The search for home: Why Tibetans are leaving India

Hindustan Times | ByKunal Purohit
Apr 05, 2018 09:37 AM IST

For decades, Dharamshala has been the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile and a mini-Tibet in India. But now, the Tibetans are leaving.

Everyone has a number to offer. Six for Kunsang, four for Lobsang, 13 for Yangzom.

Kunsang Tenzing (above), 33, moved to India when he was six. Growing up, a close group of six friends became his family. But now, they have migrated to the West, and Tenzing hopes to do the same.(Anushree Fadnavis, Hindustan Times)
Kunsang Tenzing (above), 33, moved to India when he was six. Growing up, a close group of six friends became his family. But now, they have migrated to the West, and Tenzing hopes to do the same.(Anushree Fadnavis, Hindustan Times)

Everyone also has stories to go with the number. Yangzom offers one about her friend, Thinley (Name changed). A decade after fleeing Tibet to come to India, he started getting desperate to return. A teaching job in Mcleodganj and a circle of friends notwithstanding, the separation from his family in Tibet had started overwhelming him. With the Chinese authorities not relenting, the only way he could go back was to cross over into China, clandestinely, from Nepal. He tried doing exactly that, only to be arrested by Chinese authorities and deported back to India.

Had he been successful, Thinley would have been Yangzom Tsering’s 14th Tibetan friend to have left India in the last few years.

In Mcleodganj, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in India, it is now becoming increasingly apparent: the town is fast losing its Tibetans to migration. Youngsters are quick to quantify this by the number of friends they have lost to this trend.

While some are migrating to the West, many are now choosing to go back to Tibet.

Lobsang Wangyal, a journalist and the organiser of the Miss Tibet beauty pageant. (Anushree Fadnavis, Hindustan Times)
Lobsang Wangyal, a journalist and the organiser of the Miss Tibet beauty pageant. (Anushree Fadnavis, Hindustan Times)

The numbers are hard to come by-the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) confirms the trend but says it has no way of quantifying it, especially those returning to Tibet. Unofficial estimates from the Foreigners Registration office in Dharamshala indicate the number could be as high as around 100 Tibetans of estimated 15,000-strong Mcleodganj’s population having migrated each year in the past two years.

What is worrying the community is that even while young Tibetans are keen to move out, the inflow of Tibetans into India has now reduced drastically; it is “down to a trickle”, says Sonam Norbu Dakpo, the spokesperson for the CTA.

As the community, spread over 44 other residential settlements across 10 states in India, embarks on celebrations to mark the start of the 60th year of its existence in India this week with a host of events spread across the country, many of these questions are now gaining traction, especially after the Indian government’s stunning refusal to participate in these celebrations, purportedly to salvage its ties with China.

Not Just The Lure Of A Better Life

To understand better why young Tibetans are preferring to move out of India is to understand the complexities that surround every Tibetan’s existence here.

On paper, the Indian government recognises Tibetans only as ‘foreigners’, not refugees. India has refused to sign the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees, which defines refugees and makes States accountable for their wellbeing. The government’s obstinance has proved costly for the community. They cannot own any property here, neither can they apply for government jobs. Till 2014, Tibetans could not even avail of loans to start businesses. Though that policy has been changed on paper, there has been little change in ground realities. Although the law allows them to take up private sector jobs, there have been cases of even those being denied by companies since they are not Indian citizens.

“Economically, many of the Tibetans in Tibet and across the world are doing relatively better than the Tibetans in India,” says Lobsang Yangtso, a Tibetan, born in Tibet, who is finishing her PhD from New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Yangtso’s statements are validated by data coming out of Tibet indicating robust economic growth in the region. Yangtso is now contemplating a move to the West, possibly the US, to pursue her post-doctoral studies. “I am not allowed to teach in Indian government-run universities here, nor work for the government. This restrict my options a lot,” she reasons.

A close friend of hers recently went back to Tibet, after having been raised in India and studying biotechnology. “His parents insisted on his coming back.”

CTA spokesperson Sonam Norbu Dagpo agrees with the trend. “The number (of Tibetans migrating) is definitely on the increase. The community’s youngsters have rising aspirations which, often, are not realised here.”

Economic migration, however, is a small part of the story. The Tibetan community’s precarious existence in India is symbolised by a document called the ‘Registration Certificate’ and a ritual around it. “The very act of renewing it is an unnerving one; imagine lining up to get a document renewed, knowing your entire existence depends on that one signature,” says Tenzin Choezin, the head consultant at the Tibetan government-run Tibetan Career Centre, which guides young Tibetans through various career options. Till recently, Tibetans would have to queue up each year to renew it. The policy was changed in 2014, making the document valid for five years.

