On 20 March 2016, Tibetans living in exile across the world will vote in the sixteenth general elections to elect a new leader for the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile (TpiE)—that was set up in Dharamshala, Himanchal Pradesh, following the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1949. India accounts for more than 90,000 of these voters, followed by Nepal and Bhutan. Still living under Chinese rule, a majority of the Tibetan population is excluded from the election process. The preliminary elections, through which candidates who are running for the post of the sikyong (prime minister or leader) will be shortlisted for the main elections, are scheduled for October this year.
Lukar Jam Astock is one of five candidates vying for the post of sikyong. Astock is the first candidate ever to contest with an open avowal of Rangzen—complete independence from China instead of the conventional Ume Lam (the middle way) approach seeking genuine autonomy, as endorsed by the Dalai Lama. Astock, born in 1972 in the Amdo province in Tibet, has been politically active since the age of 15, when he came to India wanting to join the Tutu Army—Establishment-22, India’s special force of Tibetans established after the 1962 border conflict with China. Although he did not sign up eventually, Astock returned to Tibet and, with some friends, revived the Dokhom Shunu Shithup (Eastern Province Warriors Association) to protest against Chinese atrocities. Deemed “a threat to the unity of the Motherland” by the Chinese government, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison without trial. However, in 1997, Astock was released on medical parole. A year later, he escaped to India via Nepal and joined the Gu Chu Sum, a Dharamshala-based organisation that helps Tibetan political prisoners. He is now its president.
Last month, Astock spoke to Ishan Marvel, a web reporter at The Caravan, with the help of Gyelek Khedup who acted as an interpreter. Astock refrained from discussing his election manifesto but talked instead about his approach to politics, how he draws inspiration from the Indian freedom struggle and his aspirations for Tibet.
Ishan Marvel: You were imprisoned at the Terlenghka Detention Centre and Pinang Prison in Amdo province in Tibet and were only released in 1997 because of your health. Could you describe your experience in jail? What are the conditions like for Tibetans, in jail or otherwise?
Lukar Jam Astock: People always ask these questions about torture and jail, but to me, the very idea of going to prison is the biggest torture of all. Your freedom is lost and you can’t do anything. There was solitary confinement, and they deprive you of food, water, sanitation, sleep—and of course, you’re beaten up a lot. The jailers have absolute power. Chinese jail authorities come from a long tradition of torture—but you deal with it. If a Chinese falls in the hands of Chinese authorities, it becomes a legal case. If it’s a Tibetan, there is no question of trial, no sense of legality whatsoever. Tibetan prisoners are not considered citizens but enemies of the state. Tibetans living in Tibet don’t get passports or proper identity cards. If they go to a Chinese province, they cannot rent rooms, and they are not allowed in hotels and restaurants. Even the general public is asked to boycott Tibetans, and because of all the official propaganda, there is a very strong feeling against us.
IM: How has the Tibetan community in exile changed over the years in terms of political awareness?
LKA: Political awareness has definitely increased, especially among the youth. The idea of a free Tibet has grown strong. Of course, living standards for a large number of people are still poor, but things have improved. But I will tell you about two disappointments: the persistence of feudal terminology and mindset among Tibetan people, and the commercialisation of religion—such as all these stickers of Tibetan gods and goddesses, prayer flags, among other things. Too much influence of religion on a community is very harmful, for it hinders the thinking process.
Meanwhile in Tibet, people are reading Tagore, Gandhi, Ambedkar and others in bootlegged translations, and they take them seriously. It might sound funny to you—sitting here in 2015 with the internet and everything-—the idea of smuggling books, but that’s how it is. So, I believe that the first spark of revolution will come from Tibet itself.
IM: How important is it for the general Indian public to understand and empathise with the Tibetan cause?
LKA: If they voluntarily take notice, that is good. What is even better is if they read about Tibet on their own, because I don’t believe in going around and forcefully putting it into their minds. The way I see it, those interested in the cause will pick it up.
