Tibetan refugees longing for their homeland

Tibetans speak about life in exile in Bylakuppe — one of their largest settlements in the Indian state of Karnataka

Tenzin Kelsang and Tenzin Jigme

Tenzin Kelsang, 20, holds a photo of himself with his family in Tibet. The last time he saw his parents was when he was 9 years old; Tenzin Jijme, 18, right, is in Class 12 at the Tibetan Children’s Village school. The relationship with Tibet gets more complex with each passing generation, as Tibetans gradually identify more as Indians.

Boban James

By Gautam Raja, Special to Weekend Review | Gulf News

ON THE WEB, 4 April 2014

Tenzin Kelsang was 9 when his parents told him he was going to India. He didn’t know how far away India was, and in his child’s mind, assumed it must be really close to his home in Tibet. At 3am, on the night of a village festival, a guide took him from his house to a small town where he stayed two days and was joined by other children his age. What Kelsang didn’t know then was that the guide had been paid a fortune by his family’s standards, bankrupting them. He also had no idea that he was about to walk for more than two weeks over the Himalayas, and, much worse, would probably never meet his parents again.

Six children were put in a truck, hidden under tarpaulin, and taken to the mountains. From there, they walked through treacherous, freezing high-altitude terrain for 13 nights to get to Nepal, eating little more than the Wai-Wai noodles Kelsang was lucky to have brought with him. Eventually he made his way to Dharamshala, the capital of the Tibetan community in India, where he was received as a refugee, and accepted into the system.

Lobsang Tsering was also 9 when he made much the same journey a little earlier in 2003. “We ate ice,” he said, for they had no food for days during the journey through the mountains that began with his mother telling him that he was going to a new school. A new school in India.

Like Kelsang, he made his way to Dharamshala where he now lives and studies. Like many others, he is visiting Bylakuppe, the Tibetan settlement in southern India, to spend Losar, Tibetan New Year, with family and friends.

The jungle settlement

Bylakuppe was a dense forest in 1959 when the Karnataka government allotted land to the first wave of Tibetan refugees fleeing the aftermath of the Tibetan Uprising, which was a response to Chinese occupation of this mountain country. Since then, a stream of Tibetans has come to India to escape the oppression, many of them children even younger than Kelsang and Tsering, sent by parents who want them to have a better life.

Today, there are about 100,000 Tibetans in India spread across 34 refugee camps. The land for these camps have been leased by the Indian government to the Central Tibetan Administration for 99 years.

Bylakuppe is in the district of Kodagu, a place famous for its coffee estates and once-warrior tribe called the Kodavas. The relatively high elevation gives Tibetans a small taste of home weather, and since those early days of clearing jungle, a second generation is reaching maturity in the settlement.

Tenzin Tseyang, 19, was born in Bylakuppe, as was her mother. Her maternal grandparents live with them, and Phurbu Dolma, the grandmother, laughed about those early days of forest-whacking and running from wild elephants. The 82-year-old’s big grin revealed her last remaining front tooth. Her husband Rinchen is 85 and nearly blind. Dolma’s smile didn’t fade even when she talked about the land she hasn’t seen in 55 years. “I miss the fruit,” she said, chuckling. “The peaches there are huge, but here …” She indicated a sorry size for a peach and shook her head.

We asked her if, like so many Tibetans, she was still living a life of waiting — waiting for Tibet to be free, waiting to go back home. Dolma started nodding even before her granddaughter, who was interpreting, finished the question. “Yes it’s a life of waiting,” she said in Tibetan, and some Hindi.

She paused, then with a big smile, said, “I want to die only after seeing Tibet.”

Tears sprang from Tseyang’s eyes as she interpreted that line from her grandmother. It was obvious that even after half a century, Dolma firmly believed it would happen.

The second generation

Tseyang is in the 12th grade and studying for her board exams — she had the English paper the next day. In spite of this, we were invited into the house and given fruit juice and a plate of khapse, the sweet pastry made for the New Year. Every year, the exams clash with Losar, but this year is harder on Tseyang because it is being celebrated for the first time since 2008. The intervening celebrations were called off out of respect for protesters in Tibet who immolated themselves.

Tseyang talked about her status in India. “We are second-class citizens here. We face lots of problems, such as for admission [to colleges] we have to pay much more.”

