By Emily Wax and Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 18, 2008
NEW DELHI, April 17 -- Protected by thousands of security personnel, the most controversial Olympic torch in history passed through India on Thursday, turning the heart of New Delhi into an impenetrable fortress for the Tibetan protesters who tried to get near the flame.
The relay, which had been shortened because of security concerns, was conducted peacefully under a blazing sun, even as 180 Tibetans activists were arrested in various parts of the capital.
A 70-person relay team of Indian athletes and celebrities carried the torch for almost two miles through the city's leafy government center -- a part of town that had been closed to traffic and emptied of people to protect the flame's symbolic journey toward the start of the Beijing Olympic Games in August.
India is home to the world's largest community of exiled Tibetans, and the arrival of the torch here -- after chaotic tours through London, Paris and San Francisco -- drew large crowds.
About 15,000 police officers were mobilized in New Delhi alone, lining the capital's wide boulevards and clearing thousands of people from nearby parks before the relay. Steely-eyed members of a special Chinese security squad jogged alongside the silver torch to secure the route. Tibetan protesters were stopped by police at every turn.
One demonstrator, Lhapka Tsering, said he and 15 friends had attempted to storm the posh hotel where the torch was being housed before the relay. They rode in on auto-rickshaws and tried to enter the hotel through a side gate. They were ultimately detained by police.
"There was too much police everywhere. We were shouting 'Free Tibet' and said, 'China is using Olympics to legitimize its occupation of Tibet.' But we were stopped a few yards away from the gate itself," he said by telephone from the police station where he was being held. "We couldn't attack the torch because the torch was kept in a prisonlike condition throughout by the Indian security."
The Olympic planners had intended the torch's world tour to be a positive event in the run-up to the Games. But protests over Tibet have turned what was expected to be a public celebration into a series of stage-managed events that usually include angry, sweating protesters being hustled into police vans.
In New Delhi, the mood throughout the day was extremely edgy. "Flame of Shame," many protesters called out, as streets were blocked by baton-wielding police. Some demonstrators wore black headbands reading "Justice Raped in Tibet."
"Our men are standing everywhere like a fort," said Karan Singh, a sub-inspector with the New Delhi police, who was guarding the yellow barricades around the India Gate landmark. "The prestigious torch will go through our Indian streets. The nation's honor is at stake."
Protecting the torch was especially important to officials in India and presented a diplomatic challenge. Popular support here rests firmly behind the Tibetan cause. Even so, India and China are enjoying their closest relations in years and have embarked on a two-way trade deal totaling $37 billion. The relationship, by Indian officials' admission, remains delicate.
Most television news channels ran live, split-screen coverage Thursday of both the protests and the torch relay -- reflecting the country's deepening ties with China but also its status as the world's largest democracy.
"India, in its democratic tradition, respects dissent, but it cannot allow this embarrassment to come in the way of larger Sino-Indian relations," said Boria Majumdar, a TV news commentator for Times Now, an English-language cable news channel. "The Indian government has by and large done the right thing by making sure the flame went through smoothly."
Hours ahead of the official relay, exiled Tibetans staged a parallel torch run to protest China's rule in Tibet.
In a solemn ceremony, demonstrators lit a torch near where Mohandas K. Gandhi's ashes are buried. After a morning of chanting and praying, about 500 Tibetans along with Indian cricketers, politicians and social activists ran with the alternative flame, which they said symbolized freedom.
"This is a very important run for us," said a panting and sweating Khenrab Drawu, 38, who wore a white T-shirt that said "Torch 4 Tibet" on the front and "Run for Genuine Peace" on the back.
From the moment the torch was bundled off the plane in New Delhi, officials took elaborate measures, guarding it as if it were a royal guest. As hundreds of police lined the road from the airport, the torch was hustled into the five-star Le Meridien Hotel and carefully ensconced on the 12th floor.
Some Indian media outlets lamented the drama. One TV station referred to the relay of "the tortured torch."
Norris Pritam, a sports columnist, said that he had watched the torch relay as a 14-year-old many years ago in the capital and that it had instilled in him a love of sports. This time, the streets were empty, except for TV cameras and security forces, he said.
"The whole thing is a joke. There are two reasons why the Olympic torch relay is held. One is to get publicity for the Games. The other is to inspire young people to get into the spirit of sports," Pritam said. "But here, nobody can see it because of the security, so where is the inspiration?"
The torch is likely to face continued protests. The next stop is in Bangkok.