Monday, September 17, 2012

Tibetan Refugees in India

When in 1959, China forced Dalai Lama and more than 80,000 of his followers out of their peaceful abode in Tibet; the exiles must have believed that the world would stand by their just cause, and they would soon return home. They still believe in this but rest of the world is not so sanguine. From the early eighties to the mid-nineties, another 25,000 joined the exodus. The trickling of Tibetan refugees continues even today, albeit at a slower pace owing to the restrictions posed by the Chinese. These exiled Tibetans, most of them living in India for over half a century now, who had lived in isolation in the hallowed lands of the Himalayas, remain isolated still. In terms of their legal status, they are neither citizens of any country, nor refugees, illegal immigrants or stateless persons. When preamble of the Charter of the UN had envisaged to save “succeeding generations” from such privations, and reaffirmed its faith “in the dignity and worth of human persons”, the world had thought such human tragedies would never occur. More importantly, if it did, the world would not remain a silent spectator. Much has been written about Tibet’s rich history, culture, its mystic Lamaism, its militarization by China, agitations and self immolations but, not many have cared to know about the uprooted people of Tibet. The question of their survival, economic conditions, how they administer themselves and what do they think about their future remains less documented. Since India is home to more than 1,20,000 displaced Tibetans, it is a natural stakeholder in the restoration of peace and normalcy in Tibet, that could lead to their eventual return in dignity and honour. It is true that India did accept Tibet as an integral part of India in 1954. However, it needs to be emphasised that the decision was taken consequent to a 17- point agreement that China entered with Tibet in 1951, albeit under duress. Whatever little legal sanctity the Agreement had, became untenable with the ouster of Dalai Lama, one of the high contracting parties, and his subsequent repudiation of the Agreement. The repeated violation of the provisions of the Agreement by China, has further undermined its validity. The following commitments and violations by the Chinese are illustrative of this fact: a) The central authorities will not alter the existing political system in Tibet. The central authorities also will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama. Officials of various ranks shall hold office as usual. b) The policy of freedom of religious belief laid down in the common programme of the CPPCC shall be carried out. The religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people shall be respected, and Lama Monasteries shall be protected. The central authorities will not affect a change in the income of the monasteries. c) The spoken and written language and school education of Tibetan nationality shall be developed step by step, in accordance with the actual conditions in Tibet. d) In matters relating to various reforms in Tibet there will be no compulsion on the part of the central authorities. The local government of Tibet shall carry out reforms of its own accord, and, when people raise demands for reform, it shall be settled by means of consultation with the leaders of the Tibet. e) The PLA entering Tibet shall abide by all the above-mentioned policies and shall also be fair in all buying and selling, and shall not arbitrarily take a needle or thread from the people. Diaspora Since 1959, the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers who entered India have been living as exiles. During the first wave of the flight of Tibetans in 1959, termed by the 1961 UN General Assembly as an “exodus”, the Indian government had set up transit camps for these entrants and provided basic amenities like shelter, medical treatment and food. It was after the opening of Tibet to trade and tourism by China that the second wave of exodus to India began. There were approximately 25,000 Tibetans between the period 1986-1996 itself. A demographic survey conducted by a commission of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) had held that by 2009 total populace outside China had increased to 127,935 from 111, 020 in 1998. In countries other than India, their numbers approximately stood at 13,514 in Nepal, 1298 in Bhutan, 9000 in the US, 4275 in Canada and 4000 in Switzerland. Legal and Political Status It is ironic that India, which in six decades of its independence, had to cope with nearly 2 million refugees of various kinds (other than illegal immigration of over 20 million people from Bangladesh), has no laws or definitive policy to deal with refugees. Besides Tibet, there has been sizeable refugee problem from - East Pakistan (1971), Chakma influx (1963), Srilankan Tamilians (1983, 1989 and 1995), Afghanistan (1980 onwards), and Myanmar. The Foreigners Act of 1946 and the Registration of Foreigners Act (1939) provide the legal rubric to govern issues pertaining to the foreigners in India. Tibetan entrants fall under the ambit of these laws. As foreigners, they cannot own property, hold government jobs, exercise the right to vote or enjoy other privileges available to the Indian citizens. As, in India, there are no laws pertaining to the refugees, they are also not entitled to any privileges available to the refugees in most countries of the world. It is noteworthy that India is not a signatory to the UN Convention of July 28, 1951 on the status of Refugees, or the Jan. 31, 1967 UN