Remember Tibet?

Filmmaker couple Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin mount another exhibition in Delhi with a guerrilla handbook, archive of photographs, and films, to remind the world of the armed Tibetan resistance against Chinese occupation in the time of the war on Palestine
Tibet Flag (Photo | AFP)
Tibet Flag (Photo | AFP)

Territories are always a matter of dispute. Since Hamas coordinated armed incursions into Israeli territory bordering Gaza in late 2023, eyes across the world have been on Palestine, whose people are facing the brunt of a brutally disproportionate fight for land and against Israeli occupation. Something that diminishes them as people and strips them of their rights. It is a ‘David and Goliath’ situation. When world powers such as the US have lent Israel military might, Palestinian citizens are left with Biblical stones to throw at the Israeli army. A similar geopolitical situation prevails closer home in Tibet, which is battling a six-decade-old occupation by China. But it rarely makes it to the headlines in India. Veteran filmmakers Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin have, however, been spreading awareness across the world about the situation in Tibet for decades now.

‘Shadow Circus’, an ongoing exhibition at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, looks at the history of the armed Tibetan resistance, which collapsed in 1974 when its “last stronghold in the mountain kingdom of Mustang on the Nepal-Tibet border was shut down by the Nepalese army”, through a personal archive of photographs, documents, maps, audio-visual material and correspondences of Sonam’s late father, Lhamo Tsering, a leader of the movement. Tsering was also the key liaison between the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Tibetan resistance during one of the longest covert operations the CIA has carried out in the eastern hemisphere. Codenamed STCIRCUS, the operation involved training and providing weapons to Tibetans for their fight against the Chinese.

Freedom fighter in exile

The exhibition features screenings of multiple movies by the filmmakers, including documentaries and feature films, all made under the banner of their production house, White Crane Films, on the various aspects of Tibetan identity and politics. They include a new version of their acclaimed documentary The Shadow Circus (1998), besides A Stranger in my Native Land (1998), The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom (2009) and Dreaming Lhasa (2005), among others.

For Sonam, the exhibition is both a tribute to the memory of his father, who died in a New Delhi hospital in 1999, and the thousands of Tibetans who took up arms and fought for independence. “I think about his long journey from the borderlands of north-eastern Tibet where, even in his childhood, Tibetans were already swamped by Chinese settlers, to his unlikely transformation as a freedom fighter in exile, a cause to which he devoted his entire adult life… Like many Tibetans of his generation, his lifelong dream of returning to a free homeland remained unfulfilled, but his legacy, and that of his fellow fighters, remains an integral and indelible part of Tibet’s continuing freedom struggle,” says Sonam.

Tenzing Sonam, Ritu Sarin
Tenzing Sonam, Ritu Sarin
Classroom at Camp Hale
Classroom at Camp HalePhoto: Bruce Walker, Hoover Institution

Covert operations

Pages from a neatly kept journal by Tsering, a “guerrilla handbook”, offers viewers a window into the CIA’s involvement in the Tibetan struggle, which started at the height of the Cold War in 1956. The book, which contains notes “meticulously handwritten in Tibetan cursive script” and “carefully drawn illustrations” of objects including hand grenades and parachutes, show the diligence of the Tibetan fighters who were trained at Camp Hale, a top secret facility in the Colorado Rocky Mountains in the US.

Around 250 Tibetans, including Tsering, were taught radio operation, guerrilla warfare, intelligence gathering, photography and parachuting among other things. The operation was abruptly abandoned in the late ’60s “when US foreign policy pivoted to find accommodation with China”.

An act of remembrance

“The story of Tibet’s armed struggle against the Chinese occupation is still not a well-known story,” says Sarin. “For a younger generation of Tibetans, it is crucial that they do not forget this chapter and understand the beginnings of the freedom struggle that they are now a part of. For a larger audience, it is a reminder that China’s takeover of Tibet was an act of military aggression and that many thousands of Tibetans took up arms to challenge this invasion. In today’s geopolitical context, particularly for India, it is important to restate the fact that, until the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1959, India and China never shared a common border in their long history,” she adds.

War and peace

Is the exhibition an act of taking forward the resistance? “Yes. Very much so,” reply the couple. “The Tibetan freedom struggle is an ongoing one. Over the years, it has moved away from its militant beginnings, and based on the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach, which gives up the demand for independence in return for genuine autonomy, it is now a staunchly pacifist movement. However, the political reality of Tibet under Chinese rule is becoming grimmer by the day, particularly as China stifles all news coming out of the country, actively institutes policies aimed at eradicating Tibet’s unique cultural identity, and aggressively presents a revisionist history of its rule in Tibet to the outside world,” Sarin says.

Sarin believes that “all of India’s border problems can be traced to China’s takeover of Tibet in 1959”. She says that the exhibition is an attempt to re-examine the story of Tibetan armed resistance in a contemporary context, but, more importantly, it is “a reminder against the act of forgetting”.

‘Shadow Circus- A Personal Archive of Tibetan Resistance (1957-1974)’ is on at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, till March 15

Tibet Flag (Photo | AFP)
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The New Indian Express