Sunday 6 September 2020

Behind the Uniform

 (I wrote this review of Tibetan Guerrillas in Exile, a documentary film by Tibetan filmmaker Kelsang Rinchen, in 2009 and is included in my book Yak Horns: Notes on Contemporary Tibetan Writing, Music, Film & Politics. With the SFF now in sharp focus due to open conflicts between India and China in Indo-Tibetan borders, this rare documentary is important. Please watch and share. Thank you.)

Watch trailer here:

Full doc. here:

On 20 October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, troops of China’s People’s Liberation Army (the PLA) attacked India. They crossed two 16,000-foot passes, routing the Indian border sentries. In Ladakh in Northwestern India, the Chinese army swiftly overwhelmed fifteen of twenty-one Indian army posts. By the second week of November, the PLA took over the town of Tawang in the Northeastern Frontier Area (NEFA) and marched toward Tezpur in the Brahmaputra Valley. 

India’s dismal performance in this high-altitude battleground of the Sino-Indian War prompted the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to raise the Special Frontier Force on 14 November. Nehru made this decision on his birthday on the advice of the Intelligence Bureau founder-director, Bhola Nath Mullick, and World War II veteran Biju Patnaik – later to become the chief minister of Orissa. Incidentally, it was on the same day that the Chinese army resumed its attack on the eastern front after a brief lull. 

On 20 November, six days after the creation of the special force, Jawaharlal Nerhru addressed the nation on All India Radio: ‘Huge Chinese armies have been marching in northern part of NEFA. We have had reverses in Walong, Se La and today Bomdila, a small town in NEFA had also fallen. We shall not rest until the invader goes out of India or pushed out,’ he said. ‘This was the lowest watermark of India morale,’ wrote Dr P. B. Sinha and Colonel A. A. Athale in their mammoth and now-declassified book History of the Conflict with China - 1962 published by India’s Ministry of Defence.

The Cabinet Secretariat under Nehru ordered that the SFF should be an elite force composed mainly of Tibetan refugees. Its main goal was to conduct covert operations behind the lines of the PLA and to engage its soldiers in the über-tough terrain of the Himalayas. The first Inspector-General of the SFF was a retired Indian Army Major-General, Sujan Singh Uban. Not long after, the SFF was re-named as ‘Establishment 22’ since Uban was commander of the 22 Mountain Regiment in World War II.

Members of the SFF numbering around twelve thousand mostly came from Chushi-Gang-Druk, a resistance group founded in Tibet by Andrugtsang Gonpo Tashi, a Tibetan businessman. The resistance fighters of this force had come into exile with the Dalai Lama in the aftermath of China’s occupation of Tibet. They welcomed the founding of Establishment 22 in the hope that through this new regular force a Tibetan army could be maintained to fight against the Chinese some day in the distant future. ‘The main objective was to fight the Chinese to get back independence for Tibet. That was why I joined the force,’ said Passang, an SFF veteran. But, till this day the opportunity to fight for their country has never arisen.

However, a few months before the Bangladesh War in 1971, the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wired a message to the Tibetan soldiers. ‘We cannot compel you to fight a war for us, but the fact is that General A. A. K. Niazi [Pakistan’s military commander in East Pakistan] is treating the people of East Pakistan very badly. India has to do something about it,’ Gandhi wrote, ‘In a way, it is similar to the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans in Tibet; we are facing a similar situation. It would be appreciated if you could help us fight the war for liberating the people of Bangladesh.’ 

Consequently, three columns of SFF led by Gyato Dhondup, Ratuk Nawang and Pekar Trinley, who were simply identified as ‘political leaders’, infiltrated into Bangladesh, then called East Pakistan. In collaboration with the Mukti Bahini or Freedom Fighters, an armed group fighting against the Pakistani army, the SFF conducted raids destroying infrastructure such as bridges and communication lines –  especially in Chittagong, where an important naval base was located – that enabled the Indian Army to advance into East Pakistan. However, this operation by around three thousand Tibetan soldiers was so secret that even the Indian army knew nothing of it. ‘We knew that they were there. But what they were doing I had no idea,’ admitted Major-General K. K. Tewari, who was Chief Signal Officer during the war.

One of the biggest achievements of the SFF was the demolition of Do Hazari Bridge that connects Chittagong to Burma. On 16 December 1971, Lt. Gen Niazi of the Pakistan Army signed the Instrument of Surrender and over ninety thousand Pakistani troops surrendered to the Indian forces making it the largest military surrender since World War II. However, thousands of these defeated soldiers were planning to escape into China via neighbouring Burma by crossing the Do Hazari Bridge. 

