Temporarily Out of Service: A Story of Tibetan Refugees

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I have three papers. The blue book called RC (Registration Certificate) with my fingerprints, a sepia photo, and other details that say I was born in India and lived all my life in this country. The second one, also issued by the government of India, the Yellow Book – IC (Identity Certificate), is my travel document with records of my speaking tours in foreign countries. The third one, the Green Book, is potentially the future passport of Tibet and was issued by the Tibetan government in exile. But none of these documents makes me a citizen. I am stateless. We call ourselves refugees, and the Government of India calls us ‘India’s guests’, one of whom is His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself.

When we were in our Tibetan refugee schools, we grew up inspired by the heroic stories of Indian freedom fighters like the young revolutionary from Punjab, Bhagat Singh; Subhash Chandra Bose, the man who led an army of freedom fighters from Bengal; Jhansi’s Rani Laxmi Bai, the queen who tied her son on her back and, on horseback, led a boisterous attack on the invading British army; and, of course, the fearless and tactful lawyer who organized the sparks into a freedom movement and sent the British home – Gandhi. We dreamed of fighting for Tibet, but our heroes were Indian.

We were told that we all bore an ‘R’ on our forehead – R meaning Refugee — and that we were all Refugees, whether we escaped from Tibet over the Himalayas and came to India via Nepal or Bhutan like my parents or were born in India and had never seen Tibet like me and my school mates. We understood we were all refugees, and we would eventually return to Tibet one day. And to make that dream come true, we must all strive to free our country under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Even though we could not see the R in the mirror, we all believed that we were different people with an invisible R on our forehead. We compared ourselves to the comic hero who bored an S on his chest. But we were many, and with our hearts and minds put together, we were a formidable force for our country, so we imagined. It was a poetic moment.

We were proud refugees. Refugees never meant poor or unfortunate or escapees as they are known in the world today. Being refugees meant that there is urgent responsibility towards our people and the motherland, and also an opportunity to become freedom fighters. We volunteered ourselves for the freedom movement, and the movement gave us a purpose, a meaning beyond our personal life. For a long time, the R was our identity.

Much later, I wrote a poem in which I redefined that English language R to a Tibetan R for Rangzen, and defined Rangzen as freedom. I said we might have been born refugees, but we are destined to be free. This was our new statement, and with this new identity, we were reborn.

What we didn’t know, living in our refugee communities, is how others looked at us. What we learned after some study is that India was not signatory to the international refugee treaties of Refugee Convention 1951 and Protocol 1967. And when we explained at a large gathering in Dharamshala of Tibetans sitting for a legal awareness workshop that legally we were not refugees but “foreigners” registered to be living in India for a renewal period of stay, one old man made an emotional statement with tears in his eyes and hands folded to his chest: “I have lost my homeland to Chinese occupation and therefore I have become a refugee, but I am not a foreigner here. I feel at home in India, and Dharamshala is my second home, but I have come here for freedom not to settle down here. I am a refugee, not a foreigner.”

Although India does not practice refugee law, India is home to a large number of asylum seekers from its neighbouring and far away countries, mainly political dissidents from Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and others. All of them are being issued RCs and ICs just as Tibetan refugees.

But behind our self-identification, there is an unarticulated political understanding: even though the 1986 amendment to the Citizenship Act of 1955 makes most of us born in India before July 1, 1987 as citizens of India, we maintained our identity as Tibetan refugees, and this is for our own political goal to stay united and eventually return home one day rather than settle down and integrate with the billion people of India. The government of India respected that sentiment and did not force Tibetans to assimilate.

But this was done not just as a humanitarian act. We understand ourselves, the one hundred thousand Tibetan refugees living in India and Nepal, as a leverage against China, more so now when the expansionist China is assertively flexing its muscles in the Himalayas, making random claims over territories in India, Nepal, and Bhutan.

India’s political investment in Tibetans is driven by a long-term interest as opposed to their token and symbolic aid to other refugees. India may have initially invested in friendship and diplomacy with China, but they also quietly helped Tibetan refugees resettle in India with education and health infrastructures. Today Tibetans are more organized and much more hopeful in comparison to their situation in the 1960s. India knew that without re-establishing Tibet as a safe buffer zone against China, as it was during British rule, she would be forever under pressure from the Middle Kingdom.

Looking at three generations of Tibetan refugees, what we see, however, is that no matter how patriotic we may be in spirit, in reality we cannot even touch Tibet, never mind actually returning to Tibet. Not only have we had to leave our homeland and not be able to return, we can’t even see Tibet. And with the rising influence of China, the situation looks bleaker. Caught in this no-escape situation, a refugee often suffers the exilic anxiety of not being able to settle down nor return.

