Arrested during Xi's visit, Tibetan activist Tenzin Tsundue has been jailed 16 times. Here's why

The activist was picked up by the police much before Xi's visit and was detained at Puzhal for 12 days, but this was not the first time this was happening to him 
Tenzin has for many years cherished a dream of freedom
Tenzin has for many years cherished a dream of freedom

Tenzin Tsundue was the last of the 13 Tibetans to be released from the Puzhal Centra Prison after being arrested ahead of the Chinese President Xi Jinping's arrival in the city, last week. In a photo released the next day, Tenzin can be seen smiling. The last 12 days that he spent in jail don't seem to have upset him.

That's probably because this is the 16th time he was being arrested. Just another day in the life of a Tibetan activist.

Tenzin is a writer, poet and activist and he has organised many memorable protests, with students, in the past against the visits of many Chinese government representatives. So, this time too, the Himachal Pradesh-based writer made his way to a quiet meditative spot in Pondicherry. On October 5, the Pondicherry police arrived at Tenzin's residence and arrested him. And he was kept inside for 12 whole days. When he finally stepped out, Xi was long gone. "I'm just disappointed I could not follow through with my plans and express my protest. India leaves no space to protest anymore. MLAs, MPs, the Parliament can all protest but I cannot protest for the freedom of a China-occupied territory. That is just sad," Tenzin says. 

A Tibetan Odyssey — in India

For someone who has been in jail 16 times in 46 years of existence, it's obvious that his activism started quite young. Here's how it began. Tenzin's parents escaped the plunder and killing of their people and land and ended up in Himachal Pradesh — where they worked as road construction workers. They remained there for years as labourers before being rehabilitated in one of the four camps in Karnataka. This is the place where Tenzin was born and the place where Tenzin's parents continue to stay on as farmers growing corn. 

"When I was a little boy, my grandmother used to tell me stories about snowy mountains with lots of sheep. And here I was in sweltering Karnataka unable to even fathom what she meant. It was like a fairytale," Tenzin recalls thinking. It was when he started school, that he began to learn that India was not his country. That his family had to flee from another land leaving behind their family and their dignity and were living on the sympathy of a foreign country. "That is when I realised that the only way to regain our dignity would be to go back to Tibet and fight for it. No one can give us freedom and that we have to take it back ourselves," he said.

And so after he finished his degree in English from Loyola College in Chennai, at the age of 22, Tenzin set off to Tibet. He told no one, not even his family. It was mission impossible, which is what pushed him to do it. "At 22, you are young and idealistic," Tenzin said, smiling. In Tibet, Tenzin was arrested, ill-treated and then thrown out in three months. "They told me I was born in India and so I did not belong to Tibet."

Why we need to speak the language of protest

He then returned to India and went to Mumbai to pursue his Masters in English. Tenzin believed that the only way to fight for freedom was to write about not having it and debate on how it can be got. So he wanted to learn the language better, "I wanted to learn the language we could argue in. I wanted to write it, speak it well. That's why I pursued it academically." Tenzin has written the book Kora, which costs about 50 rupees for a copy. He uses this money for his daily needs. He travels, gives lectures on Tibet, lives in a tiny room with five other people, eats the simplest of foods and depends on no one. He emerges out of this life only once in a while, when a Chinese government dignitary is in town. He comes out, hoping to make a statement.

Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes like this time around, he gets thrown in jail.

What did the Tamil Nadu police do to him?

"In all my protests, I find a unique way to get the attention of the people. This time too I was hoping to protest because we do have the right to make a statement. But on October 5, the police arrived in their jeeps. They had a photo on their phone and kept checking if I was the same person. I was arrested and presented at the Tindivanam court at 11 pm that day," he recalled. The judge remanded Tenzin to two weeks in judicial custody, "On the morning of the 6th we drove to Puzhal jail, I think we got there at about 2.30. It was a long ride," he tells us. But he wasn't abused or treated badly by the cops because he believed they had been instructed by their superiors not to do so. 

Even though this is not his first time, Tenzin does believe the police went overboard this time, "The Tamil Nadu police seemed to be making arrests randomly. They arrested anyone who even remotely resembled a Tibetan. They arrested a bunch of Mizo people. Ironically, they also arrested four Chinese people who had to go great lengths to prove that they are not from Tibet," he explained. He even went to state his disappointment with colleges in the city that had detained its students and did not even allow them to step out of their hostels. "Young students also had to go to the police and sign a statement promising they won't protest. Since when have we lost our democratic spaces to voice grievances?" he asks.

Sparked by activism, driven by desire

However, this has not in any way deterred him or pushed him away from pursuing his dream of one day seeing a free Tibet. The activist says, "As a child, I grew up in the outskirts of the Satyamangalam jungle, remember, where Veerappan used to hunt? That is my first memory as a child, my first images, but the stories of snowy mountains are what rung in my ear."

And so Tenzin hopes that the caged snowy mountains will one day call out to him.

Till then, he will write, protest and fight. 

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