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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tibetan Diaspora

October 6, 2008

The Statesman
October 4, 2008

"As refugees we have no good jobs, but with Indian citizenship we
could lose our Tibetan identity and culture," Dorje told me during a
function on a sunny September morning in New Delhi to mark the end of
over 100 days of protests to free Tibet. He was voicing the inner
struggles of second-generation Tibetan refugees born in India.

Dorje was among a few hundred Tibetan refugees who gathered in Jantar
Mantar, the 18th century observatory near Parliament Street whose
vicinity serves as New Delhi's designated protest corner. Tibetan
elders made speeches of exhortation, amid oil lamps, photographs of
the Dalai Lama and Mahatma Gandhi, the blue-orange-yellow Tibetan
flag and, more prominently, gory posters of maimed and tortured
Tibetan freedom fighters inside Tibet.

Once Dorje returns home from the work to free Tibet, he grips another
challenge of being a refugee in India ~ land of his birth and life ~
in a complexity common to second and third generations of the over
600,000 Tibetan refugees in the country.

While Dorje speaks fluent Hindi, he prefers Tibetan food at home and
has ensured his son speaks Tibetan. "The Indian government does offer
us citizenship, but we have to ensure that the Tibetan culture lives
on," says Dorje. So he will not ask for an Indian passport that will
give him better-paying jobs and his family a life outside "refugee" status.

"We just have to keep up the struggle," says fellow Tibetan Karma,
who is one among the young volunteers serving deysee (a
special-occasion Tibetan dessert of buttered sweet rice with raisins)
to participants at the function, a few bystanders, street children
and neighbouring protestors espousing other causes. Policemen keeping
a watchful eye on proceedings don't seem to be recipients of the hospitality.

Like Dorje, Karma was born in India and has never set foot in Tibet.
They have no one they feel the need to contact in Tibet. Their
parents, who were born in Tibet, keep in touch with relatives and
friends in Tibet through telephone and the Internet, though Dorje
says communication lines with Tibet have been cut off since the start
of the Beijing Olympics.

For now, community elders are not worrying about existential problems
of second-generation Tibetans in India like Dorje and Karma. "Tibetan
people in India are fine, it's the people in Tibet we have to worry
about," says Acharya Yeshi Phuntsok, a middle-aged monk who is a
member of the Chitue, the 46-member Tibetan Parliament in Exile. But
Tibet's non-residential leaders may not for long ignore any
frustration of young Tibetans having to cope with the disparity in
their career outlook compared to fellow Indian college students.

Indian students can earn six-figure starting salaries, while Tibetan
students can get a business management degree but the refugee status
is automatic disqualification for a corporate job, according to
Dorje. A Tibetan MBA student can best hope for some stray work like a
job in a call centre, says Dorje, or be back to making woollens in
refugee camps like other newly arrived refugees from Tibet. Dorje
himself is a woollens businessman, and says his son may not have many
other options either.

The colourful, inexpensive Tibetan woollens appear in roadside stalls
every winter, but the economic challenge of the near future could be
whether woollens, handicrafts and small businesses such as
restaurants serving momos can sustain the increasing aspirations of
Indian-born Tibetans in a wealthier India, even as the refugee
population grows.

The refugee influx is increasing to escape what Tibetan leaders say
are growing atrocities against the population inside Tibet. Over
3,000 Tibetan refugees are estimated to cross over to India each
year. Their challenge is to reach the India-Nepal border with
official visas or through stealth across the mountains in Tibet. The
Tibetan Government in Exile in Dharamshala then takes over funding
and steering the refugee's journey to India and their eventual
settlement in a Tibetan refugee camp in the country.

Unlike the larger Nepali population that flows into India, the
Tibetans cannot go back whenever they want. And unlike the Nepali
population in India, Tibetan refugees have to deal with the Indian
government that seems more eager not to offend their Chinese counterparts.

The result is a cloak of wariness that greets strangers at the
Tibetan refugee camp near the Inter-State Bus Terminus in New Delhi,
a settlement that hosts one of the bigger Tibetan populations in
India. "They have been settling here since 1962," says an Indian who
supplies drinking water to the camp. While the board at the gate
saying 'Tibetan Refugee Camp' might suggest tents and makeshift
shelters, the "camp" comprises more comfortable brick-and-cement
buildings and houses.

"Save Tibet" proclaims the white T-shirt on a young resident Tibetan
in the neighbourhood. But he visibly breaks into sweat when asked to
talk about his people, stammering an unconvincing "I don't speak good
English" and hastily retreating to fellow Tibetans in a waiting
chartered bus ferrying Tibetans to the function at the New Delhi city centre.

At the 'Free Tibet' function, the local media was conspicuous by its
near total absence. The impatient way spokespersons answered queries
of the few media personnel present seemed to suggest 'Free Tibet'
could do with a media management makeover. Better communication and
involvement with local people could perhaps earn them greater
support. But a mental block could be the determination to cling to
their Tibetan identity, for fear of losing it. Maybe Indian-Tibetans
can pick up lessons from overseas Israelis, probably one of the most
influential of expatriate populations.

Since the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, India's sympathy for a
free Tibet does not seem to have changed much beyond offering shelter
to refugees ~ even as children who are the third generation born in
India go to school as Tibetan refugees.
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