A day after the signing of the surrender, the SFF received an urgent message from the chief of Indian Eastern Command, Lt.-General Jagjit Singh Arora, ordering them to destroy this strategic bridge. This was one of many successful missions that the SFF undertook in the Indo-Bangladesh War. 

Over the course of their covert operation, the three Tibetan columns lost fifty-two soldiers, including one of their commanding officers, Gyato Dhondup. Hundreds were injured. Tibetan Guerrillas in Exile, a documentary by Kalsang Rinchen, a young Tibetan filmmaker, tells the stories of the SFF and these Tibetan veterans who today mostly live in old peoples’ homes, playing carom and making noodles to make ends meet.

In the summer of 2008, Kalsang – then a student at the University of Buffalo – traveled to India with his polished script and cameras. The journey was to document the life story of these veterans, their roles in the Bangladesh War and their fates in the aftermath. Inspite of his limited student budget, and the official embargo placed on the subject, Kalsang has done an admirable job in narrating the lives of these brave and dwindling former soldiers. 

The most agonizing experience that one gets watching this documentary is the void in the faces of these veterans stemming from their unfulfilled dream of fighting for their country. In 1963, when a column of the SFF was posted in Bogtai, a border post spanning India, Tibet and Bhutan, some soldiers took a few steps into Tibet, picked up handfuls of earth and shouted out loud: ‘This is my land! This is my land!’ If we look deeply into their eyes, we see that they still hold the amber of hope that there might be one last battle to reclaim their country.
‘I want to fight for Tibet, even if that means throwing some dust in the enemy’s eyes,’ says Lama Kunchok, an SFF veteran, looking straight into the camera and the hue of his monk’s robes glowing bright.

Sunday 14 May 2017

Reclaiming 'the soil beneath his feet and sky above his head'

White Crane Lend Me Your Wings by Tsewang Y. Pemba
Niyogi Books. Rs.495/

(This review was previously published in the Journal of Indian Literature)

The Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706), was arguably one of the most inspiring Tibetan poets. His lyrical songs have found a permanent place in the hearts of Tibetans, and to this day his words are set to new tunes by Tibetan artistes around the world. Like most Tibetans Tsewang Yeshi Pemba too was inspired by songs of the poet Dalai Lama, and in fact the title of Pemba’s posthumous novel White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings is borrowed from a famous quartet Tsangyang Gyatso composed days before his sudden death at the age of twenty-three. Pemba was the first Tibetan allopathic doctor and a surgeon, who had authored two books Young Days in Tibet and Idols on the Path. Dr Pemba died in 2012.

White Crane is set in Nyarong, a valley at the heart of Kham in Eastern Tibet. With soaring mountains, deep valleys, undulating rivers, and open grasslands, Nyarong is something of a highland ‘Wild West’ whose tribes often engaged in blood feuds while at the same time making generous donations to local monasteries and propitiating deities who never answered their prayers.

