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Revisiting the "Tenzingang Incident" after the Delhi Rape/Murder Case

posted Jan 17, 2013, 5:07 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Jan 21, 2013, 2:03 PM ]
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review 

The topic of gender violence has been in the news recently, unfortunately, following the horrific rape suffered by a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi.  The woman, who has not been identified, died on December 29, 2012, as a result of injuries she suffered during her attack two weeks earlier.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been the subject of considerable criticism for his handling of this case, in part for its delay in speaking out on this case, and in part for India’s general failure to address gender violence.

In fact, India has been rated the worst country in which to be a woman in the entire G20, even worse than Saudi Arabia.  It did not help that the son of India’s president insulted rape protesters as merely wanting TV publicity for themselves.   Nor did it help that Delhi's police chief outrageously claimed that men in the Indian capital are no safer than women because they suffer pickpocketing, while other police officers outrageously blamed rape victims for turning the crime into an issue by complaining.

Out of this tragedy, comes perhaps one bright spot: this crime set off a series of demonstrations that suggest that public acceptance of such gender violence might have reached a turning point in India.  Prime Minister Singh pledged, “it is up to us all to ensure that her death will not have been in vain”.   Indian voices are taking a long, hard look at the problem of gender violence in Indian society in a way that has not been done before.

Revisiting the “Tenzingang Incident”

Every act of gender violence is deplorable in its own way, and the Delhi rape/murder should not be compared with other crimes.  It stands alone.

What can be compared, however, is the response to the problem of gender violence.   Looking at the responses of the Indian government and people, we cannot help but recall the Tibetan response to the June 2011 case of gender violence in the Tibetan refugee settlement in Tenzingang, in the far eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

The details of the Tenzingang case are described in a well-researched report by the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA).  To summarize the TWA report, which used pseudonyms, a woman named Choenyi had apparently been having an affair with a man named Ngawang, with whom she had had a 4 year-old daughter that she was raising.  Ngawang’s wife, Kunsang, was enraged to discover the affair and took six members of her extended family (three men and three women) to Choenyi’s house. 

As described by TWA, Kunsang’s group stripped Choenyi naked, dragged her outside, and beat her over her entire body. One of the perpetrators tried to cut off Choenyi’s nose with a pair of scissors.  The perpetrators also tried to permanently stain her face with black ink.  Choenyi was bed-ridden for two weeks afterwards.

It is difficult to think of another word besides “torture” when describing a vicious beating and attempted disfigurement.

The Official Response

According to the TWA report, on August 10, 2011, (two days after the new prime minister Lobsang Sangay took office) the TWA president visited the deputy secretary of the Department of Home and was informed that the Department of Home of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (TGiE) had ordered the the Settlement Officer in Tenzingang to convene a meeting with community leaders.  The meeting resulted in the following punishments:

The key perpetrator, Kunsang, was ordered to to pay Rs. 30,000 to a local monastery to appease local deities upset with the incident.  Her husband, Ngawang, was ordered to contribute another Rs. 20,000.  Kunsang’s brother, who also participated in the torture of Choenyi, was ordered to give the monastery Rs 5,000 and suspended from his post on the local Tibetan Assembly.

And the victim of the violence?  For her adultery, Choenyi was ordered to apologize and prostrate before an altar with His Holiness’s photograph.  Ngawang’s adultery was not addressed, nor were the needs of Ngawang’s and Choenyi’s 4 year-old daughter, being raised by Choenyi.

With that, the TGiE leadership apparently considered the case closed.  In January 2012, the Sikyong visited Arunachal Pradesh and met with 30 local community leaders from the area, including Tenzingang.   There was no reported discussion of the Tenzingang event, which was a missed opportunity for the Executive Branch leadership to publicly respond to this case.

It must be noted that the Department of Home did not apparently provide any guidelines to its Settlement Office when it ordered the office to resolve the Tenzingang case, or conduct any oversight over the office’s decision after the fact.  This is disappointing because it suggests either the Executive Branch’s abdication of responsibility, or its consent to the outcome.

We are happy to note that, in contrast, the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile acted decisively.  In September 2011, the Parliament unanimously passed a resolution tabled by two Parliament members and former TWA officers, Dolkar Lhamo Kirti and Dhardon Sharling.  This resolution unambiguously condemned all violence against women.   The Parliament’s resolution also requested the Executive Branch “to ensure the effective enforcement of the host country’s laws and acts on dealing with any forms of violence against women”, and to issue new guidelines to the settlement officers aimed at protecting women’s rights and submit it to Parliament, with a deadline of March 2012.

Unfortunately, almost a year after the deadline, the exile administration’s Executive Branch has not yet acted on the Parliamentary resolution.  This is disappointing.  To continue to ignore the Parliament’s unanimous resolution might send a message that promoting gender equality, and fighting gender violence, are not true priorities for the Executive Branch leadership.

On the plus side, the administration has continued with pre-existing “women’s empowerment and gender empowerment” programs in the settlements.  This program, headed by a specially-appointed woman officer is the Women’s Desk, under the Social and Resource Development Fund (SARD) of the Department of Finance and provides training programs about once a year.   There has additionally been an unfulfilled promise by the Executive Branch leadership to set up special coordinators in each Tibetan settlement region (zone) to promote women’s rights and gender equality. We look forward to seeing this promised initiative implemented.

The Promise of Pho-Mo Dranyam (Gender Equality)

During the 2011 election campaign, the current Sikyong campaigned on a platform that promised “Pho-Mo Dranyam” or gender equality.

