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Born in exile

By Rashme Sehgal

There are around 300,000 Tibetan refugees in India, some of whom came in the initial exodus of 1959, and many second- and third-generation Tibetans born in India. Refugee status allows Tibetans to live, be employed and travel across India and abroad. But they are still between countries, denied citizenship and the right to vote or own property in India, and dreaming of a homeland many have never seen

On my face there is always a smile, but in my heart there have been tears for 50 years
-- Elderly Tibetan woman

In McLeodganj, Dharamshala, the Tibetan refugees keep streaming in. Men, women, children and babies with little more than the clothes on their backs stand outside the office of the reception centre of the Tibetan government-in-exile to get their names registered. This is the first step in an elaborate process that will grant them refugee status and allow them to live in India.

The refugees are exhausted and bewildered. Many suffer from frostbite; their hands and feet are swaddled in white bandages. They have fled political, religious and economic repression in Tibet. Many have spent two-three months walking from Mount Kailash to Kathmandu and then on to Dharamshala and Delhi. The journey is fraught with danger as they are chased by Chinese soldiers every step of the way.

After a thorough medical check-up, those between the ages of 18 and 20 are sent to a transit centre near Dharamshala to be given two years of basic education and training. Young children are sent to one of the 87 schools that the Ministry of Human Resources and Development runs for the Tibetan children. There are similar schools in Bhutan and Nepal.

Almost 300,000 Tibetans have arrived in India since the initial exodus on March 31, 1959, when the Dalai Lama crossed over shortly after Tibet was annexed by China. At that time, 85,000 Tibetans followed their spiritual leader into India. The second exodus began in the early-'80s when Tibet was opened up to trade and tourism. Between 1986 and 1996, 25,000 Tibetans arrived in India, making this the largest refugee population in the world.

I ask a young boy standing outside the reception centre why he chose to escape from Tibet. "It was too suffocating. I could not breathe. There are more Chinese in Tibet than there are Tibetans. We are treated as non-citizens in our own country." Then his face lit up. "Also, I wanted to meet the Dalai Lama," he said.

Every refugee who crosses over to India is given a brief audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Almost half of them are monks and nuns who are then sent to the 200 monasteries and nunneries that have been opened close to the Tibetan settlements in order to revive religious education and tradition. In contrast, most monasteries have been destroyed in China.

Many of the boys who are participating in a round-the-clock hunger strike outside one of the main Buddhist temples in McLeodganj are recent refugees who have crossed over in the last few years. One of them, 17-year-old Amdo Ngapa, from Shanglong village in the eastern part of Tibet, says: "It was impossible to live under Chinese rule. We are deprived of basic human rights including a modern education. We cannot keep a picture of the Dalai Lama in our homes. We cannot form associations or express any kind of opinion. Over 1.2 million Tibetans have died under Chinese rule."

Another young teenager, Gyantso, who crossed over in 2005 from Shigatse, says: "My main reason for coming here was because I wanted to learn Tibetan culture and history. In Tibet we are forced to study in Chinese and have to compete against the Chinese. How do we stand a chance especially since the entire system is skewed in their favour?"

Do these boys find a resemblance between Lhasa and Dharamshala, especially since the latter city goes by the name of 'Little Tibet'? Gyantso smiles and says: "There is more Tibet here than there is in our own country. Many of the names of shops here are written in Tibetan. The Chinese are building skyscrapers with glass and concrete which are completely unsuitable for our climate."

In the north of Delhi, there's another Little Tibet that is home to around 6,000 Tibetans. It's referred to variously as 'Tibet Camp', 'Samye-Ling' (after a famous monastery), 'Majni ka Tila' and 'Chang town'. Chang town because many Tibetans living here brewed chang, or rice beer, to make a living. The Dalai Lama, determined to discourage the practice, has since told the local Tibetan community that he is willing to give the chang brewers money so they can switch to an alternative trade.

A few of the Tibetans living here were recently served eviction notices by the PWD. The government is being forced to demolish their homes in order to widen the road flowing along the colony. Agitated Tibetans have appealed against the move. "Since I heard the news I have not been able to sleep," says 58-year-old Achoo, counting prayer beads as she sits on the steps of her three-storeyed house in the heart of Delhi's Little Tibet.

Achoo says she came to New Delhi when she was eight years old. Like her parents, she worked as a labourer on roads and rail tracks across India, scrimping and saving to build herself a house. It took her 20 long years. After a few years, she added two more floors. "With great difficulty I built it. If I lose it now I won't be able to build it again in 100 years," she says, recalling a promise made by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, decades ago. "Nehru himself told us: 'Till you get freedom you can live here'," says Achoo.

The hunger strike in McLeodganj, being undertaken by 40 young men and women round the clock, is just one of the weapons being used by the Tibetan community to highlight their plight as refugees. It is also a way to place their demand for independence before the international community.

