Tibetans in India - A New Generation in Exile
Dorje was only four years old in 1962 when the Chinese army advanced across the Tibetan frontier into India. In what is now known as the "Assam Incident," the Chinese began shelling the tiny Himalayan town of Bomdila. Dorje's older sister picked him up at school and held his hand tightly as the two of them raced for home. Artillery boomed in the nearby hills and the main street was full of the roar of Indian army trucks filled with soldiers. Dorje was only four but it was already the second time in his life that he and his family experienced the terror and helplessness of becoming refugees.
Only three years before, his family had been forced to flee their farm in central Tibet. With almost 100,000 others, they joined in a mass exodus from the country in March and April of 1959 as Tibetan resistance to Chinese Communist rule broke out in fighting. Many died on the trek through the snow-filled passes of the Himalaya. Thousands more were to die in India - of heat, of disease, of the shock of losing a whole way of life - before international assistance could be organized.
In the last twenty-five years, Tibetans-in-exile have been largely ignored by the world press but have remained a thorn in China's side. Against considerable odds, this small community has been able to preserve much of its unique 1300 year-old Buddhist culture from Tibet. It has also served as a focus for a lively Tibetan nationalism and its members as spokespeople for those inside the country. Exiles have repeatedly called international attention to abuses and misgovernment by China, until the Chinese themselves acknowledged those abuses at the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Even a generation later, young Tibetans who have grown up in exile have retained their sense of urgent mission. According to Mrs. Pema Gyalpo, younger sister of the Dalai Lama, Most young Tibetans here, aged twenty to thirty, have been educated in India and their cultural point of view has naturally been influenced by this environment. But in early childhood all of them experienced the suffering of the escape; it has left a very dominating mark on their personalities. They feel keenly the importance of preserving our identity, why we left and what we wanted to save.
In the mid-sixties, on the hot plains of central India, Dorje and his family were moved from one refugee camp to another - Old Delhi, Manipat, Orissa. He remembers standing in long lines for government supplied rice and lentils. He remembers an Indian soldier who gave him his first sweater, brilliant red; and the tears of his mother as she held the body of his baby brother, dead from smallpox only a few weeks after his birth. He remembers the anxious confusion when his family was chosen to go with those who had to leave the overcrowded camp at Manipat. They were to board the train to Orissa, a government agent told them.
In the unpopulated forests of Orissa, the hardworking Tibetans again cleared the land and put up buildings. Dorje attended his first regular school, but his first formal education in his own culture began at Musoorie Tibetan School, one of four residential high schools founded by the Dalai Lama. He also got a diploma in Commerce at Musoorie and followed it with a year at college in London. Now, at the age of 27, Dorje works for the Council for Tibetan Education, high in the old British hill station of McCleod Ganj where the Tibetan government-in-exile has its seat. "Other people worked hard so that I could go to school," he says. "It is time to give something back."
The CTE, working under the Indian government system, now oversees the education of some 17,000 young Tibetan refugee children in 53 settlement day schools. It is the only formal education in their own culture that most Tibetans receive. The Indian syllabus teaches Tibetan language, religion, and culture for only one hour per day.
"Tibetans-in-exile have been very lucky," notes Mr. Ngawang Tsultrim, CTE Deputy Secretary. "India has allowed us to live together in communities." His assistant, Ngodup Tsering, agreed.
Chandigarh University was the first experience I had in a school where most of my classmates were non-Tibetan. Very often I felt alone and self-conscious. There is a tension in the need to maintain an identity in India. We are like a drop in the ocean here, and we feel we have a special identity that needs to be maintained.
One of the principal hurdles for the exiles in maintaining that identity has been language. With English as the language of instruction in the schools, and literate Hindi a necessity for daily life, relatively few Tibetans take the time as well to master the intricate grammar and spelling of Tibetan. Said Mr. Tsultrim, In language our children are "jacks of all trades." For ordinary conversation they manage adequately in all three languages, but there is no language that they speak or write perfectly.
Tsepak Rigzin, a 28-year-old translator for the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, commented, More and more, I notice that Tibetans my own age prefer to read our history and literature in English translation. They are more comfortable with it. Yet having read both, I can say that the flavor is lost.
All over Asia, religious ways of life are facing keen competition from the West. The Tibetan communities have not been entirely exempt. Children and adults flock eagerly when Bruce Lee or Charles Bronson movies are projected against outdoor walls. Polyester shirts and Newsweek are sold in outdoor stalls and BBC plays nightly on home radios. Western tourists, hippies, and religious seekers pass through the small Tibetan enclaves in a constant stream, adding to the mixture.
