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Rite of Freedom
The Life and Sacrifice of Thupten Ngodup

Saturday, Aug 1, 1998
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Last photograph of Thupten Ngodup taken before the hunger striker’s tent in Delhi.

Last photograph of Thupten Ngodup taken before the hunger striker’s tent in Delhi.

After the cremation of Thupten Ngodup, when the emotional crowd had finally marched back to McLeod Ganj, a few of us went to pay a visit to his house. It was a brief walk from the cremation-ground by the mountain stream, through a rhododendron, oak and chil [1] forest to the Tsechokling Monastery estate where Thupten Ngodup’s little hut was located.

It was very small, about eight by six feet, and no more than six feet high. On two sides of the hut, just below a couple of large, low windows were flower-beds blooming with wine-red snapdragons and yellow pansies with dark patchy centres. In front of the hut was a carpet-size lawn with a young juniper growing in the middle. He had planted a neat hedge around the place, and had attempted, with a not overwhelming degree of success, to trim the top of one side of the hedge into the shape of a bird.

The Japanese poet / painter Buson in his illustrations for the poet Basho’s travel diary, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, has this whimsical little sketch of a priest sitting in a tiny wayside hut in the midst of a small garden.

Even the woodpeckers
Have left it untouched
This tiny cottage
In a summer grove

The battered corrugated-tin roof (weighted down with large stones) notwithstanding, Thupten Ngodup’s shack suggested, in an unexpected sort of way, the quality of “refined poverty” that Taoist sages and Japanese tea-masters of yore are said to have cultivated in their dwellings; a quality which, surprisingly enough, one comes across, now and then, in the humble abodes of solitary monks and meditators around Dharamshala.

The first thing one noticed on entering Thupten Ngodup’s hut was his altar, which had at least four photographs of the Dalai Lama, two small Tibetan flags, and various other pictures of bodhisattvas and protective deities. In front was stacked, en échelon, a row of small brass bowls for the customary water offering. His bed, below the altar, was neatly made, and a pair of trousers and a shirt, both crisply ironed, hung on a plastic hanger on the wall. A “Free Tibet” baseball cap hung on the same nail. A small table and a comfortable deck-chair completed the furnishing. The wall opposite the bed constituted his kitchen. There he had rigged up a few rows of makeshift shelves on which his stove, pots and pans, buckets and plastic containers were arranged.

In the corner of a shelf were three large cartons of “27” bidis, which he smoked regularly. Besides the bidis were a few empty rum bottles — army issue. A bottle of Bachelor Deluxe whisky was half empty. He had probably treated himself to this more expensive drink before leaving for Delhi to join the hunger strike.

By all accounts, Thupten Ngodup seems to have been a light-hearted person who enjoyed an occasional drink and game of cards, particularly a game called “sip” he had picked up while in the force. He and some of his ex-army buddies regularly gathered below the Om Restaurant for a daily game. He was also fond of the Tibetan domino game, bakchen. Though certainly not a rich man, he apparently had no pressing money problems. He had some savings in the bank and made a comfortable living as a chef for the annual pic-nics and banquets hosted by various organisations and offices in Dharamshala, and also by baking Tibetan New Year cakes (khapsay) during the season.

He seems to have been a conscientious worker. The English writer, Patrick French, who met Ngodup in 1986 at the Tsechokling Monastery, mentioned in a recent article in the Indian magazine, Outlook, (18 May 1998) that Ngodup was always “anxious, maybe too anxious, in an ex-military sort of way, to provide perfect service”. Patrick helped Ngodup draw up a menu for a meal service for Western tourists staying in the guest rooms of the monastery “tea, coffee, thukpa, shabalay, momo…”

On the 27 April at around six o’clock in the morning, when the Delhi police pulled their second surprise raid on the site of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) organised “Hunger Strike Unto Death” to haul off the three remaining hunger strikers, this ordinary, good-humoured man did something that has since shaken Tibetan society in a fairly fundamental way. He avoided the police dragnet — one gets a glimpse of him slipping past the police in the video shot by Choyang Tharchin of the Department of Information and International Relations (DIIR) — and made his way to the public toilet. He opened a plastic container of gasoline, which he must have hidden there earlier, and dowsed himself thoroughly. Then he struck a match or flicked a lighter.

