Witness: Reporting on the Dalai Lama's escape to India

Fri Feb 27, 2009 1:49pm EST

1 of 3. The Dalai Lama hands a chrysanthemum to Peter and Adrienne Jackson's first daughter, Paddy, when he visited Delhi in 1956.

Credit: Reuters/Peter Jackson

-- Adrienne Farrell spent the war in the naval section at Bletchley Park, where the German Enigma code was broken. She joined Reuters in 1945 and became a foreign correspondent in Switzerland, Italy and India. Peter Jackson was an officer in the Royal Navy and joined Reuters as foreign correspondent in Pakistan, India and Italy. They met when Peter scooped the first interviews with Hillary and Tenzing after their successful ascent of Everest in 1953. After marriage they worked together in India. In 1959, Jackson and Farrell scooped other media outlets with their exclusive reports about the Dalai Lama's escape from Tibet in a dust-storm and his arrival in India. Peter became interested in India's wildlife and left Reuters in 1970 to work for conservation of the world's wild cats, particularly the tiger. --

By Peter Jackson

LONDON (Reuters) - As Reuters correspondents in Delhi, my wife, Adrienne Farrell, and I met the Dalai Lama in November 1956, when he visited India for the celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of the Buddha.

At a reception we introduced our four-month-old daughter, Paddy, to him, and she gave him a chrysanthemum. He signed a photograph of the meeting for us.

"We were amused then by the sophistication of the Tibetans with the Dalai Lama ... When we referred to the Dalai Lama as 'His Holiness', they replied: 'Oh, you mean the DL'."

In 1980, I visited the Potala, his famous palace overlooking Lhasa. The palace was empty but in a courtyard there were many Tibetans. I showed them the photo and they were overcome. Some bent and kissed it, with tears in their eyes.

The Chinese had already moved into Tibet in 1951, claiming it as Chinese. Tibetans were opposed to the Chinese from the beginning of the occupation. By 1958 the Khampa people of eastern Tibet and neighbors in Amdo, known as Qinghai in Chinese, had launched an insurgency, which spread to the capital, Lhasa.

In the following year, armed rebels roamed the streets of Lhasa as the city prepared for a religious celebration in March that the Dalai Lama was scheduled to attend. But a Chinese official demanded that the Dalai Lama instead attend a theatrical performance in a Chinese camp, alone.

Fearing that the Chinese would seize the Dalai Lama, crowds of Tibetans, some armed, surrounded the Norbulingka Palace, where the Dalai Lama was staying. He decided to escape to India.

On 17 March 1959, he dressed as a Tibetan layman, and slung a rifle over his shoulder. With a dust storm providing cover, he walked out, unrecognized, from the palace.

The Dalai Lama and his officials, who had also escaped from the palace, rode out of the city on horses to join his family for the trek to India.

Two days later, the Chinese discovered he had escaped. They closed the borders with India and Bhutan and sent troops to catch him. None of that was known to the outside world.

The world had heard only a few rumors of troubles in Tibet, but the Indian government was being informed by its diplomats in Lhasa.

On March 18, an Indian journalist, Shri Krishna, who had contacts with senior members of the Indian government, called us urgently to his house. He told us that there had been riots in Lhasa and that the Dalai Lama had escaped and was heading for the Indian frontier. We broke the news in a Reuters report.

THE SCOOP

After nearly two weeks trekking, the Dalai Lama and his party reached the Indian frontier.

On the evening of March 31, a report from Hong Kong said the Chinese were saying that the Dalai Lama had crossed into India. There was no way of knowing if this was true.

Adrienne and I felt sure he was heading for the Tawang Monastery in the north-west corner of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Khampa rebels had escaped there in the past.

I phoned the Foreign Secretary, but he would not confirm or deny the report. However, we knew that leaders of the ruling Congress Party were at an emergency meeting, and were likely to be discussing political asylum for the Dalai Lama.

As it happened, Adrienne and I had been to Gangtok, capital of Sikkim, on the border with Tibet, the previous year. We had lunch with the Chogyal (King) and his sister, Princess Kukula, who was married to the high level Phuenkhang family of Tibet. We knew the princess was now in Delhi.

Adrienne called her in her hotel room and asked if the report of the Dalai Lama's arrival in India was true.

She said: "We know he is safe, but we don't know where he is." Adrienne said we would get more news during the night and would telephone her." She replied: "Please don't. I am very tired. I am going to bed."

That clinched it. We knew that after days and weeks of anxiety she would never have relaxed unless she knew that the Dalai Lama was safely in India.

At around 11 p.m. we flashed a report to Reuters that the Dalai Lama had crossed into India and would receive political asylum.

No other agencies had the news, nor had the Indian press. In parliament the next day, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced that the Dalai Lama had arrived in India and would be granted political asylum.

Excited members asked why Reuters had the news, but the Indian press had not been told. Nehru smiled and said the Reuters report had been "an intelligent guess".

The Dalai Lama had been greeted by Indian troops, who led him to the Tawang Monastery where he rested until he undertook the week-long trek from 3,300 meters (10,800 feet) down to the town of Tezpur on the north bank of the Brahmaputra River, in Assam.

As President of the Foreign Correspondents' Association, I hired an Indian Airways plane and flew with fellow correspondents to Tezpur. When we heard that the Dalai Lama was nearing the plains, we hurried to the foot of the Himalayas.

He came down the trail on foot and burst into a big smile and raised his hands in the air on seeing our little group.

In due course, the Dalai Lama settled in Dharamsala.

At several press conferences, I had eye contact with the Dalai Lama.

Six years later I visited him; he eyed me and said: "I know you". He clearly had a good memory for faces.

(Editing by Megan Goldin)