Looking at the deliberate rise of (left-led) ‘how safe is democracy in India?” debates and posts, I, as a curious student of Political science, decided to read up on major incidents that can be seen as scattered milestones on the horizon of Democracy. And that was when I came across the horrific incident of Tiananmen Square and the massacre that ensued.
This is the portrayal of the will of man! The lengths he will go to for his rights and that of his fellow countrymen and this immense bravery needs proper dissemination and a yearly tribute by believers of democracy across the world!
If we look closely, we see a man, with the nerves of steel standing with his head held high in front of Army tanks while he had shopping bags in his hand. Now obviously, no civilian will go shopping in a war zone which is the place for such heavy-duty tanks. So what were these doing in the middle of city road?
This heart-wrenching image was taken on 5th June 1989 by a certain photographer named Stuart Franklin, 31 years ago and it still sends chills down my spine.
The history of this image is wrapped in the incidents of the Tiananmen Square which is a place in the heart of the capital of China. In 1989, thousands of students gathered here for certain political demands. According to History.com, “The Tiananmen Square protests were student-led demonstrations calling for democracy, free speech and a free press in China”. So one may ask what is so horrific about this, why would a group of students who were staging a demonstration for their political right ever be a horror?
The truth be told, this was not only dreadful and frightening for democracy but for the entire mankind at the same time.
What really happened at Tiananmen Square – The Massacre
Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party leader who was vocal about increasing of political freedom died on 15th April 1989. Three days after his death, the populace rose in unanimous mourning in the form of demonstrations for the demand of political freedom as envisaged by Hu Yaobang- because there could be no better way of paying tribute to him. In just a month, around mid-May, the demonstrators realized that the ruling communist government would not let this dream come true and more than 100 students began a hunger strike at Tiananmen Square on May 13, 1989. These hundred students were later joined by thousands of citizens: all of whom were innocently and non-violently demanding political freedom in the form of demanding democracy.
To a sane, considerate government, this humongous number of people on a hunger strike would be an absolutely radical situation. One man in India sat on an indefinite hunger strike and the government had to come up with the RTI act, but here in the heart of communism, the Chinese government was all set to commit a sin against humanity.
Immediately after the hunger strike began, Premier Li Peng imposed martial law on May 19, 1989, in a fanatic attempt of suppressing the voices that were dying to be heard. Despite all the desperate efforts by the authorities, when the protesters were unmoved, and their resolve was steadfast, the communist government, unleashed their demonic side on the demonstrators when the movement was at its peak on 4th June 1989.
At about 1 AM, the communist government took an outrageous decision of unbridling their armed forces on these 1.2 million people demanding freedom in their own capital. Throughout the day, Chinese troops opened fire on civilians and students, brutally crushing the movement, killing anyone in sight and muting the cries for democracy that were once echoing in that arena. There was violence and bloodshed of unimaginable magnitude, lives were lost and the pro-democracy slogans were soon turned into wailing of men and women alike, pleading for help and mercy. This was done when millions of people had already joined hands with each other over the firm resolve of establishing democracy and political freedom in China only in order to silence the public mandate.
The official statistic was never released by the Chinese government. While by the end of June a vague figure of the death of 200 civilians and ‘several dozen security personnel’ was given out, it is highly unbelievable and drenched in lies. According to BBC, more shockingly in 2017, newly released UK documents revealed that a diplomatic cable from then British Ambassador to China, Sir Alan Donald, had said that 10,000 people had died in this massacre.
This was the most believable yet unofficial and estimated number of people who were killed for demanding a secure political environment.
The tank man in the Tiananmen Square picture
After the unleashing of the army upon the demonstrators, on the next day, an unidentified man stood in front of army tanks in Beijing. This is the man that we started this article with. The Tiananmen protests were immortalized in Western media on 5 June through the image of a lone man in a white shirt carrying shopping bags, facing an imposing column of military tanks sent by the government to disperse protesters. The man is known simply as Tank Man: his identity has never been confirmed.
This hidden hero became the shield for the protesters of Tiananmen Square. His resolve became the barrier that was needed by the demonstrators against the tyranny of their government. He became the symbol of democratic persistence against communal despotism.
The value of democracy
Reading up upon this incident painfully reminded me of how certain irresponsible sections of our society today have begun to take this freedom, this democracy and these rights of granted. How they have shamelessly begun misusing it, how they have completely set out against the nationalist, democratic ideals and have rather tilted towards bigotry and hypocrisy in the name of “freedom of speech”, how their selective sensitivity and propaganda has begun the rotting process of several pillars of this country.
We are one of those few lucky countries who have been able to nurture the sanity that keeps a democratic ideology alive and functional through the corridors of our parliament but today, in the name of opposition, in the name of criticism, in the name of (pseudo) secularism and liberalism this pious ideal is being dented.
This incident brought a boil to my blood and fervour ran through my arteries to know about such heinous and brutal deeds of a country which even today has left no stone unturned in troubling the entire world! We as humans must feel ashamed.
While the world may fail or skip to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the iconic sacrifice that took place at the Tiananmen Square, I pray that the heroes who lost their lives get justice and their legacy lives on. I, as a student and as an Indian also hope that the divisive forces of this country will also, kneel in front of the spirit of democracy, respect it and carry it forward without any propaganda-driven selfishness.
I also at the same time urge to the international watchdogs of human rights and justice to hold the communist government responsible for this mass murder of their own people. This is no joke, this is not a light matter, this is a grave issue and no one knows how many people even today, across the world are going through hell under such brutal, fascist, inconsiderate and sinful regimes; justice must be served to all of them and one must remember, justice delayed is justice denied.
Let us, as a global village begin holding such radical thoughts accountable for the crimes that the commit against humanity.
I might not have been present on this earth on that fateful date, but today, on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre I not only remember, but also bow down to these heroes of ‘political freedom’. I also, count my blessings here to be a part of the world’s largest democracy and my heart cries out for people who are kept away from this boon. May we all one day be free citizens living a life of prosperity and dignity under the guidance of a government that we chose!
(This article has been authored by Anandita Sing, who is a researcher in Center for North East Studies, New Delhi)