Tseyang would easily get Indian citizenship, but many Tibetans are against getting an Indian passport. Tenzin Tsundue, well-known poet and Free Tibet protester, is one of them. “My argument is from the very basic moral authority,” he wrote in his e-mail from Dharamshala. “The moment you give up your nationality or your claim thereof and accept another citizenship, and therefore swear loyalty to that new nationality, you lose your authority to speak as a Tibetan.

“Of course you can continue to be Tibetan culturally, but now you speak as a supporter not a claimant for Tibet. And tomorrow when Tibet is free again, how will citizens of other countries come back to Tibet as to claim any rights there? Or would they ever return?”

Tsundue feared that Indian citizenship would dilute the struggle to free Tibet, causing it to lose urgency. He himself is famous for climbing to the scaffolding in the 14th floor of Mumbai’s Oberoi hotel to unfurl a “Free Tibet” sign outside the rooms of visiting Chinese premier Zhu Rongji and his entourage.

“It’s natural,” Tsundue wrote on the subject of complacency. “Ask all the lost refugees in the world who forgot to return home.”

The loss of urgency showed when talking to second-generation Tibetans, ranging from pre-teens to recent school finishers. A few shrugged when asked about going back. “I’m happy over here now,” said one.

“I would love to stay as an Indian citizen,” said a grade 12 student who had just written her English board exam.

“I want to travel the world and see different cultures,” said her classmate. “I want to go to Japan, I love anime.” Another said at first she would like to go back if Tibet became free, but after a while changed her mind. “I would love to stay [here] as an Indian citizen and visit Tibet.” It would be interesting to ask the question again after they have left the safe confines of Bylakuppe and gone out into “India” where it is likely they might quickly feel like outsiders. Racism is common in India, which often takes a violent turn, including molestation and rape, or even murder, as with the January killing in New Delhi of Nido Tania from Arunachal Pradesh. (On Indian streets and college campuses, it is common for Tibetans, Nepalese and people from India’s northeastern states to be referred to with the racial slur “chinky”.)

Given the constant assaults on basic freedoms, many young Tibetans we met wanted to be lawyers. Some, perhaps naively, looked at knowledge of the law — including the Chinese constitution — as a way to hold China accountable for its actions. Others wanted to work for India-based refugees to increase awareness of their rights.

No refugee camp, this

You might be imagining a dusty, tented refugee camp with hundreds of people lining up every morning for water from one handpump, but Bylakuppe is nothing like this. It is clean, green, and surrounded by rolling fields. The residential areas, still called camps, have neat, well-built houses; most are simple whitewashed structures, others grander two-storey residences that wouldn’t be out of place in well-off neighbourhoods in a large city. The narrow streets between them are clean — there is no garbage, no chaos.

The Buddhist temples and other monastic structures are large and beautifully embellished, the prayer halls feature enormous golden statues. Tibetans get around the camp and outside on motorcycles or scooters, and some drive cars.

Some locals near the settlement feel resentful of all this. “They are all very rich because they have foreign sponsors,” said an Indian who has worked closely with the community for 20 years. He asked not to be identified. “Even students have motorbikes, good mobiles. You went into their houses? You must have seen all of them have two or three servants.”

In fact, we hadn’t seen even a single “servant”. All the Tibetan houses we had been into were modest, bordering on bare. There were other accusations against the Tibetans — drugs, promiscuity, reckless riding, receiving funds from the Chinese, hundreds of crores of black money (one crore is 10 million). This person and a few other Indians we spoke to claimed the Tibetans wouldn’t go back even if Tibet were declared free. “They have a good life here,” said an Indian teacher at a camp school who also asked not to be identified. “Why would they go back?”

While it is beyond the scope of this article to investigate these claims, it is true that the Tibetans in the community are better off than a lot of Indians in the surrounding villages. Tenzin Tseyang, the girl who had board exams, was aware of this. After finishing school, she also wanted to study law. As a lawyer, she hoped to work not just for the Tibetan community but also for the Indians. “I have seen many problems around here, [such as] child labour,” she said.

New Year celebrations

In the days leading up to Losar, excitement ran higher and higher. People were scurrying about, visiting relatives, heading to Mysore — the nearest city — for last-minute shopping, cleaning and painting their houses, emerging exhausted from kitchens. Rehearsals for traditional dances were under way in outdoor basketball courts, and the community was getting together for basketball matches, plays and parties.

