On this 60th Tibetan national uprising day, Palden Sonam* calls for focus on the ideal of Tibetan nationalism as the linchpin for uniting the Tibetan people and sustaining the freedom struggle.
This year marks sixty years of Chinese occupation of Tibet. For Tibetan people, it means sixty years of national humiliation in the form of oppression, dispossession, displacement, discrimination and separation. And there has been a denial of the right to determine our national destiny and a compulsion to submit to a foreign power whose goal has been to destroy our consciousness as a nation.
On this rather sad occasion, it is important for us to have a sober reflection on the future of our national movement for freedom and dignity. How are we going to carry on the freedom struggle? Revolution is not a dinner party, nor is a freedom struggle. After all, we are in a fight for its survival, and for the right to decide our own destiny.
Ideally we need both physical and ideological powers. However, we don’t have any tangible material powers like military or money to influence events that directly or indirectly affect us. Nevertheless we have the capability to develop our ideological power. In the long term ideological power will be more impactful than the physical one because the former has the power to make everyone – whether old or young – into warriors for freedom. This is not the case with physical power. For instance, having a gun necessarily does not make you a fighter whereas as the ideological resoluteness to resist the imperialist power makes you an everyday freedom fighter. The fight in the realm of ideology is the most complex. The fight can be for ideological power to dominate and indoctrinate. It can also be for the ideological power to resist such domination.
Nationalism: An Ideological Power
This power, of course does not come from the barrel of Mao’s gun, but from the unshakeable belief of a people that their destiny should not be doomed in the hand of the oppressor. This is patriotic nationalism. It is the most powerful political ideology and we need to cultivate that power. The power of nationalism has not been given due recognition in our national movement and it is high time that we do it. We need to ask what nationalism is in the context of the Tibetan situation.
Nationalism denotes devotion to a nation, with its interests being taken as the primary pursuit of the country and its people. Therefore, Tibetan nationalism Implies commitment on the part of our people to engage fully with the national cause, with its ultimate goal being to restore freedom in our land and dignity for our people. Our nationalism is not about jingoism and xenophobia; rather, it is about the hope of an oppressed people to end its present plights and pains. It is not to dominate and demean others for one’s selfish aggrandizement; rather, it is to undo a historical injustice inflicted upon us. It requires us to stand united in faith and action.
Imperatives of Nationalism
We need to create a deep sense of national consciousness among our people, especially among the young generation in order that they remain true and steadfast to the national cause. Whether we fight for independence or autonomy, the struggle is likely to continue for a long time. The challenge for us is to endure through uncertain times with renewed determination. In a national struggle like ours, nationalism can be used as a psychological weapon not only to sustain the freedom movement but also to reinforce its resilience. Some people may hold the view that nationalism is negative and un-Buddhist. Such a view, however, fails to appreciate the historical contribution of nationalism in the national liberation success of many countries in Asia and Africa. Behind the process of decolonization which led to many nations coming out of colonial subjugation there has been rise in nationalism. We should always take lessons of history and apply them.
The power of nationalism in freedom movement is best illustrated by the story of Mahatma Gandhi in India and Sun Yatsen in China. When Gandhiji was thrown out of a train by some white fellows, he did not see the incident as a mere problem of law and order to be remedied through the court of law. Rather, he took this as a humiliation of a nation – the problem of a people not having their national destiny in their hands. He returned to India and awakened his people to the urgency to address their national wound. Sun Yatsen was a Chinese physician. Like Gandhiji, he also realized the need to attend to the national wound of China. He treated the Sick Man of Asia and woke up a sleeping dragon. The rest is all history.
The ideology of nationalism in a national liberation moment has always been a decisive factor and it would be naïve not to recognize it. It will not only boost the morale of the movement but also hold the people together as a nation and protect their collective identity.
Identity and Resistance
To the Tibetan people, whether living in occupied Tibet or in exile, identity is ever more relevant because the strength of our freedom struggle is particularly dependent on the endurance of our identity and its expression. As a nation, identity is not only about how we feel about ourselves but also how we portray ourselves to other people and how others perceive us. The narrative of identity is a vital area and whoever controls it will have a major impact on the future of the people. And so, the question is where we do we stand when it comes to the larger narratives of identity?
Recently my friend had dreamt that he sneaked secretly into Tibet and found himself hiding in his home too terrified to step outside. The Chinese rule of intimidation in Tibet has some effects on Tibetan psyche. My friend was born to parents who had gone through the worst of Chinese occupation in Tibet and the fears looming over their daily life seem to have internalized over the years. Besides, through systematic propaganda and indoctrination Beijing attempts to make Tibetans believe that they are inferior to or less than the Chinese. The idea of ‘less than’ is not merely a matter of quantity but also quality –that the Tibetans are backward, incompetent, lazy, dirty and, of course, very often ungrateful to the Chinese saviours who have ‘liberated’ them. The idea is to make Tibetans feel ashamed of their culture and identity and to be all too willing to mimic the Chinese ones.
At this time, when our people are scattered all over the world and those in Tibet are denied their basic rights to assert their identity as a distinct nation, we need to have a vision for a concrete and far sighted means to keep our identity and struggle alive. So the promotion of patriotic nationalism is a necessary step to inject a sense of pride and responsibility in our present political and social crisis. The aim is not to generate hatred and vengeance against our adversary but to give our people a sense of unity and purpose. It is to ensure that despite being a colonial subject in our own land or refugees in different parts of the world, we never degrade ourselves as ‘cheap people’ to be looked down on and laughed at by others.
Nationalism has the power to engender among people a sense of a place of their own from where they will not step down. It is holding on to our ground even if it is imaginary and walking the highway. It’s about holding on to our culture and firmly rooted in where we belong.
And so, on this sixtieth anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising day, we should reaffirm our pledge to our land and people that we will always be Tibetan first and put Tibet above everything else, including narrow regionalism and dirty sectarianism. During these six decades of national humiliation, we have learnt the hard way that the fire of Chinese colonialism engulfed our land because we were divided and we can never extinguish this evil fire as long as we don’t have a strong national solidary. Therefore, nationalism is the linchpin to forge a united front to resist Chinese colonial rule and restore our freedom.
* Palden Sonam is a researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Delhi. His research focuses include Chinese domestic politics, Chinese nationalism, China’s policy on Tibet and Xinjiang.