Someone who was there told me that he probably did not come out immediately from the toilet and must have deliberately remained a moment or two inside to ensure that he was well lit. That, of course, is conjecture. When he came out he was, quite literally, an inferno. The DIIR video makes that horrifyingly clear. We see him charging out to the area before the hunger strikers tent, causing chaos in the ranks of the police as well as the Tibetans there. A very English female voice — off camera — screams, “Oh my God!, Oh my God!”, again and again. With that and other screams and shouts, it is impossible to hear what the burning man is saying. According to someone there, he shouted “Bod Gyal lo!” or “Victory to Tibet!”. Others heard him crying “Bod Rangzen!” or “Independence for Tibet!”. He also shouted “Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama!”. How on earth he managed to shout anything, much less run about as he did is a mystery to me. Every breath he took must have caused live flames to rush into his lungs and sear the air sacs and lining.

The burning man then appears to pause and hold up both hands together in a position of prayer. At this point the fire seems terribly intense and the cameraman later told me that he could distinctly hear popping sounds as bits of flesh burst from Thupten Ngodup’s body. The cameraman was so shaken that he found it difficult to hold his camera steady. Then policemen and Tibetan bystanders beat at the flames with rugs and gunny-sacks, and finally, pushing Thupten Ngodup to the ground, stifled the blaze.

Ngodup was rushed to the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital. The doctors there declared that he had nearly hundred per cent burns and there was no hope of him surviving. On being asked whether the patient could feel any pain the doctor replied in the affirmative, explaining that the burns were largely first degree and most nerve endings were functional. But Thupten Ngodup, though conscious, was silent.

The Dalai Lama visited him next day in the evening. Thupten Ngodup made an attempt to rise but was gently pushed back. He held up his bandaged hands together in respect. His Holiness asked him if he could hear him. Thupten Ngodup nodded. The Dalai Lama told the conscious man that he should not harbour any feeling of hatred towards the Chinese, and that his act had created an unprecedented awareness of the Tibetan cause. Later that night, in a barely audible whisper, he asked for a sweet to suck, then a little later, he asked the TYC leader attending, to take out the sweet from his mouth and give him a sip of water. He then asked about the six hunger strikers who had been arrested by the police. On hearing that they were in hospital and alright, he sighed and said that he was very happy. He passed away at 0: 15 a.m. on 29 April.

* * *

Just a few weeks before Thupten Ngodup’s self-immolation, I was having a heated argument with a self-styled environmental expert on Tibet (of Indian origin) who was justifying the activities of his and other foreign “experts” and “advisors” (who since the late eighties have battened themselves on the Dalai Lama’s court with the tact and sensitivity of lampreys) by pointing out how Tibetans in exile were incapable of any effort or sacrifice. In fact, another “expert” had told me earlier in New York that the Dalai Lama had no choice other than to give up independence because the Tibetans in exile did not have the courage and commitment to continue the struggle for independence.

Well, Thupten Ngodup has effectively nailed that lie. Exile Tibetans, whatever their other failings, seem quite prepared to die for their country. The courage and endurance of the six hunger strikers who maintained their fast for forty-nine days before being forcibly dragged away by the Delhi police clearly demonstrate this as well. We must also bear in mind that about a hundred Tibetans had signed up with the Tibetan Youth Congress to carry on the strike when the first six should die.

This is by no means the first time that Tibetans in exile have embarked on such a campaign. In 1988, the TYC launched a “Hunger-Strike-Unto-Death” which only came to a halt when the Dalai Lama personally wrote (over the head of the TYC leaders) to each of the eight hunger strikers, ordering them to give up their fast. I recollect another TYC- led hunger strike in 1977, in which I participated in a small way, and I find myself still deeply impressed by the spirit of all the Tibetans who were there — not only the actual hunger strikers, who were indomitable, but even the thousands of supporters who came to Delhi from every part of India and Nepal to do their bit for the cause. There have been other such campaigns, like the National Democracy Movement led hunger strike in New York. It must be admitted, though, that these campaigns have varied greatly in effectiveness, and it should also be said, their integrity.

We are, of course, not talking here of the exiles who went on suicide missions inside Tibet, or the many secret agents, Mustang guerrillas and others who, in one way or another, gave up comfort, security and even their lives, for Tibetan independence. Thupten Ngodup, as a young man, was one of many such Tibetans who sought to free his nation through force of arms.

I talked to Samten, a storekeeper at McLeod Ganj, who signed up with Thupten Ngodup on 1 October 1963 to enlist in establishment 22, a joint CIA and Indian army run Tibetan special force. Samten and Ngodup were together in the same (Sixteen) company, the same mess and the same barracks for thirteen years. After their basic training, they trained as paratroopers and successfully completed the required number of jumps and received their “wings”. They were then posted to various sectors on the Indo-Tibetan border till November 1971 when, with great secrecy, their company was taken to a jumping-off point in North-Eastern India, code name “camping ground”.