One segment of the Bylakuppe population still held on to its monastic peace. Though the monks had holidays, things weren’t that different from the regular schedule. Preparations were simply for more meditation and prayer, and the one nod to festivity was lunch. We joined the monks on the grass outside a hostel, eating steamed bread called tingmo, noodles, rice, daal, batter-fried cauliflower and vegetables. One of the monks said, “It’s rare to see vegetables. We usually eat just roti and daal.”

Next to us was a monk about 8 years old. He had come to the monastery a year ago, having made the same arduous crossing as the two young men described earlier. He grinned at us shyly as he dug into his food, clearly enjoying it.

The hostel’s chief mentor, Lobsang Rinchen, looked at the boy with a smile that gradually faded. Speaking to us later he said, “The flow of monks from Tibet has almost stopped and that is scary.”

Through an interpreter, he told us he was glad we had come and thanked us for our interest in the Tibetan issue: “You can promote dialogue between Tibetans and Indians. China is very keen on eradicating Tibetan culture and monasteries.” He stressed again that he was worried about what may be going on at borders that prevented refugees from crossing.

Not far from the monastery, and in contrast, members of the Gyaesar Sports Club, Camp 3, were organising a big party. The outdoor basketball court was closed off and by evening, a large music system started booming and fancy lights stabbed the air. Two DJs had come in from Bangalore, and the party was to go from 9:30pm to 6am, ending about an hour after the monks would gather for their prayers.

“This is the first celebration in six years, so it’s a big one,” said the youth leader of Camp 3, barely looking up as he was making the preparations. “We’re expecting 300 people.”

Proceeds from the event would be donated to worthy causes within the settlement, to be decided by the club, anything from money for the local school or old-age home to the installation of street lights in a particular camp. It is not all camaraderie though. As people got more comfortable with us, we learnt of rivalries between camps, some of these dating to the early days of arguments over water and the distribution of resources.

The previous day, that same court had been the site of a more friendly rivalry — an inter-camp basketball match. Tseten Phuntsok, 40, was sitting by, waiting for his game to start. Heavily muscled, he is a martial artist and former soldier in the Special Frontier Force, an Indian paramilitary division. Tibetans have served directly or indirectly with the Indian army from when it was the British Indian Army. As with most Tibetans, Phuntsok was posted along the mountains in the north, including the notorious Kargil, with its multiple dangers of extreme altitude and cold, crevasses and constant exchange of shells and bullets with the Pakistani army.

When the talk turned to Tibet, a faraway look came to Phuntsok’s eyes, even though he has never been there. He sang us a Hindi song his regiment had written while serving, about how the Chinese invaded their land, India gave them a home and that they were willing to give their lives for Tibet. He didn’t sing particularly well, but the song had a wistful tune and there was a sadness in his voice. “Jai hamara Tibet jai,” went the end of the song. Victory to Tibet. Victory to India. Victory to Tibet.

Over and over again we saw the pull of the home country even among people born and raised elsewhere. Tenzin Tsundue writes at the end of his poem “Tibetanness”: “I am Tibetan. / But I am not from Tibet. / Never been there. / Yet I dream of dying there.”

But even as people dreamt of returning, the most lasting images for me were the ones of leaving. The ones of little boys and girls taken from their homes and made to walk for weeks over the highest, most forbidding mountains on Earth. “We cried a lot,” says Lobsang Tsering, the boy who ate ice.

Tearless silence

During Tsering and Kelsang’s shoot, the photographer asked them to picture their journeys and the sadness of leaving their parents. As they sat on the bed by the window of their uncle’s room, holding photos of people left behind in Tibet, their expressions made me leave the room and stand in the landing outside, blinking back tears. After his session, Tsering joined me in the landing and squatted, staring out over the monastery lawn for a few minutes, stock-still. Then he simply got up and went back into the room, where he began discussing the old photographs with his cousin and uncle.

Our work done, we asked about a good place for dinner, and Tsering offered to take us there. It was a typical Bylakuppe restaurant run out of somebody’s house. He sipped a soft drink as he talked some more about those early days. “We would wait until we went to bed, and then we’d cry,” said the 20-year-old with a small smile. “All the little boys and girls would cry at night.”

He took out his phone and showed us pictures of his mother at home with his sisters. Then he showed us the picture of himself that he recently sent home, wearing a baseball cap and standing in a field in the settlement. He paused. “I haven’t met my mother since I was 9.”


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