February 28, 2020
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My Friend, Ngodup

Patrick French remembers the man who brought Tibet back into international headlines

My Friend, Ngodup

I first went to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh in 1986, a few weeks after my 20th birthday. I liked the village of McLeod Ganj in particular—the tranquil atmosphere, the Tibetan tea-shops, the monks in their maroon robes, the simplicity of village life with the mountains rising in the distance. I resolved to go and live there during my summer vacation from university the following year.

I took a room in a hillside monastery called Tse Chok Ling, just below McLeod Ganj, and remained there for several months. Each day I would attend Buddhist teachings for a couple of hours, and then read and write in the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives for the rest of the day. I was at that time especially interested in Tibetan history and culture, and the way in which it was being eradicated by the Chinese. So, apart from writing a desultory novel, I spent most of my time reading books and talking with Tibetan refugees.

At Tse Chok Ling there were perhaps a hundred monks. Some were grizzled old veterans who had escaped over the Himalayas following the Chinese communist invasion of their country in 1950; others were lively shaven-headed boys of nine or 10. There was one man who looked as if he was attached to the monastery, sometimes herding cows and goats or carrying firewood or pots of food, but he did not dress as a monk.

He was a shy, quiet figure, and he was unsure of himself. Sometimes we chatted in a mixture of pidgin English and pidgin Tibetan, rather to his embarrassment; I think he found it strange talking to a foreigner. I learned that his name was Thubten Ngodup, that he was an ex-soldier who had seen service during the Bangladesh war of liberation, that he had no family in India, and that he had been given a small plot of land near the monastery on which to build a hut, in exchange for doing odd jobs. When he had first escaped into India in 1959, Ngodup had, like many Tibetans, worked in pitiful conditions on a road gang.

He had the face of someone who has lived through a lot, a worn face, which was printed with experience. Looking back, I think he had the face of someone whose life has been ruined by the political events which have been inflicted on him.

Ngodup had learned to cook when he was in the Tibetan Frontier Force, which is attached to the Indian army. One of the monks suggested that he might make some money by providing food for the half-dozen or so foreign tourists who, like myself, were staying in the guest rooms. I agreed to help with the plan, and after much discussion with Ngodup—who was keen to charge absurdly low prices, while I felt that money-belted foreigners were soft targets for a decent profit—we drew up a menu, which I wrote out and had copied: tea, coffee, omelette, shabalay, thukpa, soup, momos, butter toast, and so on. The 'restaurant' worked well, with Ngodup always being anxious, maybe too anxious, in an ex-military sort of way, to provide perfect service. At the end of that summer I left Tse Chok Ling, and did not give him another thought.

A fortnight ago, on April 27, while police were dispersing a group of Tibetan hunger-strikers at Jantar Mantar, Ngodup was heard to shout: 'Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama! Long live Tibet!'. Then he ran forwards, doused himself with inflammable liquid and set himself alight. Although he received almost 100 per cent burns, it took him nearly two days to die.

The photograph of the 60-year-old Ngodup burning to death reached the front page of newspapers all over the world. Tibet was back in the headlines, although this time with the implication that a new militancy was sweeping through the Tibetan diaspora. The Dalai Lama himself admitted that his 'middle way' in dealing with the Chinese had not so far succeeded: "This frustration stems from the fact that the Tibetan people are being gradually wiped out from the face of the earth," he said. "I have made every effort for the past 20 years for the self-rule of the Tibetans, but I have failed."

 Certainly many Tibetans, especially among the younger generation of exiles, feel that only the most radical measures are likely to work. As popular support grows for the Tibetan cause around the world, they want tangible results. When the police moved in, the six hunger-strikers were all close to death, demanding that the United Nations facilitate a peaceful settlement of the Tibetan issue, and hold a plebiscite in the disputed region to determine its future status.

The Indian government finds itself in a very awkward position over Tibet. Unlike European countries and the US, Indian security is directly affected by any deterioration in relations with the Chinese: posturing of the Clintonian variety is not an option. After decades of mistrust and patient fence-building since the war of 1962, nobody, with the possible exception of George Fernandes, wishes to risk renewed Sino-Indian hostility. Matching this, however, is the undeniable righteousness of the Tibetan cause. Few serious historians would dispute the fact that Tibet was in 1950 a de facto independent nation, and that terrible atrocities have been committed there by the occupying Chinese during the past half-century. This leaves New Delhi in a tricky situation, as Nehru discovered in the 1950s when he tried simultaneously to reach out a hand of friendship to the Dalai Lama while trying not to offend Mao Zedong.

The proximate cause of Ngodup's death was the decision by the Indian authorities to break up the 49-day-old hunger strike at Jantar Mantar. The fact that the Chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, Fu Quanyou, was due in Delhi for a five-day visit was certainly no coincidence: Tibetan refugees engaged in a Gandhian fast-unto-death was not the sort of sight that the Chinese general's hosts wished him to see. Certainly the conduct of the police in dispersing the protesters was unnecessarily (and typically) aggressive. As a statement from the Tibetan Youth Congress stated: "The police acted most brutally, dumping the weak strikers into ambulances and kicking the men and women who attempted to prevent the strikers from being removed".

However, the reports that Ngodup's self-immolation was a protest against the conduct of the Indian authorities do not appear to be accurate. Certainly there was, and still is, considerable anger among Tibetans that they were not permitted to continue with their protest, but Ngodup's actions were at least in part premeditated. He was in the second batch of hunger-strikers, ready to join the fast if members of the first batch were to die. He made it clear, in a last written statement, that he was acting in this way to draw world attention to the plight of the Tibetan people. Ngodup was a convinced and determined Tibetan patriot; in 1995 he had participated in a peace march from Dharamsala to Delhi.

It is hard to comprehend how a person could make the supreme sacrifice that Ngodup made: to be willing not only to die for your country, but to die in unspeakable pain. Since his death, I have tried to think through his actions. He was by Tibetan standards an old man; he was unmarried and had no dependents; he had had a hard life, and for almost 40 years he were deliberate. In March he told his friend, Tenzin, in confidence, that he wanted to join the hunger-strike. He signed a last testament giving Rs 500 to the Tibetan Youth Congress, and before departing for Delhi, handed Tenzin the key to his hut, telling him to give anything of value to the youth body. During the course of the demonstration at Jantar Mantar, he was often to be seen sitting with the strikers, fanning them and shielding them from the sun. He was ready and willing to take their place.

I believe that Ngodup had made up his mind to die, and that for him death by fire was an accelerated form of his intended fast-unto-death. It was a last, desperate gesture, the cry of the powerless man whose voice has been left unheard, and feels there is no other option left. I have seen something similar among the Stranded Pakistanis or Biharis in the refugee camps of Dhaka, who have also considered self-immolation as a means of drawing attention to their plight.

Ngodup is now a martyr, a man whose name will be honoured in the history of the Tibetan freedom movement. Whether he died in vain remains to be seen. I think of Jan Palach, the young Czech student who burnt himself to death in 1969 in Prague, in protest at the Soviet invasion of his own land. Today the Soviet empire has been dismantled, but Jan Palach lives on.

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