Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Old Man and the hills

On the curious case of Amran Abraham in Mcleodganj.

Aditya Raj Kaul

June 24th, 2012

Amran Abraham being blessed by The Dalai Lama
The Tibetan Children’s Village Café (TCV) at the Dolma Chowk in misty McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh, is a favourite among tourists from around the world. Famous for its coffee and local delicacies and ideally located at the sprawling market-centre at the roof-top, the cafe is thronged by people through the day.

Amidst the visiting crowd, seated next to the staircase is a frail old man, who looks barely alive. An obvious foreigner, the figure draped in white from head to toe is quiet, unmoving and in no visible discomfort. Even though, there is a certain vibrancy of compassion emerging from his glowing wet eyes, silence is all we can absorb from his grace. With merely odd walking stick by his side, this unknown personality, who attracts tourists visiting the destination, remains seated like an unnoticed deity.

In this tiny hamlet at Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, this is the story of a stranger, far from his home in New York. A lifelong tourist, he travels to survive each day and make ends meet. It is a hidden, untold tale of a curious old man from Mcleodganj, headquarters of the Dalai Lama-led Tibetan government-in-exile.

“Oh yes..he’s famous around here. I just saw him walking last weekend”, says Ken Smith, an 'atmospheric enthusiast' (sic), who maintains a blog to track the weather of Mcleodganj, to help tourists.

'Amram', as the locals address him, may even be a 100 years old, for all we know. Some speculate he is 61, despite his fragile body, severely hunched back and his long white beard. He has no home, no relatives either. Tourists mesmerised by him, help Amram with meals and even lodging, at hotels around the hill station.

“He was severely hunched over, walked with a cane, had a white beard down to almost his stomach, and was dressed in white khakis, white jacket and flip flops”, remembers Farrell Gilmour, a Canadian tourist on his travel blog. Beset by Parkinson's disease, Amram's skin is being eaten away by a fungal infection. The imperfection of his shivering hands however doesn't stand ground compared to the perfection of his smile which oozes tranquillity.

Travelers from across oceans who have visited Mcleodganj have written extensively about the strange old man they encountered, not just from the USA and Canada, but even counties such as Israel and New Zealand. The outpourings in these writings doesn't end at the hopelessness of the old man they all met, but also the frustration associated with dealing with him as a matter of normal routine.

At the St John’s Church in the wilderness, merely a mile away from the Mcleodganj main entrance, Dan and Fion saw Amram, “I spotted an old white man – thin, bent over and shaking with Parkinson's, who was obviously having trouble getting up from his seat. So I did the noble thing and asked Dan to help him”, writes Fion, “little knowing that my famous last words of 'Dan, do you want to help that guy up from his chair' would turn into 'Dan, do you want to help that guy walk/ pee/ sit/ stand/ move for the rest of the day?' - and possibly ad infinitum if he had anything to do with it…”

Writes Mario, a fellow working towards rural electrification in India, where he landed after helping the victims of the earthquake in Haiti, “Many months after having met Amram, all that stays is not the regret for having helped him, or having dragged some friends into helping him (sic), but primarily an appreciation for the fact that in the world there are many people willing to help an old man.”

Born and raised in the USA, Amram Abraham has been traveling the world continuously for 44 years and claims to have visited more than 100 countries. “I lived in a motor home in the USA and Canada for 12 years, in Jerusalem for ten years, and in India for more than two decades, and have come to rest in the Himalaya Mountains,” Abraham says, adding, “Life in India is quite rugged and to make money as a tourist is almost impossible”.

A Google search on his name opens to a ‘Letter of Appeal’, bearing his signature, requesting for sponsorship from volunteers in the form of cash deposits through wire transfer. The appeal is attached along a photograph of Dalai Lama blessing Amram, perhaps a sign of genuineness of this appeal. Not just the Dalai Lama but even Hollywood star Richard Gere has promoted this appeal on his Facebook page.

“I was hit hard by the world financial crisis in 2008 and my savings were wiped out. In the same year I developed Parkinson's disease. I am taking a course of Tibetan herbal medicine from the Dalai Lama's personal physician and am starting a course of Tibetan acupuncture and massage”, writes Amram, in the letter.