Protocol. Interestingly, in 1953, India’s Foreign Ministry through RK Nehru had conveyed to the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees that the global refugee policy was essentially part of the Cold War strategy of the West and hence India wanted to keep itself out of it. Contrary to what is commonly perceived, India did not grant the Dalai Lama or other Tibetan entrants refugee status in India. They are foreigners, defined more by their cultural and ethnic rather than political identity, and granted temporary shelter in India. In this paper, the term refugees for Tibetans have been used in a generic, rather than legal sense. India has restricted its assistance to humanitarian support, scrupulously avoiding any overt or covert political support. The Dalai Lama was initially provided shelter in Mussoorie, a hill resort in UP and later, in 1960, relocated to McLeodganj, Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh. To administer his people, he constituted the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) operating from Dharamshala, which continues to be his current headquarters. As with the passage of time, it became clear that the stay of the Tibetan exiles would be a long one, India helped initiate few programs to provide some means of sustenance to them. Thus, few settlements were created where the CTA relocated the refugees and sought to provide some basic jobs and facilities. To maintain a record of the Tibetans, the Indian government in consultation with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), issues Registration Certificates (RCs) to them. While RCs do not grant any formal legal status or rights to its holders, the Indian government allows only the RC holders to live in the designated settlements. These certificates also serve as documents of identity and have to be renewed periodically. Tibetans are also issued another document known as Identity Certificate(IC), which enables them to travel to countries that accept them in lieu of a passport. Presently, the countries that extend this facility include the United States, Switzerland and some in West Europe. For a Tibetan refugee possessing an IC to be able to re-enter India legally, the IC must bear a stamp that reads “No Objection to Return to India.” Recent policy changes have foreclosed other options for international travel, such as exit permits that were in vogue in the past. Only Special Entry Permits (SEPs) are being granted to the new entrants who are classified into three categories viz. pilgrimage, education and “other”. The pilgrimage SEP allows the bearer to stay in India for three months, with the possibility of an extension up to six months. They are, however ineligible to acquire an RC or any other Indian document. Tibetans entering India with an SEP for “education” purposes may, however, be allowed stay for a longer period. The category “other” is reserved mostly for special cases, like former political prisoners. On an average 3000-4500 Tibetans have been landing in India since the late 1990s. Most of them come as pilgrims via Nepal and return after their stay of 3-6 months. In very exceptional cases Tibetan refugees can acquire Indian citizenship in accordance with the provisions of the Indian Constitution, the Indian Citizenship Act and the Citizenship Rules 1956, as amended from time to time. In a historic judgment of the Delhi High Court in 2009 in the Namgyal Dolkar vs. Ministry of External Affairs, Tibetans born in India between January 26, 1950 and July 1, 1987, were made eligible for seeking Indian citizenship. The apparent consequence of this decision is that some 30,000 Tibetans in India, that is, those born in India within this specified time can enjoy what is often called right of citizenship through birth. The decision does not change the status of Tibetans who fled to India following the 1959 Lhasa Uprising, or those born in India to Tibetan parents on or after July 1, 1987. However, very few Tibetans have shown inclination to acquire Indian citizenship. Political Structure Tibetan exiles have a unique political structure wherein the Dalai Lama holds a pivotal position in all matters -political, spiritual, social and cultural. In spite of the overarching authority of Dalai Lama, political affairs are conducted through a well structured democratic process. Significantly, in July 2011 the Dalai Lama voluntarily surrendered his political power in favour of a newly elected Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister), Lobsang Sangay. Even so, it has not diluted his position of pre-eminence and a leader of the Tibetan community. The daily affairs of the Tibetan refugees are administered by a Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) that has its headquarters in Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh. It lays claim to represent what it calls "Historic Tibet,” that includes the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai province, two Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures, Tibetan Autonomous County in Sichuan, Tibetan Autonomous County in Gansu and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan. The Tibetan Parliament: It serves as the highest legislative body of the Tibetan refugees in exile comprising 44 members, directly elected by the people. The representation in the Tibetan parliament is very unique in that it is marked by an equal representation from all provinces and religious sub-sects. The parliamentarians are elected on the basis of their affiliation to the traditional three Tibetan provinces (Cholka Sum) of U-Tsang, Dotoe and