“If New Delhi is pulling the strings of the Tibetan exiles' political act of flag-hoisting, it will only have burned itself," China’s state-run Global Times reacted in an editorial on July 9 after the Narendra Modi government reportedly allowed the Tibetan government in exile — on the eve of the Dalai Lama's 82nd birthday — to perform rituals on the shores of Ladakh's Pangong Lake along the disputed boundary with China.
China also warned India to refrain from playing the “Dalai Lama card”. This came amid the ongoing border row between the two nations in the Sikkim sector. Whether India plays the Dalai Lama card or not, the latest standoff has once again shifted a little focus on the struggle of the thousands of Tibetan refugees in India who have been demanding free-Tibet for more than six decades now.
Since 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled occupied Tibet to escape the Chinese regime, Tibetan refugees have been pouring into India. More than 100,000 Tibetans live in 39 formal settlements and dozens of informal communities across India. While the numbers have waxed and waned over the years the tide has never stemmed. The Indian government has funded schools to provide free education for Tibetans, and reserved seats in medical and engineering colleges.
A majority of the Tibetans living in India have been born and brought up within the country.
In a ruling last year, the Delhi High Court said nationality of Tibetans, born in India between 1950 and 1987, cannot be questioned under the Citizenship Act, and directed the government to issue passports to all Tibetans who meet the criteria of being Indian citizens by birth.
But the important question is does this generation have ties to their homeland as strong as those of their parents and grandparents? Do they share the same fierce hope that one-day, soon, Tibet will be liberated and the entire exiled community can go home?
Kunga Gyaltse, 43, a second generation Tibetan refugee living with his family in Majnu ka Tila, a housing colony for Tibetans set up by the Indian government in north Delhi, is adamant that Tibetans in India have retained the purity of their culture. “Our ties with Tibet are just as strong,” he says.
The colony is only a heartbeat away from the main road, but it seems like a wholly different world. A Buddhist temple and giant prayer wheel hem in the main square. Groups of Tibetans sit around the square sipping cups of tea while Buddhist monks in chougu robes are immersed in the counting of prayer beads. Tibetan culture seems alive and vibrant in the heart of old Delhi.
Kunga places great value on housing colonies for refugees and the system of education controlled by the Tibetan government in exile. He believes that these have allowed Tibetans to flourish as a separate community with a distinct culture.
“We teach our kids that it’s their duty to love Tibet. Their education is in Tibetan. If we’d mixed in with the Indian community we’d have lost our culture. But we stayed apart,” he adds.
And what about the prospects of a Free-Tibet? Kunga and his friend, Dickyi, 48, are optimistic. “It will definitely be free in our lifetime,” Dickyi says.
“The Dalai Lama is the reason our culture persists,” adds Dickyi’s friend Dolma, 45. All the Tibetans, varying in ages, are unanimous in their belief in the Dalai Lama and his central role in the freedom struggle.
However, Jigme, 25, who lives in Dharamsala and works for the Tibetan government in exile, says a fully free-Tibet is unlikely to be realised any time soon.
“I vouch for the middle path, I think that’s far more practical,” he says.
This refers to a policy that advocates for Tibetan autonomy within the framework of Chinese rule. Jigme acknowledges that this is not something the older generation is likely to support.
“My grandmother is purely Tibetan, she never adapted to Indian ways. She will only go back to a fully free Tibet,” he adds.
Jigme is also in favour of Tibetans applying for Indian citizenship, an issue that has divided the Tibetan community in India in recent times. Citizenship provides security and permanence. It eases problems that refugees face with college admissions, where their foreign status leads to exorbitant fees. It makes it easier to apply for jobs in the public sector. Yet many Tibetans shun Indian citizenship.
In 2015, the Election Commission, in a move aimed to ease the citizenship process for Tibetan refugees, allowed them to register for voter identity cards for the Delhi assembly elections. Many prominent activists and Tibetan leaders spoke out against the same. They argued that this move would dilute the cause for Tibetan freedom.
Many younger Tibetans feel differently. Twenty-eight-year-old Tenzing wants the law governing citizenship to be expanded to include younger Tibetans.
“I would like to apply for citizenship, it would help a lot,” she says ruefully.
Angphurvasherpa, 57, a monk, disagrees. He sees applying for Indian citizenship as a selfish act.
“In India, they give you documents to travel without having citizenship, so what is the need for it?” he says.
According to him, the younger generation doesn’t understand the kind of hardships people in Tibet are facing.
“They don’t value their own nation, they only care about themselves, they only value their own lives,” he says.
The relationship of Tibetan refugees to their homeland has changed over time.
Honey Oberoi Vahali, the author of Lives in Exile: Exploring the Inner World of Tibetan Refugees, describes how younger refugees view Tibet in a wholly different way from their ancestors.
“Younger Tibetans have begun to feel that carrying the homeland forward is more symbolic than literal,” she says. “Since they’ve never seen Tibet it is viewed as part of an imagined past, inherited from their parents and grandparents.”
Tenzing Sonam, 58, a writer, film director and essayist who is a long-standing advocate for Tibetan rights seems to agree.
“Today's youngsters are several generations removed from a direct connection with Tibet. So, although their sense of being Tibetan is still strong, their idea of Tibet is almost mythical,” he say
He argues that Tibet has changed so drastically over the last 60 years that most exiled Tibetans would find it hard to adjust to life over there.
Those who have come more recently from Tibet, see vast differences between Tibetans in India and those in Tibet. Lkhyi, 22, is one such refugee. She fled Tibet for India when she was 12. She observes that refugees born and brought up in India have adopted the local culture and customs to a far greater degree than they realise.
“They are very different”, she says. “In terms of education, religion, the way they think everything. Even their taste in food is completely different.” She adds with a smile.
For younger Tibetans, born and brought up in India, balancing their Indian identity with their Tibetan roots is a challenge. Moreover, India doesn’t always welcome them with open arms. The alienation that Tibetans still face within the nation, a place they see as home, often pushes younger refugees to join organisations such as the Students For Free Tibet (SFT), a global network of students and activists that work for the freedom of Tibet.
Tenzin Tselha, SFT’s India branch director, recalls one such experience that prompted her to join the organisation.
“I had a lot of difficulties during my college admissions. People thought I was a foreigner, but I’ve been born and brought up in India, that’s when it really hit me,” she says. Tselha, 22, wanted to learn more about her culture and do something for her people so she moved to Dharamsala and joined the SFT.
While some young Tibetans still echo the hopes and passions of their parents and grandparents, others are more focused on the present and creating a life of opportunity, than in the struggle to free Tibet.
Thomas Kauffmann, author of The Agendas of Tibetan Refugees: Survival Strategies of a Government-in-Exile, argues that one of the main problems that Tibetans in India are facing is the dismantlement of settlements.
“Many youngsters are indeed leaving the settlements because they don't find jobs there and/or because they are attracted by other opportunities in cities or in other countries. There is nowadays a second migration from India to the West for the Tibetans.”
“Many young Tibetans are moving to places like the US,” says Angphurvasherpa.
He contends that since these countries don’t settle Tibetans into colonies, inevitably such relocation dilutes Tibetan culture. “But what can one do,” he says with a sad simile.
Today, as the fourth and fifth generations of Tibetans are born within India, the differences among the community seem large. There are competing ideas regarding the best path to freedom, clashes over accepting Indian citizenship and discontent over the migration of youngsters.
Despite this, until now the community has managed to preserve their culture. They have battled with yet stayed true to their identity.