|PEMA LEYDA SHANGDERPA|
Gangtok, March 31: Bhaichung Bhutia has got the Tibetan cause on the score-sheet, becoming the first Indian to drop out of the Olympic torch relay.
The national football captain took the decision on his own, unasked by Tibetan protesters, who had requested actor Aamir Khan to withdraw from the April 17 relay in New Delhi. Aamir has not replied.
“I sympathise with the Tibetans and their cause. I have sent a letter to the IOA (Indian Olympic Association) refusing to carry the torch,” Bhaichung told The Telegraph today.
Association president Suresh Kalmadi had faxed a letter to the Mohun Bagan skipper about three weeks ago, inviting him to participate in the relay. Red-faced IOA officials refused comment this evening.
“I have learned from someone that Bhutia has turned down our invitation,” association secretary-general Randhir Singh said. “Since we haven’t received any letter from him, I would not like to comment on it.”
Bhaichung’s home state, Sikkim, has a large population of Tibetan exiles. Last week, Tibetan youths from the Northeast had marched to Rangpo on the Sikkim-Bengal border, looking to enter Tibet through Nathu-la, before being dissuaded by the Dalai Lama.
Tibetan youth bodies opposing the Games, who had sent the appeal to Aamir, were surprised and overjoyed at Bhaichung’s decision.
“We welcome it. It will encourage others like (veteran athlete) P.T. Usha and Aamir Khan,” Tibetan Youth Congress president Tsewang Rigzin said.
“It’s a good surprise,” said Tenzin Thoedon, campaign co-ordinator, Students for a Free Tibet India. “Bhaichung is an icon for young Indians. I am proud that he declined the offer for the sake of Tibetans.”
The Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile, which supports the Games being held in Beijing, reacted cautiously.
“If Bhaichung Bhutia took this decision for the plight of Tibetans in China, human rights in particular, the Central Tibetan Administration welcomes it. But if the decision is (against) the Olympic Games, we have nothing to say,” said Thubten Samphel, spokesperson for the government-in-exile.
The India leg of the 130-day, 31-nation relay will start from the Red Fort and end at India Gate wrapped in a blanket of security.
Beijing had recently threatened to cancel the Delhi event after Tibetan protesters scaled its embassy walls, drawing Indian assurances of watertight security on April 17. Some 10,000 police are expected to line the torch route; the Chinese embassy has already been ringed with barbed wire coils.
A meeting of officials from the Union home ministry, Delhi government, police, intelligence agencies and the IOA today decided to raise the security for the relay to the level of Republic Day and Independence Day, sources said.
Police commissioner Y.S. Dadwal was told that he should, if necessary, hem the city’s Tibetans in north Delhi’s monastery area where most of them live.
The tone of the meeting, followed by Bhaichung’s decision, sent IOA officials into their shell.
Secretary-general Randhir wouldn’t even say which other sports personalities the association had invited. He passed the question to association director A.S.V. Prasad, who was even more cautious.
“The invitations are being handled by different agencies. While IOA sent some invitation letters, some sports promotional bodies are also involved. A clear picture will emerge only after a few days,” he said.
Sources said the invitees included Usha and Olympic medallists Leander Paes and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore.
With inputs from Jaydeep Basu and Bhavna Vij-Arora in New Delhi and Manjeet Sehgal Warrier in Shimla