But it should be meaningful. We have been here for more than 60 years, and the saddest part is that, from the entire Indian community, there has not even been one proper book written about us that is accurate and comprehensive. People don’t know what being a Tibetan means. Even our leaders don’t know. They only see the Buddhist identity. If you look at the centres of Tibetan studies in India, it’s mostly just Buddhist philosophy. I think that is a dangerous way of thinking. That is one of the things I want to do if I get elected: open a Tibetan resource centre that would take this up.
IM: Where do you stand on the matter of Tibetan refugees taking Indian citizenship?
LKA: The most important thing for the TPiE is to restore Tibetan independence. As for citizenship, I think that is a personal choice. As a Rangzen activist, I do find it a bit paradoxical when our freedom fighters accept foreign citizenship. But in the end, government policy should stand on the firm ground of morality.
IM: You want to keep religion and politics separate, but what about your personal beliefs? How do they affect your political stance?
LKA: I have a one-year-old son in Dharamshala, so I take him to the church, the mosque, as well as the monastery there. Since I was born a Buddhist, I always had this fear of other religions that was instilled in me by family and society. I don’t want to make the same mistake with my child. But to answer your question, I have read a little bit of [the spiritual leader] Osho and [the spiritual writer and philosopher Jiddu] Krishnamurti—and to tell you the truth, I’m past the stage to hold any religious beliefs. But if there really is a god who can help me grow in wisdom, then lighting a lamp doesn’t hurt. So far, I have found no gods.
I do have that controversial tag [of being opposed to the Dalai Lama], but I don’t think I have to justify myself. I have faith in his Holiness, and I have never commented on the religious side of things. Some people have their own agendas, so they muddle things up and make Rangzen advocates look bad. It is the theocratic system of governance that I question. Does it make sense for a monk to be involved in politics? Even his holiness has accepted this [The Dalai Lama devolved his political authority in 2011]. It is the non-secular attitude that needs to change if we want to move forward, because it affects everything.
IM: Do you think Rangzen can be achieved through non-violence, and is that realistic?
LKA: It is not important to choose one particular path for a national struggle. Individuals can prefer one over another—just as Mahatma Gandhi chose non-violence, while [Subhash Chandra] Bose chose the other way. As of now, I don’t want to put myself in any framework; such decisions will take time. We have to think—for instance, what will we do if war broke out between India and neighbouring countries? What will the Tutu army do—should it be allowed to fight or not? There are all these questions, and we will find the answers in due course.
IM: How important is the role of the Indian authorities in the Tibetan freedom struggle, and how do you see the equation between them and their Tibetan counterparts? If you do get elected, how do you plan to navigate this, considering the curious relationship between the current Indian and Chinese governments?
LKA: The current sikyong, Lobsang Sangay has declared that they will not challenge Chinese communism or fight for complete democracy. But even if the middle way policy was a realistic approach then what is the use of India giving us refuge out here? It totally defeats the purpose of helping the Tibetan people if we are just going to side with China in terms of border disputes and territory issues. [China has consistently denied Tibetan requests for the middle way through official white papers, the latest released on 15 April 2015] That’s what the middle way policy is, in the end. It’s like going to the governments with a begging bowl and a picture of his Holiness. (Laughter)
The Indian government provides refuge to Tibetans, and we are grateful for that. The help they offer in terms of land and helping the schools and providing welfare is a lot. But there is a hierarchy; it’s an unequal relationship. We need to build trust between the two governments. Also, there is corruption in the welfare distribution system—some families get all the funding, while the others get nothing. We [the TPiE] also get funding from various countries such as the United States of America, but that comes with its own terms and conditions as well. I believe that we need to gradually stop taking these funds and aim for a self-sustained Tibetan community. Then there can be actual partnership. I wouldn’t want to delve into the exact approach, details and policies right now. This whole political process is important, and one must wait before talking business. What I bring to the table is the fight for Tibet’s complete independence, and that cannot be compromised. In fact, whether I win or lose is not important. It’s about making a historic statement with the pure intent of Rangzen, because to be honest, if I had a country, I would never be in politics, I would just be writing poems.
Ishan Marvel is a reporter at Vantage, The Caravan.