One of the interesting features of the contemporary world , would be the –lure of Buddhism in its ‘modern avatar’. In Post Independent India, Buddhism was appropriated as a symbol of defiance against the caste system, courtesy Ambedkar. Thereafter, Buddhism has played a significant role in the construction of ‘Tibetan nationalism’ following Tibet’s annexation by China in the 1950s. Over the years, one can sense a strong connection between the popularity of Tibetan Buddhism, and the support for the political aspirations of a ‘Free Tibet’. The ideal place to study this phenomenon would arguably be – Mcledoganj, a quaint little town in the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh.
The defining moment for Mcledoganj came about , when the Indian govt granted refuge to The Dalai Lama in 1959. What was until that point a sleepy little town, began bustling with thousands of Tibetans . The diaspora brought with it a slice of Tibet , and its history. Noticeably, the atmosphere in Mcledoganj is charged with an air of defiance against the might of the Chinese state. There are frequent candle marches with cries of protest echoing in the air. Every nook and corner in the main town square has been emblazoned with grafittis and slogans – calling for and end to Tibet’s oppression.
The moment a visitor steps into the main square of the town, it becomes evident that the place is over-run by back packers (mostly Israelis), and tourists predominantly from Western Europe, and North America. With the surge of militancy in Kashmir, many local Kashmiri men landed up in Mcloedganj, in pursuit of livelihood . The topography and climate of the area, coupled with its unique demographic composition has made it culturally vibrant. To understand the place better, I started off by striking up conversations with tourists, and the local Tibetans. A young American woman mentioned that she had first visited the place in order to volunteer, and subsequently fell in love with a Tibetan boy, who in turn introduced her to a whole new culture, and evoked empathy for a people whose idea of an ‘Independent Tibet’ increasingly seemed like a mirage.
Tibetans are perceived as the most enterprising refugee community in the world. To begin with, their aspirations were nurtured by American support, in keeping with the Western World’s agenda of containing China. An important testimony of foreign support is borne out by the wide network of sponsorships, which have been facilitated by the contributions of foreign donors. I interacted with a number of young students at the Tibetan Children’s village – a prominent school in Dharamshala, which is spread over a sprawling verdant campus. It was set up in order to facilitate the education of Tibetan children in exile. Over the years, TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village) has set up branches in other parts of the country . A good number of students at the institute have individual sponsors, who normally contribute a certain sum of money for a child’s upkeep and education. The whole process of sponsorship could run for several years, till the child comes of age. I met a bunch of high school students who mentioned that, while they had not met their respective sponsors in person, yet they could feel a sense of connect, and they expressed their gratitude by writing letters to these magnanimous individuals. The whole aspect of sponsorship, ties up with the empathy that these nameless donors have for the ‘Tibetan cause’.
Arguably, the glue that binds the diaspora would be the figurehead of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. While some resent the fact that he has given up on the demand for a ‘Free Tibet’, and has instead eked out a middle path by pushing for an ‘Autonomous Tibet’; one cannot gloss over the fact that, the Dalai Lama has played a significant role in keeping the Tibetan movement, and his people non-violent. There are voices within the community who argue that – their leader’s acquiescence has to do with the Indian govt’s growing ties with China. Consequently, any violent uprising by a refugee community would have led to a backlash by the host country (India), and even the indigenous populace. In that sense, the Dalai Lama could be seen as a modern day diplomat, who has had to walk a fine line between balancing the expectations of his people, and at the same time adhering to the conditions imposed by the host country.
It is interesting to note that most Tibetan residents in Dharamshala have chosen to not apply for Indian citizenship. They continue to remain ‘refugees’ in the political sense – their ‘refugee’ status a constant reminder of their story of displacement. For many, India is more of a transit point, while they attempt to seek refuge in countries within Europe, or North America. This in turn means that these people do not enjoy the perks of citizenship such as ‘voting rights’ within India . An old vendor at the market mentioned that, the civic amenities in Mcledoganj were not in good shape since the political brass has nothing to gain by focusing on a ‘non voting population’.
The confluence of the Tibetan religion and its political aspirations, has led to the mushrooming of NGOs all over the town. NGOs can be categorically divided on the basis of their functions. For instance, a popular NGO called -‘Centre for Human Rights and Democracy’ documents the ‘human rights’ situation within Tibet . Towards this end, it is the newly arrived refugees from Tibet who provide the information based on their experiences under Chinese subjugation. To better understand their role, I decided to visit the ‘Refugee Reception Centre’ at Mcledoganj. The statistics reveal that each year, hundreds of Tibetans undertake a perilous journey through treacherous terrains, in a bid to escape the Chinese occupation. Most refugees escape through the Nepal route, which is usually the first stoppage for the ones who manage to successfully escape. Thereafter, they are sent to the Reception Center at ISBT Delhi, and the journey finally culminates once they are granted refuge at the ‘Refugee Reception Center’ at Mcleodganj.
