As the Reclaim Tibet movement kicks off next week, Naina Sharma undertakes a field study of Mcleodganj and discovers the mutually exclusive relationship between politics and spirituality
Even though India has not made clear its dubious stand on the subject, there has been a wave of support for the Tibetan cause recently, especially internationally. The reason for this being the mutually exclusive connection between Tibetan Buddhism and the support for an autonomous Tibet. There is a romantic lure about modern day Tibetan Buddhism that comes from its nostalgic and tragic past. Nowhere is it more evident than in the quaint little town of Mcleodganj, the base of majority of Tibetans where the Dalai Lama first set camp in 1959, after his exile from his homeland.
The moment a visitor steps into the main square of the town, it becomes evident that the place is over-run by back packers—mostly Israeli, tourists from Western Europe, and North America. Although over the last decade, the militancy in Kashmir has affected the demographics of the town. It now inhabits many Kashmiri men, looking for a better life in a refugee town. To understand the cultural relevance of the place, I spoke to many tourists and locals. Like a young American woman who talked of her first time in town who came as a cultural volunteer and subsequently fell in love with a Tibetan boy. He introduced her to a new culture with an empathy for the increasingly lost cause of Free Tibet. There are many like her, men and women from across the globe, who come to the Himalayas, specifically drawn by their love for Tibetan Buddhism. They either stay or go back with a new sense of empathy for their adopted culture and its people.
One of the most enterprising refugee communities in the world. Tibetans have a lot of confidence, which not only comes from their hardships, but also from the fact that they have a large amount of Western support. Mainly America, who has its own agenda for China. India, where the idea of free Tibet has been a point of contention for prosperous bilateral relations has been of little help on the subject. Despite providing asylum, it has made its uncomfortable but practical stand clear, that it can only do so much.
An important testimony of this foreign support are the wide network of sponsorships, facilitated by the contributions of foreign donors. Like the Tibetan Children’s village—a prominent school in Dharamshala that has been able to set branches in the other parts of the country. A good number of students at the institute have individual sponsors, who normally contribute a certain sum of money for a child’s upkeep and education. The whole process of sponsorship could run for several years, till the child comes of age. The sponsors are mainly Buddhist enthusiasts from western countries who are intrinsically linked to the cause of freedom because of their religious choice.
Despite several years in exile, the Tibetan community has managed to keep its culture intact. A major feat for a displaced community. Unarguably, the glue that binds the diaspora would be the figurehead of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. While some resent the fact that he has given up on the demand for a Free Tibet, and has instead eked out a middle path by pushing for an Autonomous Tibet. One cannot gloss over the fact that, the Dalai Lama has played a significant role in keeping the Tibetan movement going and encouraging his people to be non-violent.
Although there is a growing dissent within the community where some voices argue that their leader’s acquiescence has everything to do with the Indian government’s growing ties with China. Consequently, any violent uprising by a refugee community will lead to a backlash by the host country (India), and even the indigenous populace. In that sense, the Dalai Lama has taken on the role of a diplomat. The situation has been tricky, but he has tried to balance the expectations of his people, and at the same time adhere to the conditions imposed by the host country.
It is interesting to note that most Tibetan residents in Dharamshala and Mcleodganj have chosen to not apply for an Indian citizenship. Choosing instead to remain refugees so that they can constantly remember the story of their displacement. For many, India is also a transition in their attempts to seek refuge in countries within Europe or North America. Like all refugees, they have no political say. An old vendor at the market in Mcleodganj mentioned that this is the reason civic amenities in the town were not in good shape. “Political brass has nothing to gain by focusing on a non-voting population,” he believes.
The amalgamation of Tibetan religion and its political aspirations has also led to the mushrooming of NGOs all over the town which can be divided on the basis of their functions. For instance, a popular NGO called, Centre for Human Rights and Democracy which documents the human rights situation within Tibet. Recently arrived refugees from Tibet provide information of their experience under Chinese occupation to the NGO. A visit to the Refugee Reception Centre revealed that each year, hundreds of Tibetans undertake a perilous journey through treacherous terrains, in a bid to escape the Chinese occupation. Most refugees escape through the Nepal route, which is usually the first stoppage for the ones who manage to successfully escape. Thereafter, they are sent to the Reception Center at ISBT Delhi, and the journey finally culminates once they are granted refuge at the same center at Mcleodganj.
“The newly arrived refugees choose to leave Tibet for religious and political reasons, which are further compounded by economic compulsions,” says Andrew, an old Englishman and a free Tibet sympathiser who has decided to spend time in town so that he can train young Tibetans in subjects such as computer applications and graphic design. He also feels that the Chinese are not really making an effort to prevent Tibetans from leaving since they care only for the occupied land.
