A little more than a decade after India’s Independence, a young man took up a non-violent struggle, this time some 1,500 kilometers to the north, against China. On the night of 17 March 1959, a 23-year-old Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual, political and temporal leader of Tibet, along with his retinue, crossed the icy Himalayas to seek refuge in India. More than half a century has passed since then but his and his people’s peaceful struggle for survival continues. And their struggle manifests itself in myriad ways in the Tibetan refugee colony at Majnu ka Tilla in Delhi, almost 52 years after it was established.
From about a kilometre away, one can spot the dust-coated prayer flags flapping heavily against the grills of a foot over bridge leading to the New Aruna Nagar colony. It’s almost an oxymoron to see the Buddhist flags set against the metal and the concrete while squinting in the Delhi sun. On the foot over-bridge can be found a few elderly Tibetans, some with matted hair, their fingers running over the prayer beads. The settlement, just like the elderly Tibetans, has managed to retain its distinct identity but the same cannot be said for the younger generations of the Tibetan exiles. It’s not rare to spot the Tibetan youths in loafers and gelled hair, walking about with an unmistakable sway; it’s almost as if there is a sense of haste about them. This distinction between generations makes one wonder if the Tibetan identity is metamorphosing or evolving in new ways in a home away from home.
In the maze of clean alleyways sits a man of about 60 years of age on a crooked iron chair. He calls himself Loka and looks on at the place he calls home through his tinted spectacles. Next to him, a charpoy is neatly lined with varieties of women’s apparel. Loka seems to be a popular man as almost everyone who passes by him stops for a chat.
Loka’s journey began in 1959. He escaped from Tibet, like many of his compatriots at the time, and reached Bhutan. After spending some years there, he travelled to Karnataka to avoid, what he calls, political tension building up in Bhutan due to pressure from the Chinese government as large numbers of Tibetan refugees poured in from across the border fleeing famine and persecution under Mao Zedong. It was much later, only in the 1980s, that Loka came to Delhi and settled down in Majnu ka Tilla for good.
Loka narrates the struggle he and the other residents of Majnu ka Tilla took up to get basic facilities in the settlement. He points to the electricity meters, the jutting wires, the hidden post boxes and the water pipes that crisscross the settlement with an enthusiasm of a man who has spent a lot of time and energy into making it a home. Loka tried hard but in vain to acquire Indian citizenship and a voter identity card.
It was a long, hard journey for the Tibetan exiles of Loka’s generation but the condition of the younger Tibetans, particularly those born in India, is relatively better. On 7 August 2013, the Karnataka High Court ruled in favour of a writ petition filed by Tenzin Choephag Ling Rinpoche by saying that the children of the Tibetan refugees born in India between 26 January 1950 and 1 July 1987 would be treated as Indian citizens as per the Citizenship Act of 1955. The court ruling was soon followed by an order issued by the Election Commission of India to Delhi’s Chief Electoral Officer stating that the children of the Tibetan refugees born in India are Indian citizens by birth and therefore have the right to vote.
Loka doesn’t seem to have any of the romanticism of most Tibetan refugees who enthusiastically support the Tibetan cause. Instead, Loka seems to have travelled and struggled enough to feel that things are not going to change between China and Tibet anytime soon. “Of course, we are all Indian Tibetans here … Combining the Tibetan culture we practise in the personal space and that practised outside in the society,” he says, adding that assimilation into the Indian society has paid off to the extent that more young Indians today are aware of, and identity themselves with, the Tibetan struggle. “Young Tibetans today are going to study in the Delhi schools and colleges; they are interacting with the culture in which they are growing up. Even though it might still be difficult for the Tibetan refugees to get jobs in India, the situation seems to be changing fast, particularly because it’s not just the Tibetans who are fighting this war alone any longer. It’s also the Indian youth who consider the Majnu ka Tilla refugee colony to be as much a part of their culture as any other part of the capital. This is particularly evident in the number of students from diverse backgrounds who frequently join their Tibetan friends, speak up for their cause and make them feel more at home.”
For a community which has been uprooted, the biggest challenge before it is to protect its culture and traditions or the Tibetan way of life. That, and making the younger generation aware of its struggles. Tenzin Tselha was born in India and learnt about the Tibetan culture and history at a school in Ladakh. “That was the most confusing time for me. I started asking myself: Who am I? Who is a Tibetan? I wanted to grasp my Tibetan identity. I guess when something is disputed or when you fear you’ll lose something, you try to hold on to it even more dearly. And maybe that’s where most of us are coming from.”
In spite of an urge to hold on to her identity, Tenzin, who is associated with the Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) organisation, confesses that she feels it is slipping out of her grasp at times. “Even though I am so strongly holding on to my Tibetan identity, I must confess that my command over the Tibetan language is not that good, at least not as good as it’s supposed to be,” she says. “But I have friends, Tibetans living in the US, who can’t speak a word of the language. Yet, there is an effort. Many such people often visit Dharamsala and study there, learn the language and the religion, mingle with other Tibetans and try to build a strong sense of community.”
Yet, there are those who feel the need to carry on with their lives without getting involved. Rinzin Choedon, who is Tenzin’s colleague at sft, says, “I have friends who don’t want to be associated with the struggle. They want to lead a normal life, get a job and settle down.” Rinzin is quick to add: “But it’s not a reflection of their upbringing or their mentality but of the Tibetan situation itself.”
Although the Tibetan cause earned international recognition and the 14th Dalai Lama was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, some nations are choosing to boycott the Dalai Lama and turn a blind eye to it. As the Dalai Lama put it in an interview to Spiegel Online, the online version of German weekly Der Spiegel, “It’s an interesting phenomenon among politicians: When they are not yet government leaders or presidents, they meet with me. Afterwards, they avoid me so as not to annoy Beijing — then, economic relations with China take priority.”
Almost all international association with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause has been condemned by China. On 29 October 1989, the Associated Press reported that China threatened to cut off all economic ties with Norway if any of its government officials or its king graced the ceremony that awarded the Dalai Lama the Nobel Peace Prize. Similarly, in 2007, as the United States legislature awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama, the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Liu Jianchao, said that the episode “had severely hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and gravely undermined the relationship between China and the US”.
Over the past few years, some countries such as Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Russia have all ‘unfriended’ the Dalai Lama. All of which begs the question: Is the fate of the Tibetan struggle indeed doomed?