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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

India Suspends Freedoms of Tibetans

April 1, 2012

By Margherita Stancati and Preetika Rana


In an effort to shield Chinese President Hu Jintao from Tibetan protests, the Indian government placed extreme restrictions on exiled Tibetans, raising questions on the extent to which New Delhi is willing to compromise its democratic credentials for the sake of its ties with Beijing.


For the past several days, many Tibetans living in New Delhi have been denied basic democratic freedoms, including the right to assemble and to protest peacefully. Law enforcement authorities have prevented many of them from leaving their homes or neighborhoods for days, effectively placing them under house arrest.


The measures were implemented following the dramatic act of a young Tibetan man, who on Monday set himself on fire in New Delhi to protest against Chinese rule in Tibetan regions.


This happened days before Mr. Hu arrived in the city to attend the Brics summit with leaders from Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa. The young Tibetan died of his burns on Wednesday, the same day Mr. Hu landed New Delhi.


The self-immolation sparked fears that more unrest would follow. But while it is commonplace for Indian law-enforcement authorities to tighten security ahead of high-level visits of Chinese officials, some Tibetans and activists say the current restrictions are unprecedented.


Students staying at the Tibetan Youth Hostel, for instance, were not allowed to leave the premises, starting Tuesday.


“We are very much aware that the Indian government gives us political asylum and I am very grateful but we are being put under house arrest. That is too much,” says 22-year-old Tashi, a student at Delhi University whose family still lives in Tibet.


There have been exceptions.


Students who had to sit exams or attend to other urgent matters, have been allowed to leave – but only escorted by police.


Tashi, who declined to share his last name for fear of repercussions, says police surrounded the hostel, which is home to roughly 250 Tibetan students. Police banned them from staging any form of protest even within the hostel.


“We never expected such kind of restrictions, it’s unprecedented,” adds Tashi, who has been living in India for over a decade.


“If every time a Chinese leader comes to India they put us under house arrest, this is not freedom,” he says. “India is supposed to be a democracy.”


The youth hostel is just one of the many places inhabited by Tibetans where similar restrictions have been imposed in accordance to Section 144 of the Indian penal code. This law can be applied to a particular group or inhabitants of a particular area.


Whole neighborhoods have been placed under Section 144. They include Majnu Ka Tila, a Tibetan-populated neighborhood in north Delhi.


Majnu Ka Tila is strewn with Buddhist prayer flags and posters honoring Tibetans who set themselves alight to oppose Chinese rule. Self-immolations, which some Buddhists see as the most extreme form of non-violent protest, have become common in recent months, with activists saying over 30 self-immolations have taken place in Tibetan areas over the past year.


All shops in Majnu Ka Tila have been closed for days as a sign of respect for the dead, with locals saying they would stay shut until Mr. Hu left India.


Police officers patrol entrances to the neighborhood and only selectively allow residents to leave it. Dawa, who goes by only one name, was among those whose request to exit Majnu Ka Tila was turned down. A translator by profession, he said he asked for permission to leave to make a phone call.


He told India Real Time he was upset about the security clampdown and insisted Tibetans should be allowed the right to protest against Mr. Hu.


“Though India is considered the largest democracy in the world, we are not allowed peaceful protest,” said Mr. Dawa.


Swadesh Pal, a senior officer at Delhi Police, said about 150 police officers, including many from the central rapid-action police force, were stationed in Majnu Ka Tila from Monday.


Speaking outside the neighborhood’s main gate, Mr. Pal said they have been authorized “to detain any Tibetan activist who attempts to stage protests, hold gathering or violates law and order.” He added that no resident had yet been held and that the restrictions would be lifted shortly after Mr. Hu’s departure. They are likely to remain in place at least through Friday.


Police have been cracking down on attempts to protest Mr. Hu’s visit elsewhere in the city, including around the grounds of the Brics summit. Since Monday, at least 316 Tibetans have been detained, according to Sunil Gupta, an officer at Tihar Jail, where protesters were held. Police said that none of the Tibetans have yet been charged.


Indian authorities have also targeted individual activists. Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, an influential group that lobbies for Tibetan independence, was denied entry into India on Wednesday night. Mr. Rigzin, a U.S. citizen, was turned down at New Delhi’s international airport.


In a statement, his organization slammed the move as an infringement of Mr. Rigzin’s rights and criticized what it described as India’s “appeasement policy towards China.”


Ira Joshi, spokeswoman for India’s home ministry, declined to comment on the restrictions being placed on Tibetans, saying “the issue is under the jurisdiction of the Delhi Police” and the central government “has nothing to do with this.”


While Tibet has long been a bone of contention between the two Asian neighbors, India has been cautious about not provoking China over the issue, especially during high-level visits.


The Tibetan government-in-exile has been based in India ever since the Dalai Lama made the Himalayan town of Dharamasala his home after fleeing Tibet in the late 1950s. While India recognizes Tibet as part of China, Beijing sees the existence of the government-in-exile in India as fueling the movement for Tibetan autonomy.

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