My day at Tienanmen Square (In 2003)

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Recently, during the Assembly elections, a childhood friend contested from my constituency. It was his first time as a candidate. For me, as a journalist, I have been covering elections since post 1990. He got a ticket from a party that I really dislike. But as a friend I had committed to help me in personal capacity. Often in the evenings we would analyze the possibilities and probabilities in the elections. As we neared to the day of voting and later results, we would discuss ideologies at length. Now his party strongly believes in regional identity. They have indulged in extreme violence too.

Frequently we would take stock of the situation and all of us exchange notes. As the election date drew near my friend R seemed confident that he could bank on the Maharashtrian vote. He did tell me that his party president had done lot more and gone beyond his capacity to help him win. Their rival party had put dummy candidate was what he was given to believe. I wasn’t confident. However, beyond all this was the strong ‘Hindutva’ ideology that he was up against. That is something he could not believe.

We had arguments and I realized this friend would not understand till he learnt his lesson. Point being even though the voters in our area are otherwise hard core ‘Marathi manoos’ otherwise, as another friend said, most of them are Brahmins. They are staunch followers of RSS- Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sanghatana. The RSS had ensured that otherwise cynical Brahmins came out in large numbers and voted for BJP. My friend could not fathom that these very Brahmins otherwise show allegiance to Marathi manoos politics, but how they could ditch it for a non-Marathi candidate. It is this ‘ideology’ that over rides all thoughts and actions. He initially had refused to believe, but as he saw the booth wise report he seemed disillusioned.

Mao40002(have deliberately put my pic outside Mao’s memorial, for pictographic evidence of this incident and visit). Now, this reminded of an eerie experience I had in 2003 when I went to China.  I remember I was mighty excited to be in the land of Mao. My first halt was Beijing and I am glad I got see and learn a lot. I got the best of guides. Now this was before the Beijing Olympics and China had just begun to open up. The  college students had begun speaking in English and that too only in Beijing. Most would double up as tour guides. But the fact was we were being followed, checked upon and that every guide told me. They asked me not to ask too many questions.

On the first day I climbed the Great Wall of China and had already begun preparing my 2 students guides about my visit to The Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square. I have always been accused of asking too many questions. Before it became my profession, I had learnt that if I didn’t open my mouth, I have lost an opportunity to learn anything new, moreover, often people misunderstood because you just let things pass. I told the boy I was excited to visit Mao’s tomb and most of all the Tienanmen Square. This seemed to have upset the boy. He said firstly he was not at all upto it to accompany me there and why was I so excited about Mao. I told him how the man has impacted the South Asian region till date, India has suffered and our struggle against the Maoist groups. I wasn’t admiring the ideology at all nor was I fascinated by it. I told him I felt bad about the Tienanmen Square firing and wanted to know more, except I feared no one will talk in China. Now this was the iffy part. The guide refused to tell me initially the reason he would not accompany to the square. He said he would take me to the Forbidden City, posed for photographs with me, was cheerful, but the minute we would have quiet discussion or any hint of the square, he would change the topic.

In 2003 too, China was not open. I was well warned in advance that I was to be careful. No political discussions and since I was a journalist, there would be people who would be listening to my conversations. The college kids were well aware of the Chinese mode of functioning. So we had an understanding when we would be well away from the driver, or any such people who we thought were keeping an eye or ear on us, we would speak of Bollywood, life in India and safe topics like Dr Kotnis, etc. Such sensitive issues, we would talk when away from crowds, at the historic places where only te 3 of us would be able to speak. So we decided to live up to the name of ‘Forbidden City’ and speak of why he was embittered and angry with his government, moreover Mao.

