Little Lhasa's Growing Pains

Exiles: Tibetan folk dancers in McLeod Ganj, India (Photo: Amit Bhargava/Newsmakers).

The 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 India’s 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.”

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 Tibet’s 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 Tibetan government-in-exile.

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 region’s 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 world’s highest-profile politicians.

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 don’t have a say or vote, so there’s generally no thought of taking responsibility. It’s 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 are not…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-exile’s 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.