The India Factor

Behind the precarity that the RC carries lie the perceptions around the Indian state and its inconsistent policy towards the community. Prime among these is the contradiction that while it backs the Tibetan struggle in many ways, India has always maintained that Tibet is a part of China.

In addition, with the Dalai Lama’s advancing age, an anxious community in India is increasingly trying to gaze into the crystal ball of State policy, looking for signs that the Indian government won’t turn its back on them after his death.

A string of recent events has not left them feeling very optimistic.

After a Public Interest Litigation last year paved the way for Tibetans to apply for Indian citizenship, the Indian government issued a circular in June that many felt was a rude reminder of their precarity. The government asked Tibetans opting for Indian passports to vacate their homes in Tibetan settlements and the accompanying welfare benefits. Many Tibetans panicked, many protested. The Indian government, later, revoked the order partly-Tibetans will still lose their benefits but they don’t have to vacate their homes anymore.

This partial relief it provided was short-lived. In early March there were news reports of cabinet secretary PK Sinha having issued an order discouraging Indian bureaucrats and leaders from participating, ironically, in a series of events organised by the Tibetan government-in-exile to thank the Indian State for its support to the community in the past six decades. (Union culture minister Mahesh Sharma was, however, present in Dharamshala on March 31 at the opening event of the year-long programme planned by the Tibetans.)

“Many in the community keep wondering what will become of the community after His Holiness and whether India will continue to allow us to live here or not,” says Tenzin Tselha, the National director for the Students for a Free Tibet, an active youth body which mobilises youngsters for the cause of an independent Tibet.

This unease is also driving many to migrate to ‘safer’ places. Older parents, Tselha says, are thinking ahead and asking their children to start looking beyond India. “Parents in Tibet are asking their children to come back while those in India are pushing their children to move to the US and Europe,” she adds.

When Migration Begets Migration

Complicating this mix of the economic and political is the personal.

Some, like Tsering Tso’s sister, just don’t fit in. Her sister came here when she was 17 and stayed on for a few years, pursuing her education. “But she wasn’t enjoying it. She missed family and the environment; she didn’t know how to communicate with people, especially because of the language barrier and hence, returned recently,” says Tsering.

A crucial factor that drives many to migrate is also the distance that migration creates in personal relationships.

Tibetan youth in India, separated from their families in Tibet, are forced to rely on close friends and acquaintances they make. “This situation brings the children together and they become each other’s family away from home, developing very close bonds,” says Sonam Dechen, Associate Director of the Mcleodganj-based Tibetan Centre For Conflict Resolution, which works extensively with young Tibetans. With the growing migration, these bonds might now be coming loose.

Tsultrim, a Tibetan living in India, and his partner Molly speak to his mother in Tibet via WeChat, while the two have lunch in Mcleodganj. (Anushree Fadnavis, Hindustan Times)
Tsultrim, a Tibetan living in India, and his partner Molly speak to his mother in Tibet via WeChat, while the two have lunch in Mcleodganj. (Anushree Fadnavis, Hindustan Times)

Kunsang Tenzing’s story exemplifies this. The 33-year-old came to India at the age of six, after his divorced parents put him in his grandma’s care, who then took Kunsang to India. He has never lived with his family since then; they admitted him to a boarding school and soon after, migrated to the United States. He remembers the winter breaks at school distinctly-he spent them in the school dormitory because he had no family to come home to.

Kunsang found solace in the company of six close friends that he made while growing up. They became his family.

They have now all left, spread across Europe and North America. “In the next one or two years, I will be gone to the US too,” he says.

But, the journey to boarding the flight out is seldom easy. Many first gain entry through a tourist visa and later seek political asylum as a refugee. Often, though, their statelessness makes it difficult to obtain even a tourist visa; locals say only two of every 10 applications are successful.

“Agents get fake documentation made and charge differently for each country. The going rate for the US, for instance, is about 20 lakh,” says Lobsang Wangyal, a journalist and the organiser of the Miss Tibet beauty pageant.

Then there are sham marriages, where foreign tourists offer to ‘marry’ young Tibetans for a price and a visa. A local journalist, not wishing to be identified, recounts one of her friends had agreed to pay an American tourist close to 15 lakh to get a spouse visa.

The CTA admits to these happenings. “There is an international mafia at work which is smuggling Tibetans out and charging huge sums of money. Hence, we are educating our community to not get involved with this,” said Karma Choeying, additional secretary of the CTA’s Home department. He recounts cases of people being dropped “in the middle of Africa” unexpected and being arrested. “We had to work through UN agencies to get them released.”