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Now for non-Chinese and rest of the world, the Tienanmen Square is etched in memory for the pro-democracy movement protests. These protests ended on 4 June 1989, with the declaration of martial law in Beijing by the government, wherein the army was ordered shooting in which hundred or possibly thousands of civilians were killed and the exact number of dead would never be known. Now what the guide told me was chilling. The reason he hates the ideology was among those dead was his dear friend’s brother. He was part of those lakhs of students out on Tienanmen Square. Many parents though supported were scared for their children’s lives. These were ordinary citizens who wanted democracy but had no courage to say so,  He came near the square while describing and asked me to closely observe the landscape and buildings. The day the shooting took place, the government officials were in continuous discussions with the army and students’ representatives. The minute the sanctioned armed action and the army began firing upon the innocent students, many parents stood at the windows of the government and Communist Party office and watched their children die. They did not shed a tear, the guide told me. He was in tears while he narrated to me. That is the commitment to the ideology. I remember sharing it with my friend in China and Mao sympathisers in India. Some rubbished it, some had nothing to say, yet some said these were rumours. I do believe that it is NO rumour.

I held this secret for a long time, after I shared it with my college friend who lives in Shanghai. He asked me to keep this secret, however much later I shared it with my Indian Mao sympathizer friends here, when the police and ATS had begun arresting the Maoist group members. This was not appreciated by the followers. It has two aspects I believe. While I do understand their fear of allowing such stories to pass around, one obvious is the negative. What I find intriguing is the staunch belief in ideology. How did such stories not come out in the foreign press then? In China mainland, people don’t talk for obvious reasons, they FEAR. But it is known. So did the media not penetrate enough in the 90s? Did the foreign media not enough reach, at that time? I do believe it that was the scenario. My friend moved from Thailand to China many years after this incident and till 2000 the environment was still not as open. He did not rubbish it though neither did he confirm it. That is how it has always been China about such sensitive matters.

But when Indians over-react to Mao and Naxal, they should not forget, any indoctrination, Maoism, RSS too is part of that ideology. So while we condemn one, I am immensely shocked that the other in modern Indian times is finding more followers.

(All pictures have been taken by me. The 1 of mine, the boy guide took).

Farming to stamping books, farmer misses feel of the soil

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This is Yang Peiyan who found the terracotta soldiers on his farm in Xian. He now sits in the gift shop at the Qin museum stamping and signing the book on his life, how he found the statues and life thereafter.

In 2003, on my trip to China, my college friend Bivash had asked me to visit Xian. I first went to Beijing, stayed there for 4-5 days and took a train to Xian. The tour guides were informed in advance they’d stand waiting with a board with my name written. (Forget my surname, my name though simple to pronounce was different, like my features and moreover colour). Most tourists were European, Americans and Japanese, apart from local Chinese who love to travel. I recollect reaching early morning in Xian and the guide asked me to go rest, as he dropped me to the hotel and said he’d come post breakfast. I was to go to Qin museum and then I’d said I wanted to go to the Mosque, which my friend insisted I should. It was drizzling and cold and I was already in love with China by then. Yes, this trip was a year after my US and judge me, but I was more in love with China than the US.

I can’t remember vividly, you need to forgive me as it its over 11 years now. But some incidents, conversations I distinctly recollect. My hotel was cozy and it overlooked a pagoda and a pond. Later I have unclear memories of going first to the Pagoda, a palace like structure and then over 3/4ths of the day at the Musuem. The guide at Xian, unlike my young student guides at Bejing was impatient with my questions. He’d tell me things and I’d nod with questions. He kept losing his patience, saying “Ma’m I’ve told you before no questions. I will not answer and pl I request you to not ask around so openly.”

Ok, noted, but do not expect me to follow it strictly. I went to the terracotta museum and I fell in love with those statues. Except I felt disgusted with the royal excesses. I mean the emperors wasted taxes and money on such personal luxuries. The army of terracotta statues was made to be buried with First Emperor Qin Shihuang, (the museum is named after this Emperor), which just confirms my belief. Anyway, I remember a huge white gate and i was not wt any group per say, the guide took me around. I made him take my pics near some horse and soldier, which are not to be recognized. But I enjoyed myself thoroughly reading of it and now seeing statues taller than me!

