Monday 11 September 2017

Tibetans in Delhi: Of Living in Exile and Finding Second Homes

The people of Tibet first started coming to India around 1960, after the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese rule in 1959. Soon after they arrived, the government of India allotted the area of Majnu Ka Tila, in north Delhi, to them. The place has since become an attractive tourist spot and a regular adda for students of Delhi University close by. Along with cafes, shops, a Tibetan school and a monastery, it also has a clinic called Men Tsee Khang, where patients go to get Tibetan medicines, a huge number of Indians among them. Incense smoke wafts through the air as one crosses the busy courtyard of the monastery and passes by walls mapping Dalai Lama’s travels through newspaper clippings.

A cafe in Majnu Ka Tila

In 1964, the Tibetan Welfare Office was set up in Delhi to address the needs and concerns of the Tibetans living in India. When I go to this office in Majnu Ka Tila to know more, a perplexed Lekyi Dorjee Tsangla, the welfare officer, looks up from his files and tries his best to answer my questions: “You can ask me in Hindi. My English is not so good and I can only manage broken Hindi.” Tsangla is not from Delhi and looks back with wistfulness at his previous appointment in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, a place he knew much better than Delhi, where he got appointed in 2009. In his official capacity, he acts as the link between the Tibetans in Delhi and the Tibetan government in exile. “If a big religious ceremony is to be held, I receive instructions from the government about how it should be organised and pass them on to the people. After it is concluded, I have to prepare a report and send it back to the government.”

It is from this office that educational scholarships to Tibetans are given out, both government and non-government. “If someone wants to put up a shop and an agreement has to be made about space, they come to me. If a family is trying to get their child admitted in a school and don’t know how to go about it, they approach the welfare office. We also certify nurses so they can get jobs in private medical institutions, as without citizenship they can’t work in government organisations.”

The issue of citizenship of course is one which keeps cropping up because a citizen identification card becomes a mandatory document to avail of many services in town. Tsangla talks of how the Election Commission keeps saying Tibetans would get citizenship soon while the Ministry of Home Affairs maintains that no such rule has been framed yet. “There was a 2014 circular saying they would get regulation. Some people who arrived in 1962 have ration cards while most others do not, though electricity and water supply has been there.” So far, says Tsangla, there has not been a tussle over resources with neighbours either.

For Tibetans to be identified to their own government, there is something called a green card which serves as proof of identification. A charge of Rs 60 has to be paid for it per year and if a Tibetan national does not have a green card, they apply for one at the welfare office.

Children also get scholarship from nursery to class 12 to study in the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) school but expenses overall have been on the rise. “After passing out, if they do not get seats in colleges, they directly get into jobs like call centres or hotels,” adds the welfare officer.

Tibetan Children's Village School

There are a lot of small businesses run by Tibetans in Majnu Ka Tila. They also get loans up to a lakh from the Tibetan government to start their venture. The interest rate is one per cent and the loan has to be repaid in three months.

But running cafes and selling woollens are not all that Tibetans in Delhi do. Tashi Tsering came to Delhi from Dharmshala. When asked if he faced any discrimination in Delhi, he responds in the negative. “A lot depends on the individual. For example, if you get into a taxi and start talking to the driver, he will do the same. And if you sit quietly and give him tough looks, he will act in a similar manner. Our cultures are different and in the beginning misunderstanding might be there when people look at each other curiously. You should take this in a positive light.” He admits that at times people are deliberately insulting. Once when he was in Noida with a group of friends, a guy tried to bully him. Tashi and his friends did not react and then another guy, the first one’s friend, came and apologized on his behalf. 

Compared to other places, Tashi finds people in Delhi relatively more open-minded. “We had gone to Uttarakhand for a trip and some local people came and started asking us questions about who we were, where we have come from. They kept following us.”

But while looking for work in the field of web development or digital marketing, Tashi did not have to face any hassles because of his origin. “You have to be good at your work so nobody can point a finger at you.” Sometimes, even working with Tibetans could have challenges. Tashi gets projects from monasteries in India and some of the senior monks he has to deal with are often not flexible with their requirements, not being well versed with technology and its limitations themselves.

Tashi’s aim is to ultimately have his own start-up, a gaming company that targets mobile users, for which he finds India fertile ground. If it doesn’t work here, Tibet and the US would be his other options. “India is a free country and you can have your own business. And I don’t need to earn billions. Just enough to survive decently and time for family and friends.”

