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Tocsin On Mount Exile

There is ferment within the Tibetan community in India as it seeks more out of its adopted land

Tocsin On Mount Exile
Narendra Bisht
Tocsin On Mount Exile

Seeds of Disenchantment

  • New arrivals from Tibet speak only Tibetan, tend to be aggressive and violent
  • Tibetan affluence, thanks to donations from the West, causes resentment among locals
  • With Dharamsala becoming a tourism hub, Indian businesses compete with Tibetan ones
  • Tibetans claim credit for Dharamsala’s development; Indians say this is their land
  • New arrivals allege that Indians charge exorbitant rents


It has been over 50 years since a band of Tibetans, led by the Dalai Lama, fled China and made India their home. From selling woollens on the pavements as impoverished destitutes to attracting the epithet of “the world’s richest refugees”, the now one-lakh-strong Tibetan community in India has come a long way. And yet, while watching the Dalai Lama felicitate Himachali politicians at a ‘thank you’ function organised in May by the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE) to mark its 50 years in India, one of its seniormost MPs, Dawa Tsering, was pained to see “the Dalai Lama bowing like a supplicant in front of mere chief ministers”. Later, he told Outlook revealingly, “Everyone must understand that just because we’re here as refugees, you cannot take advantage of us.”

Tsering’s remark all but sums up the ire and ferment within the Tibetan community in India today as it battles new prejudices, chafes at what it perceives as “second-class” refugee status and ruffles host communities in unexpected ways. In a development unimaginable even a decade ago, a large number of Tibetans now want Indian citizenship in a quest for greater legitimacy; and some seek a bigger political role for the community in India. Meanwhile, a new kind of low-intensity conflict between Tibetans and locals is evident in and around Dharamsala, home not only to the TGIE, but also to several grand new monasteries, Tibetan institutions, schools and hundreds of Tibetan tenants living in villages around the town of McLeod Ganj.

Situated in the foothills of the majestic Dhauladhar, this hill station has, in the last 50 years, grown from a sleepy, innocuous town to a bustling tourist destination. The draw: the Dalai Lama, the exotica of Tibetan Buddhism, the promise of spiritual nirvana for the footloose foreigner, and gorgeous weather to boot. Add to that the Tibetans’ formidable success in selling their cause to the West, which brings hundreds of western volunteers, donors, sponsors and celebrities here every year.

“New arrivals think everything here is government land, as in China. We suffer them as we need the money.”

And that is where the problem lies. Most Tibetans here feel that since they are the reason why Dharamsala has developed into a tourism destination—tourism picked up here in the 1990s after the Dalai Lama won the Nobel for peace—they have rights over businesses here. They also feel that the local Himachalis should be grateful to them for putting the place on the map. Tsering Phuntsok, the Tibetan settlement officer tasked with keeping harmony in Tibetan settlements, says, “We have frequent problems with the taxi union here. They should realise that most of their business comes because of our presence, and the least they can do is not clutter up the roads and make life difficult for us.”

It is the kind of sentiment that makes local Himachalis see red. It does not help either, that the average Tibetan in Dharamsala, flush with foreign aid, is today well dressed, and has plenty of money to spend. As Onkar Nehria, president, Hotels Association of Dharamsala, puts it, “When the Tibetans came here 50 years ago, they were humble and hard-working and used to work in my family’s stone quarries. Today, when foreign tourists come to Dharamsala, Tibetans tell them to stay away from Indian hotels and taxis. They’ve become self-sufficient on foreign aid and do not need us any more.”

Pointing to his scars (the result of a clash between cabbies and some monks two years ago), taxi driver Kartar Singh complains, “The first thing they do after we clash is to boycott our taxis and autos. Some weeks ago, we found pamphlets being distributed to foreigners warning them against taking Indian taxis.” And in a statement that encapsulates local resentment, he fumes: “To think that they have acquired all this on our land and are now trying to browbeat us.”

