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That is one chance the present Tibetan leader might take

By Syed Nazakat in Dharamsala, India

Beaming at a large group of devotees at Tsuglagkhang temple in Dharamsala recently, the Dalai Lama said, “Our strength is our culture, our faith.” He cheered the devotees with his habitual hopefulness: “If you are true to yourself, God is always with you.” The Dalai Lama’s words might bring momentary comfort to the Tibetans but the anger and frustration of his long-suffering people are only increasing. As they complete 50 years in exile next March, the mood of Tibetan refugees is one of impatience. After years of exile they are nowhere near freedom from China’s rule. Ever since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet with some 80,000 followers in 1959, the only thought that kept them going was the hope of eventually returning to their homeland. Dharamsala—like 36 other settlements the Indian government has allotted to Tibetans—was meant to be a temporary asylum. But Tibetans still live in exile.

“I sit here before you as a refugee now, as my parents were when they came here in 1959. Nothing has really changed for us,” says Mingyur Yodon, as she looks out over the mountains in Mcleod Ganj in Dharamsala, where she was born in exile, 35 years ago. She has known no other life.

All along, Tibetans in exile have looked to the Dalai Lama as their only hope. But since he had surgery for an abdominal ailment in Delhi in October, they are worried about his health. They often discuss life after him. Such talk has been all the more commonplace in recent years, especially after Beijing passed an edict last year giving the Chinese government a role in approving new incarnations of the Dalai Lama. Aware of the controversy that could surround the reincarnation after his death and to undermine any attempt by China to appoint its own Dalai Lama, the Dalai Lama has long said he may not be reincarnated at all. On November 23, he went further, indicating that the next Dalai Lama might be chosen in his lifetime and that his successor could even be a girl. He also made it clear that he would not retire from the Tibetan cause, but that he was ready to pass on his political role.

Early in November, the Dalai Lama’s representatives met the Chinese for an eighth round of dialogue where China denounced an autonomy proposal. This was followed by a six-day meeting in Dharamsala where 500 Tibetan leaders decided that no further talks would be held with China unless Beijing responded positively to their demands. It was also decided that whether seeking independence or autonomy, the Tibetan people would maintain total commitment to non violence in their struggle for freedom. Since 1988, the Dalai Lama has dropped his long-held demand for an end to the Chinese occupation of Tibet and said that he was willing to settle for “genuine autonomy” for Tibet within China. But this official position has divided his people.

Said Dhondup Dorjee, vice-president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a pro-independence organisation with 30,000 members and 80 offices worldwide: “To free Tibet is our aim, and we’ll employ any means to achieve it.”

Dorjee is a kind of hero to a young generation of Tibetans born and educated in India—a generation that is beginning to question the Dalai Lama’s non violent struggle against China. They have no experience of what it is like to live in Tibet under China’s rule. However, according to Dorjee, they still they hate China for “what it is doing to Tibetans”.

Said Sonam N. Dagpo, international relations secretary of the Tibetan government in-exile: “Since March 2008 [the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising of 1959], there have been a lot of protests and, then, international sympathy during the Olympics. A great change has been taking place during these days. And we shall have to review the situation and our future course of action.”

To refugees, the fact that they are unsafe in their homes in Tibet has been the most frustrating aspect of the situation and many escaped to India to save their lives. According to the Tibetan Reception Centre [TRC] in Dharamsala, every year more then 3,000 Tibetans risk capture, gunfire, frostbite and hypothermia to reach Dharamsala. Said Kusang Sonam, 29: “After the March uprising [this year] I saw Tibetan boys hauled out of their homes by troops, beaten ruthlessly and bundled into a bus and driven away. I feared the same fate and escaped from Tibet.”

The Tibetan settlements in Dharamsala are a grim example of refugee life with extremely limited resources. The refugees are almost entirely dependent on aid for their survival. India, the US, Canada and Switzerland are the major donors. But, amid the uncertainty some hope persists. The Tibetan Children’s Villages and Schools are one of the success stories of the Tibetan exiled community. The Dalai Lama established the first school for Tibetan refugees in 1960. Today there are 85 Tibetan educational institutes in India, Nepal and Bhutan, which together have more than 30,000 students. “Our future and hopes are in the hands of these children,” said Tenzin Yaston, who teaches at the TCV school in Dharamsala.

Most of the students work for the Tibetan government in-exile or with NGOs. Some are employed by Indian and multinational companies. Others—like Yaston—have decided to give something back to the community. “It gives me great satisfaction that I’m doing something for my community,” she said. “Those who have been educated here are a big challenge to China. They know what it is like to live in a free country. They will never accept slavery,” said Yaston as she walked up to some of her students and whispered in their ears, “Long live the Dalai Lama and long live Free Tibet!”

Side Story:

Identity crisis

In Tibet they were known as khache[Kashmiri Muslims].  In Kashmir they are called Tibetan Muslims. The small Muslim community that fled Tibet after China’s invasion in 1959 are in constant search of their identity in Kashmir. “I don’t like it when people call me Tibetan Muslim. It sounds as if I don’t belong,” says Faiz Malik, whose family fled Tibet in 1959, when he was a child. After China occupied Tibet in 1959 the Muslim community approached the Indian mission in Lhasa to claim Indian citizenship, citing their Kashmiri ancestry. “The Indian government said that all Tibetan Muslims were Indian nationals,” says Faiz.

Faiz, along with other Tibetan Muslims who crossed over into India to border towns in late 1959, gradually moved to Kashmir. “The people from our community don’t have state subject documents. This means though they have Indian citizenship they don’t have the same rights as the other citizens,” says Faiz. Without the state subject document, Tibetan Muslims have no right to higher schooling, health care or property ownership. Nor can they apply for government jobs.

The identity crisis that this community feels persists even after 50 years. So much so that when families shifted from the Tibetan colony at Eidgah to Hawal, they made it a point not to call it Tibetan colony, and the welfare committee at Hawal was called Repatriated Indian Muslims of Kashmiri Origin from Tibet.

(THE WEEK, July, 2007)

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