By Lobsang Wangyal
CHOGLAMSAR, India, 15 July 2014
Famous for its picturesque landscapes and high passes, Ladakh intrigues travellers from around the world. The land is dotted with Buddhist monasteries and countless stupas, and the people of Ladakh — the Ladakhis — share the ancient Tibetan Buddhist culture with the people of neighbouring Tibet.
Following the Chinese occupation of Tibet, about 80,000 Tibetans fled the country along with their leader the Dalai Lama. At the request of then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, various states leased lands to Tibetans, Jammu and Kashmir among them. There are 7,300 Tibetan refugees in Ladakh: 5,000 in Choglamsar on the outskirts of Leh, the capital of Ladakh, and 2,300 scattered throughout the nomadic region of Jangthang.
The Tibetan settlement in Choglamsar was started in 1960 with the blessings of the Dalai Lama, who gave it the name Sonamling Tibetan Settlement. The boundaries of the land leased is unclear, and is one of the concerns of the Settlement Office today.
Administered by the Home Department of the Central Tibetan Administration, the settlement is listed as agro-based. However, due to the hot and arid conditions in the summer and extreme cold in the winter, no worthwhile crops are grown.
The Tibetan Youth Congress and Tibetan Women’s Association are the two most active non-governmental organisations, engaged in the Free Tibet movement and in cultural and environmental activities.
SOS Tibetan Children’s Village School caters to about 1,000 students, and Mentseekhang, the Tibetan Medical Centre serves the health needs of the Tibetans. An old-people’s home looks after about 40 elderly people.
Livelihood in the settlement is mostly earned by doing manual work in construction sites. Business and job opportunities are scarce and unemployment is common. Since business is not possible during the harsh winter, earnings from the six months in summer must last for the entire year.
Since they are not state subjects, Tibetans are not allowed to run businesses such as travel or trekking agencies, guest houses, and taxis.
Article 370 of the Indian constitution gives Jammu and Kashmir, within which lies Ladakh, a special status. Unless a person is in the third generation or more, they are not considered a state subject.
Some Tibetans in Choglamsar have registered to vote in India after the recent call by the Election Commission of India on the basis of Section 3(1) (a) of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1955 that makes anyone born in India from 26 January 1950 to 1 July 1987 Indian citizens, but Tibetans in Ladakh can still not become state subjects.
During the just-concluded two-week Kalachakra initiation event, Tibetans were not called on by the organisers for any role. The Tibetan Youth Congress and the Tibetan Women’s Association were called in after things started to get out of hand. Tibetans then started to offer logistic support.
Tibetans who started makeshift restaurants on leased lands, as well as roadside vendors, have been constantly harassed by the members of the Kalachakra Organising Committee (KOC). This organisation is comprised mostly of the Youth Wing of the Ladakh Buddhist Association.
A pot full of vegetables ready to be served was toppled by KOC members, for reasons best known to them.
A small CD vendor of Tibetan singers was told: “Close the stall or we will throw away the CDs.” Just ten metres away from this stall was a Ladakhi CD seller, who was free to carry on.
There were a few cases of Tibetan hawkers being beaten by the police, forcing them to close their tiny stalls.
Many Tibetan shows organised and planned during the Kalchakra faced stiff resistance from KOC, and in some instances even had to be cancelled.
On speaking to some local Tibetans, the situation started to look murkier.
“Tibetans are not treated well here,” said a young activist who didn’t want to be named.
“Tibetans who would be reported to the police by local Ladakhis would be beaten first by the police before they even understood what the problem was,” he continued.
But the Chief Representative Officer of the Tibetan Settlement, Dhondup Tashi, denied any ill-treatment of Tibetans by the Ladakhis.
“When the local administration came to demolish a dozen Tibetan houses on encroached lands, Ladakh Buddhist Association came to their rescue,” Tashi says.
He says that Tibetans have started selling lands allotted to them from the leased lands. “There is already a problem in the demarcation of the leased land, and due to the rising sale of lands by Tibetans the high court in Sri Nagar has issued a legal notice under a charge called ‘50 crore scam’.”
Tashi explained that the high court estimates that the sale of the land amounts to rupees 50 crore (approx 8,300,000 USD).
He further said that only 36 Tibetans registered as voters in India. “The Ladakhis felt that when there was the chance for Tibetans to become citizens, they didn’t use the opportunity, which could have helped solve many problems.”
Tashi said that the majority didn’t register because they felt that holding the Registration Certificate (the refugee stay permit in India) would have more benefits to them.
He said that in general there are no problems between the Ladakhis and the Tibetans. “Ladakh Buddhist Association and the officials of the local administration have been helpful to Tibetans.”
“Isolated cases of mistreatment may have occurred, but that’s misuse of power by individuals. Such cases should not be generalised.”
During a gathering at the TCV School grounds where the Dalai Lama spoke before the Kalchakra began, when asked how the relations were between the Ladakhis and the Tibetans, the Minister for Urban Development, Rigzin Jora, replied in a positive vein.