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Seekers of Refuge in a Land of No Return

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Seekers of Refuge in a Land of No Return:
Conversations with Tibetan Refugees in Bylakuppe

In 1959, on the heels of their beloved Dalai Lama, tens of thousands of Tibetans abandoned their Chinese occupied homeland and sought refuge in India. Recognizing the atrocious nature of the Chinese invasion and subsequent colonization, along with the uncomforting political situation in which they were placed, the Indian government absorbed the mass migration with open arms.
By 1960, it became readily apparent that the Tibetan refugees would be residing in India for an extended period of time, and the construction of permanent facilities for them became an issue of great pertinence. To address this need, the State of Karnataka offered up three thousand acres of jungle land for the construction of a massive refugee camp near Bylakuppe. Thousands of Tibetans were soon sent to this location; where they carved a niche for themselves out of the wild jungle and, essentially, created a “Tibet” upon the humid flatlands of Southern India. Now, forty-six years later, the camp is home to 14,000 Tibetan refugees spanning three generations, towering sky-high monasteries, flourishing agricultural fields, and a whole range of well-established public facilities based on the Tibetan model. All of this provides one with the impression that the Tibetans have created a permanent base for themselves in India; but, as any refugee will readily proclaim, their stay is thought of in purely provisional terms. The exiled Tibetans have not yet given up hope that their homeland will be liberated and that, within their lifetimes, they will be able to return. Tibet is on the minds and lips of the entire community, and, although most of the refugees have never lay eyes on their homeland’s mountainous terrain, it still lives on within their hearts.

The Bylakuppe Tibetan refugee camp was created in the south western portion of Karnataka state, which is located in the far south of peninsular India; over two thousand kilometers from Tibet. This was the first and largest of the intentional Tibetan settlements in India, and was created in response to the need to consolidate the masses of Tibetans who were fleeing the Chinese occupation of their homeland. Initially, the Tibetans formed haphazard habitations around the Indian border states of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Assam, and Himalachal Pradesh; were they found only modest amounts of government support and lived in loosely assembled camps. For example, in Assam Base Camp, sixty people were lodge in a single hut for months on end and many died due to the climatic change and harsh living conditions. In this situation, the Tibetans took any work they could find, and helped in the construction of highways and other public works projects while living at the labor-sites in tents. This rather unsteady state of affairs provoked the Indian government to construct a very large settlement in the far south of the country for the exiles to reside in.

When I first entered Bylakuppe, my impressions were of a mixed community of ethnic Tibetans and native Indian agriculturalist living side by side in mutual symmetry. On the ride into town I saw Tibetans in the usual garb of the contemporary Indian commoner- off colored cotton slacks and button-down shirts- riding around on motor scooters and talking shop with Indians in the dust brown streets. Bright purple robed monks sped around in Indian driven, exhaust coughing rickshaws. The shops that lined Main Street were a smorgasbord of Tibet and India: Tibetan craft markets stood eave to eave with Indian spare-part outlets. In fact, except for their obvious physiological features, the Tibetans seemed to be nearly indistinguishable from the Indians. But, as I learned more about the history of the camp, these melting-pot impressions quickly faded.

The official reason for the Indian Government’s excessive altruism was that they wanted to allow the decimated Tibetan population the space and gravity needed to preserve their culture. Many Tibetans in the Bylakuppe camp mimicked the above reasoning and said that they were very grateful for India’s understanding and assistance. But I also have the impression that there was a driving pressure on the Indian government to administer a degree of control over the unsettled Tibetans and also to move a potentially militaristic population, with a justified vendetta against the Chinese, as far away from the borderlands as possible. The jungles of Southern India were an appropriate answer to all scenarios.

But this land was not previously uninhabited; as Indians have been cultivating its’ fields and taking sustenance from the surrounding jungles since time immemorial. When it was decided by the government that this would be the place that the Tibetans would be relocated to, the Indian villagers who previously occupied the area were given a scraps share of their land’s value and they themselves were, ironically, relocated. As can be imagined, this preferential treatment of the Tibetan outsiders was not received well by the local Indian populous, and has been a continuous source of strife between the two communities.

