NEW DELHI, India, 31 March 2012
I have been living in Delhi for the last five years, working in the field of Human Development and Childhood Studies. As a part of my master’s research project, I have been visiting the small Tibetan settlement Majnu ka Tilla in Delhi, for data collection almost every single day.
I spent hours and hours sitting at the monastery, interviewing the people who sit and chat there. They used to ask me about my work, where do i come from, and so on. While there I enjoyed observing the children play and interacting with them. I believe everyone enjoys watching children play, and I could see people there not only observing them but playing along with them. “Children make you smile … no matter what you going through … they have the power to make you forget … ” as someone quoted. Being with them made me re-connect to my culture, which was missing for me. I was born to a Tibetan mother and a Sikkimese father. As there was no strong cultural pressure to follow my culture, I never learned to speak Tibetan or Sikkimese.
I do not know exactly when I became a friend, a daughter, a member of this little community. Working with the children carried me into the depths of belongingness, and I no longer felt alienated from the world as I used to prior to my research work. I used to sit and observe children and people, to try to understand this rich culture, the people and their lives in exile.
There was a man who used to sit at the corner bench alone quite often, smiling at the children, and as I sat down with my usual writing stuff one day, he came and asked me the same question as everyone else: Where am I from and what am I writing on. I told him about my work and he said ” good luck” and “can I read it”. I was hesitant. I replied, maybe once I am done with the writing. He smiled, and then he left. (That was the shortest interaction I had during the research work).
On 26th March 2012, Monday morning, I went to Patel Chowk to see the protest. I was early that day (for the first time in my life). As I looked around I could see many protests going on. One that caught my eyes was a group demanding “say no to Koodankulam Nuclear Plant.”
I started having a short talk with Mr Chitarang Singh, about my purpose of being there and his agenda. After a time he pointed behind me and said “they are here … your people.”
I turned around and saw hundreds of Tibetan men and women … boys and girls … fathers and mothers and elderly people came marching. They were everywhere, carrying Tibet’s national flags and banners saying “Tibet is not a part of China” and “Freedom is Our Birthright”, so many that at times only flags and banners could be seen.
Three young men came, riding horses and decked out in traditional Tibetan clothes. I took out my camera and started to capture everything. I moved in with the crowd and got lost, taking pictures. Suddenly there was a sharp scream, and the crowd started moving in all directions. By that time my focus was interrupted and I turned around to see what it was. There was this man in flames — red hot flames covered his body and black smoke surrounded him. I stood there motionless, my index finger still on the button of my camera. As he ran screaming to my left, the crowd of photographers and media people ran together after him. The crowd moved me along until I took hold of a tree, frozen, trying to understand what just happened.
My friend returned and we stood there without a word. Finally he said “let’s go home.” I took three last pictures of the people. I saw a reporter crying, but I did not dare to go to console her. I couldn’t bring myself to say “It’s ok”, because what just happened was not “ok”.
Jamphel’s action moved me to such an extent that now, I can stand up and speak against the denial of human rights. I used to keep silent, feeling alienated since I didn’t speak Tibetan and was afraid to face criticism — but not any more.
Later that day I told my flat mate about the incident. Like everyone else, she found the act of self-immolation wrong and said this is mentioned in the Buddhist philosophy as well. It is morally and ethically considered wrong. I believe everyone is aware of this and I do not need to look into what philosophy says. But my only question is: What made him do it. What made all those 30 individuals in Tibet do it — to understand it, without judging he or they were wrong! (I am NOT encouraging the action here).
Three days later, I realised that the man who had wanted to see my writing at Majnu ka Tilla was the same man who set himself ablaze in the protest, Jamphel Yeshi. The man who sat alone, observed me writing, and wished me luck.
Yeshi, I wish I should have let you see what I was writing. Maybe you could have said something to me, that I could pass on now. Well, maybe we all can spread this issue world-wide and seek an answer to this 53-year struggle of identity, confusion, and social exclusion.
Let us not ignore the fact that Jamphel Yeshi did not burn only himself: what burned is the agony of every Tibetan.
About the author
Hissay P Bhutia is a student at Delhi University, pursuing her master's degree in Human Development and Childhood Studies from Lady Irwin College. From Sikkim, Gangtok, she was born to a Tibetan mother and a Sikkimese father, and the current protest incidents have moved her studies in Human Rights for her Bachelor's degree from theory to conviction and action.