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Eye on China, India safeguards Olympic torch

15,000 security personnel shielded the Olympic torch on its truncated tour in New Delhi Thursday. Thousands of pro-Tibet protesters were kept from the route.

By Mian RidgeCorrespondent / April 18, 2008

Tough security: Tibetan protesters in New Delhi organized a rally Thursday with an alternate torch, which police tried to wrestle away.

Saurabh Das

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New Delhi

Amid vise-tight security, runners carried the Olympic flame Thursday through the near silent, closed-down center of New Delhi.

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This leg of the global torch relay – which returned to Asia Wednesday after tumultuous runs in the West, followed by smooth tours in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East – was especially sensitive. India, home to the world's largest community of exiled Tibetans, has had to balance its democratic tradition of protest and its desire to please its powerful neighbor, a concern that weighs more heavily on the flame's host countries the nearer they are to China.

Fears that Tibetan protesters would disrupt the relay meant it was effectively invisible to the Indian public, who were kept away by a series of security blockades and the closure of surrounding roads.

Indeed, the only people present to cheer the torch were a few hundred obedient schoolchildren, bused in wearing the red T-shirts of an Olympic sponsor, Coca-Cola.

They were heavily outnumbered by police: 15,000 police and military personnel were deployed around the capital on Thursday.

Even the route was truncated. In the days before the event, as fears for the safety of the torch grew, officials from the Indian Olympics Association (IOA) snipped the planned route by one-third.

So instead of running five miles from Old Delhi to India Gate, torchbearers made a speedy run along Rajpath, a broad avenue that runs from India's presidential palace to India Gate.

New Delhi was potentially the most volatile destination for the Olympic torch because it is home to more than 100,000 exiled Tibetans, who fled to India after China crushed an uprising there in 1959.

In recent days, Tibetans from all over the country have gathered in New Delhi, where they have held a series of protests against the games – an attempt to generate anger over a Chinese security crackdown in their homeland that began last month.

Improving ties with China

Though would-be onlookers expressed dismay at the tight control surrounding Delhi's torch relay, it did not come as much of a surprise.

India has had to tread a delicate line as it tries to uphold two beliefs: in its strong democratic tradition – of which the right to protest is considered an integral part – and in the importance of diplomatic ties with its giant neighbor China. The two countries are attempting to resolve a border dispute that triggered a war between them in 1965.

India has given sanctuary to floods of Tibetan refugees, among them the Dalai Lama. But on a policy level, it holds that Tibet belongs to China.

Uday Bhaskar, a leading security analyst in New Delhi, says Thursday's combination of public protests and tight security enabled India to uphold both beliefs at once.