The war for the liberation of Bangladesh had started, and the immense rivers and their myriad tributaries radiating across Bangladesh were slowing down the massive Indian advance from the west. With the approval of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan force was launched through the virtually impenetrable jungles of the Mizo Hills across South-Eastern Bangladesh to capture the port city of Chittagong, thereby threatening the rear of the Pakistani army.

Crossing into Bangladesh, Sixteen company ran into enemy fire in the Chakma hills. Two men were killed and two wounded when they captured a hill held by Pakistani forces. Another company, Fifteen company, was less lucky in its mission and suffered heavy casualties when attacking an enemy-held hill. Having cleared Pakistani forces out of the hill tracts, the Tibetans proceeded southward to the city of Rangamati, which they took from the Pakistanis. They also blew up the large railway bridge outside the city, to prevent Pakistani armour from counter-attacking.

While on detail on the bridge, Samten and Thupten Ngodup saw, in the river below, hundreds of corpses, particularly skulls, of Bengalis who had, a month or so earlier, been hanged along the side of the bridge by Pakistani soldiers. By the time Sixteen company got to Chittagong the Pakistanis had surrendered. After a couple of weeks in the city, the Tibetan troops were flown back to their base in Chakrata.

Finally, in 1976, the two friends split up. Samten joined a regular unit, while Thupten stayed on in the special guerrilla force. Thupten Ngodup got his discharge in 1983.

Samten remembers Thupten as tough, decisive, and extremely healthy, and has no memory of him ever being sick, even for a single day. Though Thupten never aspired to leadership, he was an enthusiastic soldier, always volunteering to make tea, carry heavy loads and do other chores for the squad. He never missed out on any of his training courses, and strangely enough never took a day’s leave from the army in his entire twenty years of service. The Tibetan soldiers were paid very little, but, according to Samten, Thupten was not materialistic and thought little of saving. Thupten does not seem to have been a particularly religious man either. Samten does not remember him reciting mantras or doing any special practice. But he was honest, upright and a good companion, though not much of a conversationalist. He talked little of his past in Tibet, even to his closest friends.

All we know is that Thupten Ngodup was born in 1938 in the village of Gyatso Shar in Tsang province. He is said to have some relatives there still. He was of peasant stock and seems to have joined the Tashilhunpo Monastery as a boy. After the Lhasa Uprising Thupten fled from Shigatse to India through Lachen-Lachung in Northern Sikkim. With other refugees he worked as a coolie on a road gang in Bomdila, and after a year moved to the Lugsung Samdupling Tibetan Settlement in Bylakuppe. He remained there till joining the army in 1963.

After his discharge, Thupten Ngodup came to Dharamshala where he worked as a cook for Tsechokling Monastery. The monastery gave him a small plot of land to build his hut, conditional on its return after his death. In Dharamshala another ex-serviceman, Tenzin, became his good friend and the two of them often shared a meal or a cup of tea. Tenzin also remembers Thupten as a very healthy man, who ate moderately but liked his meals to be well prepared. He was a cheerful (nangwa-kyipu), positive thinking man, who enjoyed life and made it a point not to miss any football matches or the shows at the Tibetan Children’s Village or the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. He and Tenzin would also take long walks around Dharamshala, always ending up at a tea stall. Tenzin tried, unsuccessfully, to get him to be a little more religious. Like others who knew Thupten, Tenzin told me that he was a quiet man who never discussed his past.

Thupten only seems to have lost his cheerfulness when Tenzin or others talked of becoming old or giving up. He would insist that it was silly to think that way and Tibetans would certainly return one day to a free Tibet. Though not politically inclined, he unfailingly attended all demonstrations, candle-light vigils or meetings for Tibet. He took part in the first Peace March in 1995 and seems to have been disappointed by the outcome. The goal of the Peace March, which was initially Tibet, was later switched to Delhi; but halfway to Delhi, at Ambala, the march-leaders hustled everyone onto buses, claiming that they had to meet the Dalai Lama in Delhi. Thupten returned to Dharamshala and told Tenzin of his disappointment. He wryly remarked that there had been a lot of talk of great achievements, especially by the leaders of the march, but aside from the sympathy of Indian people on the route, he was not sure if anything had been gained. Nevertheless, Thupten volunteered for the next Peace March, which doesn’t seems to have inspired him any more than the first.