The Indian government initially provided the Tibetan refugees with three thousand acres of dense jungle and farm land for the creation of a large scale settlement. The initial group to arrive in this area numbered five hundred and, with the assistance of the Indian government and international NGOs, they began clearing the jungle and constructing an infrastructure by hand. One of the camp’s original inhabitants, Tsering Pallden, told me that they did this by dividing themselves evenly into two groups: one cleared the forest while the other constructed roads. All of this work was done in the most primitive manner conceivable, and took a great toll on the refugees. Many of them died as a result of this toil; as the dire hardships and harsh jungle climate was more than what many of the unacclimated highlanders could take. But they persevered, and constructed one camp after another to accommodate the continuous stream of new settlers. Now, the Bylakuppe settlement has fourteen camps, four lavish monasteries, multiple schools, and a population of 14,000 Tibetans. “We made a nest in this jungle, and now it is no longer a jungle,” proclaimed the director of the camp’s refugee school, Mrs. Choni S. Tsering.

At the Bylakuppe camp, the Indian government initially provided the Tibetan refugees with basic provisions to begin their new life. At the onset, each person in the camp was given one acre of farmland, and each home, which was usually occupied by two families in the early days, was also given a single cow for milking and breeding purposes. These exact provisions were adapted as the settlement grew in size, and the latter arrivals were provided with single family habitations and three acres of farmland per household.

After the jungles were cleared, the problem of cultivating the land became another great challenge to the Tibetan exiles. In Tibet, most of the refugees were pastoral nomads who, for the most part, knew neither grain nor how to sow it. Therefore, as Mrs. Tsering, put it, “We not only had to learn, but we also had to survive.” This theme seems to have been taken to heart, as the Tibetans slowly learned cultivation methods from the small handful of them who had previously practiced agriculture in Tibet, as well as from the assistance provided by foreign NGOs. The hardworking Tibetans soon molded their fields into fertile oases, which have become so profitable that laborers from the local Indian community are now regularly employed to cultivate them.

The fact that the Tibetan refugees were provided with such excessive amenities from the Indian government and the international community was greatly resented by the local people of Bylakuppe; who themselves were highly impoverished and could have benefited from outside assistance. Essentially, the hand-outs that were given to the fleeing Tibetans allowed them to achieve a much higher living standard within a single generation than the Indian population has ever had in millennia of agricultural toil. This seeming unfairness on the part of the Indian government was the impetus behind violent conflicts between the local Indians and Tibetans during the initial stages of the settlement. I was told by a Tibetan community leader that this strife has since simmered down and that the refugees and Indians now live in harmony; “We go to their celebrations and they come to ours,” he said. But I still harbor doubts as to how harmonious this apparent symbiosis between the well-off foreigners and the impoverished locals could possibly be.

The issues inherent to massive refugee populations are usually always multi-facetted; as on the one-hand, there are the exiles who need a tract of the planet in which to etch out a livelihood, and on the other, is the fact that the world is choked full of humans and nearly every inhabitable stretch of land is already occupied. Where is the balance? When varying populations forcibly overlap, which communities should receive precedence over others? What cultures should find the grace and support of the heavy hand of international appeal? Who decides? These questions are relegated to the realm of politics, and I feel as if they oftentimes cannot be answered with a clear conscience. The subsidies that the Tibetans were given in Southern India were at the direct expense of the local Indian populous; but, really, who can sort out the righteousness of this scenario? All moral factors and personal prejudices aside, the fact still remains that, fifty years after the Tibetan’s arrival, both communities have obtained an acceptable level of sustenance. The local Indians have licked their wounds clean and have found a new source of income from the Tibetans and the tourist they attract, and the Tibetans have found a home in which they are flourishing.

But upon arrival, many Tibetans had a very difficult time adjusting to life in Southern India. In a talk with the Dharamsala trained, traditional Tibetan medicine doctor, Tenzin Tsephel, I was told that the initial refugees underwent a lot of trauma due to the change in environment. These afflictions were physiological as well as psychological in nature, and many refugees died as a result. The rapid movement from the cold mountainous plains of Tibet to the hot and humid jungles of Karnataka, essentially, caused the exiles to undergo such unprecedented environmental stress that many of them simply could not adjust. Even the drinking water was of a drastically different nature; as, in Tibet, the water is collected near its source in the mountains whereas, in Southern India, the water has been continuously regurgitated and needed to be taken from the ground. Every aspect of life in peninsular India presented a challenge to the Tibetan’s bodily well-being; and these environmental conditions were exaggerated even more by the fact that they had to work hard for long hours, fully exposed in the foreign clime. But, again, the refugees persevered and their children and grandchildren are perfectly adapted to the environment of Southern India.

The educational facilities of the Bylakuppe camp stand as a beacon of what can be possible with hard work, cultural dedication, and the necessary steadfastness to obtain international aid. I visited the S.O.S. (Save Our Souls) school, which serves as a boarding house and educational facility for orphaned and refugee Tibetan children, and was very surprised at what I found. The school was well supplied (they even had computer room that most secondary schools in the United States would be envious of), everything was neatly organized, and the children were well groomed, healthy, and seemed to be very happy.