Paul or Paul-o, a central protagonist of Tsewang’s novel, follows roughly the same path as that of George Patterson or Patterson of Tibet, a Scottish missionary, who the present Dalai Lama fondly called Khampa Gyau, ‘the Bearded Khampa’. At the age of twenty-seven in 1947, Patterson went to Tibet and set up his base in Dartsedo, a border town between Tibet and China. From there he extensively traveled and spent time among the militant tribal Khampas learning the language and treating them medically.
Paul-o, however, is born in Nyarong to a missionary couple from San Francisco, who come to Tibet with mission to bring the entire high plateau into the fold of the ‘one true God’. Though the missionary couple manage to convert only a handful of Tibetans into Christianity, ‘they won the hearts of Tibetans’.
Paul-o’s oath-bound friend, and the other central character in the novel, is Tenga or Tenpa Gyurmay Dragotsang, the son of the chieftain of Nyarong. Paul, Tenga and their gang’s idyllic youthful days spent horse-riding, swimming, hunting expeditions and frequent sexual escapades are cut short by the advancing army of the newly-formed Communist China. Tashi Tsering Rithangtsang, Tenga’s ancestral archenemy, leads the shabbily-dressed but disciplined Red Army troops into Nyarong. This shrewd double-headed opportunist Khampa in the novel reminds one of a controversial character in modern Tibetan history, Baba Phunstok Wangyal, who guided the Eighteenth Army of China’s People’s Liberation Army to Lhasa in 1951 to ‘liberate’ Tibet from foreign reactionaries.
When Tenga, Paul-o and Khampa warriors realize that they were no match for the battle-hardened and well-equipped Chinese army swarming their beloved Nyarong, like swarms of locusts usurping a ripe field of barley, they decide to send Paul-o to British-India to seek assistance for their resistance against the occupation of their country. Negotiating an uncharted route Paul-o sneaks out of Tibet only to find that the outside world does not want to be involved in the thorny issue of Tibet’s invasion.
Author Tsewang Yeshi Pemba
This is a wonderful novel in which Pemba has penetrated into the unique psyche of Khampas – the people of eastern Tibet – and manifested his deep understanding of their dispositions into his vivid characters. This is particularly interesting given the fact that the author was born in Gyangtse, a town in central Tibet and went to study in British-India at a tender age of nine, later moving to England to complete his higher education and medical studies. Much later in his peripatetic life, he met, interacted and formed a deep friendship with former Khampa guerrilla fighters in Darjeeling and Kalimpong. This, it seems, had an immense impact on the author, driving him to set the story in rural Kham with an all Khampa cast with the exception of the American missionaries.
One of the defining Khampa temperaments is their courage. When Tenga and his guerrilla group is on the edge of defeat, he says, ‘I shall fight the Chinese Communists who’ve taken my Nyarong away from me till the end – no matter how powerful they get, no matter how numerous their forces.’ As in Pemba’s novel, the youth of today’s Nyarong display the same audacity and adamant desire to challenge Beijing’s occupying forces. Only the method has changed. Today youths in Nyarong – as well as youths in other parts of Tibet – no longer pick up guns or wield swords. Instead they resort to nonviolent tactics, including self-immolation. Two young men, eighteen-year-old Tashi Wangdu and twenty-four-year-old Pema Gyaltsen have recently set themselves on fire in Nyarong within a year. Both demanded freedom for Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama from exile.

White Crane is a fast-paced and breathtaking tale of love, friendship and vendetta, and above all it is a story of man’s innate desire for freedom. When the land is lost everything else becomes inconsequential. This loss forms a tight knot at the pith of one’s heart. Life is consequently retuned into a singular goal to reclaim ‘the soil beneath his feet and the sky above his head.’ To be able to accomplish this repossession is one’s ‘true freedom’ and ‘true liberation’.
Launch in Dharamsala (above) and in Delhi (below)

Sunday 5 February 2017


for Prof. Elliot Sperling (1951-2017)


Monday 8 August 2016


When Nyinjey left town
The sun did not show up for three days,
Rain went on beating the resilient leaves
Fog intercoursed with everything on its path,
It sneaked through the cracked windowpanes,
Germinating moulds on our winter shoes.
Days are like nights long hours to drudge,
The pain in my right ear has moved up
Four fingers closer to the crown of my head,
The throbbing is like two bulls fighting
On a sandy river bank, their hooves
Splashing wet sands in ten directions.
Hordes of earwigs are gnawing me from inside.
And I thought of the Big Apple, its lights,
The sunless, smelly subway trains always showing up
On time to gobble up masses of lonely souls,
Worry-soaked and desperate to reach their destinations.
Here is a mosquito trying to land on my
Left foot which hasn’t touched water for a week.
A dog barks in the distance as if
One hundred tiny bones are stuck in its throat.
The kitchen fan whirs on spewing out
Stale air laced with germs from my hysteric coughing.
On a night such as this
What do I hope?
What does he hope?
What do we hope?
Nothing. Anything. Everything.
Ah, a passport with a majestic eagle on it!
A hassle-free travel at the airport.
A little more money.
A little more comfort.
May all of these add up to something
Like a tunnel built by a million ants,
Leading to light and freedom.
My eyeballs pop out of their sockets
Roll across this page,
Soak up the black ink and
Rush back into their holes –
Ah, visionless eyes, such bliss.

When Nyinjey left town
All the brown dogs at the LTWA
Kept fast and a vow of silence for a day,
Even the bull in our village with
Its balls hanging down like icicles in a cave
Refused a banana I gave him,
It went on regurgitating the garbage
It gobbled up in the morning.

When Nyinjey left town
The clock sighed,
As the Symphony No. 6 in B minor
Trickled through cracks of the wet walls.

(Note: This is part of a long poem.)