Excavations were on and nobody stopped me, despite police presence and CCTV cameras from grabbing a handful of soil.  Imagine soil which is over hundreds of years old! The guide was aghast and looked away and left my side…haha. He said he will wait out, poor man didn’t want to get into trouble me thinks. After hours of walking, returning to few spots I came out..finally. By then it was bright and sunny and not to my liking. I requested the guide to accompany me to the museum shop and began my trolley of questions. He said he can’t talk on my behalf, we’ll get caught. I forgot to mention, the guide kept looking over his shoulder, just in case there were watchers. Somehow my persistence paid and we approached Yang Peiyan.

As I came to his table I realized all he did was look down at the book, sign, stamp and return it. Many smiled, thanked, but he had a robotic feel to the whole thing. It seemed like he was doing what he had to, may be not enjoying, but I’m sure it paid his monthly bills. I ofcourse couldn’t confirm it directly. All I know is, as the guide said, “This is China, nobody is allowed to talk to foreign press. You will get us all into trouble. Yang will not speak, he is not allowed by the government, he is kept there by the government.” I pleaded and even told him the lady next to him had gone to the loo let’s finish with it.

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With the guide as my interpreter I asked does he enjoy what was he doing and whether he missed farming. (point being he would NEVER have told me he did NOT enjoy sitting there). “I am felicitated by the government and I sit here and fulfil that duty. I am a farmer and my hands miss the feel of the soil. I am of no use here but this I what I have to do.” I asked again about farming and he gave a fantastic answer. “I said my hands miss the feel of the soil. But of what use would I be as a farmer today? It is all modernized in China. They use a tractor and machine, I used my hands.”

I requested for pics, he nodded looking ahead or down. He doesn’t look anywhere else. I couldn’t focus properly, in the dim light I had to quickly take 2 pics. His assistant, or as my guide and I suspected, a government stooge stormed in. She saw me click and asked if I’d taken Yang’s pics, I said no, I was just testing and clicked randomly to show her. (This was manual SLR). Immediately I covered the lens and kept it away. She had seen me talk and began snapping in Mandarin to herself and aloud. We all went about our lives as if nothing had happened.

But this was my story and it was real. The guide was initially upset and then admired my spirit to get out something from Yang. We exchanged our readings and interpretations of what he had said. Guide felt he had deliberately spoken of tractors to console himself and convince may be what this job he’d opted for was worth it, though he had NO choice.

Guide said, when Yang found one or two statutes he was surprised and informed the District officials. Once he informed the district officials, the then Chinese government officials came to check, they needed to excavate Yang’s farms and other adjoining ones. The farmers would not have given up for nothing. This was the more conservative, hard-core Communist government. Nobody could dare them. So he gave up his farms, instead he was given the Lotus, the government’s symbol of felicitation, compensated, given a house and promised monthly income of a book which was written for him. He had sit there at the museum during the working hours, the tourists, mostly foreigners who could afford to buy the book, would get it autographed from him and at the end of the day, he would go home, which was given by the government. So there was no way Yang could do or say anything other than what he had just done.

Later the guide opened up. He appreciated my courage and pondering over Yang’s words he shared his feelings about his government and the rules. I asked him do they question the one-child policy, forced birth control and abortions if couples got more than one child? The guide cried. He said they all live in the interiors, while all the opportunities are in the bi said this metros. His daughter too lived in Shanghai and will get married and go. They wanted one more child and he said the forced birth control made men feel impotent. When I asked him why the Chinese don’t question their government, if birth control was successful why had China crossed 1 billion population? He was disturbed. He said the Chinese looked up to India for her freedom and the choice to do things. He left me with an important question unanswered-“you all have so many choices and freedom to make it, why don’t you all Indians make good of it?”

The guide and Yang had left me with 2 pertinent thoughts..