“Life in India is inexpensive and costs me 800 euros per month for room, food, medical treatment, a caregiver and taxi fare. May I request your generous financial support during this crisis at this time in my life. I would be grateful for your pledge to donate an amount to enable me to cover my life expenses and to continue medical treatment. Please be my sponsor”, he writes further.

While most tourists are touched by his sufferings, there are a few sceptics, who call him a 'good actor' who is only 'gaining sympathy'. There are yet others who call him a CIA agent or even a Chinese spy. Often visibly irritated, even abusive, he moves on in his solitary caravan.

The  only family he seems to have is a local Tibetan nurse who is often seen feeding him with mashed fruits and porridge. Is there a sense of abandonment in his heart or is it a desire to remain secluded?

“I never incorporated myself into society”, the old man had told Ferell while parting, adding that he had never worked a day in his life. Perhaps, society too left him to himself, wandering in the meadows of Mcleodganj.

With a sliver of sunlight touching his feet, he stands alone, gazing at the endless street. A light-grey English cap on his head, he slants his face at an odd angle. Neither the cries in the market nor the tourist rush bother him. The walking stick keeps his aged body erect. Perhaps it isn't the wooden stick but the resolve to keep going on.

I was at the rooftop of the Café when I noticed his presence far down the street at the intersection. As I ran closer to the verandah of the cafe to frame a picture on my lens, he raced down the street towards the 152-year-old Nowrojee General Merchants shop. The fraction of a second was enough for him to get going.

He gave me a glance, perhaps for the frame which I managed to fix, and as I clicked... he walked away. Into yet another journey of hopelessness.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

"Cynics should keep quiet", says actor Anupam Kher

In an exclusive interaction with Aditya Raj Kaul, Actor anupam Kher says he might contest elections in future if That is important for a political change.

August 19th, 2012

Actor Anupam Kher at Jantar Mantar

You were at Jantar Mantar supporting the movement against corruption led by Anna Hazare, which will soon enter the political fray. Where do you see it heading now after this major step?
The process is inching towards a possible corruption free India; it’s a step towards possible honest politicians who will give good governance. Indians should feel proud of their country and its achievements, not only in dreams but also in morality. We Indians do not feel proud of ourselves and our nation unless we are at war with Pakistan or playing cricket matches against them. It will change, hopefully.
Don’t you think the massive support for Team Anna across India since the crusade began in April 2011 was because of its apolitical nature?
The response can be described in three different categories. A pessimist would have said 'Nahi, aisa thoda hota hai ' (This is not how things work). A cynic would have said 'Oh yeh politics toh hota hi corrupt logon ke liye hai' (Politics if the culmination of all corrupt people). Being an optimist, I feel 'Kuch na kuch hoga' (Something or the other is bound to happen). When I came to Bombay the only thing I had was hope. And I see myself as an end result of that hope. Success is always because of your attitude towards life, not talent alone. Crowd is never a measure of success. It is much deeper than that. It is not an India-Pakistan match or an IPL final. People who have been cynical about it should keep quiet now.
Two of Team Anna's major supporters, spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and activist Medha Patkar distanced themselves from the move. Is there no consensus?
There are always different opinions. I am not saying that what Ravi Shankarji or Medha Patkar is saying is wrong. When we were fighting for independence, different people fought in different ways. There was Gandhiji’s ahimsa, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose and the Azad Hind Fauj and also somebody like Bhagat Singh who went in the Assembly and created quite a situation. The goal of all these people was to get India freedom. The same goes for todays' movement. 
As you have been supporting Team Anna since the very beginning in its campaign, would you yourself volunteer and contest elections?
I do not have any political aspirations. I am happy doing what I have been doing. If I am required to in any kind of a situation, I will raise my voice. As an individual, I am happy with that. If after seven or eight years I realise that it (contesting elections) is important for a political change, I might do it. But, I do not see it happening immediately.
Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh has often alleged that this movement is being funded by the RSS. How would you react?
Well, it has become a joke now. If someone’s tyre gets punctured on the highway, he’ll say ismein RSS ka haath hai. I don’t think we should dignify the statement by answering it.
Strangely, while Anna Hazare supports Team Anna giving a political alternative, he distances himself from it. Why?
May be it is Gandhiji’s inspiration. He toonever took a government position. Maybe, Anna Hazare is walking on the footsteps of Gandhiji and that should not be held against him.