What makes for challenging logistics is the lack of documentation when one tries to set up a business or get into jobs. Tashi feels that where he lives right now, in East of Kailash, the requirements, say for taking a house on rent, are more relaxed than in a place like Laxmi Nagar. That is probably one reason why the colony houses a number of Tibetans.

There is an important difference to note between the two kinds of Tibetans currently living in India. The birthplace of some is Tibet while others were born in India. The latter find it easier to make cultural adjustments in their country of birth. But the Tibetan government takes care to ensure that all Tibetans stay connected to their culture. Children in Delhi are sent to a school called Tibetan Children’s Village where they learn the Tibetan language. The people I interviewed proudly recalled how Dalai Lama refused Nehru’s offer of sending these children to English medium schools in India but instead established TCV. In 1961 the Indian government established the Central Tibetan Schools Administration (CTSA), which has 28 schools, both day and boarding, under it in different places in India.

Tashi believes that while these platforms educate people in the Tibetan language, they miss out on learning other languages as fluently. Once he has set apart enough savings for the investment, Tashi plans to build translation tools for Tibetans. “People like Steve Jobs can never be my role model. What is the good of earning so much money for yourself? Once you have enough, it is more important to give back to society.” He also finds it limiting that for Tibetans direct political participation is often seen as the only way of contributing to their country. “Two years ago I started a social networking site which also became political, though I didn’t want it to be. Why does everything have to be like that? Or maybe I am selfish. I do understand that my family in Tibet may have to face pressures I am free of in Delhi. Still one cannot say that protesting is the only way to work for our people.”

He also admits that living away from home opens up new vistas. “You can try anything. You face problems on your own, become mature. You can take your own risks free from your family’s anxieties and expectations.” After coming to Delhi, Tashi did not do much for a year, then realised he needs to do something to stay financially independent, became a web developer, started taking freelance work. He also opened a cafe with a partner and later sold it when his other work became too demanding. “Sometimes I see other families and miss mine. I do have relatives in Nepal but don’t go there much as I have become too used to my own freedom. I tell myself that even if I am away from home at least I am not not wasting going to parties every day. I am trying to do something good for myself.”

He has a strong network of Tibetan friends around. “We regularly call each other, meet and hang out together during Tibetan festivals.” When in college, he first got to see Indian students his age at close quarters. “We were two Tibetans in class and most of the students there, in Punjab Technical University, were Punajbi. Punjabi guys are serious. They reply when you talk; they don’t initiate conversations. I observed that he had a group earlier but later we would mostly see him alone. When we asked him, he said the others had stopped hanging out with him because he had scored well in the exams. We tried to befriend him but he seemed tense and overburdened by his family’s expectations.”

Tashi remembers a student in class who would look down on others and pretend to know it all even when he didn’t, a quality he says he later observed in a lot of Indians. I become conscious of my own continuous nodding throughout the conversation and make it a point to stop and ask Tashi for more clarity later in the conversation on things that are new to me. “If I don’t know something, I’ll come out and say it. On the other hand, this one student who would always laugh at me had actually failed. It was only when I pointed it out in class did he stop being contemptuous.” Talking of cultural differences with Indians, he gives the example of marriage: “In our society, it is not a big deal if a rich person marries someone poor. We don't have restrictions imposed by our families. As for religions, I feel we should pick the best parts of all religions and practise those.”

Tashi feels impatient with some Tibetans of the older generation, because he has faced ageism from them. “I used to work in CTSA and nobody would listen to me over there. You have to have grey hair in order to be taken seriously in Tibetan society.” While working in Dharmashala with the education department in 2014-15, he was offered a permanent position but he refused because he felt he would not get enough exposure there.

Learning new things is something that most excites Tashi. “I would get the fourth or the fifth rank in school but I was quite good in sports, painting and computers. After graduation, I was going to pursue fine arts and become a cartoonist.” But he eventually got interested in web development and self-taught himself a lot of the relevant things even before he went for a professional course. “I recently met an old man in Nepal who was a musician and had just started a soya sauce making ‘factory’ in his small room and was selling the products himself on the streets to earn money. No skill goes waste.”