One of the first things Tibetans in exile did was to build a strong foundation for education. The Dalai Lama’s vision was that the younger generation learn not only traditional language, culture, and customs but also learn new languages and science and technology. Today, most Tibetans can speak three to four languages. Exile is a fertile ground for learning, adaptation, and creativity. Today, even the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries run classes on biology, chemistry, and physics in addition to their monastic education on philosophy, dialectics, psychology, and languages. This education is shaping a new Tibetan identity – an identity that is not in any of the papers.

Whatever may be in the news, there has been little or no awareness in India about her largest neighbouring country – Tibet. Most Indians still name-call Tibetans as Chinese or catcall them ching-chong, ping-pong. Calling a Tibetan “Jackie Chan brother” is like calling an Indian a “Paki” in Australia.

The recent Chinese attacks on Indian borders that killed 20 Indian soldiers and maimed about a hundred changed India’s view on China. Instead of seeing China as a possible investor in India’s infrastructure build-up, for which subsequent governments have tried to woo them, China is now viewed as a number one security threat.

Being foreigners, Tibetans in India can’t vote, own land, or avail themselves of facilities reserved for citizens. In the last 20 years, nearly half of the exiled Tibetan population has immigrated to the west. Now we have about 70-80 thousand Tibetans who have become citizens in Europe and America, and they campaign for Tibet from those countries as citizens of their adopted countries. This is an unprecedented new strength of the exile community.

And yet, the condition of Tibetan refugees in Nepal and Bhutan is especially disconcerting. Although the cultural, racial, and linguistic identity of these two Himalayan countries is very closely related to Tibet, and in some places are the same, they have been under tremendous pressure from China to a point that they never allow the Dalai Lama to visit these countries. They have banned Tibetan parliamentary elections, and Nepal has disallowed Tibetans from celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday in Kathmandu. Nepal has long discontinued issuing RCs to Tibetan refugees. Tibetans in this former kingdom, which now runs a communist experiment, live a vulnerable life with no identity cards.

Once a senior Tibetan intellectual told me a story of how he was able to register himself in the US as a Tibetan from Tibet and not from China. He had reasons to be proud of this personal achievement as most Tibetan asylum seekers in the west have been registered as former Chinese nationals. This is because most of the western countries recognize Tibet as a part of China. In India, the travel document IC, issued to Tibetans, is diplomatically worded, “Place of origin: Tibet”.

Governments who blindly accepted the “One-China ” narrative in hot pursuit of cheap Made in China products, today find themself trapped and unable to de-couple politically. Issues on Taiwan, Hong Kong, and East Turkestan are quickly re-defining global geopolitics.

Meanwhile, inside Tibet today, the country is under permanent lockdown; subjects have been repeatedly bombarded with announcements on the internet, on the walls, and in institutional notices to refrain from any communication with outsiders. Reports from Tibet say Tibetans keeping Dalai Lama’s photos in their mobile phones have been arrested and detained. The state mechanism of control employs the most sophisticated tech surveillance armed with automated facial recognition that uses consolidated personal data, including biometric details. Such measures are in place so that the mass mining operations can continue to relentlessly exploit the rich natural resources in China’s backyard – resources like lithium, gold, and copper – that feed the biggest industries in the world. The miners pushed Tibetan farmers and yak herder nomads out of their land and re-settled them in artificial villages.

In Dharamshala, almost every day you will see someone or the other shifting houses, packing their books, TV set, mattresses, pot plants, clothes, and buckets onto a carrier jeep. No one has an address. We borrow our addresses from Indian landlords, and since we have been moving like nomads, we have different addresses for different purposes: gas connection, phone registration, bank, ID cards, certificates, postal address. We have too many addresses but none of them are ours. When you shift from one phone number to the next, your friend who is still stuck with your old number, hears this automated message: “This number is temporarily out of service”

The life of a refugee – as I have deeply felt in my life – is closest to the Buddha’s teachings on detachment. We move houses with almost no attachment to our last dwelling, and we are willing to go on to the next house, which may be closer to our workplace or our friends circle or just because it’s a bit cheaper or has better sun during winter or is drier during the foggy rainy monsoon.

The temporariness of the address, job, or reasons to halt is a lesson that is lived every day. Yet the desire for a sweeter home in which to settle remains a dream until it’s time to move again, maybe this time for love. And then the intelligence officer knocks at the door, asking for your permanent address.

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1 thought on “Temporarily Out of Service: A Story of Tibetan Refugees”

  1. Mark sanzenbach

    Thank you Tenzin Tsundue. We in the usa stand with you and tibet. Why china has been so intent on punishing tibet all these years is very hard to understand. A true fault in the human mind. That it hAs brought so much pain to so many refuges around the world is a sad reflection of inhumanity to man. We are all refuges. We pray for tibet and have hope for the future when we can all live together in harmony. Long live tibet long live the dalai lama.

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