By Anita Krishan
Amid the world caught up in violent unrests in Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iran, Iraq, Arab-Israel, Afghanistan, Syria, and so many more, the cause of the Tibetan refugees has gone almost unheeded. The world has taken it as a miniscule problem in comparison –especially because these people, under the spiritual leadership of his holiness, the Dalai Lama, do not advocate aggression. In such a scenario, their cause becomes a non issue and these people become nonentities for any nation. Should such a message be advocated to the world – that you get heard only if you are loud and violent? While non-violent peaceful voices drown in the tumult?
The plight of the unfortunate refugees from Tibet brings to mind what I had witnessed as a child in my hometown, Shimla. The memory takes me back to 1960, the time when all of a sudden Shimla, situated on the national highway 22, also known as Hindustan-Tibet road, had begun to witness sudden influx of people who could neither speak nor understand our language. Moreover, in their distraught condition, they stood a stark contrast to the locals. “They are running away from Chinese persecution,” I was told by my father.
Since I was in primary school, I did not understand the political upheaval that had taken place in the home country of these unfortunate people, whom the locals had nicknamed ‘Lamas’. I remember them as calm and stoic monks with shaven heads and long maroon robes, continuously rotating their prayer wheels and chanting; or common women and men in shabby wrap-around dresses, matted hair and skins browned in the high altitude sun. Their dishevelled appearance and sad faces touched many, who then extended unconditional help to them. I also witnessed them being harassed innumerable times by the locals, who least understood the trauma they were going through.
Soon, multicoloured flags hanging from ropes tied between the pines on many vacant flatlands on the hillsides began to be noted. Under these trees, small tents made of tattered cloth-pieces became homes. Wood fires burnt in the evenings to prepare meagre meals and salty tea.
Their dependence on the locals did not last long. The Tibetan refugees began to be seen at the roadsides trying to sell their wares; asafoetida, dried fruits – apples and apricots, necklaces made of their indigenous stones, jewellery made of tiny fruit seeds. My mother had realized the good quality asafoetida (hing) the Tibetan women sold, and we stopped a number of times to buy their wares. Today I realize how this little support from the locals must have initially helped their survival.
Their diligence and enterprise was soon revealed, as within a few years, roadside Tibetan markets came up and flourished in many towns. One could buy striking shawls, jeans, umbrellas, scarves, trinkets and dresses. A large amount was imported, and rumours floated about these goods being smuggled across the borders, especially through Nepal. I have no idea about the authenticity of such reports, but observed people enthusiastically haggling for these already reasonably priced wares.
That state of poverty is fortunately a thing of the past. Apart from their own enterprise, help has come from the Government of India by means of providing free education and creating schools specially for them. Health care and scholarships for students who excel in school are taken care of. There are also a few medical and civil engineering seats reserved for them. Many states have allotted land for Tibetan settlements; currently there are 38 Tibetan settlements all over India, with agricultural settlements concentrated in the South, and settlements based on handicrafts in the North. Tibetans can thus afford better living standards, and receive good education. To remove the refugee status, the Tibetans are allowed to live in India with a stay permit which is processed through a document called (RC) – Registration Certificate. Yet, these privileges are nowhere near to being citizens of an independent nation.
Their RC status prevents them from getting jobs or enrolling in post graduate study programmes, despite being qualified for them. Their years of hard work in Tibetan and Indian schools go utterly waste. They cannot own property in India. In such a state of affairs, their demand for the liberation of their homeland becomes even more justified.
Nobel Peace Laureate, the Dalai lama, spiritual leader for thousands of Tibetan Diaspora in India, Nepal, Bhutan and elsewhere, and the head of the Tibetan Government in exile, is the force that has kept the émigré Tibetans united. He has also kept their peaceful struggle to reclaim their homeland from Chinese rule alive, even after more than 50 years of being without any citizenship.
The 80 year old spiritual leader, who was recently advised rest by US doctors, is being closely watched by the Chinese leadership. For they, and the world know that as long as the force of his peaceful presence remains, the Tibetan cause will remain alive.
Any country bestowing honour on the Dalai Lama, or even giving him due attention becomes an adversary for China. From that point of view; India befalls as the worst rogue for having provided shelter to his Holiness, along with 150,000 Tibetan refugees. I feel this act by India, which was more on humanitarian grounds, irked China to the extent that its resentment culminated in senseless invasion of India in 1962. Though the border dispute, particularly in Aksai Chin area was an excuse, the military assault was fundamentally to teach India a lesson for defying, what China considered, its internal problem. China began to believe that India probably had grand plans of expanding territorial claims in Tibet, and perceived the Indian effort of defending her borders as undermining Chinese control in Tibet. India had neither anticipated such an action, nor was it prepared, and we ended up suffering major losses of life and territory.
