Exiled Tibetans at a crossroads

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AFTER SPENDING a gruelling week in Kandhamal district in Orissa where I saw hundreds of churches and Christian houses destroyed in the name of vendetta, I thought I deserved a break in the hills. And when my former colleague Lalit Mohan agreed to find an affordable accommodation for us and our friends John and Annie, we took the Dauladhar Express to reach Pathankot and a taxi to reach Dharamsala. In Kandhamal, I visited a couple of relief camps where the refugees have been living for the last two years in sub-human living conditions, though the government claims they all have returned to their ancestral villages. As the car headed towards the hill station, memories of Mary Craig’s Kundan: A Biography of the Family of the Dalai Lama" filled my mind.

It occurred to me that we were indeed visiting one of the world’s largest "refugee settlements" where people fleeing from religious persecution found a place where they could practice their faith without let or hindrance. Nearly two thousand years ago, it was the same reason that brought about the Jewish settlement in Kerala which thrived until the state of Israel beckoned them to re-begin their life in the "Promised Land".

What an irony that in the 21st century, under a Constitution that proclaims the secular character of the Indian state, 55,000 people in Kandhamal had to suffer persecution and displacement from their own land for no other reason than that a controversial "Hindu swami" was killed by the Maoists in his own ashram! In contrast, not a soul was disturbed when the father of the nation was killed by a Hindu zealot!

By the time we reached Dharamsala and had a little rest in the near-empty Circuit House, the sun had set. Lalit drove us to McLeod Ganj, just above Dharamsala, perched on a ridge of the Dhauladhar spur of the Himalayas. On the way, he showed us the, then, Anglican and, now, CNI church – "St. John in the Wilderness" – surrounded by tall Deodar trees. In the darkness, we could see only the closed white gates.

McLeod Ganj was bustling with tourists, though it was an "off season", mainly because of the fortnight-long holidays declared for the schools in Delhi to synchronise with the Commonwealth Games. It was too late to visit the main Tibetan temple known as the "Tsuglag-khang". There was a nip in the air and we decided to have a hot soup in one of the popular joints at Dharamsala, built, we are told, over a bus stop.

The four-storied restaurant was so overcrowded that we were advised to look for a table on the rooftop. Despite the signboard, "Today is a Dry Day", because of Gandhi Jayanti, beer was being served with abandon. Maybe in McLeod Ganj, the frothing stuff did not constitute "liquor"! While climbing down the precarious steps, Lalit showed us a little shop "Established in 1860: Nowrojee and Sons".

He did not tell me how important a role the Nowrojees, who owned the shop, played in the development of McLeod Ganj. They were Parsees from Bombay, who originally emigrated from Greater Iran to protect their faith over 10 centuries ago. The shop is as old as McLeod Ganj, developed by the British as a summer resort.

The British built over a hundred large bungalows and the "St. John in the Wilderness", complete with spire and country churchyard. A former Viceroy James Bruce, also known as Lord Elgin, was buried in a great Gothic tomb in the church compound in 1863. On the walls of the church is a memorial slab to commemorate the death of Thomas William, who died of a bear attack on October 25, 1883. "In the midst of life, we are in death" reminds the slab.

The British abandoned this resort in 1905 when a devastating earthquake levelled many of the bungalows and destroyed the church steeple. The worst hit was the Nowrojee family, whose general store sold "everything from a pin to an elephant". By 1960, Nauzer Nowrojee, a descendant of the founder, was wondering how to make both ends meet.

Not many people remember that when the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet with his followers and sought asylum in India, they were first accommodated in Mussoorie. A bungalow that belonged to the Birlas was made available to the Dalai Lama for his stay. People from India and abroad flocked to see him. The interviews he freely granted to the Press disturbed the peace of the Chinese, who did not "conceal their displeasure at this, nor at his continued presence so near to the Indo-Tibetan border".

Around this time, Nauzer Nowrojee approached Nehru with a suggestion that the Dalai Lama and his people should be persuaded to shift to McLeod Gang. The Prime Minister fell for it, for he thought the Chinese would be mollified by his shunting the Dalai Lama out of sight to this "forgotten ghost-town wasting in the woods".

Initially, the Dalai Lama was unhappy with the government’s decision on the specious plea that the Birlas wanted their Mussoorie bungalow back from his possession. But he also foresaw the possibilities of McLeod Ganj, a mountainous area with streams and woods, not unlike Tibet, where they could expand. When one of his ministers, sent on a scouting mission, reported that the "water of Dharamsala is sweeter than the milk of Mussoorie", he shifted to McLeod Ganj.

It was difficult for me to get up early on Sunday as I had spent the better part of the night writing a weekly newspaper column but when the taxi arrived on the dot and John started knocking on the door, I had no escape. The more-religious John was excited about the prospect of worshipping at the "St. John in the Wilderness". After all, he and the church shared a name!

On the way to the church, I mentioned to John that the Dalai Lama is to McLeod Ganj what the Pope is to the Vatican. "You are absolutely right" said the driver, who had served in the Army and knew a smattering of English. "All the tourists come here only because of the Dalai Lama’s presence here".

A Korean girl and a guitarist from Nagaland were busy rehearsing the hymns. We were one of the first to arrive for the 10 o’clock English service. One by one people arrived. Among them were Americans, Australians, Koreans, Manipuris, Tamils and Keralites.