Looking at the arrival of hordes of refugees, a middle aged Tibetan entrepreneur who wished to remain anonymous says that he is a bit wary of them. Further explaining that, it is important to scrutinise those arriving now as they are people who have lived under Chinese occupation for years. “There’s a very real possibility that China could be slipping in spies in the guise of refugees,” he says.
Lashang Tsering who runs a small book shop in Mcleodganj stands out in his disregard for the idea of an autonomous Tibet. For him, anything short of complete Independence would be a betrayal to the aspirations of tens of thousands of Tibetans who gave up their lives while protesting against the occupation. His passion for free Tibet has lead him to turn down offers of sponsorships from several donors to become a freedom fighter. He was part of a force that battled the Chinese troops at the Tibetan border. He says, at one point, his team ambushed a Chinese lorry carrying a consignment of files, which was eventually handed over to the CIA.
For several years, the US lent covert support to guerrilla operations led by Tibetan fighters. Eventually, they decided to stop the aid, following a covert deal with the Chinese regime. He recollects the moment when the guerrillas were sent a televised message by His Holiness asking them to lay down arms, his eyes well up. He talks of his commander who shot himself right after. Naturally, it is hard for him to let go of the idea of freedom.
While perusing ethnographic field studies which have been conducted on the area, a certain Tibetologist called Tashi Tsering stands out. He is the founder of the Amnye Mache Institute under whose guidance many seminal historical works in Tibetan have been not only been compiled but also retrieved. Tsering is not very pleased with the exoticised Western narrative of Tibetans. He believes that the notion of Tibetan world being predominantly spiritual takes away from the harsh material and economic concerns that the community actually deals with.
Furthermore, he highlights the fact that post-exile Tibetans have had to make adjustments while keeping the local sensibilities in mind. For instance, the Tibetan leadership has discouraged the Tibetans from consuming beef. In fact, the Tibetan Central Schools have removed non-vegetarian dishes from the menu—a practice which has caused displeasure amongst the community. As a Historian, his contribution becomes evident in his attempts to highlight multi-faceted aspects of Tibetan history, with a special emphasis on the roles played by women, and the marginalized segments. It is a challenging task for a historian, simply because more than fifty per cent of their literary works have been destroyed by the Communist regime.
But what they have not been able to wipe out is the struggle. A prominent center in the town is called Guchusum, formed by former Tibetan political prisoners who managed to flee China. It is loaded with symbolism as it displays various torture instruments which were used against the prisoners, including clothes with bloodstains on them. The graphic images are deliberately meant to evoke strong sentiments—the walls are plastered with pictures that depict gory visuals of torture techniques used against Tibetans in prison. Guchusum organizes gatherings which are open to visitors, where former political prisoners share their stories. Most visitors happen to be western tourists and volunteers. Since, such gatherings and activities are strictly forbidden in China occupied Tibet, Mcleodganj has attained a larger than life significance in the political discourse on Tibet. It is sometimes referred to as Little Lhasa— a testimony to the ever increasing appeal of Tibetan Buddhism. Which is also borne out by the popularity of places like Tushita meditation center, Buddhist study classes and daily sermons organized near the main Library. The town is thronged by volunteers from all parts of the world, who intern at NGOs. After spending some time working closely with the Tibetan members, these volunteers in turn spread the message once they go back home. Over the years, this has increased the number of Tibetan supporters, as well as the followers of Buddhism by leaps and bounds! Organizations like SFT (Students for a Free Tibet), Tibetan Women’s Association have dedicated chapters in various parts of the globe.
The Tibetan government in exile has also tried to form a template of an ideal structure that they can emulate once their vision of an Independent nation is attained. They have constructed their own Parliament, and buildings have been divided into administrative blocks. Through a process of competitive exams, administrative officers are appointed. The members of the Tibetan parliament (in exile) are chosen through a process of direct elections by the Tibetans in exile. An interesting aspect of the voting process is that each member of the clergy (monks and nuns) gets a double vote, whereas the others get a single vote. Such a practice has given greater clout and prominence to the men and women of religion. Obviously some Tibetans resent the upper hand which is given to the clergy, and argue that the spiritual gurus should distance themselves from matters of politics.
Notwithstanding, the diversity and differences in perspectives, what sets the Tibetan movement apart from other similar movements of our times, would be the manner in which a religious figurehead has adapted his strategy with the changing times. The Dalai Lama’s emphasis on education, endorsement of modern democracy, along with the cause of women’s empowerment and dialogue between science and religion has only enhanced his appeal among the youth.
The vision of Tibet that he espouses is vastly different from a feudal theocratic society that Tibet was when the Chinese invaded. Any social movement in order to be successful depends on a mass mobiliser who faces]the daunting task of channeling the energy of his people in the right direction. It is crucial for the sake of impression management. Just like the image of their leader, whose authority is derived from his spiritual cum political role, the Tibetan political movement is nothing without its Buddhist roots.