By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
NEW DELHI, April 15 -- Thousands of Tibetan protesters from across India have gathered here in the past week in anticipation of the arrival of the Olympic torch Thursday, as nervous government officials tightened security to ward off any threat to the relay run.
Protesters have planned hunger strikes, flag marches and dramatic reenactments of the uprising in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Some youth groups are plotting what could become disruptive street action along the route of what one Indian television channel called the "tortured torch."
"We are being watched by the authorities constantly. Wherever we go, their shadow is following us. So we carry out much of our planning not in meetings, but by cellphone calls and text messages," said Tenzin Tsundue, a 33-year-old activist, waving his two cellphones as he sat under a colorful panoply of flags and banners.
Many members of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a group that publicly disagrees with the cautious approach of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, have gone underground, fearing police surveillance and preventive detention.
India is home to the largest population of Tibetan exiles in the world and hosts the Tibetan government-in-exile. Indian government officials have told China that they will not try to stop Tibetan protests as long as they are peaceful.
"Keeping in mind the spirit of the Games, we will provide full support and security to the torch relay," said Prakash Jaiswal, India's deputy home minister. He declined to give details of the arrangements or the schedule of the run.
On Tuesday, about 30 protesters slipped through a security cordon and carried a dummy torch to a historic war memorial in the heart of the capital, the site of the relay run. The police moved quickly to douse the flame, detain the group and end the protest, which took place as a mock security drill was being conducted nearby.
The Olympic torch route was initially more than five miles but was shortened to two miles following the protests in London and Paris. Commandos from the National Security Guard are to protect the torch as teams in helicopters conduct surveillance, and thousands of police and paramilitary forces will be deployed. A Chinese government request to fly in its air surveillance team was refused by India last week.
The tight secrecy shrouding the government's security plans is leaving some activists frustrated.
"They keep changing the route, the timing, the location. It is difficult for us to plan any action with such loose bits of information," said Tenzing Norsang, 26, joint secretary of the Tibetan Youth Congress, speaking by phone from an undisclosed location outside New Delhi.
"We want to do one of three things: take away the torch, extinguish it or just protest alongside the route. Any of these will embarrass China and highlight its policies on Tibet," Norsang said. "We do not want to harm the torchbearer and we will be nonviolent," he added.
Distancing himself from the youth activists, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, urged his people last week not to harm or stop the torch, adding that his government supports the Games in China.
The security plans are putting off some Indians who would have liked to watch or take part in the relay. Kiran Bedi, who was India's first female police officer, withdrew from the relay last week, saying she could not "run in a cage" with a torch that symbolized the spirit of freedom. On Tuesday, a Bollywood actress, Soha Ali Khan, pulled out as well, saying the protests and disruptions against the torch had saddened her.
For Tenzin Tsundue, however, the Games represent both pride and pain for him as a Tibetan exile.
"As a child, I, too, had the romance of the Olympics in my eyes. But I would ask myself, 'Where are my Tibetan national heroes? Where is my flag at the Olympics?' "