In Jawaharlal Nehru University, another Tibetan is brushing up on a skill. Tsering Tharchin is studying the Chinese language. He feels that in the days to come Tibetans would need more and more resource people who understand Chinese, especially with regard to political matters. Tharchin has been in Delhi, where he came from Himachal Pradesh, for seven years. Having been in India since 2002, he doesn’t find it difficult to adjust here, though he is still learning to cope with Indian spices. In Delhi, he found the opportunities that he says aren’t available at other places in India. “I have’t experienced discrimination here. Sure, at times there would be racist comments but the people who would pass those would be in a small percentage. Delhi is a liberal place and it feels like home.”

Amongst Indians aware about the political context of Tibet’s struggle, it is easy to see every Tibetan through those lenses. An Indian friend with contacts in the Tibetan community told me many of them do not want to speak to the media as they are tired of always being seen as refugees. Sonam Dolkar, now 25, came to Delhi when she was 18, and is pursuing her MPhil in Japanese Studies in JNU. She says that she does not mind if people see her in the light of Tibetan’s liberation struggle, “Even if I can educate one person about our struggle, that’s one way I can contribute to the cause.”

Protest posters on a Majnu Ka Tila wall

Culturally, she finds Indians more outgoing and also outspoken. “Studying and living in Delhi was one of the best decisions for me.” As far as the city of Delhi is concerned, she would like to work here after her academic life is complete, “although there were times when Delhi was not so safe for women and people like us . . . because of the fact that we look like Chinese. I constantly experience people calling us different names and gawking at us. But the positive thing about Delhi has been learning to use our freedom. In the Tibetan school, we were constantly under the eyes of a teacher, school captains and warden. Living in Delhi and having the freedom from all these pressures has been, in one way, very liberating.”

If not the only, or the permanent home, the city has definitely become a second or a current home for a lot of Tibetans, not all of them young students. Tenzin Passang came to Delhi after his education in Mussourie and set up his shop in the Monastery Market in Buddhist Vihar, near ISBT. “I am grateful to the government of India for this place, for the amenities of water and electricity. If I have got the chance to do business here, I too make it a point not to dupe customers. Even students are happy with the reasonable rates at my shop.” Has he ever had to face any racism here? “Maybe one in hundred persons is like that. And if that person says something, other Indians explain to him, tell him about us, where we have come from and why.”

Sonam Wangyl is in the Indian army and helps his wife manage their shop when he comes to Delhi during his period of leave. I ask him about some of the clothes at the shop and he gives an embarrassed smile, saying it’s really his wife who knows the shop best but is unwell and thus away from the shop. He is happy with his job and satisfied with the running of the shop, “Business is good; the environment is favourable for doing business.”

The president of the market association, Sonam Dorjee, explains that since the ministry of urban development exclusively allotted the place to Tibetans, even shops run by Indians are owned by Tibetans. At the time of the interview, Dorjee was extremely busy because around Buddh Purnima a lot of religious ceremonies take place around the monasteries, which the market association has to arrange for. On the question of whether the market people have tiffs with the Indians around, he says, “Sometimes, but we try to ignore these things. While some local people might discriminate against us, most are not bad. If there is any trouble with customers, we go and pacify things. With time, things are becoming smoother. We advise our people that the customer is god in Indian culture and that they should be dealt with carefully.” He feels Tibetans are well looked after by the Indian government.

The Tibetans who came to Delhi might be satisfied with their day to day experience in Delhi but those who have lived in the south of India find it an easier place to be. Tashi, living in the Tibetan youth hostel in Rohini, which houses around 300 students, finds the south more welcoming. At the same time, he also remembers protests in Arunachal Pradesh, which had asked Tibetans to leave.

Entrance to the youth hostel in Rohini

Tashi had left Tibet at the age of three, after his parents passed away, with other Tibetans. Living in Delhi, he tries to ignore differential behaviour towards them as much as possible. “Sometimes we are overcharged by shops. We know this yet we agree as we Tibetans are often lenient with our money.”

At times he is left flustered. “We have small eyes and that’s why we are called chinkis. Fine. But at least they shouldn’t call us Chinese. Many people think Tibet is an Indian state in the north-east.” On occasions when the harassment turned more aggressive, Tashi and his friends did not find the police very helpful. “Indian guys on bikes have targeted women around here. They snatch phones or abuse them verbally. We have had a few fights. We try to be around women when they step out in the evenings so we can protect them.” Yet he feels that those from the north-east have suffered more attacks. “And then those from the north-east have also wanted us to leave Majnu Ka Tila, because they want to run the market. But that is so unfair because we built the entire place. It was bare when we got it.”

