. Interestingly, his list of invitees included reputed names from the Indian media, think-tanks, analysts and of course the separatists.

In the wake of a threatening attack on the first-ever girls rock-band from Kashmir, Pragaash, and an acid attack on a Kashmiri girl which went almost unnoticed and unreported, the debate becomes vital. “I do realize and regret that due to us (Kashmiri Muslim terrorists), Muslims in the rest of India get a bad name”, said Afzal Guru in a confession aired on TV channels soon after he was apprehended in 2001.

The tragedy of intolerance developing in the Kashmiri society, fashioned no doubt by some excesses of the Indian state, is best understood by a Kashmiri axiom ‘anyem soi, wavem soi, lagem soi panesei’, or ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’.

Thanks to the government's mishandling of Guru's hanging, it may become an issue of debate and in his death, he may well emerge as the new poster boy of jehad. As Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah put it, the new generation of Kashmiris "who may not have identified with Maqbool Bhat will identify with Afzal Guru”.

Aiding and abetting this sense of alienation are celebrity fiction writers like Arundhati Roy, who remarked famously at an event to discuss Freedom in October 2010 at New Delhi, ``bhooka nanga Hindustan, jaan se pyaara Pakistan’ (hunger-stricken and naked India, Pakistan more beloved than life). To prepare such a dangerous cocktail for her Kashmiri brethren in the garb of liberal discourse only does disservice to the idea of human rights and justice. The hollowness of the leftist diatribe, if not put under introspection, may end up aping right-wing fanatical rhetoric and that is not good news.

The Indian government may now not just have to open its arms but ears as well by listening to the genuine voices of estrangement coming from various sections of Jammu and Kashmir. The farce of a round-table dialogue which will decide the date of next meeting, does not demonstrate serious engagement.

In the days ahead it would be a challenge for the Indian government to contain terror groups from expanding and operating through sleeper cells, as happened months and years after the hanging of Maqbool Bhat in 1984. The judge who delivered the verdict, Justice Neelkanth Ganjoo, was mercilessly killed by suspected JKLF terrorists soon after.

Bhat, who was one of the first from the JKLF to cross the Radcliffe Line for training, could well inspire others to do the same; attempt a violent uprising in the name of religion and ensure a recipe for disaster. After all, terrorism, which spread like gangrene, did not mrerely dent Kashmir, it expanded its base  to all corners of India, most notably the attack on Parliament in 2001.

Afzal Guru, a bright, educated and fresh-faced Kashmiri, with a family to look after, was emboldened to carry out an attack in which the chances of success were indeed very little. As one observer put it, ``the hanging has, perhaps, put a question mark over the failure and unwillingness of the political system to bring long-lasting peace in Kashmir.''

The apex court in its decision on Afzal Guru was very clear. ``The present case, which has no parallel in the history of Indian Republic, presents us in crystal clear terms, a spectacle of rarest of rare cases”, it said, adding, ``the very idea of attacking and overpowering a sovereign democratic institution by using powerful arms and explosives and imperiling the safety of a multitude of peoples' representatives, constitutional functionaries and officials of Government of India and engaging into a combat with security forces is a terrorist act of gravest severity.'' Point is how do you explain it to the bleeding hearts industry?

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Unpredictability of Love

Among other things life fosters unpredictability.  At times for good, mostly for the worse. There is a furor against it. An upheaval of emotions searching for the missing link. In desperation, heartaches and anguish it’s difficult to fall in line with life as usual. A permanent haze sets in as dusk to a ravishing dawn.

She was a born lover. It was like a twinkle in her kohl black eyes. From the beginning she opened her arms wide in joy, overwhelmed with life. Life was a celebration of its colors. The freedom to dance in the quilt of clouds. In longing to explore the hidden invisible corners. It was the simplicity of her zeal. The madness of her enthusiasm. And the mere independence of her style that made her love. In short, life overtook love. 

He too was a born lover. It was deep inside his nervous heart. From the beginning he stood for his commitment in all fairness, devotion. Love was beyond everything. Love was a lifelong worship. It was madness of a different kind. It was a full blown emotionally fulfilling. In trance he remained. Forever. Oblivious to the mistakes. 

She was perched high. With her loud voice, out in open. There was determination to conquer. 

He was slanted low. With his roaring nervous heart, in longing. There was hope against hope.

She now sleeps in solitude to live a dream. 

He wanders alone to be a part of the dream. 

Both separated by silence. In waiting he remains to be her sunshine; she his moonlight.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Solitary Flames of Tibet

The self-immolations by suppressed Tibetans continue to tarnish Beijing's image while some have now even begun to  question the Dalai Lama's continued silence over the gory cycle of fiery deaths, writes Aditya Raj Kaul

Located in the northeast corner of the Tibetan plateau, the traditional province of Amdo is plush with beautiful grasslands and rugged mountain ranges. But the picturesque beauty of the brilliantly white stupas and pretty monasteries is marred by the presence of massive security forces over the last few months. The police crackdown is a result of the increase in self-immolations by monks at the restive Kirti Monastery, a 600-year-old temple in the Aba prefecture of Sichuan province, which borders Qinghai and Gansu. Of the 90-plus people that have self-immolated inside Tibet since February 27, 2009; as many as 20 were monks or former monks at the Kirti Monastery – the latest being two teenaged Tibetans who set themselves afire near the eastern gate of the temple on August 27.

