By Kounteya Sinha
New Delhi – For centuries, Tibet has occupied a unique place in the Western imagination: romantic, mysterious, a remote mountain kingdom of incarnate lamas and nomadic herdsmen, of gold-roofed monasteries and hidden valleys.
But Patrick French’s latest book Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History Of A Lost Land has done what very few books have done before — portray the truth as opposed to a mythical Tibet.
Part memoir, part travel, part history, the book, published by Harper Collins, is an enthralling and illuminating study of a fascinating country with a warlike past and a complex interlocking relationship with China.
“The book reveals my quest for the real Tibet, reduced today as an oppressed vassal of mighty China. Rather than the peace-loving nation of popular Western perception, I try to show to the world how Tibet presents a complex international problem. Through individual stories of victims and perpetrators of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, of young nuns who continue the underground fight against Communist rule, I also try to reveal how Tibet’s recent history has affected the lives of individuals,” he told The Asian Age in an exclusive interview.
Been involved with the Tibetan cause for over 20 years, Patrick, who is also Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul’s official biographer, has held the position of director of a Free Tibet campaign in UK. “I was 16 years old when Dalai Lama visited my school. That visit had such an inspirational effect on me that I became part of the Free Tibet campaign and started mixing with Tibetan groups in UK. Four years later, during my first holiday in university, I visited Dharmasala and in 1999 went back to Tibet for a three-month research for this book.”
“I also met the Dalai Lama a few times during his visits to UK and also spent time with him during my visit to Dharmasala. All through, I felt that he has a very strong physical presence to him, which is partly spiritual. He also has a tremendously strong charismatic energy. But despite my liking, I have judged him impartially in the book. I have shown how several friendly overtures from the Chinese in 1980s were badly handled by him, as a result of which, chances to reach some kind of settlement was lost. Those chances will never come back as the Chinese government now is less flexible than they were in the 1980s,” he added.
Born in England, Patrick took three years to write the book. “During his period, I visited the border areas of Tibet where I found the people comparatively well off and politically safe. However, inside the Tibetan autonomous areas, there was a tremendous sense of fear. People keep a watch on each other through neighbourhood watch schemes. If a neighbour complains, Tibetans are blacklisted and sometimes even imprisoned and tortured. I interviewed a nun who served a prison sentence of 18 years for printing pro-democracy posters. It’s strange how even though China is so successful economically, they rule Tibet with fear.” “As a foreigner in Tibet, I was under constant surveillance. It’s hard to fathom such things happening when you come from countries like India and UK where a person is mentally free. The constant mental editing that Tibetans have to do is unbelievable. This makes it difficult to research. For the stories you read in the book, I had to meet the Tibetans over weeks, then made sure they felt safe in order to make them talk. The real names of the people have been changed and the alternate names are those of Communist party officials that I found in the directory,” the writer said.
“The collective madness that swept China in the 60s was unbelievable. In the process, Tibet got destroyed. I have mentioned in the book how political cannibalism existed, wherein certain parts of China, class enemies were eaten by party members. I have also showed how CIA backed the insurgency in Tibet in the late 50s. They provided Tibetans weapons and trained them as part of their global crusade against communalism. They, however, just wanted to destabilise Tibet to weaken China, not to free Tibet,” he added.
Clearly disillusioned by foreign activism, French added, “I am no more an activist as I have reached a harsh conclusion — activism in London will not alter the Chinese policy of Tibet.” “I have written on Tibet in order to reveal and explain and not to convert peoples views. The reality is that Tibet is ruled by China. However, Kashmir cannot be equated to Tibet. Kashmir is a running conflict and you still have Kashmiri resistance in form of the jihadis. Physical resistance in Tibet ended as early as 1970s,” French said.