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Terracotta Warriors Vs The Flame-Throwers

April 27, 2008


The Olympic spirit, where was it? At paranoid, clampdown Rajpath or on
the street with Tibet? ...

Outlook India ~~ Magazine | Apr 28, 2008
Anjali Puri, Omair Ahmad

"DALIE LAMA" said a poster on one of the fleet of sleek, air-conditioned
buses in which the Chinese embassy ferried its delegates to the Olympic
torch run, with 'LIE' highlighted in red. For many media footsoldiers,
however, watching these flag-waving Chinese getting easy entry into the
fortress that was Rajpath (while they remonstrated with paranoid cops
refusing to honour their media accreditation cards), it was the event
itself that was the lie.

"It passed off peacefully," was the relieved official verdict. But it
was the peace of the graveyard, enforced by more stringent security than
ever witnessed at a Delhi venue. As we watched from a hard-won viewing
post in the middle of "Ground Zero", the acres of green between Vijay
Chowk and India Gate were efficiently cleansed. Two hours before the
relay, the Delhi Metro workers, students, tourists, government employees
hanging about waiting for a glimpse of Saif and Aamir, were all
"disappeared" by cops into the radial roads around Rajpath.

And so, when the torchbearers arrived to position themselves on the 2.5
km route, waiting for their 30 metres of fame, their audience consisted
of hordes of cops, straggly clumps of media and orderly rows of
flag-waving Chinese. A thin, polite assemblage of dignitaries and
schoolchildren waited at India Gate. While there were enough faces to
make TV screens look busy, the impression, on the ground, was of an
almost surreal sterility, barely relieved by uniforms, OB vans, police
jeeps, cameras, and vehicles draped with Olympic flags.

Commercial sponsors tried to dress up the scene with banners, buntings
and T-shirts. But the gaiety of pom-pom girls gyrating to tinny music
for impassive cops was a forced one. The torchbearer positioned closest
to us was alas, not Saif, but the Chinese consul-general from Mumbai. At
some point, a flame changed hands, but with Chinese minders and Delhi
policemen in newly issued faux-athletic tracksuits surrounding it, it
was hard to get the full measure of this moment of Olympic glory, even
from a few yards away.

A few kilometres away, however, at Raj Ghat and Jantar Mantar, and at
many spaces in between, a noisy festival, infused with colour, chaos and
even the phraseology ("zindabads", "murdabads", "halla bols" and "saath
dos" chanted in Tibetan-accented Hindi) of Indian democracy had been
playing out all day. Of all the national journeys that the Olympic torch
has been on during its 2008 run, its brief Indian one is extraordinary
for the sheer contrast it generated between a show of state power driven
by the implacable might of the Chinese state, and the desperate,
energised demonstration of people power by the largest Tibetan refugee
community in any one country.

Undaunted by the absence of celebrities­apart from the odd politician of
socialist hue­and determined to make April 17, '08, memorable in their
own way, the Tibetans ploughed on with their alternative torch rally.
Their torch was the traditional Tibetan butter lamp, and unlike the
official torch, which remained unmolested on its brief, sanitised
journey through Delhi, from airport to five-star suite to ceremonial
boulevard, this one went back and forth between protesters and police.
When it disappeared, three or four new torches emerged, and took the
flame forward. Where was the indomitable Olympic spirit, one
wondered­out there in the official parade ground, or here on the street?
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