Amid vise-tight security, runners carried the Olympic flame Thursday through the near silent, closed-down center of New Delhi.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.
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.
"Many Indians support the Free Tibet movement and join in the protests," he says. "The government of India is trying to say, 'There are things we have to do as a state.' And it accepts that citizens can protest within the law; indeed, protesting is an extremely important part of Indian political culture."
The Tibet issue and its centrality to Indo-Sino relations would not die with the Olympics, he says.
Tibet's proximity to India and China would "play into the countries' territorial relationship for a long time to come," says Mr. Bhaskar. "That's why a stable relationship between the two is needed."
Protesters invoke Gandhi
On Wednesday, the eve of the relay, an activist group, the Tibetan Youth Congress, made its second attempt to storm the Chinese Embassy in central New Delhi. About 100 youths ran toward the main gate of the embassy, some in tears, yelling "Free Tibet" and "stop the killing."
Indian police swiftly broke up the protest, arresting several dozen. On Thursday, police say they arrested dozens more protesters through the day.
But the biggest protest passed off peacefully. More than 2,000 people – mostly Tibetans, but also Indians and Westerners – marched from Raj Ghat, where Mahatma Gandhi's ashes are buried, to Jantar Mantar, a hub for political protests. Some carried pictures of Gandhi, an icon of peaceful demonstration; others, the Dalai Lama.
"I'm here because the Chinese occupation of Tibet is wrong," says Sidarth Gandhi, a student from a local high school carrying a "Free Tibet" poster.
At all times, the protesters were accompanied by a phalanx of police armed with batons and guns.
But finding the right balance between securing a safe passage and allowing dissent has not been easy.
Organizers of Delhi's torch relay have been embarrassed by the withdrawal of several public figures from the event. On the eve of the relay, cricket player Sachin Tendulkar – India's biggest sports star – pulled out of the relay. Though he cited an injury for his decision, many understood his withdrawal to signal disapproval of China's security crackdown in Tibet. Last month, Baichung Bhutia, India's national soccer captain, pulled out of the relay for that very reason.
Bollywood star Soha Ali Khan also backed out, citing "very strong personal reasons." And Kiran Bedi, India's first and most famous female police officer, said she would boycott the event because of the "suffocating security" surrounding it.
Last week, the Tibetan government in exile said it did not support efforts to disrupt the Olympics. "The Tibet government and many people of Tibet are not trying to stop the torch," Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile told reporters in New Delhi. "The Dalai Lama is supporting the Olympics."