Life in exile has not been easy for Tibet's refugees. For a majority of the older generation, who came in with the Dalai Lama, it meant having to work long hours at construction sites. Sitting in his McLeodganj office, in the shadow of the striking white-capped Dhauladhar mountain range, Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, recalls those difficult days when his parents fled Tibet as part of the Dalai Lama's entourage.

"My parents came with nothing. They had to start life from scratch. Even though I was born in exile, I want to return to my country. We are asking for what is ours; we are not asking for something that does not belong to us. Independence is the only solution, since we cannot live under China. It is a struggle of a nation and its people. We realise it will take time and we will continue to struggle until we go back. History and truth are on our side -- let that never be forgotten," says Rigzin in an impassioned plea for his country.

Rigzin is one of the few Tibetans to have got American citizenship. But, he says, he chose to return to India because he wanted to work for his community.

Petite Yangzou who works as organisational secretary for the Tibetan Youth Congress is a third-generation Tibetan born and brought up in India. "My grandparents struggled. My own life has been much easier," she says expressing satisfaction at the education she has received in India. "I lived in a Tibetan hostel located at Ponta Sahib. We were taught by Tibetan teachers and a great deal of our education focused on our culture, history and religion. It was only when I joined Shyama Prasad Mukherjee college in New Delhi in 2004 that I was confronted with the whole issue of my Tibetan identity. Everyone in my class thought I was from the northeast. To dispel the notion, I had to tell them about my country and what it stood for," says Yangzou.

Third-generation Tibetans continue to shoulder a deep sense of responsibility towards their country. Yangzou adds: "I live in India but I have to make sacrifices in order to help my country win its freedom."

Many of the younger lot already feel they are half-Indian. Sonam Dorjee, who started his career as a journalist working for Asian News International (ANI) feels many in his age-group prefer to converse only in English and love to watch Hindi movies and television serials. "We are half-Indian. We have Indian friends, we discuss cricket all the time. We romanticise and dream about our country, but for us India is the here and now. Sadly, Tibet has changed drastically. The essence of Tibet has been suppressed. Every day we receive more dreadful news about how dissidents are being dragged out of monasteries and shot, and subjected to the most inhuman forms of torture," Dorjee says.

Local Indians living in Dharamshala and around other Tibetan communities do not share this view; they find the Tibetans insular. One local taxi driver says: "They treat us local Indians like dirt and look up to Westerners because they receive so much aid from them. They may have come in as starving victims of violence five decades ago, but today most are economically much better off than us."

A local Himachali shopkeeper agrees. "Their leader, the Dalai Lama, works selflessly for his community. Their children receive a free education. In fact, each child gets a sponsorship from several foreigners at the same time. Who is there to help us?"

Charges of unfair business practices are also levelled against the Tibetan community. And though many Indian shopkeepers do not elaborate on why they mistrust their Tibetan counterparts, there is little doubt that they regard them with suspicion.

Younger Tibetans, however, are keen to join mainstream India; it allows them the opportunity to push for better-paid jobs and other facilities. Some have even opted to become Indian citizens. "Today, over 500 Tibetans are employed in corporate companies and in BPOs. I am not saying all these people have opted for Indian citizenship, but the trend is on the rise," says Dorjee.

But most Tibetans remain Tibetan citizens. There are three sets of laws that deal with foreigners in India: the Registration of Foreigners Act 1939, the Foreigners Act 1946, and the Foreigners Order 1948. Under Section 2 of the Registration of Foreigners Act, the term 'foreigner' is defined as "a person who is not a citizen of India," referring to aliens of any kind including immigrants, refugees and tourists. Most Tibetans are concerned only with the former law, which grants them refugee status.

RC status, as it is popularly referred to, has to be renewed every year. Tibetan refugees were granted Indian residency (or resident status) for purposes of identification, employment and domestic travel. It also allows them to travel abroad for educational purposes and medical treatment. But they are not allowed the right to vote or to buy land, although hundreds of Tibetans are known to have bought land in benami transactions.

Tibetan populations are scattered across Nepal and Bhutan too. In 1959, several Tibetans crossed over to Bhutan which has a total population of just 7 lakh. Frightened of a huge influx, the country closed its northern borders for fear of being swamped.

New refugees are no longer welcome. India, which already has a large number of Bangladeshi, Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees to deal with, is not very keen on Tibetan refugees continuing to cross over and seeking asylum in the country. In fact, the Dalai Lama himself encourages Tibetans to return to Tibet and continue their struggle there. But most Tibetans, once they reach India or Nepal, are unwilling to go back unless they have pressing personal reasons to do so. As they use the Olympic torch relay to highlight the continued Chinese oppression, they strongly believe that victory will ultimately be theirs.

They quote the Dalai Lama to keep their morale up: "Never give up. Work for peace in your heart and in the world."

Tenzin Dharden Sharling, who works as a researcher for the Tibetan Women's Association in McLeodganj, says: "The Chinese leadership is showing increasing nervousness in handling our issue. This is because they cannot handle our non-violent struggle. They forget that we have history on our side. We have justice on our side and, ultimately, we will prevail. The problem can be resolved only through dialogue, something they are simply not willing to do."

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008