"Without political alternative, there will be anarchy", says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

With Team Anna set to join the political fray, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar speaks to Aditya Raj Kaul on exactly what kind of social change he wants to see in India.

August 19th, 2012

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

 Team Anna has formally announced a decision to float a political party as an alternative for the masses. How do you see this step in the context of the anti-corruption crusade?
I strongly believe that people are people no matter what party they are in. It really does not matter unless and until we instil strong character, commitment and vision in the people of our nation. Without that, corruption cannot be eliminated. There are good people in every party and there are bad elements in every party. In fact, what is really needed today is strong support for people with integrity.
So will Art of Living support and campaign for election candidates of Team Anna's party?
Art of Living will not be part of any political party. I will continue to support the anti- corruption crusade. In fact, it was Art of Living that started a crusade against corruption and terrorism on March 1, 2009 at Jantar Mantar. On that day Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal also came and spoke as a police officer and an RTI activist respectively. Later in 2010, India Against Corruption was formed which included Baba Ramdev, Anna Hazare and others. However, I have no intention to campaign for anybody although I encourage honest and patriotic individuals to join the electoral process, as we did with several Maoists from Jharkhand and Bihar in the past.
Anna Hazare has distanced himself from contesting elections. Do you think it is important for certain public figures to remain apolitical?
A reformer has to be an inspirational figure and you cannot do it when you occupy a position of power because when you are in power you have to take sides. A saint, a reformer and a journalist will have to be neutral. They have a very specific role to play. You cannot be partisan, which you have 
to be when you become part of a political set-up.
Social activism and the apolitical nature of it was the reason why many people joined this anti-corruption movement. Will the movement suffer now that the campaigners plan to give it a political colour?
Actually, it may be the other way around. People are fed up with corruption and when you say so-and-so are corrupt, the people want an alternative to him. Without a political alternative, there could be anarchy and chaos. Suggesting an alternative can be seen as the only positive step forward.
Will you be joining the agitation launched by Baba Ramdev (on August 9, 2012) at Ramlila Maidan like all other members of Team Anna?
The cause of Baba Ramdevji is good. We are all united in the cause to bring back black money and fight against corruption though our working styles are different. Art of Living does mass awareness campaigns and encourages people to take vows against corruption for only laws alone cannot bring reforms. The reform has to come from within. If everyone reading this interview takes a pledge to stay away from corruption for a year, the country will see a big difference.
Do you agree with the methods of Team Anna like fasting to pressure the government for Jan Lokpal Bill or shaming 15 ministers of the UPA government who have been accused of corruption in the CAG and other reports?
I endorse fasting for spiritual and religious reasons. Fasting for political reasons is not my favourite. As far as the ministers are concerned, according to my knowledge, three honourable judges of the Supreme Court and High Court had prepared files giving solid evidence against these ministers. I have not seen the files myself. If this is true, people have a right to know.

'Tibetans have no option other than self-immolations', says Tibetan Prime Minister Dr. Lobsang Sangay

Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile Lobsang Sangay in exclusive conversation with Aditya Raj Kaul

July 5th, 2012

With Tibetan Prime Minister Dr. Lobsang Sangay

TSI: Almost 40 Tibetans including monks have attempted self-immolation since 2009. Why this sudden increase in such desperate acts of protest? Have they lost all hope for a free Tibet?
LS: [Brief silence] Yes, it has been really unfortunate. Question is why? The Chinese Government doesn’t allow any form of free speech like we see in India, here we can have dharnas, hunger strikes, and we can protest, and organise rallies. But in China, especially in Tibet, it is not so. You simply cannot participate in protests, even if it’s a gathering of three people, they get arrested and tortured. Tragically, Tibetans are taking to this rather drastic political act of self-immolation. But all the 40 self-immolators have only hurt themselves and not harmed others. Their demands are pretty clear – the return of His Holiness Dalai Lama and Free Tibet.