I spoke to an old Englishman (Andrew) who sympathized with the Tibetan cause, and decided to spend his summer in Mcleodganj by imparting training to young Tibetans in subjects like – Computer applications, and Graphic design. Andrew felt that the newly arrived refugees choose to leave Tibet for – religious and political reasons, which are further compounded by economic compulsions. He further added that – the Chinese are not really making an effort to prevent Tibetans from leaving since, they care for the ‘Occupied Land’ more than its people. Hence, there aren’t any serious attempts to even stop them at the border! Looking at the arrival of hordes of refugees, a middle aged Tibetan entrepreneur (who did not want to be named) opined that – it is important to scrutinize the refugees who arrive here, since they are people who have lived under Chinese occupation for years; there’s a very real possibility that China could be slipping in spies in the guise of refugees!
One of the most vocal critics of the concept of ‘Autonomous Tibet ‘ ( while remaining a part of China) , is a gentleman called Lashang Tsering . He runs a bookshop in Mcleodganj, and stands out on account of his – sheer eloquence . For the likes of him, anything short of ‘Complete Independence’ would be a betrayal of the aspirations of tens of thousands of Tibetans who gave up their lives fighting the Chinese occupation. Lashang Tsering’s life has followed an interesting trajectory – he turned down offers of scholarships to study abroad, and instead chose to become a freedom fighter for the Tibetan cause. He was part of a force that battled the Chinese troops at the Tibetan border. At one point, his team ambushed a Chinese lorry carrying a consignment of files, which was eventually handed over to the CIA. For several years, the US lent covert support to guerrilla operations led by Tibetan fighters. Eventually, the US decided to stop the aid, following a covert deal with the Chinese regime. Lhasang is tear eyed, when he recollects the moment when the guerrillas were sent a televised message by His Holiness asking them to lay down arms – and their commander shot himself !
Among the prominent Tibetologists , who have played an important role in chronicling Tibetan history prior to exile would be a gentleman called –Tashi Tsering. He is the founder of the Amnye Mache Institute – under whose guidance many seminal historical works in Tibetan have been compiled, and retrieved. Mr Tsering is not very pleased with the manner in which the ‘Tibetan people’ have been exoticized in Western narratives. The notion that the world of the Tibetans is predominantly spiritual, takes away from the material concerns that the community actually deals with. Furthermore, he highlights the fact that post-exile Tibetans have had to make adjustments while keeping the local sensibilities in mind. For instance, the Tibetan leadership has discouraged the Tibetans from consuming beef; and in fact, the Tibetan Central Schools have removed ‘non vegetarian dishes’ from the menu- this practice is resented by some Tibetans. His task becomes ever more challenging, in the light of the fact that more than fifty percent of Tibetan literary works were destroyed by the Chinese regime during the ‘Cultural Revolution’.
A prominent Centre in the town is called ‘Guchusum’- which has been formed by former Tibetan political prisoners who managed to flee China. The centre is loaded with symbolism. It showcases various instruments of torture, which were used against the prisoners, including clothes with bloodstains on them! The images are meant to evoke strong sentiments- the walls are plastered with pictures that depict gory visuals of torture techniques used against Tibetans in prison. Guchusum organizes gatherings, which are open to visitors, where former political prisoners share their stories. Most visitors happen to be western tourists and volunteers. Since, such gatherings and activities are strictly forbidden in ‘Occupied Tibet’, Mcleodganj has attained a larger than life significance in the political discourse on Tibet. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Little Lhasa’ – a testimony to the increasing appeal of Tibetan Buddhism. This is borne out by the popularity of places like- the Tushita meditation centre, Buddhist study classes, and daily sermons organized near the main Library. Mcleodganj attracts volunteers from all parts of the world, who intern at the NGOs. Over the years, this has increased the number of Tibetan supporters, as well as the followers of Buddhism by leaps and bounds! Organizations like SFT (Students for a Free Tibet), Tibetan Women’s Association, have dedicated chapters in various parts of the globe.
The Tibetan govt in exile, has tried to form a template of an ideal structure, that could be emulated, once their vision of an ‘Independent nation’ is attained. They have set up a de facto ‘Parliament in Exile’. The members of parliament, are chosen, through a process of direct election. An interesting aspect of the voting process is that- each member of the clergy (monks and nuns) gets a double vote, whereas the others get a single vote. Such a practice has given greater clout and prominence to the ‘men of religion’. I met Tibetans who resent the upper hand given to the clergy, and argue that – the spiritual gurus should distance themselves from matters of ‘realpolitik’.
Notwithstanding, the diversity and differences in perspectives, what sets the Tibetan movement apart from other similar movements of our times, would be the manner in which a religious figurehead has adapted his strategy with the changing times. The Dalai Lama’s emphasis on education, endorsement of modern democracy along with the cause of women’s empowerment, and his emphasis on the idea of a dialogue between ‘science and religion’- has enhanced his appeal amongst the youth. The vision of a modern Tibet that he espouses, is vastly different from a feudal theocratic society that Tibet was, when the Chinese invaded. Any social movement in order to be successful depends on a ‘mass mobiliser’ who faces the daunting task of channeling the latent energy of his people in the right direction. This is crucial for the sake of ‘impression management’. One can thus, surmise that the ‘Tibetan movement’ is sustained by the conflation of the spiritual message alongside the political.