Hollywood star gives hope to Tibetans

Peter Popham sees Richard Gere lend a sympathetic ear at Delhi's Speaker's Corner

RICHARD GERE descended on a dusty, fly-blown wedge of central Delhi on Monday to bestow his blessings on six very hungry Tibetans.

It's a place called Jantar Mantar and it is desperately in need of blessings of every kind. Marooned between the concrete towers of the city offices, a five-star hotel and a park, it is a concentration of Asian miseries and grievances of every description. The six Tibetans, fasting indefinitely in an attempt to goad the United Nations into taking action over their brutalized homeland, are just one fragment of it.

If you made Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park a permanent event and married it with a squatter's camp, you would end up with something like Jantar Mantar. Tents of PVC and sacking moored to railings occupy half the pavement. Office workers pick their way along the portion that remains while naked children play tag and mothers hang washing on lines strung between traffic signs. Six hundred people squat here, Sikh families whose homes were destroyed and lives threatened in the riots of 1984 that followed the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Further along the pavement is the saddest spot in Jantar Mantar: an elderly Tibetan woman called Sonam Dickey sits cross-legged with a portrait of her son, a musician, in her lap, tears coursing down her face. He was imprisoned by the Chinese for espionage, and is serving an 18-year prison term. "A MOTHER'S APPEAL" reads the sign behind her, asking for help to bring his release. "...I would like to meet my son once before my death."

The Tibetans on hunger strike occupy a tent in what used to be the small public park here. The grass is all gone; all that is left is dust, flies and worthy causes, some more hopeless than others. The walls of a shack are decorated with maps illustrating with arrows how the subcontinent should be unified. A long written screed painted on a board urges world government.

These are the gigantists, the men with big ideas. Across the way are four men who have been sitting on a carpet here for 1,309 days demanding the creation of a new state called Uttarkhand out of the north of Uttar Pradesh. This is, in fact, one of the few specific promises in the new government's National Agenda, but after 1,309 days these militants are not taking chances. "We will continue to struggle, we stay here until it happens," one said.

Inside the Tibetans' tent there is an altar with white silk shawls, flowers, slabs of butter and a picture of the Dalai Lama. Until Monday, this tent was just another speck of hopeless hope. But then Richard Gere came, the serious Buddhist who has made India his second home, the walking antithesis of the Hollywood dabbler. In a sharp black suit and gleaming white shirt, the sandalwood talisman round his wrist the only clue to his spiritual leanings, he put his hands together in greeting and the reporters' long wait for him was instantly forgiven.

He bent an ear to all six of the strikers, the youngest, a 25-year-old artist called Karma Sichoe, the oldest, Kunsang, a 70-year-old labourer, the only woman, 68-year-old Palzom, whose family died under the Chinese occupation, one son of starvation. The UN in Delhi confirmed that the strikers' demands - for a new debate on Tibet, for the dispatch of a special envoy there and investigation into human rights violations - had been forwarded to New York. Morale got a tremendous boost. Next day the euphoria was gone. The grim lassitude was back: this was the 15th day of the strike. Two earlier hunger strikes had been called off without result; this time they were determined to go all the way.

Earlier hunger strikes had been called off after the Dalai Lama intervened: Buddhism opposes the taking of all life, including one's own, so a "fast- unto-death" poses a moral problem. This time, however, they have petitioned the Dalai Lama to stay out of it, arguing the cause justified the sacrifice; and if no word comes from the UN, they are determined to go all the way.

Outside the park, meanwhile, in her sad little tent by the railings, Sonam Dickey waited with ever-diminishing optimism for one final meeting with her son.

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