TSI: Tibetan activist Jamphel Yeshi also self-immolated himself hours before Hu Jintao’s arrival in March this year. Is self-immolation the only way of being heard?
LS: We have told people not to indulge in self-immolation. A few days after Jamphel Yeshi’s self-immolation we in fact issued a very strongly worded letter asking Tibetans-in-exile particularly not to resort to self-immolations because we have freedom of speech in India. We can resort to and engage in many other forms of protests. Unfortunately, Tibetans inside Tibet don’t have any other option, but to commit self-immolations.

TSI: Have the concerns over Dalai Lama’s security intensified of late? The Dalai Lama himself recently said that a Tibetan may attack him?
LS: Threat perception always remains. The report (about a Tibetan attacking Dalai Lama) is reliable but not verified. Reports are that China at one time was training people like that, so we have to take all this under consideration.

TSI: Your views on Indo-Tibetan relations?
LS: Tibet is of major interest for India from geo-political, environmental and cultural point-of-view. Culturally, because we follow Buddhism, which we adapted from India. Environmentally because Tibet’s Himalayan geography directly affects the region. And geo-politically because China is building a railway line all the way to India. The Indian government spends billions of dollars for border security. Before 1959, it was not necessary. Resolving the Tibet issue is in India’s interest.

TSI: Is there any ongoing back-channel dialogue with China or does a stalemate persist considering recent resignations of your two appointed emissaries?
LS: At the moment it is a stalemate, mainly because of the Chinese government. The relevant Chinese officials have not reciprocated positively to the memorandum that we submitted. That is why our two appointed envoys resigned. The environment is not conducive for dialogue. The situation inside Tibet is also getting worse. Having said that, we are ready to engage in dialogue with the Chinese government anytime. We seek autonomy within China and within the framework of the Chinese constitution. Most likely with the changes in leadership, by early next year there might be slight changes in the trend.

TSI: China has been showing off Gyaltsen Norbu, the government-appointed 11th Panchen Lama, to the world. Do you think the world has accepted him as Dalai Lama's successor?
LS: No, No I don’t think the world will accept him because he is not the boy endorsed by the Dalai Lama. He spends more time in Beijing than in Lhasa. He spends more time talking of politics than spirituality. He is being groomed and shown around by the Chinese government which will not be accepted by Tibetans. Why should they?

TSI: If not Gyaltsen Norbu, do you think period after Dalai Lama will mean chaos for Tibetans-in-exile and China will only emerge stronger?
LS: Dalai Lama will come back. But interim period, it was chaotic before. You know, there is always a gap in history. That is why His Holiness has issued a very strong statement last September – reincarnation, selection or emanation. If  he comes back through reincarnation then till Dalai Lama is born and enthroned and mature, it will take 27 years. That is why, the Dalai Lama has said that if Buddhist leaders are willing there could be a selection process, some Buddhist leaders could gather and select the next leader. Or there is also the possibility of an emanation process, meaning the Dalai Lama could designate a boy (or a girl), and say he will be my successor. That will remove that interim period. Immediately after His Holiness passes away, we will have a young boy who will be the 15th Dalai Lama. Who better than Dalai Lama to choose, legitimize, give credibility, train and groom the next Dalai Lama?

TSI: What is your single-most-important task as the PM of Tibetan government-in-exile?
LS: Politically, restoring freedom for Tibetans and maintaining solidarity both within and outside Tibet are very important. Domestically, education will be the number one priority. I came from a humble background. Because of education I’ve managed to stand on my feet. Similarly, if we invest in education for everybody, then an educated and highly talented generation will be groomed to take forward the Tibetan cause.

TSI: But is the Dalai Lama refraining from being too outspoken about the situation in Tibet these days?
LS: His Holiness made it very clear last March that he wants to transfer all his political authority. There is a clear demarcation and I handle the political part of the Tibet issue and His Holiness is our most revered leader. Now he spends more time on his spiritual pursuits but as a Tibetan he often makes comments on the Tibet issue as well.

Tibetan Prime Minister Dr. Lobsang Sangay with The Dalai Lam

TSI: China is one of the world’s most formidable powers. Is there still hope for a free Tibet?
LS: We perceive China differently from the way other countries, including India, perceive China. We Tibetans have been living side by side with China for centuries. China may grow powerful, but the Tibetan spirit, Tibetan sense of commitment and determination will not change. We believe that we will achieve freedom one day. That is the determination of the younger generation of Tibetans to carry the cause forward. Not just me, so many other Tibetans are joining in and have been in the Tibetan cause for a long time with sincere belief, that our day will come. We will return to Tibet.          