Finally, this April, when Thupten Ngodup learnt about the Tibetan Youth Congress organised “Hunger Strike Unto Death” in Delhi he came over to Tenzin’s house and, over a cup of tea, told him that he was going to join the hunger strike. Tenzin admits to teasing him a bit and asking him what he could do to change the political situation. Thupten was unusually emphatic in his reply, saying that there would be definite results this time. He said that though the Dalai Lama had achieved much, the people had not done enough, and unless they did they would grow old and die in India and that would be the end of everything.

He asked Tenzin not to tell anyone that he had joined the hunger strike. He also asked Tenzin to be his guarantor, since the TYC required one of all volunteers. Tenzin accompanied him to the Youth Congress Office where he signed the guarantee document. After completing the formalities, Thupten donated five hundred rupees to the Youth Congress. The vice-president declined the money, but Thupten insisted, saying that money was necessary for the struggle. Before leaving Dharamshala, he entrusted the key of his hut to Tenzin and instructed his friend that on hearing of his death, he should sell his pots, pans and the few bits of furniture in the house and donate the money to the Tibetan Youth Congress. He insisted that every rupee was important to the freedom struggle.

Once in Delhi Thupten Ngodup was assigned to the next group of hunger strikers to replace the first group when its members should finally die. Characteristically, he busied himself cleaning up the hunger strike grounds and helping to bathe, massage and otherwise take care of the hunger strikers, who were by now emaciated and weak.

On the 23 April, around noon, a correspondent for the Norwegian-sponsored Voice of Tibet radio station interviewed him. I have reproduced the main part of his statement, editing it for repetitions and disjointedness, and have also left out the interviewer’s questions. A couple of important passages have not only been translated verbatim but the Tibetan original (in transliteration) has been provided within parenthesis:

I joined the Hunger Strike because I am a Tibetan and I have a duty to perform… No, there is no fear in my heart at all. When I met the six hunger strikers I felt very happy. It is now nearly forty years since we lost our country and much of our culture and religion has been destroyed. Inside Tibet and all over the world much has been done for the struggle.

The Dalai Lama has tried so very hard to implement his peaceful Middle Path programme, and has attempted to communicate with the Chinese. But this work has achieved no results. Therefore the situation has become desperate. These six people, led by the Youth Congress, have responded to this urgent situation by undertaking the Hunger Strike, and this has made me very happy. (Gyalwa Rinpoche kyi tsenme shiwae umae lam la-ya dinde chik betsoe nangchen gyami la drewa masongnae shul yog ray. Lay-ga di la nuba thon yog ma ray. Di song yin tsang, dha ni zadrag yin tsang mi droog di shunue u tri-jay zadrag la tay, zalchi ngogoe la pheba dila nga rang pe gabo chung.)

The six “do not have a hair of doubt or hesitation” (thetsom pu chik minduk) about giving up their lives. I am of the same determination. I do not have a hair of doubt or hesitation about giving up my life. This is my stand… When my turn comes to go on hunger strike I have decided to make it more effective. Many Tibetans are now determined to go on the hunger strike unto death. Many people I know personally want to join the hunger strike. In my own case, I have decided not to accept any kind of massage treatment or drink any water. The Tibetan situation has become desperate… I am giving up my life to bring about peace and freedom to my unhappy people… I have one hundred per cent confidence that the people inside Tibet will not only continue the struggle but will intensify it. They will never sit back and not struggle.

Five days after giving this interview Thupten Ngodup immolated himself.

After his death, some official and support-group periodicals carried what was claimed to be a quote from Thupten Ngodup’s last statement: “I have full faith in the ‘Middle Way Approach’ of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and it is very important for all Tibetans to think this way.” It is possible that at some earlier point in time he may have supported the Dalai Lama’s Middle Path approach, but just five days before his death he was so certain that this had failed that he had not hesitated to say so on the radio.

So what’s going on? I think that Thupten Ngodup like most Tibetans revere His Holiness so much that they can never quite bring themselves to openly contradict him. Yet their native good sense forces them, in extreme circumstances, to act in contravention to the Dalai Lama’s wishes. For instance, in March 1959, Tibetans in Lhasa city seemed to have realised that the Dalai Lama’s policy of trusting the Chinese and co-operating with them, whatever the cost, had not only undermined the nation, but even compromised and endangered the life of His Holiness himself. Defying his explicit instructions, they took up arms to defend his sacred person and restore the honour of the Tibetan nation. Thupten Ngodup’s self-immolation, as well as the action of the hunger strikers, seems to derive from very much the same sort of desperate reasoning.

