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Making Sense of the Senseless

Violence in Dharamsala

Thursday 27 December 2007, by Topden Tsering

Last night, news came that one of the Tibetan men who were brutally beaten, along with two Tibetan women, by some 35-strong mob of local Taxi and auto drivers on May 2 had died in a hospital from his injuries. This piece of information, it turned out, is untrue, a handiwork of a rumormonger who had misconstrued the death from a natural cause of an elderly Tibetan in the same hospital. But in as much as I took relief in the knowledge that the mob victim was alive, I observed myself mourning for the mangled state he was in, also in cognizance that such incidence of violence is not the first, nor will it be the last.

By all accounts, it had started when a Tibetan man was nearly run over by a speeding Taxi. Upon his protestations, the Indian driver got out and instead of placating the Tibetan, began beating him. As if on a cue, he was joined in by some 30 to 35 other members of the local Taxi and Auto Union, all of them now slapping the man, kicking into his ribs, punching at his face, stamping on his head. When another Tibetan man, a friend of the victim, attempted to intervene, he too was brought down. Then two Tibetan women begged for mercy and they were pummeled to the ground. The other Tibetans just stood watching, frozen by fear and emasculated by their helplessness, as did a couple of policemen, one of who even let a miscreant snatch away his baton, so it could be used as a weapon with which to further torture the Tibetans.

Sitting in my apartment, far away in the U.S., and typing up this piece, I have no difficulty recreating the incident. My memory of living in Dharamsala serves up for me at least six such recollections, when always it was a mob of local Indians on their feet, angry and vengeful and unfeeling, and a Tibetan or two on the ground, cowering under their upraised hands, bloodied and befuddled at their humiliation.

Violence has long been prevalent in Dharamsala. The town’s repute as an idyllic Tibetan Buddhist Mecca is misleading because underneath the veneer there has always been ugliness. It breaks out in video halls, inside taxis, on the many desolate paths near Bhagsunath, near the temple, near the headquarters of the Tibetan administration, near the TCV School, sometimes right in the heart of the bustling market square. It happens at the slightest brush of shoulders, it happens at the flick of a glance, it happens at the drop of a word. The provocation though fleeting, the message is indelible: The local Indians are all muscle and influence and ownership; The Tibetans are mere guests, their security brittle as glass.

Also, this is a violence conveniently overlooked by Tibetan and Indian authorities who when they meet under the banner of "Indo-Tibetan friendship" it is usually to shake hands and sip on Coca Cola while watching a song and dance routine by Tibetan artists or local Gaddis. The blood, the screams and the fear: it happens out there on the streets in the real open world. But if viewed from the confines of Tibetan administration offices or from the Indian municipal centers, it is as if not one straw is out of place in the greater harmony of the world.

Most recently in my memory, one that happened seven years ago, was another incident involving another group of taxi drivers (or maybe the same), who had picked up on two Tibetan youth. The gang, which must have been of around ten, pounded on the hapless victims, whose only fault was they had protested against being called dirty names, Sala, Maderchod. The beating lasted for half an hour and finally the police came, who took in five of the local thugs and the two Tibetans. Several of us who had been eyewitnesses decided to follow them to the police station, so we could demand our accounts be heard, and the fact of the local Indians’ unprovoked violence toward the Tibetans be corroborated. But the police were not interested in hearing what we had to say; we could only wait outside, along with some six or seven other drivers who had escaped arrest and had tagged along just so to see how the event unfolded. Then the Tibetan Welfare Officer came, surrounded by his posse, and he sat at the table with the junior Inspector chatting for fifteen or twenty minutes. By the time he had finished talking, both the five Indian thugs and the Tibetan victims were let go, the latter still bleeding from wounds. The Tibetan official frantically shook hands with each of the local Indians, patted on their backs, exchanged niceties, all in a camaraderie that suggested he knew at least several of them by names. Then he turned to the two Tibetans, and instead of asking if they needed medication, instead of bothering to hear out the details, he started haranguing them: what were you doing in the market square at this time? What devil drove you to argue with the local Indians in the first place? And he was gone.