The influence of Kirti Monastery is now visible across the region in many small and big temples. Most towns and cities in Tibet are heavily guarded by police and anti-riot SWAT forces, while a reserve of the military is forever stationed on the outskirts of major townships. While CCTV cameras peek surreptitiously from vantage points at most public places, informers in plainclothes have penetrated just as deep into the personal spaces of monks, nuns, students, housewives, artists, farmers and nomads across the region. Armed Public Security Bureau (PSB) units regularly patrol streets carrying machine guns, fire extinguishers, iron rods and riot shields. Authorities have also formed SOS fire brigades at sensitive locations.

Suppressed rage against China’s continued occupation of Tibet and despair among people in the region has reached such a nadir that in November alone there has been one self-immolation a day on an average – mostly by monks facing difficulties in religious freedom, teens running out of patience with the Dalai Lama’s middle path and the aged seeing no other way to support the ‘Free Tibet’ movement. Beijing’s repression of Tibetans is no longer hidden from the world.

November was also the month when the Chinese Communist Party unveiled its new leadership slate, headed by Xi Jinping. But far across in the Himalayan plateau, the wave of self-immolations in the Tibetan region has only increased since the leadership change. “Tibetans have responded to China's extreme repression by setting themselves on fire to call for freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama. These heartbreaking acts of nonviolent protest deserve an immediate and stronger effort from the global community to hold the Chinese government accountable for its atrocities in Tibet," says Tenzin Dorjee, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet.

"Tibetans and Tibet supporters on five continents are laying down a challenge to the Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping: stand on the right side of history and answer the Tibetan peoples' demand for freedom,” adds Dorjee.

The 14th Dalai Lama, meanwhile, is unnaturally silent over the ball of fire that continues to scorch Tibet – attributing the wave of self-immolations to the brutal crackdown by the Chinese authorities on Tibetan culture and religion or what he refers to as “cultural genocide”. The revered leader, who relinquished his political role in March 2011, according to Lobsang Sangay, the Prime Minister of Tibetan government-in-exile, “spends more time on his spiritual pursuits.”

Several Tibetan writers, scholars and activists have called upon the Dalai Lama to issue a formal appeal to stop the self-immolations, but the spiritual leader’s silence, many believe, is encouraging the gory phase of violent deaths as the final means to achieve freedom for Tibetans.

Earlier this year on being asked whether Tibetans should stop setting themselves on fire, he replied with a firm, “No answer”, raising quite a few eyebrows. “Past history clearly shows that violence cannot solve problems,” tweeted the Dalai Lama on November 12 from Japan. The same day Nyingchak Boom and Nyingkar Tashi, both in their youth, died of self-immolation in Rebkong County of Tibet.

China, which is desperately trying to douse the fires raging across Tibet, accuses the Dalai Lama of inciting these self-immolations. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, the Dalai Lama’s accusation that the Chinese government has failed to investigate the root cause of despair and hopelessness among Tibetans, was designed to only “gain his political end of splitting China.”

"Not only did the Dalai not condemn them, but he actually glorified these acts, which are against the national law and religious principles," Hong said.

The Chinese authorities have not faced such massive unplanned resistance in their own backyard in recent times and Beijing’s paranoia continues to grow. The authorities have now announced a reward of $ 7,700 for those who inform police about the planned self-immolations.

A notice pasted around the region states, "Anyone who reports and informs the legal authorities on the people who plan, incite to carry out, control and lure people to commit self-immolation will be awarded 50,000 yuan ($ 7,700)." The notice, which refers to organised groups of Tibetans who plan self-immolations as "black hands", assures a reward of 200,000 yuan to those giving advance information about planned suicides.

"The Tibetans who are self-immolating  have clearly not been dissuaded by the security buildup or other means of official intimidation," International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) head Mary Beth Markey has said. “Unless and until there is some initiative that can break through the cycle of repression and protest, I think we all acknowledge that more Tibetans will be prepared to take the agonising action of self-immolation,” she added. Worried about the status quo in the region, Lobsang Sangay even issued an urgent appeal to the international community recently to support the 'Solidarity with Tibet' campaign in 2013, to be organised by the Tibetan government-in-exile to lobby support for their cause amidst silence over the increase in self-immolations across Tibet.

Undoubtedly, the strained relationship between China and Tibet has grown much more than the geographic distance of 2000 kms between Beijing and Sichuan. It would only become clear in the next few months if new Chinese leader Jinping will overcome internal resistance and change  his nation's stated position and bring peace to the troubled region. Either that or the Dalai Lama must exercise his religious sway and urge Tibetans to stop this fiery cycle of death. Until then, the flames of agony are likely to keep burning bright.