India has been a peaceful refuge for the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of exiled Tibetans for almost half a century. But when a group of protesters from the northern Indian city of Dharmsala, the headquarters of Tibet's government-in-exile, set out for the Chinese border this week to protest China's control of Tibet ahead of the Beijing Olympics, the reality of regional geo-politics quickly intruded. Fearing the march would damage strengthening ties between Delhi and Beijing, Indian officials banned the protesters from leaving the Kangra district in which Dharmsala sits. With the marchers seemingly intent on making the journey in spite of the ban, police yesterday arrested about 100 people and a local court ordered that they be held for 14 days. "India does not permit Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India," said Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Navtej Sarna in a statement posted Thursday on the ministry's website.
When the first wave of Tibetans arrived in India in the 1950s, India's relationship with China was strained, to say the least. The two countries briefly went to war in 1962 over a border dispute, and for the next couple of decades, the Dalai Lama's presence in India became almost a badge of honor for Delhiliving proof that democratic India was freer and more tolerant than its authoritarian neighbor. Over the last decade, though, and especially since Delhi formally recognized the Tibetan autonomous region as part of China in 2003, India has taken a sterner line on Tibetan protests, discouraging them before they can start and breaking them up when they do. The latest crackdown is further proof of shifting loyalties, says B. Tsering, head of the Tibetan Women's Association. "Marches have been stopped before but they [the police] have not been so harsh as yesterday," she says. "They say it is a matter of public security but these kinds of things we consider baseless. The protesters were peaceful and fully trained in non-violent protest. We are just following the father of the nation of India [Mahatma Gandhi]."
Delhi faces a dilemma. While it is keen to protect its growing political and commercial ties with Beijingduring a January visit to China by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the two countries should be "cooperative partners instead of competitive opponents"India must also be mindful of the fact that its democratic credentials are one of its major points of difference with China, a difference Indian diplomats are often keen to play up. For Tibetan activists and human rights campaigners, the Indian crackdown seems uncharacteristically heavy-handed. "The Indian police should immediately release the marchers detained, lift the restraining order and allow the march to continue peacefully," says Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Any reaction by the Indian government must be proportionate to the threat posed to law and order."
The Ministry of External Affairs says India has granted exile to Tibetans on the condition that they not indulge in political activities on Indian soil, so the government is well within its rights to halt the march. But the Tibetan community says the crackdown is about politics, not maintaining social order. "We assume that there is pressure from Beijing," says Tsering. "It's very disappointing and upsetting to us." Tsering and another Tibetan activist said that an Indian journalist had e-mailed them claiming that New Delhi has asked Indian media not to cover the protests or at least to downplay them. None of India's major newspapers ran the story of the arrests on their front pages; a few ran short stories inside based on the Ministry of External Affairs statement. Indian reporters and an editor contacted by TIME said they were under no pressure from the Indian government and that the story was simply old news in India and not that interesting.
The Dharmsala protestors, who are being detained in a hotel because the local prison can't accommodate them, say they are unsure what to do next, but they also say they are inspired by protests being carried out inside Tibet by hundreds of monks. Says Tsering: "The spirit of fighting for rights and for freedom is very strong in the hearts of Tibetan people no matter where they are."