Tibetans, Homeless yet keeping their identity

An Essay by Pinakie Kansabanik, author of ‘Mountains to Manhattan’

The Qinz dynasty was toppled in 1911-12 and 13th Dalai Lama – Tibet’s political and spiritual leader, declared himself ruler of an independent Tibet. Henceforth, the country had its own national flag, currency, stamps, passports and army and maintained diplomatic relations with neighboring countries but had very little contact with the rest of the world. Buddhism was a unifying force among the Tibetans. They had maintained a unique culture, written and spoken language, religion and political system.

In 1950, the newly established Communist government in China invaded Tibet and today Tibet is under China’s occupation. The Chinese invasion in 1950 led to years of turmoil that culminated in the complete overthrow of the Tibetan Government. The 14th Dalai Lama fled to India with some of his officials to Dharamsala, India in 1959. Year later, about 100 thousand of Tibetan men, women and children have found refuge in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Again in 1980 after Tibet was opened to trade and tourism, a second wave of Tibetan exodus took place due to increasing political repression. About 25,000 Tibetans joined in a span of next 10 years. Present ongoing wave is mostly children who are sent to Tibetan cultural schools in India, sometimes with the implicit approval of the Chinese government.

India had been extra ordinarily generous to the Tibetan people by allowing them to enter India in hundred thousand and also allowed them to develop their settlements, schools and medical facilities. India has helped them to the best of her abilities but there does not seem much hope of getting back their country. Hence, the only way to maintain their identity is through their language, religion and culture. Another important fact is that the Tibetans sought for refuge in India was not because they were scared for their lives under Chinese aggression, but they were scared to save their identity. They fled their country only to save their religion, unique culture and identity.

Without cultural identity, there is nothing left for the Tibetans.

In the last fifty-eight years, against considerable odds, this small community in the foreign land has been able to preserve much of its unique 1300 year-old Buddhist culture from Tibet. Even two generations later, though most young Tibetans aged around thirty, have been educated in India and their cultural point of view has naturally been influenced and mingled by the Indian local environment but in early childhood all of them experienced the suffering of their parents or grandparents escape and it has left a very dominating mark on their personalities. They keenly feel the importance of preserving their identity. They all know well why they left and now they all know what they want to save.

Despite the adversities that Tibetans in face in exile, this resilient community has been undergoing a great revolution under the special care and guidance of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. The Tibetan people have managed to accomplish a rebirth and restoration of the Tibetan culture, outside of their country, which is nothing less than outstanding. The great renewal outside of Tibet undoubtedly represents their unshakeable determination to protect Tibetan cultural identity.

It is a widespread belief within the Tibetan community that Chinese development in Tibet has a definite strategy and scheme aimed at disassociating the Tibetan population from its identity, value spectrum, history and other cultural affiliations like language and literature. The imposition of modernity by the Chinese regime represents the various ways in which cultural genocide has occurred in Tibet. Part of this assimilation may be in order to exploit Tibet’s natural resources through industrial mining and large-scale timber operations. In addition to other political movements against the Tibetan people the Chinese government deliberately committed cultural injustices as well. The fundamental value of Tibetan society, such as the Buddhist ideas of developing the heart and purifying the mind, have been taken out of education curriculum in Tibet. With the Mandarin as the predominant language of instruction in education, business, and general communication which is well planned methodology of cultural genocide of the Tibetan culture has also lost the new generation of Tibetan speaking speakers. About 90% of Tibet’s monasteries have been destroyed, and Tibetans are forced to publicly denounce high religious leaders and attend study sessions about Chinese communism.

Under these severe situations in Tibet where 90% of the total Tibetan population resides, it is not be possible for them to up-keep the culture and tradition of the community or the race. Hence, the entire responsibility lies with the refugee community in India, Nepal, Bhutan and the diasporas living in Europe or North America. Infact, many Tibetans in India and in other countries have taken up the citizenship of the country but they have not given up their religion and culture. Most of them are still living within the Tibetan colonies and they maintain their religion, language, culture and identity as strictly and religiously as they can with some infusion of the modern day life and with the local environment. They have proved that the question of identity remains with traditional culture and religion and not with citizenship.