Domey. Each province has 10 members in Parliament while the five religious sects viz. Sakya, Gelug, Bon, Nyingma and Kagyu have two members each. The remaining four members are elected from the Tibetans living in other countries. Two seats are reserved for women. The representation to religious sub-sects is an issue of debate in Tibetan politics. Other than the case for keeping mutually contesting religious leaders out of the political arena, it is argued that since monks and nuns can contest from their geographically delineated provincial constituencies, there was no need to make them doubly privileged by providing separate representation. A survey conducted in November 2011 by the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), brought out that out of 150 respondents 47% felt that representation to the monks was justified, while 51% were opposed to it and 2% had no views on the subject. In fact, some smaller sects like the Bodong and Jonang are critical of the practice as they do not find any representation in the parliament. Nevertheless, since the sub-sects play an important role in the Tibetan politics this practice has come to stay and their representatives have a significant role in political decision making. The major sub-sects and their current representatives in the 15th parliament are as under; Sakya Norbu Tsering and Choedak Gyatso Gelug Rongpo Lobsang Nyangdak and Atrug Tsetan Bon Geshe Monlam Tharchin and Geshe Namdak Tsukphue Nyingma Sonam Tenphel and Gyari Bhutruk Kagyu Karma Choephel and Tenpa Yarphel The Cabinet (Kashag): Kashag is the apex executive body comprising seven departments viz. religion and culture, education, health, home, finance, security and information and international relations. The Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister) leads the Kashag and is the executive head of Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). Each department is headed by a Kalon (Minister). The CTA also has three autonomous bodies namely the Election Commission, the Public Service Commission and Controller of Accounts. The Election Commission conducts elections for the parliament and the local bodies. The Public Service Commission looks after the recruitment, training and appointment of the civil servants of the CTA. The Controller of Accounts is responsible for auditing the accounts of all the CTA departments and its subsidiaries. The CTA has its representative offices in 12 countries that practically function as their embassies. These offices are functioning in Geneva, New York, Tokyo, London, Kathmandu, Budapest, Moscow, Paris, Canberra, Pretoria, Taipei and Brussels. Over the years, strong democratic ethos have become entrenched within the exiled Tibetan community. The Dalai Lama, from the early days in India was a convert to the Indian democratic model, and was keen to inculcate and promote democratic traditions. Thus, in a calibrated manner, he surrendered his absolute authority and delegated it to the elected representatives. As a measure of reform, in 2001, the election for 12th Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister), was held on the basis of direct voting that led to the victory of Samdong Rinpoche. During his term, the 12th Kashag (Parliament) considerably enhanced its power and greater accountability and transparency was brought in the functioning of the Tibetan parliament. This helped streamline parliamentary practices, financial transactions of the CTA were made public and the ministers were made accountable to the parliament. The significance of the Dalai Lama’s divesting of power in July 2011 and transferring it to the newly elected Kalon Tripa, created serious consternation within the Tibetan community. With his great emotional appeal, a majority of the Tibetans did not want him to abdicate political power. However, with the passage of time, this change was taken in its stride and the community accepted it. Commenting on the development, Thupten Samphel, the Information Secretary of the CTA averred, “the devolution of political power shows the fulfilment of the vision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for a fully democratic and totally transparent system of administration. His Holiness felt the need for change within the administration by bringing new generations in the Administration.” The prominent Tibetan leader and Secretary of the Department of Education, Karma Gelek Yuthok, also echoed popular sentiment, “I did not believe it when he initially announced the resignation from political power, but it was only due to of my emotional attachment and faith in him that I accepted it. In the long term, he took this important decision through which he has covered hundred questions in one answer.” Clearly, the divestment of power by the Dalai Lama was a major political initiative aimed at opening opportunities for the common Tibetans to continue their struggle even beyond his life time. The changed political dispensation has provided them with a new sense of political equality and becoming equal stakeholders in their political struggle for liberation. Socio-economic conditions The Government of India accorded high priority to the resettlement and rehabilitation of exiled Tibetans who had sought refuge in India in 1959s. Prime Minister Nehru promised assistance to the refugees and sent letters to the Chief Ministers of States asking them to make available land to enable them to start a new life. The Government of Mysore (present Karnataka) was the first to grant a large forest area for the settlement of Tibetans. In the early 1960s the Tibetan