When the service started, the church was filled up with people, mostly youth. A Korean lady read out a sermon which, I thought, came from her heart, though John, a preacher himself, found it a bit long. Surprisingly, the unassuming priest, Rev K.J. Kunjumon, from Kottayam district in Kerala, stood throughout the service, though his role was confined to blessing the offertory.

The priest had no inhibition in removing his cassock and personally serving steaming hot coffee to everyone who attended the service, forgetting that he had to say the mass in a short while in Hindi. From there it was a short walk to the main Tibetan temple. Our first port of call was the Nowrojee Store, where the shelves were empty and the "salesgirl" seemed to be disinterested. The shop displayed old posters and advertisements of goods that were no longer available.

At the main temple, there were a large number of Tibetans, many of them attired in their traditional dress, not to mention tourists like us. I remembered Lalit telling me that it was the day of elections for the Tibetans. "How lucky you are that you can see the elections and write about it!" said John, whose ambition is to become a writer with his rich repertoire of anecdotes, culled from years of practising counselling, in which he has a doctorate.

Those who are familiar with Tibetan history know that they emerged with a flourish on to the world scene in the early seventh century when their king, Songsten Gampo, invaded the Chinese Empire and laid the foundations of what was to become one of the most powerful nations in Asia. "Over the next two centuries, the Tibetan Empire came to include Nepal, Bhutan, Upper Burma, Turkestan and parts of Western China.

"In AD 763, showing a military genius matched only by that of Genghis Khan and his successors four centuries later, Tibetan armies marched to the gates of the Chinese capital (present-day Xian) and dictated terms of peace to the Emperor, exacting from him an annual tribute of 50,000 rolls of silk".

The peace treaty the Tibetans and the Chinese signed did not, as the Chinese claim, result in the merger of the two nations. Rather, the treaty specifically mentioned that "Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the east is the country of great China and all to the west is, without question, the country of great Tibet. Henceforth, on neither side shall there be waging of war, nor seizing of territory …"

It is this Treaty that China is violating day in and day out by calling Tibet an "autonomous region of China". However, democracy as we understand it today was never practised in the tumultuous history of Tibet until, on arrival in India, the Dalai Lama learnt the virtues of adult franchise.

The Constitution drafted for the smooth functioning of the Tibetan government-in-exile based at Dharamsala has the strong imprint of the Dalai Lama, who insisted that there should be a provision under which he, too, could be removed from power.

On that Sunday, elections were taking place at four centres in Dharamsala and several others across the world. A lone khaki-clad Tibetan policeman watched from a distance as the young and the old stood orderly in a serpentine queue to exercise their franchise in the first round of elections to the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile.

Each of them clutched at a green book, the equivalent of the passport, to prove their identity and eligibility to vote. There were mainly four candidates for the post of Prime Minister (Kalon Tripa) – Lobsang Sangey of the Harvard School of Law, diplomat Tenzin Namgyal Tethong, Speaker Pempa Tsering and Deputy Speaker and lone woman candidate .

Only those who get a certain minimum votes would be eligible to contest in the final round of elections on March 20, 2011. As ballot papers were used for the polling and the voters could even write why they chose a particular candidate, it would take at least a month’s time before all the ballot boxes were brought to the centralised counting centre and the votes counted.

Incumbent Prime Minister Prof Samdhong Rinpoche could not contest as he would complete two terms in 2011. Whoever is elected Prime Minister will have to shoulder greater responsibility than his predecessor. The Dalai Lama has already turned 75 and he is not in the pink of health. A successor to him will have to be found, if necessary, by unorthodox methods.

This is because the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedum Choekyi Nyima, identified by the Dalai Lama as his successor, disappeared in 1995. The Chinese later admitted that he and his family were under their "protective custody". A poster at the temple screamed: "Free Panchen Lama". The 15th anniversary of his "enforced disappearance, incarceration and coerced incommunicado" was observed on May 17 last.

Tibetan observers rule out the possibility of China ever restoring the Panchen Lama to his religious and political rights. Given the Dalai Lama’s democratic instincts, he might even ask the Tibetans in exile to choose his successor through democratic means.

The increasing restrictions on the Dalai Lama’s visits abroad are a measure of the growing economic and political clout of China. The new Prime Minister’s task will be two-fold. One, he will have to address issues of improving the living conditions of the Tibetans wherever they are in exile. The other is to reach an agreement with China to enable them to go back to Tibet.

There is a clear disconnect between the young, who were born and brought up outside Tibet and who have seen Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, only in picture books and the old, who accompanied the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. While most of the youth want total independence from China, the Dalai Lama’s "middle way approach of reconciliation and compromise" has prevailed so far.

What many of them overlook is that the Tibet of 1959 is not the Tibet of the 21st century. China’s emergence as the world’s second largest economy after the US has increased its international clout. If more and more countries are refusing visa to the Dalai Lama, it is because of pressures from Beijing. Even the US is not immune to such pressures -- President Obama did not meet the Tibetan spiritual leader in the oval office at the White House.

While accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace on December 10, 1989, the Dalai Lama described himself as a "simple monk from far-away Tibet". He drew the world’s attention to his country’s tragic fate and to its continuing non-violent resistance".

Incensed over the prize, China used the choicest abuses against him. Today as I write this, China is using similar language against this year’s Nobel Prize winner, a Chinese dissident, who is behind bars and does not even know that he has been given the most prestigious prize. As we returned from the polling centre on that afternoon, I wondered when democracy would replace totalitarianism in China and the Tibetans would be able to return to their "roof of the world".

Asia, ReligionAJ Philip