Though the CTA in support with the Indian government and with international aids is successfully preserved and maintained their identity in a foreign land but life is not easy for the Tibetans in India. Because India is not a party to the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Protocol, it need not abide by the treaty obligations set forth in these instruments. Moreover, India has no national refugee law, and no regional agreement on the matter exists. Thus, treating all the Tibetans as foreigners.

The majority of Tibetans in India are officially registered with the Indian government and possess registration certificates (RCs). Tibetans born in India receive RCs when they are 16 years old. Tibetans in India caught without documentation – are vulnerable to arrest, detention, fines and deportation. As per Section 3(1)(a) of the Citizenship Act, all Tibetans born in India between January 26, 1950 and July 1, 1987 are Indian citizens by birth. However, because the policy of the Government of India is to deny citizenship to Tibetans despite the Citizenship Act, qualifying Tibetans are unable to obtain documents proving their citizenship, and thus de facto remain as foreigners registered in India.

Tibetans in India cannot own property, travel freely in India or outside India, have government jobs, or qualify for resident rates at many colleges and universities. In most of the colleges the Tibetan pays the higher fees as a foreigner. In some states, Tibetans also cannot obtain driving licenses, operate large businesses, or could open telephone booth when it was a lucrative business. The unemployment rate for Tibetans is high and increasing because the Tibetan students return to their settlements after pursuing degrees they cannot apply for any public sector jobs. Even those with valid RCs are not eligible because they are not Indian citizens. They cannot also avail loans from banks , making it impossible to be an entrepreneur.

Tibetans’ freedom of speech and assembly is severely curtailed, when Chinese dignitaries are visiting. Several large Tibetan communities have received wholesale eviction notices, despite the fact that they have lived on the land for decades. Hence, they are left with seasonal sweater selling and agriculture as the two most common sources of livelihood within the settlements, with sweater selling being predominant in the north and agriculture in the south.

For International travel the Tibetans have to acquire travel documents known as Identity Certificated (ICs), with posing RCs is eligibility. ICs resemble Indian passports, although the cover is yellow rather than the passport’s dark blue but not all countries accept the IC as valid travel documentation. Moreover for a Tibetan to gain re-entry into India, the IC must be stamped with a “No Objection to Return to India” or NORI stamp and the NORI stamp must be obtained before departure, the Ministry of External Affairs and the state government’s Department of Home Affairs must issue clearances.

Other than the technical problems that the Tibetans face, they also face the growing rage of anti-Tibetan sentiment in India, mostly around their settlements. The local Indians think that they have taken away their opportunities of a better livelihood and treat them as a foreigner. They are often teased to go back to Tibet. Tibetans have also at times suffered as a result of racist attacks in India.

So, what it means to be away from home, living as a refugee or a foreigner for generations and trying to keep their identity. It is not easy but the most unique aspect of the Tibetan system is that they did indeed combine the political and the religious, even providing for political succession by the Buddhist method of reincarnation. Though H H the 14th Dalai Lama gave up his political power in 2011 and the present political power rests with the Tibetan Cabinet in exile. Besides racial and linguistic differences, it is the uniqueness of the political and cultural system developed by the Tibetans which is the basis of their claim of independence from China. The Dalai Lama was followed in his flight by a huge group of 2,500 monks. They worked to re-establish monastic training in exile and the traditional curriculum has been restored in an abbreviated form and the degrees are granted each year. Every small step that could have been benefited to the community to retain their identity has been taken successfully.

To a greater extent the Tibetans had successfully preserved and maintained their identity in a foreign land. The Tibetan settlement gives the feel and the flavour of being into a total new world. A world where the language is preserved, nurtured and taught to the future generation. The dress code is maintained, the food habit still remains the same. The new generation has come up with wonderful soulful music in their language bypassing the ever powerful hindi film music. What is surprising to see that in India, a land of great diversity of culture and language is losing the binding of its own language and culture and gradually moving towards a cosmopolitan culture. Whereas, the Tibetans are much more traditional and successful in holding their identity through their culture, language and religion in a foreign land. The present generation (3rd generation in exile) is cosmopolitan in nature and yet traditional to core of their culture. The CTA has very successfully embedded among the Tibetans the essence of being a Tibetan. As long as they maintain it, the race called Tibetan will live on earth, irrespective of getting back their country or not. No country on earth may not recognise Tibet as a country but none can ignore Tibetans as a race, as a culture. None can ignore their language or religious practices.

BUY THE BOOK – Mountains to Manhattan