Aug 15, 2018

Of Gateways to Heaven and Freedom

I remember watching the news one sultry June evening when I was all of thirteen.The channel kept showing images of a man standing infront of a long row of tanks on a wide road. He was directly in the line of fire and was trying to stop the tanks from advancing. The tanks moved left. So did the man. The tanks moved right, so did the man. This went on for many minutes till he climbed the first tank in the row and started talking to the soldiers inside. 
That unknown man became famous as the “Tank Man. The road he was standing on was at Tiananmen Square, the city Beijing. This visual became an epic image of what would later be known to the world as the Tiananmen Square Rebellion.
To someone like me who has grown up in a liberal democratic environment, Tiananmen Square rebellion epitomized the struggle for democracy and human rights - short lived and ruthlessly squashed but very courageously fought. 
So,when I was in Beijing in the beginning of this year, I grabbed the opportunity to visit Tiananmen Square. 

The entrance to the square is through a gate where you need to queue up for security checks. The day I visited it, a legislative meeting was being held at the Great Hall of people across the road. The security was very tight and the checks stringent even by Chinese standards. Later I found out that it was one of the meetings to discuss removal of presidential term limits effectively clearing way for president Xi to rule for life. 

The queue of Chinese people and tourists like me snaked for kilometres. It took me 2 hours just to get in the Square.I came out through a narrow doorway and was immediately staggered by the sheer size of the square. At 110 acres, Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest paved square. Straight down the square are the Monument to the People's Heroes and then Mao’s mausoleum. Across the wide road is the Great Hall of people (Where the parliament meets) and other government buildings. To the North of Tiananmen square lies the Forbidden City, the imperial palace of the Ming Dynasty. 

Mao built the Tiananmen Square as a magnificent showcase of the strength and grand scale of the communist party. 

I spent my first fifteen minutes in the square looking for some sign, some symbol of the rebellion. But there was nothing. Not even a signboard or a memorial. It’s as if the Movement for Democracy never happened. 

I tried talking about it with my Chinese colleague who had accompanied me but he seemed very very hesitant to talk about it there. 
At a glance Tiananmen (Ironically, it means gateway to heaven) seems like any other square. You could almost imagine flowers blooming there in spring. Children were running around, people strolling hand in hand and tourists clicking pictures of the life size picture of Chairman Mao infront of his mausoleum. But beneath this atmosphere of gaiety there was an uneasy feeling of constantly being watched that kept me on my toes. Policemen were everywhere, surly and silent, with their eyes on everything. ` 

Inspite of the size of the square, there didn’t seem to be any place to sit. You had to keep walking. Numerous fire extinguishers were scattered all over but not just for fire safety, they were there should someone set themselves on fire in protest. On the side of the road were huge lamp posts that I was told have hidden camera on them. 

Back in my hotel room, I tried searching for Tiananmen square on some Chinese search engines and all I could come up with was a few mentions about how it is a big square in china and surrounded by important landmarks. Apparently, all sites talking about the movement have been censored and blocked. The government frowns upon and suppresses all discussions about it online or otherwise. Journalists and activists who write about it do so under great peril. The government has managed to erase all traces of the movement from books, journals, websites and even public memory. 
A whole lot of youth born after the revolution have a distorted and government fed view about it. If at all it’s mentioned in text books, it is portrayed as a counter revolutionary attempt to harm the country. 

It is amazing how history is distorted and minds shackled into believing just what they are taught. 

In many ways China continues to stride ahead like a great giant. Beijing is very modern and sparkling with fantastic infrastructure and a great transport system. It is a safe, beautiful place to live in and it’s commendable how China has managed to control its seemingly unresolvable problems of both population and pollution. But behind this shining façade, there is something sinister and dark and foreboding that seems to suffocate you. 

Then you come back to the chaos and disorderliness that is India. A country with a thousand wrongs but still a Democracy where the people have the right to raise their voice, the freedom to protest against what they feel is unfair. 

For this freedom I am eternally grateful. And it is this freedom that we must always endeavour to protect and fight for, especially in these changing times, because if we lose the freedom of thought and speech, we are nothing but slaves of the people who rule us.


  1. Stellar piece. This needed to be said, and I am glad that you did. The contrasts between China and India were well described. We have to cherish and protect the freedoms and independence that we secured in 1947 and 1950.

    1. Thank you so much Rickie. China is a first world modern country but I would just suffocate and die there. It's like a cage made of gold !

  2. What a brilliant piece, Ruchira! It is indeed true that without the freedom of speech we are but the puppets of our rulers. I hope the governance as we are experiencing today make amends in areas that need mending so that such a fate is not met with our democracy. Happy freedom to you too :D

    1. Thanks so much Kajal. Yes, we must protect this freedom at all costs !

  3. Loved reading about Tianenmen Square and your first - hand experience of it It is astounding some of the things that we take for granted that are denied to do many others. Indeed, let us be grateful for our freedom and the sacrifices that have gone in getting us that. Also be aware of our own responsibilities in upholding it. Happy Independence Day 🇮🇳

    1. Yes, we do have a lot to be grateful for. I just hope to God we are able to retain our freedom of speech and expression and we don't go down the China way.

  4. An apt post on Independence Day. Loved your concluding lines.

  5. Very well said. Your post totally resonates with me.



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