refugees had with the help of local administration cleared the thick forests and developed unused land in Bylakuppe to build houses and commence agriculture. This settlement was later named ‘Lugsum Samdupling’, and became the model for subsequent settlements. The rationale behind establishment of separate settlements was to insulate them from the local populace and keep them away from meddling in local political affairs. Besides, it helped Tibetans to maintain their distinct identity, preserve their culture and traditions, and promote arts and craft. Since a vast majority of the refugees were farmers establishment of agricultural settlements was accorded high priority. There are presently 35 settlements classified into three categories viz. i) agricultural settlements (14), ii) handicraft based Centers (9) and iii) agro-industrial and cottage industries (12). The handicraft industry focuses on production of Tibetan artefacts, woollen garments, wood carving, etc. This provides a valuable secondary source of income to many refugees. The Tibetans are also engaged in small scale enterprises like operating restaurants, trading in hill produce, and construction work. The home-knitted woollen sweaters made by Tibetan women are very popular and can be seen being sold during winter months in most parts of India. Tibetan settlements are administered by the Gyapon who is appointed by the CTA. He is responsible for the development, administration and addressing local grievances of the people. He also manages community facilities like health and education in the settlements. In brief, the economic support provided by the Government of India in early years had served to meet their basic survival requirements. However, the income generating programmes initiated in subsequent years, combined with the hard labour, put in by the Tibetans improved their economic conditions. A study conducted in Dharamsala indicated that out of 10,900, settlers about 40% are engaged in small business selling artefacts, artificial ornaments, religious items and running food stalls. The first generation refugees are economically better off and own hotels, restaurants, personal shops and such like. Their children are better educated and engaged in the jobs provided by the CTA and some cultural organisations. Many from the younger generation have gone abroad and regularly remit money to their families that has improved their economic plight. The survey of refugees in Dharamsala indicated that 16% were engaged in business, 35% were working for the CTA, 25% were students, 9% were working for the NGOs, 13% were monks and nuns, and only 2% were unemployed. Since most of the refugees do not possess own homes, a substantial portion of their income (sometimes as high as 30%) goes towards house rent, and in many cases a small room is shared by 2 to 3 persons. Only about 10% people were found to be in higher income brackets, owning a own house, cars and sending children to private schools. The VIF survey indicated that by and large, there was no glaring disparity in the incomes. Only 3% each earned less than Rs. 5,000 or over Rs. 15,000 a month. The remaining 94% earned between Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 15,000 per month; 41% Rs. 5,000-10,000, and 53% Rs. 10,000-15,000 per month. It is worth noting that in the wake on the prevailing price index in India, a majority of Tibetans are living just above the subsistence level. It was, however, found that there was no resentment amongst Tibetans over economic hardships or economic inequality. The CTA is able to provide adequate schooling and medical facilities to the refugees and they were found to be quite satisfied with the administration. The literacy rate among the Tibetan refugees has considerably risen through the decades and stands at 82% today. The CTA and the Government of India had accorded a high priority to education. Prime Minister Nehru had offered to the Dalai Lama reservation of seats for Tibetan children in Indian educational institutions in 1959. Dalai Lama, however, preferred to establish Tibetan institutions to preserve the culture and traditions which, on the hind sight, was a very wise decision as it helped the younger generation to preserve their distinct identity. The first Tibetan school was set up in Mussoorie in 1960, and they stand a strong 60 in number currently. Of them, 28 are run by the Central Tibetan School Administration (CTSA), which is an autonomous body of the Government of India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development; 12 schools are administered by Sambhota Tibetan School Administration (STSA), an autonomous body of the CTA’s Education Department. The remaining 20 schools are autonomous and funded and administered by 2 NGOs - the Tibetan Children’s Village and Tibetan Homes Foundation. All secondary and senior secondary Tibetan schools in India are affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education, which is the apex board for examination at an all India level. How do Tibetans exiles view their Future? A survey conducted by Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) in 2011 revealed some startling facts. Contrary to what most analysts would believe, they are neither over awed by China’s rising economic and military strength, nor pessimistic about their future. In a sample of about 300 respondents, 96% were confident that Tibet’s political situation will change and they will be able to return to their homeland. Only 3% felt that they had lost their political cause for ever, while 1% held no view. On the question of the possible