The Fall-Out

Some in the community believe that migration will have a net positive effect, pointing to the increased awareness about the Tibetan cause being a result of migration. “The Tibetan diaspora contributes immensely to the cause, especially because of their improved financial standing,” says Dawa Rinchen, the CTA’s officer in-charge of the Dharamshala settlements.

But, the emigration is leaving the CTA with few takers for agriculture and handicraft production, the community’s traditional occupations. “Young Tibetans who achieve higher education don’t want to come back to agriculture and instead, want to move to other countries for a better life. Our handicraft societies, especially, are not doing too well,” Choeying, from the CTA’s home department says.

Many point to the resultant ‘brain-drain’. “Migration is not bad for the cause because people continue to contribute to the struggle even when they move away. The problem is that skilled people are moving out of the Tibetan community in India, creating a lack of skilled, well-trained people in India,” says Yangtso.

Choezin, from the Tibetan Career Centre, agrees. “The best of our minds are going away, often to wash dishes in a European café.”

For many young Tibetans, having grown up without as much as a letter from their parents due to the censorship in China, the desire to migrate is often interwoven with a desire to, finally, find a home.

For some like Tsultrim, 30, home might be the United States where he plans to move and settle down later this year with his partner Molly Laurie, an American journalist based in Mcleodganj. This doesn’t come without its pangs of anxiety. Tsultrim has been craving to go back to Tibet to see his ailing mother; his visa request has been rejected eight times by the Chinese authorities.

For many others like Yangzom whose desire to move is driven by financial need, migration means leaving behind her life in India she carefully cultivated. For her, home might mean having to recreate all of that again.

But some like Yangtso have made peace with the realisation that the move might not end the search for home, after all.

“The concept of home is complicated. Somewhere deep down, it is so much more than just being a house. It doesn’t really matter where you settle down.”

On the Move: A Tibetan in India explains while she must migrate to the West for the sake of her family in Tibet

Tsering Yangzom fled Tibet to come to India 19 years ago, but is now planning to move to the West. (Anushree Fadnavis, Hindustan Times)
Tsering Yangzom fled Tibet to come to India 19 years ago, but is now planning to move to the West. (Anushree Fadnavis, Hindustan Times)

She had to check herself in disbelief each time she studied the options. 19 years ago, when she clutched a stranger’s hand to flee the horror of her life in Tibet, she never imagined she would ever want to do this.

But, here she was. For months now, she had been trying to figure out different ways to go back to Tibet. Her brother had been constantly asking her to come back.

28-year-old Tsering Yangzom didn’t remember the last time she saw him in flesh. But, he was calling her now, telling her that they should reunite. “Because we don’t know what happens to people when”, he kept telling her.

Going back was a big decision. When Yangzom left Tibet, she was escaping not just the Chinese invasion. She was escaping from what she had hoped was an escape. Left orphaned when she was only a few months old, Yangzom lived with her aunt and her husband. “I was treated as a maid servant there; by 5, I was working not just on their farm but also on other people’s farms,” she says. A kind neighbour, a witness to her struggle, took her away to Lhasa, a journey that took 15 days on foot. From there, she escaped to Nepal and, ultimately, reached India.

For her, life in India has been ‘like a dream.’ Currently, she handles Public Relations for the National Democratic Party of Tibet, the primary political party of the Tibetans in exile. “I gain immense satisfaction from my job. You can do so much more for the Tibetan cause from here, in Mcleodganj.” Having grown up without it, Yangzom says the thing that she enjoys the most at work is the ‘atmosphere’; the support and the solidarity with her colleagues who have turned close friends has kept her going, she says.

This won’t hold her back, though. Till a week ago, she had been desperately studying every option she could to go back to Tibet. “He really wanted to see me”, she insists. Then, she got an unexpected phone call from her sister in Tibet. Her brother, 42, was dead.

Her family tells her he passed away in his sleep. “I don’t know if that is a fact.”

His death has robbed her of the reason to go back to Tibet. But, it has given her the reason to move out of Mcleodganj nonetheless. “My brother has 5 children and his death has landed them in dire straits. The only hope is if I could migrate to the West and send them money so that they could go to school,” she reasons.

Having worked in non-governmental organisations for seven years now, Yangzom knows that the money is not enough to sustain her family. She can’t be content with the friends and the good ‘atmosphere’ she has found here, any more. She hopes to recreate it again, though. “Of the 14 friends I had here, 13 have migrated to the West; most of them are in America.”

Nineteen years after her escape, Yangzom now prepares to start her life afresh all over again.

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