Pacifist New Age notions to the contrary, giving up one’s life for one’s country and one’s beliefs has always been considered an admirable, indeed a magnificent act, by Tibetans. In the early eleventh century, when the Buddhist King of Western Tibet, Lha Lama Yeshey Wo was captured by the Muslim King Qarlog and held for ransom, his nephew tried to raise a large amount of gold as ransom. But the King told his nephew that he should not give the Muslim King even a speck of brass and that he was prepared to die for the Dharma. He urged his nephew to use the gold to invite great Buddhist teachers from India. Yeshey Wo died in prison. Thupten Ngodup may have heard this story and others like it as a young monk.

In 1966, just before the Cultural Revolution, in Drapchi prison in Lhasa, a CIA trained Tibetan agent, Trede Tashi Gyaltsen, a native of Gyantse, went on hunger strike. The first time around he was not successful. The Chinese guards force-fed him and injected him with some unknown medication. But a month later he tried again and this time, in spite of every effort by the prison administration, he starved himself to death. A comrade of his, who was with him in prison, assured me that Tashi’s decision was not actuated by despair, but that it was a deliberate political act of defiance against the Chinese.

However much admiration and respect have been expressed for Thupten Ngodup’s self-immolation in the Tibetan community, it, as well as the hunger strike, has not gone entirely uncensured, especially by some Westerners. One creepy missionary type in Dharamshala, who runs a New Age newsletter for cover, has been doing dirt on Thupten Ngodup’s memory, telling young Tibetans that Thupten Ngodup probably acted as he did from alcoholic depression. This is probably as mean-spirited and despicable as anyone can get.

But to return to the fundamental question of self-sacrifice, I feel compelled to point out to the orange-juice-sucking, tear-in-the-eye pacifist crowd that their basic contention that people should not die or be killed for a cause is monstrously false. Life is undeniably precious, but if it has to lived at the price of appeasing tyranny, or serenely and unconcernedly accommodating injustice and evil, then a spiritual death, far worse than any physical death, must eventually and assuredly result.

Moreover, the struggle for Tibet’s independence is not just an issue of territory or nationalism but has a more universal and moral dimension. It is, in the final reckoning, a fight for justice and truth; not truth as an abstraction but as a living principle to guide the lives of brave men and women. Gandhi, whose writings I sometimes turn to for answers on such questions, is clear about this and on the issue of sacrifice as well. In the 22 September 1942 issue of Young India he wrote: “Abstract truth has no value, unless it incarnates in human beings who represent it by proving their readiness to die for it.”

In the annals of political struggles not too many people have chosen a fiery death for their beliefs, but it does appear, nonetheless, to be generally effective. Sometimes the results have been swift and dramatic. In June 1963, Thich Quang Duc set fire to himself in Saigon to draw world attention to the repression of Buddhists by the Catholic president of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. A wave of protest swept through the whole population, carrying off in its wake the government of President Diem, which fell on 1 November 1963.

It may be some years before Thupten Ngodup’s dream will be realised, but I think that, like the aspirations of the young Czech student, Jan Palach, who burnt himself to death in 1969 in Prague to protest the Soviet invasion, it will come about eventually. As Patrick French in the conclusion of his article writes, “Today the Soviet empire has been dismantled, but Jan Palach lives on”.

In his last photograph taken before the hunger striker’s tent in Delhi, Thupten Ngodup is smiling. One cannot altogether presume to know what was going on in his mind but he certainly looks cheerful and confident. There is no hint of anger or fanaticism (or alcoholic depression) in that smile. He was a simple man (he only read Tibetan haltingly), but when I look at his photograph I feel I am seeing the calm happy face of someone who has discovered a fundamental truth about life; something that has always eluded our leadership, but which traditionally Tibetans have regarded as basic to any major undertaking, especially the effective practice of the Dharma — thak choego ray, you have to make a decision and act on it.

(To everyone at TYC Centrex, especially Yangchen Dolkar-la, thank you for your co-operation. Thanks also to Choyang-la, Topden-la and Tenzing Damdul-la of the DIIR. To Gyen Tenzing and Gyen Samten-la also, many thanks)

World Tibet Network News, 6 August 1998

* * *


1. Chil or chir pine, Pinus roxburghii, a large Himalayan pine tree with thick fissured bark and bright green, needle-like leaves.

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