Sunday 29 May 2016

‘I Will Carry the Sky’

Review of “Coming Home to Tibet” By Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

Published by Shambhala Publications 

‘I come from there and I have memories / I have a mother /And a house with many windows…’ wrote one of my favourite poets Mahoud Darwish.
Tsering Choden Dhompa came from a place, where the land was so white and cold in the winter you would think a humongous freezer was perpetually at work; in the Summer the same land would transform into a colossal garden as if the goddess of art was letting the entire arsenal of her palette loose on the plateau. This cycle of seasons continued. Yaks pounded flower petals into pulp when the sun was hot or left large imprints in the snow when the wind was cutting into their coats.
Choden lived there until she was forced to encroach on others space as a million bayonets poked through her blue sky and snuffed out the yak-dung fire in her hearth. Soon after being wed to the chieftain of a nomadic clan, she hastily packed her belongings. The year was 1959. It took three more years for Choden and her group to escape from Tibet – braving many encounters with Mao’s Red Army, hunger and death.
In exile she gave birth to her daughter, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, in Dharamsala, a small town in northern India. Tsering Wangmo grew up listening to her mother’s stories in their tiny rented rooms – tales of flowers so bright one would turn pale at the sight or the land so cold that pee would turn into a thin stripe of yellowish ice before it hit the ground.
At the age of twenty-four, Tsering was left alone with a bunch of hand-written notes and her mother’s recollections enveloping her entire existence.
When the heart is over-burdened with memories, and the mind over-stuffed with tales, they often misbehave and worst still rotate out of their orbit.
For over half-a-century Tibet has been denied her independence. But more importantly, she has lost her stories – often locked away in the forgetful heads of sweater sellers burrowed in Indian cities, or cast aside by monks and lamas who are distracted by monastic rituals. Very little of Tibet’s narrative has been shaped, articulated and asserted by Tibetans themselves. Moreover, interpretations of our reality by outsiders telling fantastic tales have turned us into a mono-coloured one-size-fits-all single commodity. As a result, we can be popularly defined by a few generic sentences: ‘Tibetans are kind-hearted,’ ‘Tibetan culture is so interesting,’ or ‘You are a Buddhist so you are a vegetarian.’
Once an American friend visiting Dharamsala remarked, ‘Tibetan children are so cute with their red cheeks.’ We were sitting on a rooftop restaurant and witnessed a monkey jumping from a tin-roofed house to a tall pine tree. ‘Even the monkeys have red bottoms, so cute!’ she blurted. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
But I am at peace now. You can sigh with relief too.
At last, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa has written a book which is at once classic and profound. Tsering has nurtured her mother’s stories in the depth of her heart until they are perfectly ripe and then seasoned them with tales from contemporary explorations. The result is Coming Home To Tibet. This is arguably the first-ever book in English – authored by a Tibetan born and raised in exile – that masterfully weaves a number of narratives into a tale to reflect the multi-layered Tibetan way of life and manifold issues facing Tibet today. Never having read a Tibetan story that is so absorbing and refined, I didn’t realise the punch had landed on my belly until the glove was off the hand.
After college in Delhi, Tsering packed her toothbrush and went off to the US to pursue further studies in creative writing. Years later she made a number of visits to her mother’s birthplace in eastern Tibet to confirm the veracity of her mother’s stories which she clung to while moving from one rented place to another. After arriving on the vast landscapes filled with tiny flowers fighting for a space to pop their heads up to the eternal blue sky, Tsering realised her mother’s words were more than matched by the profusion of colours on the ground.
But the land itself can provide only so much gratification. Tsering writes:
‘I have lived my life defined as a refugee in Nepal and India, a resident alien and immigrant in the United States. At last, I am a Tibetan in Tibet, a Khampa in Kham, albeit as a tourist in my occupied and tethered country.’
Tsering does not push herself to the forefront of the narrative. Her love for the land and its people overshadows her and she becomes secondary. She carefully reconstructs Tibetan life through conversations with her relatives – Aunt Tashi, Uncle Phuntsok and Ashang, and over thirty cousin-brothers and sisters – and anyone else who has a story to tell. Like a veteran detective, she lets nothing go unnoticed. To define her people, their civilisation and the present dilemma under occupation, Tsering has picked up the tiniest scraps of evidence such as the way a young man stands leaning against a newly-installed electric pole in Kegyu, or the obstinate persistence of nomads to stick to their land and animals, no matter how much they are bombarded with ideological indoctrination or propaganda about the benefits of life under the red flag.
Tsering has the patience of a hermit when it comes to coaxing tales from the most reticent of informants such as her uncle. After many silent evenings, her uncle tells her of his life and the experiences of over two decades in prison simply for being a lama and the relative of a Tibetan chieftain; how he witnessed as prison guards dragged ‘the dead away like a log of wood down the hallway and disposed them in ditches’; and how he failed to tease even a single drop of tears from his eyes after Mao died when prisoners were ordered to cry or face dire consequences.
Very little has changed in Tibet since the terrible campaigns of the early years of China’s occupation. If at all, the scale of repression has increased. Since the 1990s over 2.5 million Tibetan nomads are being forced to settle at permanent locations. This has caused joblessness, social disharmony and most of all the death of over nine thousand years of Tibet’s mobile civilisation. Nomads are governed by decisions made in Beijing. There is, Tsering writes, ‘no place for truth in the system, just the act of allegiance’ to the rulers.
Coming Home To Tibet records the lives of Tibetans. And yet it is certainly not a book that simply uncovers Chinese rule on the high plateau. Tsering meditates on exile, dislocation and her ‘transnational nomadic existence’. No matter how much she loves her native land that gave birth to her mother, Tsering cannot brave the harsh winter of the land of snows. Icy wind filters into the layers of her garments and cold floors sends chills through three layers of woollen socks and then sneaks into her flesh and bones, forcing her to book a permanent place near the stove. The winter has only begun. Tsering has to find her way out.
The road that brought her into Dhompa – where her grandfather was the chieftain – takes her back to San Francisco, where the electricity is as dependable as a yak. A washing machine, wireless internet, a walk in the park or an occasional cup of coffee has become a part of her life. ‘The city gives one the feeling of being home,’ writes Simone Weil, the French philosopher and mystic.
For displaced people around the world, such as Tsering, there is an urgent need to ‘take the feeling of being at home into exile’ and to ‘be rooted in the absence of a place’ temporarily stolen away from them. If anyone who is over-burdened with memories fails to create a provisional ‘home’ in the borrowed land, the pain gnaws from within and life becomes unliveable.
Coming Home To Tibet is a fitting tribute from a daughter to her mother. Tsering has narrated her personal loss and the collective loss of her homeland like no one else. In her acquired tongue, she has written a book that is dangerously subtle and evocatively beautiful.
‘And I weep to make myself known / To a returning cloud. / I learnt all the words and broke them up / To make a single word: Homeland …’
We can invoke clouds only in poetry. Reality is too harsh and clouds only return to strange lands. On New Year’s day in 1994, Tsering’s mother died in a tragic car accident on India’s Grand Trunk Road. Choden was with three friends.
Words can never fill the void left by the death of a beloved mother or the loss of a country, but they are the only enduring milestones against forgetting. Words assign a place in history for the accused, the persecuted, the occupied and the dead. To forget is not to care and not to care is to collude against memory. It denies truth a chance to triumph.

