On February 29, a 16-year-old Tibetan boy, Dorjee Tsering, immolated himself close to his grandfather’s house in Uttarakhand, shouting slogans of “Long live Dalai Lama” and “Free Tibet”. The same day, in the Chinese province of Sichuan, an 18-year-old Tibetan monk, Kalsang Wangdu, set himself on fire while calling for “Tibet’s complete independence”.

Neither death got the attention it deserved in the Indian media. They happened at a time when the country was transfixed by the row at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the right-wing’s attempts to portray it as a citadel of anti-nationalism.

Among the thousands of Tibetans living in exile though, the deaths didn’t go unnoticed. For them the deaths were grim reminders of their nation’s plight ahead of the 56th Tibetan Uprising Day on March 10.

“Every Tibetan child – whether born in India, Tibet, United States or anywhere in the world – knows what is happening,” said Dorjee Tsering’s 26-year-old sister Samten Dolma. “China says Tibet is its part, but Tibet belongs to Tibetan people. The occupation and its reality are not hidden from the children. They are aware of the critical state we are in.”

'For the nation'

Originally from Tibet’s U-Tsang province, Tsering’s family is settled in the resort town of Manali in Himachal Pradesh, where it runs a small business of selling pullovers. The family, Dolma says, is really simple and never took any interest in politics. Which is why nobody can explain how Tsering became so “impassioned” and “took such an extreme step”.

Recalling the events in the lead-in to February 29, Dolma says the entire family had gathered in Herbertpur, a nagar panchayat at an hour’s distance from Dehradun. Tsering’s grandfather, who is suffering from cancer, was in a critical state and everyone had come down to look after him.

“It was also the time of the Tibetan New Year,” said Dolma, “so we thought the entire family should be together. We had been there for 2-3 days.” Tsering, a 10th grader studying at the Tibetan Homes Foundation School near Lha Gyari Temple in Mussoorie, was there too.

On February 29, Dolma had stepped out for some work when she got a call from one of her younger sisters. She could hear inconsolable weeping. “I thought maybe my grandfather’s health had deteriorated. But as soon as I head what Dorjee had done, I rushed back.”

As Dolma describes it, Tsering went to Lakkhanwala near their grandfather’s house and set himself on fire, while shouting “Long Live Dalai Lama” and “Free Tibet”. Their mother fell unconscious at the sight. “The burning flesh was dripping from his skin, but he did not shout or cry in pain,” said Dolma. “It was a miracle that he walked the few steps leading to my grandfather’s house.”

People gathered there tried to douse the flames with blankets and water. “Not once did he say he was in pain,” said Dolma. “When mother regained consciousness, Dorjee kept apologising. He said: ‘I never did this to hurt you. I had to do this for my nation. I am sorry for hurting you.’”

Tsering was rushed to a local hospital and then to Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi. In a video recorded at the hospital, Dorjee said he had a “strong determination” since his childhood to do something for Tibet. The website of the advocacy group Free Tibet translated his words thus:

“There was nothing else I could do other than self-immolation. Because if there is self-immolation, people get shocked… When they are shocked, countries like the United Kingdom, America and Africa begin to pay attention to Tibetans. When they pay attention, then they will support Tibetans. That will be helpful for us. It seems the oil put on my body was not enough for it to burn completely.”

Tsering succumbed to the 95% burns three days later. His last rites were carried out in Dharamshala – the seat of His Holiness Dalai Lama – according to Buddhist customs, and the funeral was attended by hundreds of Tibetans.

“He just came as a story in our lives and left as a legend for the nation,” Dolma said, her voice cracking up. “A hero was born in our family.”

Highlighting their struggle

Since 2009, nearly 150 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibet and elsewhere to protest against the Chinese reign over their homeland. While the Tibetan government-in-exile, based in Dharamsala, says that China is occupying Tibet illegally, Beijing claims the land is a part of its sovereign territory.

Tenzin Jigme of the Tibetan Youth Congress, which organised Tsering’s cremation, says it is difficult to tell what went on in the minds of the Tibetans who self-immolated to express their ire at Beijing.

“Dorjee was just 16. He had his whole life in front of him but he decided to cut it short for six million Tibetans. We are extremely sad for his demise but proud of his sacrifice. Dorjee, before he died, was calling for the long life of Dalai Lama, calling for independence of Tibet. When he was in hospital, he spoke of the illegal occupation of Tibet by China. These were his thoughts in his last moments.”

According to Jigme, some Tibetans are getting driven over the edge after hearing the torture stories from inside Tibet – “it is [the] culmination of everything”. “The way forward is for [the] Chinese government to understand what Tibetan people really want,” said Jigme. “We are not in a position to tell Tibetans, especially those living under Chinese rule, those who are facing torture in their everyday lives, to not protest. They want to highlight their struggles.”

Jigme urged India, which has been the home of Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama since his escape in 1959, to take a tougher stand on Tibet. “India’s security lies in Tibetan independence,” he maintained. “Tibet and India have a long history of friendship. Moreover, the water issues of China are what Indian government and rest of South East Asia need to be cautious about.”

A heartbroken father

Dorjee Tseten, an activist with the group Students for Free Tibet, says that both Kalsang and Dorjee were clear in their message: “Free Tibet and let His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] return home”. “It is really unfortunate for us as life is precious,” said Tseten. “But 57 years’ occupation has forced these young boys to take their own lives. They want to achieve a breakthrough with their sacrifice. It is also to force the international community, which has unfortunately been silent all this while, into taking action Chinese government.”

Kunga Gyatso, a 38-year-old monk from Namgyal monastery in Dharamshala, agrees. He says Buddhism prohibits taking any life, “but when young boys and girls hear of their own country and the deteriorating situation in Tibet, it is depressing”. “Half of our relatives and family is still in Tibet,” the monk said “We have not seen them for decades. Occasional phone calls or messages are the only source of communication. When we see pictures and or hear of news reports of torture and killings in Tibet, it is disheartening. Then one feels disturbed. We feel we are out of options.”

A 32-year-old Tibetan journalist had a different take. Referring to self-immolation as useless, he said, “You are fighting an opponent. 100-150 people have self-immolated. But the Chinese have not been slightly bothered about it. The world has forgotten the issue, nobody is talking about it.”

Meanwhile, as people weigh the drastic act, Dorjee Tsering’s family is confronting the loss. On March 6, his father Thupten Tashi was quoted on the website of the the Tibetan government-in-exile as saying: “I urge the young Tibetans not to self-immolate. I urge you to fulfill His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s wishes and contribute to the struggle through your education.”