Of the students in attendance, only around 55% still have parents; and they all either reside in Tibet or are scattered throughout various localities in India. The children were sent to this school so that they would have a better opportunity in life and, for many of them, it is very doubtful if they will ever see their parents again. As I was walking around the school with the director, Mrs. Tsering, I happened to be passing by some classrooms when the lunch bell rang. I was soon engrossed in a mob of a couple hundred Tibetan youths in pastel blue uniforms who were very interested in the tattoos which completely covered my arms and hands. I open encouraged their curiosity and knelt down in the middle of the crowd so that they could get a better look. As they were trying their best to rub the tattoos off of my body, I had the opportunity to ask them some questions about their families. And yes, they were all alone in the world. The compassionate faculties of the S.O.S. school community served as their family, role-models, and mentors. This school was the student’s home village, and from the looks on their healthy smiling faces, it seemed to served their needs as well as could be imagined.

The educational instruction at the S.O.S. refugee school was modeled off of the traditional Tibetan system; and songs, art, and activities are the main teaching methods. Tibetan culture is also thoroughly emphasized in the schooling system, and a great portion of the curriculum is based around Tibet. “They have a lot to learn about the mother land,” said the school director Mrs. Choni S. Tsering, “and it is our job to teach them.” I went into a classroom to observe a class that was in session, and found a large group of refugee kindergarteners sitting in a circle belting out an incredibly beautiful traditional Tibetan song. I asked the school teacher what the words to the song were, and she told me, “The Dalai Lama is flying on a plane, now he is riding in a car. . . etc.” I smiled.

The children are taught in Tibetan up until that time that they are twelve years old and then they switch to an English base. The effectiveness of the teaching here was exemplified by the fact that all of the children, regardless of age, that I attempted to speak to in English could hold up a pretty decent conversation; and many of the older students were fluent. I found this foreign language proficiency to be absolutely amazing in lieu of the circumstances surrounding the school.

Mrs. Tsering went on to tell me that when she sees the younger generation slipping away from their Tibetan roots, she takes them aside and attempts to gently steer them back into the fold of their culture. She says that she is often times successful in this; and it shows. Refugees have been in this camp for nearly fifty years and their Tibetan culture is still largely intact. I can suppose that this is largely due to the efforts of people like Choni S. Tsering and the educational practices of schools like S.O.S.

As I walked down the roads of the Bylakuppe settlement and through the little paths of its’ villages, I was given the impression that these Tibetan refugees have formed a little utopia in the dawn of their dislocation; but no matter how idyllic this scene seemed, I was told that they would gladly leave it all to rot for the chance to reclaim their homeland. But this is an interesting issue in and of itself. Everyone that I talked to in Bylakuppe told me that they wanted to return to Tibet. As Mrs. Tsering explained, “Anybody would love to be in their own country; anybody would love to be with their own mother.” This sentiment seemed to have an all pervasive presence over the entire camp; and all bearings seemed to be pointed north in preparation for the great return exodus. This has always been the plan, and its reverberations have been carried through three generations. When I was sitting in the home of Mr. Tsering Pallden, who was one of the original members of the settlement, he told me with sad old eyes that all he wanted to do was to return to Tibet before he died; that he, “Has a strong feeling that he should return.” But he can not. None of the refugees can. Tibet has been saturated by Chinese emigrants; Tibetans are now a minority in their own country, the once forbidden holy city of Lhasa is now a tourist carnival, and the Chinese still rule with violent supremacy. Just a couple weeks ago a group of Tibetans, who were trying to escape into India, were shot down in broad daylight by Chinese soldiers. The Tibet of old is relegated only to the vast desolate plains of the nether regions and the high inaccessible mountains; and even these are still within the easy grasp of the Chinese.

I also must question the degree of the refugee’s sentiments towards Tibet. They seem to live a life in India that is far more comfortable, luxurious, and prominent than the people of Tibet have ever lived; there is a constant stream of foreign aid coming in, and the initial gift of land by the Indian government provided them with an economic leg-up over the rest of the region. The refugees are very well off in India, but this does not seem to have any effect on their emotional attachment to the ideal of their motherland. “We are always dreaming of our return to Tibet,” added Mrs. Tsering. But, for the refugees, Tibet is now only a distant dream.

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Filed under: Anthropology, India, Journalism, Refugees

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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