On the day we meet at a café near his office, Lukar Jam is wearing a worn-out brown coat, a scruffy beard and has a faraway look in his eyes. Ahead of the preliminary round of the 16th Tibetan parliamentary elections, the 43-year-old Tibetan has split the community down the middle. A former political prisoner who spent six years in a jail in China-occupied Tibet, Jam is probably the only aspiring political leader in the history of Tibet to openly challenge umey-lam, the middle way approach proposed by His Holiness Dalai Lama, and advocate rangzen, complete independence for Tibet.
Away from the high-octane political battles in Bihar, Mcleodganj in Himachal Pradesh is also in the middle of an election. Today, exiled Tibetans across India, Nepal, Bhutan, North America, Europe and Australia will take part in the preliminary round of the parliamentary elections. They will vote to nominate candidates for the post of Sikyong (political leader) and Chithue (members of parliament). Jam is one of the most contentious candidates for the post of Sikyong.
Like His Holiness, Jam was born in Amdo province in south Tibet in a nomadic family and studied till high school. At 20, he was arrested for “separatist activities” and spent the next six years in prison. He was released on medical grounds but kept under strict surveillance. Two years later, he escaped to India. He now heads an organisation that works with political prisoners in exile.
A writer of revolutionary poems and essays and an avowed atheist in a religious society, Jam fits the bill of a rebel. While in prison, the manuscript of a novel he was working on was seized and destroyed. His biggest disappointment, he says through his translator, is that he can never go back to finishing or writing that novel again.
Jam’s sole aim is to return to Tibet. If he focuses too much on issues of unemployment among exiled Tibetans, he says, his race will “slowly die out” and Tibetans will “forget that they are guests in India”.
His critics point out that Jam doesn’t even have an inkling of a plan of how to achieve independence — politically, diplomatically or otherwise. “Take any revolution. Which one had a plan?” he counters. “It is more important that Tibetan people fight for rangzen. Once we get independence, we will formulate all plans and policies.”
While many Tibetans are put off by Jam’s “anti-Dalai Lama” stance, he finds his most ardent supporters among the youth. “Never has a candidate before demanded rangzen so freely,” says Sonam Topgyal, 28, a PhD student at Central University of Gujarat in Gandhinagar. He is in Mcleodganj for a month to work on Jam’s campaign. “People always expect freedom to come from the top. But the present election has opened many doors; political awareness and participation of the youth is much higher,” he says.
Jam’s supporters argue that the middle-way approach — autonomy wherein foreign and military affairs will be controlled by China and Tibetans will have independence to practise language and religion — has not yielded any results. Jam’s bold suggestion that religion and politics be kept separate has also sparked interest. At present, Tibetan monks hold double voting rights: they vote for the candidate representing their province as well as the religious candidate representing their Buddhist sect. “This is undemocratic. Monasteries hold the largest power, inside Tibet and in exile. We are constantly told that religion is the most important thing. It is an elitist, top-down narrative,” Topgyal says.
His Holiness has, however, often said he is open to discussion, provided rangzen supporters present a plan. But Jam shows little reverence for the Dalai Lama’s opinion. “His views are not important. I will fight for rangzen whether the Dalai Lama agrees with me or not. In these years, we have forgotten our spine to seek independence,” he says. Such outspokenness has only alienated most elderly Tibetans, many of whom would want the present Sikyong, Lobsang Sangay, to win a second term. A 74-year-old from an old age home in Jampling, for example, calls Jam natak.
For long, Tibetan politics has been enmeshed with religion, with monastic institutions wielding immense influence. “This is because monasteries have been centres of education,” says Dorjee Tseten, president of Students for Free Tibet (SFT) and a Chithue candidate himself.
For generations, the post of the Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister), which preceded the office of Sikyong, and MPs were handpicked by the Dalai Lama. Gradually, the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso began appointing a few members while the public elected the rest. In 2011, the Dalai Lama devolved his political power completely. The office of Kalon Tripa was abolished and replaced with the office of Sikyong, the political leader of Tibetan people. The Sikyong and Chithues are all selected for a term of five years.
Pitted against Lobsang Sangay, the suave Harvard law graduate, the uneducated Lukar seems an unusual choice. But, even if he loses, he has succeeded in rattling some of the old certainties of Tibetan politics. Had Jam not been in fray, says filmmaker Tenzing Sonam, the election issues would have been education, improvement of living conditions in Tibetan settlements, unemployment, etc and not the question of rangzen. “He has brought the question of Tibetan independence back in the open. His candidature is extremely positive for Tibetan democracy,” says Sonam.
Sangay, however, appears to be miles ahead in the race. His immediate objective, he says, is to enter a dialogue with the Chinese while simultaneously strengthening the exiled community for the “next 50 years” through “education, self-sustenance and preserving their cultural identity”. Sangay admits there has been “no breakthrough” in the negotiations. “Ninety per cent of it is dependent on China. We are ready to talk. But I hope when we are strengthened, China will take us seriously because it is bound to change in the next 50 years,” he says.
Former civil servant and human rights activist, Nyinjey, who has worked closely with both Lukar and Sangay, says while the latter wants to maintain status quo like “old wine in new bottle”, Jam is challenging the core idea. “Lobsang will get numbers. But democracy is also about diversity (of voters). Mere numbers is just majoritarianism.”
Regardless of who wins this election, an important outcome of a strong government-in-exile would be an alternative force for China to deal with. “Till now, China is merely waiting for His Holiness to die. But this election will prove that the movement will go on,” Dorjee Tseten says.
Sumegha Gulati is a journalist based in Delhi
The story appeared in print with the headline Off the Middle Path