Palden Gyatso displays torture tools, many of which have been used on him during his 33 years incarceration in Chinese jails in occupied Tibet. Photo- David Hoffman
In the summer of 2005, Indian writer Pankaj Mishra and a few of us went to see monk Palden Gyatso at his room near Kirti Monastery in Dharamsala. Pankaj was writing a piece on Tibet for the New York Times
and wanted to talk to the former political prisoner, who was incarcerated for 33-years in Chinese jails. I had read his story in Fire Under the Snow: Testimony of a Tibetan Prisoner,
which he co-authored with the scholar, Professor Tsering Shakya. This is arguably the best account of Tibetan prison experiences.
During nearly two-hours of conversations, Palden was graciously serving us tea and khabsey
while at the same time talking about his horrific experiences in jail. He made sure that I translated everything and repeated important events. His narrative held no hatred and bitterness against the Chinese; and in fact he made it a point to talk at great length about a young Chinese – the “fair-faced one” as Palden referred this guard – who secretly gave Palden Gyatso a few extra morsels to eat at the height of the hungry years (1958-62) during which Mao unleashed his Great Leap Forward campaign that, according to Frank Dikotter’s book, Mao’s Great Famine
, killed over 40 million people across China.
Palden Gyatso had immense compassion and fierce willpower but most importantly he had deep humility. After talking non-stop about eating mice, worms, grass and chewing his leather shoes in prisons, he would pause to look at me and ask: “Bhuchung la, am I right?” as if I – who had never spent a day in jail – would know better.
In Palden’s own words:
“I completed my prison terms in 1975 but was not allowed to go home. I was sent to a labour camp; and prison life resumed. In 1979 I escaped; I put up posters calling for Tibetan independence. I was caught and sentenced to nine more years in prison.
“We had to do filthy work, including the handling of human excrement to grow vegetables. A prison official poked me with an electric cattle-prod, poured boiling water over me. For 24 years I was never allowed a single visit with my relatives.”
On 25 August 1992, Palden Gyatso was released after 33 years in prison. A fortnight later, he escaped into exile. About a week after arriving in Dharamsala, he had an audience with the His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was a lifelong dream fulfilled. “I sobbed uncontrollably,” he said. Palden also recalled that the Dalai Lama “looked much older than when he had left Tibet.”
Since his escape across the Himalayan mountains, he toured all over the world narrating his experiences to garner international support for Tibet’s struggle for freedom. Among the hundreds of testimonies he gave included a hearing by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in 1995 and the inaugural speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2009. For his tireless work, he was awarded the John Humphrey Freedom Award from the Canadian human rights group Rights & Democracy in 1998.
Over the years, we bumped into each other many times, mostly in Dharamsala and occasionally in Maj-nu-ka-Tilla Tibetan camp in Delhi. He would firmly shake my hand and talk – always standing – about his tours and how tired he was getting. “You, the younger generation, must carry on with freedom struggle,” he said.
'Poem of Dedication by Palden Gyatso in his own hand writing. Courtesy: Fire Under the Snow: Testimony of A Tibetan Prisoner.)
In October last year, a friend and I bumped into Palden Gyatso in the middle of bustling McLeod Ganj. He was walking alone and looking rather frail. As usual he shook our hands warmly and said, “I don’t have much time left. May be just a few months. Do come and see me.” Behind us taxis honked. A group of young hip-looking Punjabis were busy taking selfies. A huge garbage truck blocked the main road. The square was packed. But when we requested him to take some pictures together, he was more than gracious. Raising a scrawny hand in the air he shouted ‘Rangwang!’
as the camera flashed. Before he walked away, Palden Gyatso once again repeated, “Do come and see me. I have a room at Kirti Monastery.”
We went to his room at the monastery a few times, but missed him each time due to his constant travels to talk about Tibet, the last one being to the US in September this year! Last week, when I met Jigme from TYC – who had gone to see Palden Gyatso a day earlier – and asked him whether it was alright to go and see him. Jigme told me that it would be great. “He is physically weak but mentally still very sharp,” Jigme said. But by being uselessly busy and sang-gyang nang-gyang
, I missed meeting Palden Gyatso. The finality of death cannot be reversed. I will have to nurse the remorse in my heart.
The crucial thing that we can – and must do – for our hero is to continue with the struggle for freedom. As Tsering Shakya so poignantly writes in his preface for Fire Under The Snow,
‘[i]t is hard for colonial rulers to understand that a power station, a new sports stadium, the glittering lights of discos and five-star hotel, do not restore a people’s dignity or allow them to reclaim their heritage. The young protester has not forgotten his parents’ suffering and their deprivation,’ the baton has been passed and we have to carry it on the path to freedom. As with the recent demise of Gyari Lodoe Gyaltsen, the passing away of Palden Gyatso ushers in an end of an era. Their experience and wisdom can never be replaced but these can certainly be followed up with innovative ideas for creative nonviolent resistance.
The suffering in the heart of each person on the high plateau can be assuaged only when we carry out this resistance – with utmost persistent and fierce urgency – and freedom is installed in Tibet.
Adieu Palden Gyatso-la. We pray that you will be reborn quickly again as a dong-mar bhoe-pa
on the roof of the world. The fight is on. You must return!The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.