Yet in spite of all this, Tibetan refugees feel that their religion is that aspect of their culture which has remained most intact. According to Tsepak Rigzin, only 10 percent of the young people accept ordination, compared to 20 percent in old Tibet. This still translates into thousands of young monks and nuns being trained to carry on the monastic tradition that was a central feature of Tibetan life. In special schools along the Himalaya and in the full-scale Buddhist universities of Sera, Ganden and Drepung now reestablished in south India, they follow an intense course of study and work and practice. Some 800 fully educated religious "lamas" escaped Tibet in 1959 to form the nucleus of these new schools. Many of these teachers have actually been able to reverse the tide of cultural assimilation, traveling regularly to Europe, America, and Australia to teach Westerners interested in Buddhism.
All of the Tibetans interviewed, both monks and lay men and women, talked of the importance of religion in their lives. To questions on how Western-oriented education has affected the children in her Tibetan Children's Village, Mrs. Pema Gyalp replied, If a person has received an education that develops an inquiring mind, on his own he will begin to ask himself about his roots. Sometimes in the long run, that person will become even more involved in his culture, contribute more, than someone saying rote prayers every day without even knowing what they are.
"In fact," claims Dorje Wangyal, I believe many of my generation are better oriented to the real meaning of religion than their elders. We may or may not carry a rosary, but we have accepted the central meaning of religion taught by His Holiness, to be kind to all beings.
Pasang, a 24-year-old school teacher in Dharamsala, exemplifies this integration of Buddhism into daily life that characterizes most young Tibetans-in-exile.
I was brought out of Tibet when I was only four years old, in 1965. My parents had already died, but my uncle led us out. In Dharamsala, I found it very lonely at first. My sister and I were attending a local school while our adult relatives worked on road crews in the mountains. But then, when I was six, I was selected with my sister and forty other girls to go to a residential school in Simla. I loved learning by then, I was so happy.
It was a Catholic school with nuns for teachers and one Tibetan man on the staff. He worried that we would become Christians, but none of us did. We studied Indian politics and history, English, social and natural sciences and math, but my faith in Buddhism was not changed by this. Twice a day, without guidance, we girls recited the Buddhist practices that a monk in Dharamsala had shown us.
Pasang went on to high school in Dehra Dun and spent three years in Indian universities. She has had wide exposure to Western values and ideas, yet she remains quietly confident of her own. Like most Tibetan women, she continues to wear the long traditional chuba with the striped apron of a married woman. She sets out offering bowls each morning before an image of the Buddha. She worries compassionately over insects burned against her porch light (which must be left on to light the community watertap). Pasang is also a member of the Tibetan Youth Congress, stoically determined that one day she and the other exiles will return to a free Tibet.
Like the Palestinians, young Tibetans-in-exile have lost none of their sense of urgency about a return to their homeland. "Being a refugee," says Tsepak Rigzin bluntly, "is halfway to being an animal."
"We have no place at all that is truly ours," says Nogdup Tsering. "It is a miserable feeling, always uneasy. And you can see how your fellow Tibetans suffer in the same way. It is very widespread."
Unlike the Palestinians, however, after the failure of a brief guerrilla campaign in 1962, Tibetans generally have kept their 25-year struggle non-violent, following the admonitions of the Dalai Lama. The main function of the 10,000-strong Tibetan Youth Congress, according to 29-year-old Jampel Choesang, its current Secretary General, is to keep the issue of Tibet alive in the Indian Congress and, where possible, in the world press. The India-based Congress encourages public demonstrations in cities all over the world on the March 10th anniversary of the 1959 Lhasa uprising. They also protest continuing incidents within Tibet, most recently the arrests and public executions of 35 dissidents in October 1983.
According to Mr. Choesang, almost all young Tibetans, both inside and outside Tibet, remain loyal to the Dalai Lama and would like to see the Chinese leave their country. The Tibetan Youth Congress maintains contact with two underground groups inside Tibet: the Tiger Dragon and the Three Provinces Youth Organizations. "Inside Tibet," he asserts, "they are even more patriotic than we are outside. By night, at great personal risk, they put up wall posters critical of the Chinese. And they encourage the people in passive resistance to Chinese occupation." During the 1982 Non-aligned Nations Conference in New Delhi, the two youth organizations combined to smuggle out a petition, signed in blood, urging international support for the continuing struggle for Tibetan independence. According to Mr. Choesang, "These underground groups are not reluctant for armed struggle, but they are strongly affected by the attitude of the Dalai Lama, and he is a disciple of Gandhi." In the two years since the Chinese put up a large reward for the arrest of leaders, he added, no one has come forward to speak against them.