To date, the most visible manifestation in the current administration of this admirable principle has been the appointment of two women to the Cabinet.  By comparison, the current Sikyong’s immediate predecessor had one woman in his Cabinet (Kalsang Y. Takla), and the 10th Kashag from 1993-1996 also included a Cabinet with two women (Rinchen Khando Choegyal and Jetsun Pema).* 

From the perspective of the invocation of Pho-Mo Dranyam, the Tenzingang decision is seriously flawed.  Whatever one thinks of the proper response to adultery, it is manifestly unfair that the TGIE directive treated the man and the woman unequally.  Choenyi was made to apologize and do prostrations, whereas Ngawang was not.

The Tenzingang decision also displayed a deeply problematic attitude toward the scourge of gender violence.  Regardless of the adultery, nothing should excuse the torture of an individual.  The best way to combat gender violence in this case would have been to turn the offenders over to Indian legal authorities.  And if the TGiE had the power to order donations to a monastery, what about also demanding civil penalties to compensate the victim?   Or to provide for the victim’s innocent 4-year-old daughter?

In late 2011, Dechen Tsering, the former head of the Tibetan Association of Northern California, urged the Sikyong and his Home Minister “to issue a strong statement condemning the incident, to ensure that the perpetrators of the Tenzingang incident are barred from immigrating to Canada under the 1000 Tibetans Resettlement Project and to spearhead development of specific policies and programs toward the elimination of gender-based violence in our community.   Only then,” she wrote, “can we achieve a compassionate manifestation of Phomo-Da-Nyam”

Unfortunately, the TGiE’s Tenzingang decision instead sent the following messages:
  1. A woman who commits adultery must apologize, but not a man
  2. Gender violence is a problem because it upsets the deities, not because it hurts or demeans the victims
  3. Violence against women will not be punished except through forced donations to a monastery
  4. Children who are innocent victims of gender violence do not need to have their best interests considered
This message is not consistent with the promise of gender equality in our society.

Revisiting the Tibetan Response, Toward Real Pho-Mo Dranyam (Gender Equality)

Is there a better way?  Is there a way to revisit the Tenzingang case to promote real Pho-Mo Dranyam?

Let us first take a look at the TGiE’s Women’s Empowerment Policy as outlined by the previous Kashag on October 14, 2008.  As a policy, it is both flawed and toothless.  The policy denies gender discrimination, in the history of the Tibetan nation, no less, and includes, among its 8 points, that “priority shall be given to female candidates for the posts of pre-primary teachers” and that girls’ sports in primary school should be given the same attention as boys’ sports.

According to a memorandum sent by B. Tsering of the TWA to the exile Tibetan leadership on September 2, 2012 (which TPR was recently given and has been authorized to report) the Women’s Empowerment Policy is a “good first step” in that it “recognizes the value of women and prioritizes gender issues.”  However, its “policy prescriptions rely on gender stereotypes, and it does not provide sufficient guidance for implementing women’s empowerment initiatives.” 

We hope that the Kashag will put out a new Women’s Empowerment Policy, updated for the 21st century.

In the meantime, it is heartening to see that TWA has taken the lead to fill the leadership gap on this issue.  TWA is working with a Finnish NGO called KIOS to implement a EUR 20,000 grant for a program on “Legal Empowerment of Tibetan Women - 2013.”

If the TGiE Executive Branch leadership wants to demonstrate its commitment to women’s rights and gender equality, it will need to follow through on action it has promised and that Parliament has mandated.   Just as an example, as a next step the TGiE administration could study the U.S. Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.  This commission was founded by President Kennedy in 1961 with the goal of advising the U.S. administration on issues concerning the status of women.

The commission grew out of a promise Kennedy made to Eleanor Roosevelt in exchange for her support during his candidacy.  Some argue it was actually set up as a political compromise between the women’s rights lobby and the organized labor lobby.

The point here is that the U.S. commission could have been a political tactic as much as any expression of Kennedy’s deeply-held respect toward women’s rights.   However it grew into something valuable.  The commission issued several important reports, which resulted in important legislation including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as well as an important executive order banning gender discrimination in employment.

In the Tibetan context, it might be a natural step for a new “Tibetan Commission on the Status of Women” to be set up.   It could be given a budget, a list of questions to look into, and a deadline.  The Kashag could commit to publicly responding to any recommendations made, to ensure that the commission’s work does not get ignored.

For example, one of the first concrete tasks the proposed Tibetan Commission on the Status of Women could be preparing a draft directive on women’s rights, to allow the Executive Branch to belatedly respond to the Parliament’s September 2011 request.

B. Tsering’s September 2, 2012 memorandum to the TGiE, mentioned above, earlier and independently developed a very similar idea of a “Women’s Commission” housed administratively in the Department of Home, but acting as an independent body similar to the Election Commission.  B. Tsering’s memorandum has developed an excellent, concrete proposal that should provide a guide to the Tibetan Parliament in setting up such a body.   Whatever this commission is ultimately called does not matter.   The fact is that someone with B. Tsering’s deep expertise in the Tibetan situation in India has proposed such a commission, and a similar suggestion grew out of the example of the United States, suggests that this idea transcends political systems and should be seriously considered by the TGiE.


Gender violence is deplorable.  Unfortunately, in the Tibetan context, the Tenzingang case is a reminder that much work needs to be done, including in encouraging our leaders to act in a positive and decisive way on this issue.   Fortunately, the Tibetan Parliament has spoken out unambiguously in favor of gender equality.   TWA is also taking the lead on advancing this issue in Tibetan civil society.  

It is now up to the Tibetan people to call upon their elected leadership to ensure that, for the Tibetan administration, as well as for the whole Tibetan society, promoting Pho-Mo Dranyam (gender equality) becomes a reality.

* Sentence revised on Jan. 18, 2013.

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