Furor over Olympic Torch Hits India

Heavy security surrounds the Olympic Torch procession in New Delhi as demonstrators opposed to China's stance on Tibet stage a parallel march.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Now to India. Today, it was that country's turn to host the Olympic torch. In India, there are more Tibetan exiles than in any other country in the world. So it's hardly surprising that the Indian government was braced for trouble. New Delhi City Center was closed and protesters, as well as almost everyone else, were kept at bay. As a result, the torch's travels were much calmer than in San Francisco, London, or Paris.

Still, as our correspondent Philip Reeves discovered, it was a remarkable day.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHANTING)

PHILIP REEVES: The day begins with a prayer, and then a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SINGING)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day.

REEVES: A group of Tibetan Buddhist monks along with a handful of leaders from different faiths gathers at the cremation site of Mahatma Gandhi, the champion of nonviolent resistance.

A flame burns day and night beside Gandhi's memorial. These people have come to pray before the start of the nonviolent march, a march about the arrival in New Delhi of another eternal flame - the Olympic torch. They set off through the hot streets. Soon there were hundreds of them, angry young Tibetans brandishing brightly colored Tibetan flags.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

REEVES: It isn't long before the marchers were in their (unintelligible). Police on horseback clatter alongside.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

REEVES: A few policemen carried blankets. These are to dowse the flames in case any protesters try to immolate themselves. This event's built as an alternative torch run, but Tibetans have their own torch.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

REEVES: This receives an ecstatic welcome from other protesters (unintelligible) of the march's end. But you'll only have to look at the surrounding posters to realize that the festive mood is misleading. Pictures on the walls showed close-ups of blood-drenched corpses purportedly victims of China's recent crackdown in Tibet.

The official torch run is far less lively. The Indian government, eager not to disrupt the fragile but improving relationship with China, has locked down the center of New Delhi in one of the biggest security operations the capital has seen.

Some 70 sportsmen and celebrities, including Bollywood stars, carried the torch from the presidential palace to the India Gate monument. Jogging alongside them in tracksuits are Chinese and Indian security forces. There's a small invited audience, but the public is being kept away.

In the end, the Tibetans didn't mount any really headline-catching demonstrations, but they did certainly make an impact.

REEVES: This roundabout is normally one of the busiest in the city. It's crammed with traffic, it's noisy, it's polluted, and yet right now, it is completely silent.

Occasionally, the silence is broken.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SCREAMING)

REEVES: A handful of protesters break through the security cordon. They're swiftly bundled into police vans, but not before achieving their goal. The goal of all of the many Tibetans, in fact, who came to New Delhi today, which is to get their message across.

Unidentified Woman: Free Tibet. Free Tibet.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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