Many recent observers have reported seeing evidence of this resurgent nationalism among young Tibetans inside the country, including members of official delegations sent by the Dalai Lama specifically to observe internal conditions. Repeatedly, the delegations found themselves surrounded by crowds of enthusiastic Tibetans on their public outings. According to Mrs. Gyalpo who led the 3rd Delegation in 1980, "Every night in Lhasa when we returned to our rooms, a steady stream of visitors would slip in to talk with us, pouring out stories of such grief that we were all in tears. The Tibetans in Tibet," she added, "are still very religious perhaps because the Chinese have suppressed it. The human spirit is such that you can never stop it by oppression. And nowadays, with this little lenience, they are all out to find out about religion, asking their families about it and feeling very patriotic."
"This little lenience" refers to the changes that have come to Tibet since the death of Mao Tse Tung and the establishment of a more moderate regime in Peking. Since 1979 an era of tentative liberalization has dawned. For the first time since 1959, Tibetans on both sides of the border can cross to visit relatives or go on pilgrimage. Thousands have come out to attend religious festivals in India, many learning for the first time about the attempts of those in exile to preserve the old religion and culture.
"Sonam" (not his real name) was one of these. A young man now in his early twenties, he was groomed as a specially educated and trusted cadre of the Communist regime in Tibet. "Even my parents did not speak openly to me," he remembers. "Tibet is managed thoroughly by the Chinese in every village and town. My parents would not have dared to say anything positive about religion or against the Chinese. But they did encourage me to study Tibetan."
Perhaps because of his special status, Sonam heard nothing about the Dalai Lama, he says, until 1979.
At that time I had finished secondary school in China and I received a posting to teach in a town near our border with Nepal. I was astonished to hear what people were saying to each other when I passed through Lhasa, their discontent, their interest in the old religion. Later at the border, some people who had been to India told me about meeting the Dalai Lama and how wonderful he was. I decided I wanted to meet His Holiness. And I wanted to learn more of the Tibetan language. It took me three attempts to make my escape before I succeeded.
Sonam now has a small job with the Tibetan government-in-exile and is adjusting to a radically different way of life. His eventual meeting with the Dalai Lama, he says, was not a disappointment.
Last fall one of my teachers of the Chinese language came here to visit, a man with no respect for religion at all, a thorough Communist. But after one meeting with His Holiness he changed completely. He was very shaken. His Holiness is not like the Chinese leaders. He really answers your questions - even before you ask. I think many young Tibetans like my friend would change if they could meet such lamas.
Those young people who escape nowadays, says Mr. Tsultrim of the Council for Tibetan Education, are hungry for education. "And they are even more interested in religion than those raised outside. They have observed how, against such great risks, their elders secretly preserved religion while the Communists suppressed it." Fifty have taken ordination in the new monasteries in India.
It is interesting to speculate what would happen if the 100,000 relatively westernized Tibetans-in-exile returned to Tibet. The question is a big one for China, since their repeated efforts to woo back the Dalai Lama to help energize their reluctant colony have at least won a tentative agreement from him to return for a visit in 1985.
Political values and ideals have changed dramatically among Tibetans both inside and outside the country in the last 25 years. Interestingly, at least according to those interviewed, they have been moving in very similar directions:
Pasang, devout Buddhist, mother, and teacher - "If Tibet were liberated, I would like to see a democratic government with equal chance to work at any job according to capacity. His Holiness the Dalai Lama should continue as the head of it, but I think whatever good points Communism may have could be incorporated."
Sonam, ex-cadre - "I definitely think Tibet should be a democratic country. The aristocratic system could not survive now. Those in Tibet would be 100 percent against it. Still I see nothing bad with reestablishing the old festivals and the monasteries. Also I think that the institution of the Dalai Lama is important to maintain Tibetan independence of the Chinese." Jampel Choesang, Secretary-General of the Tibetan Youth Congress - "The ideal Tibet must be a free society, something like India, with freedom of religion, a parliamentary unitary government, and a general franchise. The government should be basically secular, and there should be wide access to education. It must be more democratic than before. The people must hold the ball, and the government serve the people."
Mr. Ngawang Tsultrim of the CTE and a member of the old aristocracy, put it even more succinctly, "If we go back now, though much has been preserved, it will be a new Tibet. Shangri-la is finished and gone."
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.