The relations between the two countries have never been cordial since. The existence of the Tibetan government in exile, working from their headquarters in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, which is also the seat of the 14th Dalai Lama, is a matter that utterly vexes China. China’s inclination towards Pakistan too appears to be based on the same validation that it has never given asylum to Tibetans, nor supported the Tibetan cause.
China dares even the United States. It sternly objected to a breakfast meeting between Barak Obama and Dalai Lama early this February. The warning statement issued on February 6, 2015, plainly reveals the Chinese mood. “China is opposed to any nation or government using the Tibet issue to interfere in China’s domestic affairs, and opposed to any country’s leader meeting with Dalai Lama in any manner,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei. Consequently, the state newswire Xinhua wrote in a commentary. “Chumming with a secessionist is playing with fire, which severely harms the mutual trust between China and the United States, and downgrades Obama’s credit as a national leader for breaking his commitments to China on the Tibet issue.”
As the charismatic, spiritual Tibetan leader ages, China feels that the demand for the return of their homeland will eventually die a natural death. Today once again the community is in danger. They do not have anyone to replace their enigmatic head. Many countries sympathise with the cause of the Tibetan Diaspora, have extended monetary help time and again, yet nobody, including the United States, finds it feasible to help them with what they desire the most. This works very well for China.
One thing is certain – it will never be possible to wrench the land of Tibet from the grasp of the strong military and nuclear power. Having well understood this, the Tibetan leader has softened his stand from seeking total independence; he no longer claims that he is seeking independence for Tibet. Instead, he is advocating for greater autonomy of the region, through dialogue with Beijing. He prefers a “middle way” approach of increased sovereignty for the region under Chinese rule. Moreover, the Dalai Lama has always stood for the cause of humanity and compassion. His struggle for whatever comes out through negotiations will always be peaceful; this is still not acceptable to China.
More than one million Tibetan nationals have died since the occupation of Tibet by China and over a hundred countries have been freed from foreign rule during this period. Hitherto, Tibet continues to be occupied.
In such a scenario, is the peaceful struggle relevant anymore? What are the choices being offered to this community? Can the demand of a small commune of exiled people reach the ears of the antagonist? Will China ever agree to the terms and conditions laid down by the Tibetan spiritual leader?
It is worse for those left behind in their homeland. Every effort to voice their dissent has been met with brutal suppression. “We cannot live as humans, there is no freedom to express ourselves…there is a huge number of Hans Chinese coming into Tibet at the moment. Nomads are forced to end their traditional way of life. The aim of the Chinese action is to dilute the Tibetan identity and the Tibetan people,” says Golog Jigme, a 43 year old monk who escaped from Chinese prison and hid in a forest for more than a year before paying a huge amount to a guide for safe passage to India.
China has closed 99 percent of Tibet’s monasteries, jailed thousands of monks, and banned Dalai Lama images. In this environment, will the Dalai Lama be able to fulfil the dream of thousands of his followers; to see him back on his rightful spiritual seat at Lhasa?
The crisis that humanity is facing today, with fundamentalism, militancy and abject bullying on the rise, and a situation where dominance is claimed on the basis of lethal weapons, is leading to the silent voices of Tibetan protest getting eclipsed. Injustice has been done to the peace loving people of Tibet, who even after sixty years of exodus from their homeland, remain citizens of no nation.
Many Tibetans living in countries like the US and Canada have become the permanent citizens of those nations, despite directives from the Dalai Lama against it, for this is bound to dilute their demand for the return of their homeland. The Tibetans in exile are also trying their best to hold on to their traditions and customs. But for how long? It will be disconcerting and saddening to see a rich, vibrant and peaceful culture slowly fading into oblivion.
I wish his holiness, the Dalai Lama, a long life. At the same time a question arises to my mind; who will be able to sustain this non-violent freedom movement and keep it alive once he is gone?
Anita Krishan chose superannuation, after a tenure of 25 years as the teacher of English, to confer time to her passion of writing. She is a published author of the fictional and autobiographical works: ‘Tears of Jhelum’ and ‘Running up the Hill’. Also an ardent poet, educationist and environmentalist, her humanitarian side is well revealed in her literary works.