This then is the problem, and a basis for my fear that the violence is not over. We tend to treat such incidents as individual crisis, putting the blame usually on the Tibetan victims, primarily because there appears to be no other recourse than to resign to our fate as being the ones with no choice. So the logic goes: just avoid getting into such situations, and the remedy beyond it: nothing. Or so it would seem if you consider the way this colossal problem is tackled, beyond the initial indifference, by the exile Tibetan officialdom: pull one card, and the entire house of cards will come down.

This then is the Bitch which is our lives as exile Tibetans.

One has to realize that these separate cases of beatings are all pointers to a larger malaise: the deep-seated resentment toward the Tibetans being harbored by a section of the local Indian community, a section that does not cover all our host community, but a section that is influential, a section that is vengeful, a section that enjoys easy proximity to Tibetan officialdom and a section that on the streets runs restaurants and manages stores, a section some of whose members I have no doubt were in the line when they offered long life prayers for the Dalai Lama, a section who wields the power to fan outbursts at the notice of minutes. Remember 1994?

People who belong to this group, shopkeepers, small time politicians, senior Taxi union members, restaurant owners, they all know they thrive on the money Tibetans provide them in exchange for their services and goods, but at the same time they just cannot bear the Tibetan community becoming prosperous by the day; and to compensate for their complex – what with the Dalai Lama becoming so popular, what with the Tibetans being feted by the Western world – they feed on a part of the Indian psyche which is an innate propensity for conflict and which is but a common vocabulary in the greater provincial landscape, especially in areas where it involves co-existing with other communities. The problem goes deeper than mere jealousy. In the backwaters of Indian state, there has always been little tolerance for the "Other", the hands of orchestration ranging from caste one-upmanship to electoral ambitions to religious conflicts. Where agendas become irrelevant, it is the need for mere drama. Hence the mob mentality: "Maro, Maro!"

This is not to say all Indians are bad. I have had some great friends, some childhood friends, from the many villages dotting the Dharamsala region, people who were very decent and very thoughtful, people who came into our lives on account of their disparate vocations: milkmen, barber etc. But even they cannot escape the stranglehold of collective rage and I have seen this all too clearly.

I don’t think just boycotting taxis and autos for one month will prove effective. What is needed is some serious pushing of papers. A Tibetan office or a couple of them combined together needs to compile all accounts of rapes, beatings and arsons that have taken place in Dharamsala, in the form of victim interviews, eye witness accounts, and complete with the names of suspects, their businesses and home addresses, these reports should be sent to Indian offices at the highest echelon. We need to hire the best lawyers and move the courts and make sure those guilty are brought to justice. We have to pool together our resources and our expertise and not rest until those Indians who have beaten Tibetans like dogs, with glee and without remorse, are made to serve some serious jail time. The best deterrent is punishment and nothing less.

We have to make our vulnerability visible to the mainstream media, garner sympathy amongst politicians and lawmakers in Delhi, and where regional media are hijacking the truth, we have to bring their violation of journalistic ethics to the light; holding accountability is the key.

I understand the near impossibility of the proposition that Tibetans have their own taxi and auto drivers, but we need to first research into it and identify options. Maybe whoever maintains the law regarding taxis and autos can be moved to reconsider Dharamsala simply because in that hill town, the worst menace to law has come from members of the Indian Taxi and Auto Union, all the beatings and all the rapes. Maybe we can make it possible to have Tibetans drive their own taxis, or maybe we can make arrangements to have Tibetans with Indian citizenship to provide alternative public transit in the area; maybe we can reach out to the Ladakhi community for example and see if any of their members could help us out.

We also need to have workshops for the Tibetan community in terms of how to tackle situations of mob confrontation, molestation and the like. The use of taxi and auto needs to be discouraged as much as possible. We have not always had taxis and autos but we have always been able to get around, and not just for health purpose, but for the reason of self-worth we have to reduce to whatever extent possible our reliance on taxi and auto union, unless it is changed to incorporate Tibetan and Ladakhi drivers. We have to use our weapon of customer discretion in selecting services.

Finally, this problem has been around for long and it is childish to expect it to disappear overnight. The first step is giving it due recognition as a critical problem, and according proper resources and expertise and skills toward its resolution. This time the news of one of the victims’ death is proven a rumor, next time we might not be so lucky.

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