Many things have been said about nationalism – the virtues of a single dedication demanding a supreme sense of loyalty to the cause. This sacrificial devotion, whether socially erroneous or not in nature, has long commanded ideological and emotional position above all else. So when one of my colleagues raises doubts about a certain issue plaguing our community in a social media page riddled with accolades for a certain action taken by the government, the backlash is understandable.
“My country is above all else, my land is my mother; you are not above the country, my sacrifice for the country I love,” are few of many phrases through which we advocate our sense of nationalism.
On the morning of February 29, Dorje Tsering, a 16-year-old Tibetan boy living in exile in India set himself on fire minutes after he told his mother that he “wanted to do something for his country”. The fire spread like the burning of a tip of an unlit matchstick, and Tsering’s mother, unable to realise that all those instances where her son ruminated with despair about a free Tibet were indeed true, flung herself at the fire.
Dorje Tsering is with us no more, and his distraught mother, whose hands were seared trying to douse the fire, takes little solace in hearing her son being talked about as a true patriot, a Braveheart who walked to the pyre himself for a country he loved.
Self-immolation among Tibetans is not a new or a spontaneous phenomenon. Over 130 Tibetans, a vast majority of them living under the Chinese occupied Tibet, have sacrificed their lives for an independent Tibet where the state will not intervene in curbing religious freedom, cultural freedom, and freedom of speech.
In the initial phase when the numbers of self-immolators were few, there was a widespread reception for this symbolic action. And self-immolation, many realised when it occurred, had the effect of creating ripples in the normal proceedings of the world.
And it was in this wave that Jamphel Yeshi walked, consumed and engulfed in fire, folding his hands before journalists, protestors, and politicians. But a disconcerting trend has emerged as an offspring of these sacrificial, nationalistic acts, and Dorje Tsering is a literal example of an offspring resorting to a ‘biological’ inheritance. People living in Tibet do not even have the luxury of practicing tenacity, contemplating freely with friends on topical questions, and posting a blog without worrying about what kind of reaction it will generate next. So when a self-immolation takes place outside of Tibet where the whirlpool of a strict regime is absent, it raises serious questions about the contemporary narrative of the Tibetan freedom struggle.
From Thupten Ngodup to Jamphel Yeshi, we never unequivocally justified their sacrifice for our country as righteousness, yet we also did not condemn it. We followed the quiet-but-willing tradition of acknowledging sacrifices, but never questioned the morality and the consequences of these individual actions. As a child studying in a boarding school, I have taken part in many demonstrations, and the most appealing feature—I confess here today—was those few emphatic moments where the disposition of the protestors peaked to the brink of violence. Though in essence our protest is non-violent, there’s a frantic anguish among our people to resort to an alternative measure which will herald a definitive answer for Tibet. But we are rushing.
Exile is not a pleasant experience for many Tibetan refugees or for refugees all around the world, and when a certain narrative is attributed to a community, it disparages other features of that community from ever taking shape. You need to be brave and resilient in a country where you’re among the minority, you need to persevere for a position in a society which is unfamiliar with you, and you need to breathe in the hardships of other minorities to understand where it is that you stand. So when we attribute a certain word which might be ‘brave’ ‘hero’, a ‘true-freedom fighter’ to a self-immolator who technically committed suicide, we are, knowingly or unknowingly, encouraging these actions by glorifying them.
It is significantly easier for people to decide on a single adjective if they have a concrete, physical material where they can point their fingers towards, and for children who are studying in schools at this very moment or a college student submitting his thesis to an impressed professor, their long journey towards personal and impersonal freedom will be overlooked. Or worse, they will start to overlook the significance of their own work.
Dorje Tsering felt that he could not accomplish anything for his country by merely studying. But what was he interested in then? Did he like playing football during school recesses, or did he scrub his notebooks with endless sketches of hands and trees? Did he talk to the girls in his classes; did he talk to other students at all? If he did, what did he talk about? Did he say that he wanted to be a pilot, or did he say that he wanted to be a photographer? If we are affected in any way by this young boy’s self-immolation, we need to study what kind of individual he was, and what led him to believe that something would be achievable if he performed such an act. We need to analyse what values are being taught to youngsters in schools, whether teachers or principals are openly condemning this gruesome act which is a detrimental symptom of blind nationalism, we as adults, need patience to teach our youngsters to be patient.
As I openly condemn this act, I somehow feel that my knowledge of what is being perpetrated in Tibet is insignificant to the extent of being facetious. But in exile, the narrative of our country is in our own hands and an omnipresent bulldozing entity is unlikely to control what we think. Before we entertain or quietly desist speaking about the futility of self-immolations in today’s world, we need to think and discuss, youngsters and adults alike, what other actions in our society can be interpreted in history as bravery, perseverance, endurance, and other words we casually associate to a phenomenon which escapes our understanding. It is a mourning period, let us mourn, but let us also not succumb to a hapless acceptance of these sacrifices.