Flames of Freedom

Despair sometimes is a great tranquiliser. But for many Tibetans, despair has become a feeding flame for their long-standing demand for a Free Tibet, writes Aditya Raj Kaul

July 5th, 2012

Jamphel Yeshi

When two Tibetan protesters set themselves on fire in front of Lhasa's famous Jokhang temple last month, it marked a fresh twist in the decade old Free Tibet movement. This was the first time that such protests against Chinese rule occurred in the capital city, far from sites of earlier self-immolations in eastern Tibet. One of the protesters, 19 year-old Tobgye Tseten, later succumbed to burn injuries.

The gory sight of people setting themselves afire and screaming in agony and flames – is one that most Tibetans have been acclimatised to over the last one year. More than 40 people have taken to such extreme acts in China administered Tibetan regions since March 2011, when a monk named Phuntsog set himself on fire in Sichuan Province. Nearly 32 people of them have died due to burn injuries.

The flames of this raging fire even reached New Delhi hours before Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to India in March this year, when 26-year-old Jamphel Yeshi committed self-immolation at Jantar Mantar. Even as Hu Jintao arrived to attend the BRICS Summit, Yeshi breathed his last at a hospital not far from the summit venue.

The recent spurt in self-immolations have only served to underscore the widening discontent over Chinese rule across Tibet. Since the Jokhang temple incident, security forces in Lhasa have been carrying out frequent and enhanced identity checks in the region. New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that hundreds of Tibetans in Lhasa have been arbitrarily expelled from the city by local authorities in a bid to enhance the security. Some, in eastern Tibet, have been ordered to leave not only the capital, but the entire Tibet Autonomous Region. The clampdown has been unprecedented as it extends to Tibetans who have valid business permits to live and work in Lhasa for years, the report further added.

"This arbitrary expulsion of people because of their ethnicity or place of birth is clearly discriminatory and violates their basic rights to freedom of movement and residence," explains Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. "Additional arbitrary restrictions by authorities are likely to deepen tensions," she warns, adding that authorities in Beijing must understand that the solution to problems in Tibet does not involve more troops and discriminatory restrictions.

Meanwhile, in a move believed to distract the world’s attention from protests inside Tibet, China has announced that it will allocate £40 million in building 22 model villages across Tibet to raise the economy of the region. Ironically, the announcement from the authorities came merely a few weeks after China decided to ban any foreigner from visiting Tibet.

"Tibet is cut from the rest of the world over the last one month. All international tourists and media has been banned from visiting Tibet. Besides, most towns and cities are heavily guarded by police, anti-riot SWAT forces and a reserve of military is always stationed on the outskirts of the township. Moreover, plainclothes informers have deeply permeated into people's personal spaces," says Dharamsala-based Tibetan activist Tenzin Tsundue.

Sundry reports on social media and eyewitness reports shared with Human Rights Watch indicates that Chinese authorities have imposed a range of limitations on movement in and around Lhasa, including the expulsions, as well as a ban on public gatherings of more than three people in the city. This has led to the cancellation of daily group activities, such as physical exercises normally held in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, according to a source in Tibet with direct knowledge of the events.

The Dalai Lama last year accused Beijing of "cultural genocide" in Tibet. He attributed the wave of self-immolations to a harsh crackdown by authorities on Tibetan culture and religion.

In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Indian, Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile at McLeodganj in Dharamshala Dr. Lobsang Sangay said that "the situation inside Tibet is getting worse every passing day." Sangay, who completed his early education from Delhi University addressed a gathering of angry Tibetans at Majnu ka Tila after the self-immolation and death of Jamphel Yeshi in the national capital earlier this year.

A hand-written note left by Yeshi in his room and was discovered later that day said: “The fact that Tibetan people are setting themselves on fire in this 21st century is to let the world know about their suffering... If you have any empathy, stand up for the Tibetan people.”

Amid such resounding chants of freedom, the recent spurt in the string of self-immolations inside Tibet show no signs of abating. At least not for now.