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the September 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 9).
Little Lhasa's Growing Pains
Lynne ODonnell, The Australian (centrist), Sydney,
Australia, June 16-17, 2001.
Venerable Yeshi Togden pulls a battered drawstring bag from
a cupboard in his cramped office. As the sun sets over the
eternal snowcaps of northern Indias Dhauladhar mountains
dominating the view from this ramshackle corner of Dharmsala,
Yeshi grapples with the sack and draws out an unpalatable
cargo: a collection of weapons used by Chinese police against
Tibetan people. We collect them as evidence, says
the 37-year-old Buddhist monk as he scatters double-edged
and serrated knives, brass knuckles, and canisters of tear
gas spiked with lead filings on a table. As evidence
of the brutality.
Tibetan folk dancers in McLeod Ganj, India (Photo: Amit Bhargava/Newsmakers).
The picture painted by this small exhibition is one well-known
to Yeshi, whose office is the headquarters of an association
of former political prisoners who have escaped from China
into India. A rebel against the Chinese presence in his homeland,
Yeshi spent time in Tibets prisons in the late 1980s
after participating in the monk-led demonstrations against
Chinese rule. In 1990 he joined the flow of refugees leaving
Tibet for India, making the grueling and dangerous trek across
the winter-bound Himalayas into Nepal and, eventually, to
the northern Indian hill station of Dharmsala, seat of the
Here, he says, he could be close to the Dalai Lama, the man
regarded by the majority of Tibetans as their spiritual and
secular leader, the centrifugal force of an international
cause célèbre since he fled the isolated regions
capital, Lhasa, along with 85,000 followers, in 1959.
Each year, up to 3,500 Tibetans make the trip. What drives
them, say exiled Tibetans, is the oppressive regime maintained
by their Chinese overlords and the systematic attempt to obliterate
Tibetan culture, language, religion, and people. Many end
up at the Refugee Reception Center in McLeod Ganj, a village
in the Himalayan foothills above Dharmsala. It was from here
in the 1960s, in the early days after his arrival, that the
Dalai Lama consolidated his hold on Tibetans in exile. During
the past 20 years he has become one of the worlds highest-profile
With his celebrity status, however, have come crowds. And
as a result McLeod Ganj is rapidly reaching the limit of its
capacity to cope with the enormous numbers of people who flock
here every year. The reception center is constantly full;
up to 50 refugees are resettled here each week.
Indians join the backpackers who throng the narrow and increasingly
filthy streets of McLeod Ganj, hanging out with monks, trading
snippets on the latest yogic meditation classes and espresso
bars to spring up, getting stoned, and hoping, like everyone
else, to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama.
McLeod Ganj is being buried beneath the weight of it all.
Just outside the Refugee Reception Center, the stench of open
drains assaults pedestrians who must walk nimbly to avoid
disappearing into the deep holes dug for a new sewerage system.
From the sunny verandas of a dozen cafés, tourists
gaze out, not over a verdant valley but onto hillsides covered
with garbage, dumped there because there is no landfill or
institutionalized collection system. The economy has
developed, but the area has become backward in some ways,
says Raksha Bhatia, whose family has lived in McLeod Ganj
since 1940, when her father went into business building barracks
and hangars for local army garrisons.
The fate of McLeod Ganj speaks volumes about the nature of
the Tibetans existence in India. As a refugee community,
they are marking time before they can return to their homeland.
The Tibetans are not part of the system, they dont
have a say or vote, so theres generally no thought of
taking responsibility. Its a refugee mentality,
says Elizabeth Napper, an American Buddhism scholar and deputy
director of the progressive Dolma Ling Nunnery in Dharmsala.
While the government-in-exile has no power to decide the quality
of roads that exiles walk on, it has a developed bureaucratic
infrastructure, paid for mostly by international donors, that
sustains the exiles educational, legal, health, and
spiritual needs. Industries have been fostered, mostly agricultural,
providing employment for the majority of the 100,000 exiles
living in India.
Inside the four-story refugee center in McLeod Ganj, arrivals
stay in large dormitories, their meager possessions piled
on stretcher beds only inches apart. Within weeks, the government-in-exile
will have categorized these people according to their needs.
The Tibetan government-in-exile tells people to go back,
says Tenzin Chokey of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights
and Democracy. There are misconceptions in Tibet that
if they come here they will be taken care of. And when they
they are disappointed. And they become dangerous
when they go back, feeling marginalized and talking negatively
about the government-in-exile.
Every arrival is immediately aware of the central tenet of
the Tibetan exile experience: the belief that they will soon
return to their country. It is a dream upheld steadfastly
by the leaders of the community. To give this goal legitimacy
and strength, the Dalai Lama has sought to create a broadly
representative political infrastructure that can rise above
the claims by critics, including the Chinese communists, that
he is hungry for personal power.
As the wait for an end to exile stretches on, 53 settlements
in India, Nepal, and Bhutan are now home to third- and fourth-generation
Tibetans with no memory or experience of life in Tibet and
little way of relating to the refugees. This constitutes one
of the government-in-exiles major challenges: how to
ensure that the Tibetan identity, along with its culture,
history, religion, and language, remains a dynamic and living
force with relevance to all Tibetans.