Coming Home To Tibet is a crowning achievement, a quintessential book worthy of the granddaughter of a Khampa chieftain from Dhompa in eastern Tibet. This should and must be read by all Tibetans and their friends for a thoroughly nuanced understanding of Tibetan lives then and now.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

The Last Words of Sonam Topgyal

To the leaders of the Chinese Government and particularly to the local heads of the minorities;

I am the twenty-seven-year-old son of Tashitsang of Nangchen, Yulshul in Tso.ngon region. Currently, I am a monk studying at Dzongsar Institute.

As people within the country and outside are aware, the Chinese government does not look at the true and actual situation of the minorities but practices only harsh and repressive policies on them. At a time when the government is carrying out policies to stamp out our religion, tradition and culture, and destroy our natural environment, there is absolutely no freedom of expression for the people, and there is no channel to talk about our situation and file our complaints.

Furthermore, every time the people try to report truth about their situation and file any complaint, instead of providing solutions, the authorities retaliate with more crackdowns and arrests. Through various deceptive regulations, the government also prevents monks and nuns from joining religious institutions. In a nutshell, they are carrying policies to completely wipe out the minorities.

Our chief goal is for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to be able to return to the Potala Palace. I sacrifice my life to prove to the world and especially the people of China and the Chinese authorities that we have absolutely no power or channels to talk about injustices being done to us.

My Tibetans brothers and sisters of the same blood, please do not remain aloof as if you have seen or heard nothing. Be united, be strong and work hard for our just struggle so we win in the end.

Written on 1 July 2015 just as the sun was rising: Sonam Topgyal

27-year-old monk, Sonam Topgyal, set himself on fire on Thursday 9 July at Gesar Square in Kyegudo in Yulshul, Kham, Eastern Tibet