Rent rage Jagdish Singh and his wife let out rooms to Tibetans

The unease is equally apparent in the surrounding villages, where hundreds of Tibetans, many fresh from Tibet, live in rented accommodation. Violent clashes here are common, mainly because the conservative Himachalis do not like what they term the “loose morals” and “noisy behaviour” of the new migrants. For their part, the migrants complain about the exorbitant rents charged by the locals. Like most of his neighbours, Jagdish, a former armyman who lives in Dasandli village, makes several thousands a month by letting out most rooms in his house to Tibetan tenants. A couple of years ago, he was badly injured when newly-arrived Tibetan youth attacked him after they were stopped from using his neighbour’s toilet. “The new arrivals are weird,” he says. “Most have weapons like knives or scissors. They can’t communicate with us and think everything here is government property, like in a communist country. We need the money, so we tolerate them.”

In recent years, most of the Tibetans who came here in the 1960s have either died or migrated to the West. Their places have been filled by primarily Tibetan-speaking youth, newly escaped from China and accepted as refugees by the Indian government. Acknowledging that the behaviour of these new arrivals is a problem, the TGIE tries to deal with it at a Tibetan Transit School (TTS) on the outskirts of Dharamsala. Bhuntuk Shastri, the director of the sprawling TTS, built entirely with contributions from the European Union, says, “We keep them here for five years and give them basic education. We do not teach them Hindi, because the ultimate aim is that they should go back to Tibet and educate our people there. Unfortunately, only 10 per cent of them return. The rest assimilate into various settlements or migrate to the West.”

Acclimatisation drive Newly-arrived Tibetans at the Tibetan Transit School on the outskirts of Dharamsala

Another source of conflict is that many more Indian businesses have sprung up to share McLeod Ganj’s tourism pie. Prem Sagar, secretary of the Indo-Tibetan Friendship Association, an umbrella organisation of Tibetan and Indian bodies, says, “In the initial years, Tibetans dominated business in McLeod Ganj. But with the tourism boom of the 1990s, that changed.” Of the 300-odd shops in McLeod Ganj, he says, two-thirds now belong to Indians; the curio business is passing from Tibetan to Kashmiri control, and most hotel owners are now Indians. After a particularly violent clash in 2007, in which a mob of Indians beat up scores of Tibetans in McLeod Ganj, a Centre for Conflict Resolution, set up by the Tibetan community in 2001, began actively working with the Indian community in Dharamsala to minimise conflicts. Sonam Wangchuk, a trainer at the centre, says, “Our aim is to limit any incident to the individuals concerned and prevent it from acquiring community overtones.”

As the differences have grown, there has been an escalation of demand from within the Tibetan community for Indian citizenship. Many have begun to see India as a permanent home, and feel that if their “second-class” refugee status were to be replaced by full-fledged citizenship, they would not be targeted as much. Dawa Tsering, one of the most vocal supporters of this demand, says, “Many more Tibetans, including many MPs, feel that full citizenship will enable us to participate politically and stand for elections.” He candidly adds, “Even if Tibet were to become free tomorrow, I am not sure if all of us here in Dharamsala would want to go back. Many would stay back.”

TGIE does not endorse blanket Indian citizenship for Tibetans, for the unstated reason that it would undermine the cause of a free Tibet, but many Tibetans have taken it on their own; many are also citizens of the Western countries they now live in. Faced with this situation, TGIE has set up a committee to examine the possibility of a “dual citizenship” of sorts for those who have taken Indian or other passports—that is, they can still be Tibetan “citizens-in-exile”.

Not everyone wants to be an Indian citizen. A section of the Tibetan intelligentsia, led by MP Dolma Gyari, believes that refugee status provides Tibetans with a win-win situation. “While many Indians are dying of malnutrition and hunger, our Tibetan community is very well-looked-after, thanks to substantial foreign aid. Once we become Indian citizens, we will lose much of that aid, and will have to fend for ourselves,” says she. Clearly, as it enters middle age, the Tibetan community in exile is facing both new external challenges and an existentialist crisis from within.

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