India’s stage-managed torch relay meets protests

The Olympic torch was paraded through India’s capital on Thursday, along a historic thoroughfare purged of spectators, as 15 000 police officers kept protesters from the world’s largest community of exiled Tibetans far from the route.

About 70 sportsmen and celebrities including Bollywood film stars jogged on a roughly 3km route, shortened due to fears of Tibetan protests after disruptions in other cities such as London, Paris and San Francisco. Across India, thousands of mainly Tibetans protested and about 100 demonstrators were detained in the capital.

”China’s torch is a flame of shame,” read one banner.

”There cannot be any Games without Tibet. Bring Tibet to the Games,” said Tenzing Khentssin, dressed in a white ”Torch Tibet” T-shirt as he marched amid chanting protesters, surrounded by hundreds of police.

But the relay took place in a rare bubble of emptiness in a city normally teeming with street sellers, noisy auto-rickshaws and honking traffic. There were almost no crowds apart from some flag-waving Chinese and a few dozen schoolchildren bussed in by officials, who exchanged mini Chinese and Indian flags and T-shirts.

Surrounded by Chinese attendants, Indian security guards in tracksuits, and police and troops with automatic rifles, runners could only wave to the television cameras.

Outside the massive security cordon, dozens of Tibetans were detained for trying to protest.

The torch, which is en route to China for the Games in Beijing, arrived in a plane before dawn and was met by protests across India, where thousands of Tibetans marched with golden Buddhist prayer lamps.

A few hours before the relay, thousands of Tibetans marched through the capital in a parallel relay to demand Tibet’s independence and protest against Chinese policies in their homeland, in particular its crackdown last month on unrest.

Police also detained about two dozen Tibetan protesters when the torch arrived from Pakistan in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday. Many were dragged into police vans as they shouted anti-China slogans.

In the mainly Buddhist region of Ladakh in India’s Himalayas, thousands of people, including monks clad in traditional red robes, marched to show solidarity with Tibetan protesters.

In the northern town of Dharamsala, home to the Tibetan government-in-exile, about 1 500 Tibetans shouting ”Free Tibet” marched and shops closed in solidarity.

In the financial hub of Mumbai, Tibetan protesters shouted slogans and waved Tibetan flags near Chinese consulate offices. Police had detained at least a dozen by Thursday morning.

Beset by protests

The torch has been beset by protests through Europe and the Americas, over Chinese rule in Tibet. In some places, protesters tried to snuff out the flame and organisers extinguished or hid the torch to keep it safe.

Fearing similar protests, India trimmed the route to one-third of the original 9km distance, restricting it to a high-security stretch used for the annual Republic Day parade in the Indian capital. India has been a centre of regular protests for weeks and exiles even scaled the walls of the Chinese embassy.

Office workers struggled to get home on Thursday, with many streets in the centre closed to traffic. Several metro stations in the capital were closed.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, has voiced his support for the Beijing Games. He has urged Tibetans to desist from disrupting the torch relay.

But protests have continued unabated. India had to assure China of adequate security for the torch after the Chinese foreign minister called his Indian counterpart this month.

The Indian government has been reluctant to criticise China over Tibet, despite some public support for the exiles as well as criticism in the media of New Delhi’s soft line.

The controversy reached Parliament on Thursday. ”The Olympic torch is a symbol of brotherhood and harmony but Delhi has been turned into a prison,” said Mohan Singh, an MP.

Despite years of mistrust and a border war in 1962, a booming India is seeking closer relations with China, which is now one of its biggest trading partners.

Indian football captain Bhaichung Bhutia has refused to carry the Olympic torch in protest against China’s response to the unrest in Tibet.

At the completion of the relay, the torch left for Bangkok. — Reuters

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