Apart from the schools, Tashi mentions the Tibet House in Delhi, which promotes Tibetan culture beyond the Tibetan community as well, and the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharmshala as another place where Tibetan art and culture are kept alive. Graduates of the school can then teach others. “After graduation, all of us have to find our next stop. I am thinking of JNU or the Jindal School.”

Scholarships from the Tibetan government are from those scoring 60 per cent and above. If someone gets marks above 80 per cent, another 7,000 is added. “Financial aid is there but limited and you are not left with much for additional expenses after paying for food and transportation. But we all try to help each other. There are Tibetan people with money who sponsor students.” Tashi also works to support himself, helping organise tours when he has time to spare.

In the same hostel lives Phurbu Tsetan, a second year student of English literature in Ramjas College, Delhi University. Her birthplace is Kollegal in Karnataka. Right after she passed out of the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Dehradun and started preparing to come to Delhi, she heard news of racial attacks on people from the north-east. “Since we look alike I was afraid. My senior reassured me that while the news is correct the media also exaggerates.” Soon she was explaining to locals that she was not from the north-east, and where Tibet is. “In the beginning I didn’t get this hostel as I am not from one of the Tibetan schools. When I was looking for a house, I was asked for huge security deposits that other Indians did not have to pay.” Like for most other women, traveling in Delhi is not stress free for Phurbu, though she felt less afraid in Dehradun and even more comfortable in Karnataka. For vacations, she prefers to go to places around Bangalore. She says India is an evolving country and she understands that sometimes misunderstandings and discrimination can happen. “But one student had some really bad experiences here. She was filling someone's survey and wrote that Indians are fake. I was shocked as I found it rude. She then agreed to write that Indians are mostly nice but rude at times. Actually because of what Tibetans have faced they're close knit. So probably college friendships where you just hang out and go back home seemed fake to her.”

Phurbu herself has friends from different places. “One is from Arunachal and we definitely share more solidarity.” Phurbu, like many Tibetans, closely follows the teachings of Dalai Lama. “His Holiness says our culture is all we have right now. So we have to be attentive to it. We observe each festival with equal fervour. On our national day, I wear our traditional dress.” The most anticipated occasion is Losar, the Tibetan new year. Dalai Lama’s birthday and the day he received the Nobel Prize are important.

Talking more about her culture, Phurbu says, “Tibetan parents take a lot of risks. They send kids to boarding schools at a young age. They believe they will get prepared to face the world. When I was in the sixth grade I travelled to Bangalore alone. There is no pressure on us related to marriage. Though my mother was too lazy to be romantic, I can choose my partner. I would surely like to but I am not sure if my mother would agree to my being with someone from another nationality. When I went to a Christian school, she was really scared and made doubly sure that I knew my own religion closely.” In Dehradun, Phurbu shares, there are hostels run by NGOs especially for children from Nepal, Tibet and India, funded by people in the UK.

She does not shy away from direct political participation though she says she stays away from college elections because of the fights and vandalism involved. She participates in protests for Tibet though as a Dalai Lama follower, she sticks to the stand of demanding autonomy for her country, rather than a complete break from China. Another youth, Tsering Wangmo, a Delhi University graduate, speaks similarly, “I go for gatherings that do not trigger anger against the Chinese because that can antagonise them further and harm the Tibetans living with them. I prefer peace marches.”

Phurbu happily recalls, “On 10 March, the Tibetan Uprising Day, we went around with banners to the university and to Madhuban Chowk and spoke to people, informed them about our struggle. They gave us our full support. Indians have suffered under the British rule; they can empathise with us.”


When seen together with the experiences of Africans living in Delhi and a spate of attacks on them, the accounts of Tibetans tell of relatively smoother adjustment stories. They might not be targeted because of their colour, but they are still easily segregated based on their looks. Lack of knowledge about Tibet-from its geographical location to its political status-are still common challenges they have to face. But at least till the Tibet-China tensions are resolved, the Tibteans in Delhi seem to have accepted it as their home for a brief period in time and made their peace with it.

First published in The Equator Line, Jul-Sep, 2017.


manju said...

Very well written article.Your interactions with them is very informative.Came to know a lot about the Tibetans.👍👍

probe said...

This post is a lot of nostalgia for me. It revolves around my favourite places, right from TCV to Majnu ka Tila. It's a beautiful culture and unfortunately, it is all they have right now.

ankita said...

TCV too?! Though I know you are Delhi as well.

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