The Return March to Tibet

The Return March to Tibet ended three days ago at the entrance to the remote border town of Darchula, deep in the hills of Uttarakhand state. The fifty remaining marchers surrendered peacefully, albeit with great emotion and passion, to several hundred policemen who blocked their way. Having intermittently filmed the progress of the march from its inception in Dharamsala right up to its conclusion at Darchula, and having spent 14 days camped out with the marchers during the police blockade at Seraghat and Banspatan, I believe that the significance of this march goes beyond simply a judgment on whether it achieved its stated goal of reaching Tibet or not. In its own humble way, the Return March to Tibet could possibly signal a turning point in exile Tibetan politics; it could be remembered as the first genuinely democratic action initiated and carried out by ordinary Tibetans desperate to do their bit for the larger Tibetan cause, despite opposition and even condemnation from within their own leadership.
Five NGOs who, between them, represent a significant proportion of the Tibetan diaspora, but who don’t necessarily share the same political objectives, managed to come together under the banner, Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement, to initiate and carry out this action. This in itself is a laudable effort. Too often in exile we have seen the larger goal of working for the cause of Tibet sacrificed in the interests of petty in-fighting and personal squabbling. It has not been easy for the five organisations to cooperate in this manner, particularly as there have been divisive elements within some of the groups that have opposed this collaborative effort and sought to undermine it. The Return March to Tibet has proved that when individual organisations put aside their differences and join forces in the interests of a larger common goal, they can not only work together effectively but can also attract support and participation from a much broader section of the community.
During the ‘siege’ of Banspatan, I was privileged to observe the marchers at close quarters and to share in some of their trials and tribulations. The first thing that impressed me was the fact that they represented the entire cross-section of Tibetan society: the youngest was 17, the oldest was in his 70s; there were newcomers from Tibet, and those who had spent their entire lives in exile; there were monks and nuns, and there were laypersons; and most interestingly, there were ardent supporters of both independence and the Middle Way Approach for genuine autonomy.
There was a strong sense of solidarity among the marchers that expressed itself in some unexpected ways. The first time the police came out in full force in a show of intimidation, and then retreated, the marchers expressed their relief in a spontaneous eruption of song and dance. Young monks who had recently escaped from the Tawu region of Kham, recalled the songs and dances of their youth and before long, they were joined by the other marchers. A Toepa gorshay (round dance) broke out and suddenly, the Amdowas and Khampas in the group had linked hands with their Central Tibetan cousins and were stepping in time with gusto. The tension that had hung over the camp soon dissipated. One could only guess at what the few watching policemen and the local villagers made of this carnival-like atmosphere so soon after the tense showdown. To me, there was something quintessentially Tibetan about the scene. Watching them filled me with a deep yearning for all the things we were losing as a people and a nation.
The days were hot at Banspatan and during the long, sultry afternoons, there were animated discussions in many of the tents. I filmed one such debate. A group of monks were embroiled in an exchange of such passion and ferocity that to a casual observer, it might have appeared as if they were on the verge of coming to blows. Shoving and pushing each other in the manner of a particularly heated dialectical debate, they were discussing the relative merits of the Middle Way Approach and independence as a goal for the Tibetan struggle. Proponents of both positions held their ground and tried to convince the other of the validity of their arguments, while onlookers joined in from the sidelines with their own comments. This was not a stray incident; over the next few days, I heard the same debate continuing in different tents and with different voices, but always with the same enthusiasm and excitement. Such passionate and open discussions about the direction of our political movement are still rare in our exile community, and I was encouraged by this sign that things might be changing.
Before the march began in Dharamsala, I interviewed several marchers. One of the questions I asked was what they would do if the Dalai Lama asked them to stop the march. The interviewees included monks, nuns and lay people, both young and old. These were hardly radical activists. On the contrary, they were for the most part, ordinary Tibetans, all devoted and loyal followers of their spiritual leader. Yet, each one answered without hesitation that they would continue the march no matter what happened. They had made a commitment that they were determined to fulfil, and they believed that they were engaged in a non-violent action that was for the benefit of the larger Tibetan cause. Their determination was put to the test when first, the newly instituted Solidarity Committee, and then the Dalai Lama himself, asked the organisers to end the march. But despite the pressure, the march continued. I interviewed several of the marchers again about what they thought about this apparent opposition to the wishes of the Dalai Lama, and was struck by the political maturity of some of their replies. The Dalai Lama, they said, was bound by his endless compassion to consider the larger good of all humanity and therefore, was incapable of supporting any action that might lead to a confrontation, whether with the Chinese or with the Indian authorities. They, on the other hand, had a responsibility to do something and as long as their motivation was pure and their actions non-violent, they were certain that they were not going against their leader’s wishes.
The Return March to Tibet is one of the few times ordinary Tibetans have marched, literally, to the beat of their own convictions. In this, it echoes the spirit of the Lhasa Uprising of March 1959, when thousands of Tibetans, in an attempt to protect the Dalai Lama, refused to leave the Norbulingka Palace despite the appeals of their leader. This is in keeping with the stated aim of the Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement, which is to revive the spirit of the Lhasa Uprising and to bring about an end to China’s illegal occupation of Tibet through non-violent action. That morning in Darchula, when the last of the marchers was bodily carried into a bus and driven out of Uttarakhand state, I felt sad but also optimistic. What I had just witnessed seemed to represent not so much the end of a particular action but the beginning of a new-found sense of individual responsibility and political activism. None of us may have any answers about how or when the Tibetan situation will be resolved, but what we exile Tibetans can do is to strengthen our democratic foundations by exercising our rights to free expression and action. In the long term, the existence of a strong, democratic exile establishment may be one of the only sources of hope and encouragement for the people of Tibet.
Tenzing Sonam is a filmmaker and writer currently based in New Delhi. He is the co-director of White Crane Films (

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