future political status of Tibet, 60% felt genuine autonomy was an achievable objective. Only 40% were hopeful of complete independence. Significantly, a majority of the pro-independence respondents belonged to the younger age group. On the advisability and utility of holding talks with the present Chinese rulers, the opinions were sharply divided. While 40% felt that the process of engagement should continue, 59% felt that nothing worthwhile will be served by continuing the talks. Anger and resentment against the Chinese rulers for violation of human rights in Tibet was total, and the exiles asserted that the situation in Tibet had sharply deteriorated over the years. No one felt that as a result of the claimed economic and infrastructural development the conditions of Tibetans in Tibet have improved and they were a happier lot. The development of infrastructure like roads, railways, air fields, communication network were seen on the one hand as instruments of military subjugation and on the other, an attempt to destroy Tibet’s unique civilization, religion and identity. Concerns were also expressed over the ecological and environmental degradation of the world’s highest snow bound plateau; often referred as third arctic pole by the Tibetans. The perceptions of the Tibetan refugees on the prevailing situation in Tibet are based on accounts of new arrivals, mostly the Tibetans pilgrims. Limited news items emanating from the Chinese and global media is another source. Of late, the messages exchanged in cyber media are emerging as a powerful communication tool; despite Chinese making concerted efforts to counter it both through technical means and taking stringent action against anti-integrationists. The Chinese stridency has particularly increased after the 2008 Olympic Games and there have been large scale human rights violations; most of them. The frequent incidents of self-immolations seriously disturb the Tibetans and evoke sharp anger and resentment. The Tibetan refugees do not hold a very positive view of the world and their response to the Tibetan cause. Though they are careful and hesitant in articulating it openly. They believe that if world opinion had strongly pressurised China, it could have prevented persecution of Tibetans in Tibet, helped in achieving autonomy, and making the dialogue process initiated by Dalai Lama as success. Though generally supportive of Western democracies, particularly the US, for their understanding and sympathy to their cause, they think that politically not much has been done to mitigate their miseries. They are also beholden to some international NGOs for the moral and material support extended by them. Some of the senior Tibetan leaders feel that in the long term, democratic countries will have to stand up to the autocratic regimes in China and Tibet issue will get resurrected at that time. They also hold the view that internal power struggle in China will lead to far reaching political changes at some point as even the Han majority was getting increasingly restive under the present one party rule. Further, large sections of Chinese are getting inclined to freedom and democracy with an empathy and better understanding of the Tibetan cause, they contend. The perception of Tibetan exiles regarding India was found to be positive at religiso-civilisational level almost reverential – Providing shelter to them in 1959 and thereafter has earned their gratitude for India. Politically, there was an understanding that India had limited options vis-a-vis China and because of its own national security interests, it cannot go beyond a point. However, the younger Tibetans felt that India has failed to play the Tibet card to its best advantage. There was also resentment on the denial of democratic freedoms to Tibetans to peacefully agitate and organise protests against the Chinese repression. They considered India to be unjustifiably over cautious to Chinese sensitivities that the Chinese interpreted as sign of India’s weakness. The faith and loyalty of Tibetans, both in the institution of Dalai Lama and its present incumbent is absolute and unflinching. However, some hot headed youth occasionally argue that he is ‘too good and soft’. Cutting across the denominational and geographical divide, most of the Tibetans are highly appreciative of his long term vision and political judgement, international stature and acceptability, gentle persuasiveness and practical realism. They accredit him with providing political and spiritual leadership to Tibetans in difficult times and single handedly creating global awareness about the Tibet cause. The Dalai Lama’s divestment of power in favour of the Kalon Tripa is viewed pragmatically, enabling the Tibetan cause not to become co-terminus with his life span. With the realisation that it may be a long struggle, this act has transformed the Tibetan issue into a people’s movement and left it to the common Tibetans and their elected representatives to carry it forward. In Lobsang Sangay, the new Kalon Tripa, he has found a leader who is young, articulate, well educated with international linkages and acceptable to the younger generation. His leadership qualities inspire hope and confidence among struggling Tibetans. Finally, the numbers of Tibetans in exile may not be large but they can be powerful catalyst of a change in Tibet. 10.07.2012


dr ganesh said...

You are the most INSIGHTFUL INDIAN after NEHRU I feel

Iris said...

My 3 months of reading for thesis here. Wish U'd written it in jan 2012. Great work anyhow!


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