I am currently writing in Mcleodganj, the upper part of the hill station in Himachal Pradesh, India known as Dharamshala. This place is often called “Little Lhasa,” for it is the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile, and the home of thousands of Tibetan refugees. Their influence is unmistakable. Although Mcleodganj is nominally a part of India, the only vestige of Indian culture left here is the inability to obey traffic laws. Otherwise, the dominant culture is Tibetan: most restaurants and cafes are run by Tibetans and serve Tibetan food, all tax free as a result of their refugee status. Because refugees are not taxed, they pass on the savings to the consumer, making dining at one of their establishments cheaper than at similar places run by Indian nationals.
Tibetan influence here is pervasive, but it is indicative less of a strong Tibetan civilization than of the desperation foisted on it by circumstance. When you look on the city, it is awash in the multicolored prayer flags favored by Tibetan buddhists, the snow lion flag (the banned national flag of historical Tibet), and images of the Dalai Lama. Every hour one can hear monks pound large drums to signal the progress of time. The dominant sound of Hindi loses ground here to the less melodious, harsher tones of Tibetan. The feeling this produces is strange, and I will quote from my personal travel blog here:
“Surveying it all, though, it is hard to avoid the realization of how much they have lost. Tibet has a geographical area of 970,000 square miles, or about five times the size of France. For the history of the institution, the Dalai Lama has ruled over this area, acting as political and spiritual head of state for those under his jurisdiction. Now the king has become the courtier, as his and his people’s existence in exile depends on the continued benevolence of the Indian government. Meanwhile, China continues a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing in historical Tibet. Pumping in thousands of Han Chinese into the major cities, the Chinese government is slowly diluting the ethnic composition of the land, and eventually there will be no Tibet, though Tibetans will remain. The result is easy to see whenever a Tibetan speaks frankly about his lived experience. Sangye, who teaches cooking classes here, told us his story. He left Tibet in 1997, and for seven years had no contact with his family. When he finally obtained their phone number, he said that his mother could not speak, because her voice was too choked with tears. Though he speaks to them frequently, he has not been able to see them, as he cannot return for fear of arrest. Even when they talk, all political or news topics are strictly forbidden; only small talk is permissible. The saddest part did not come when he talked about his past, however. When we asked him, “What do you think the future holds?” he grew quiet. “I don’t think I will ever go back,” he said. “Though I hope to.” I could feel the sense of pride mixed with fear, desperation, and resignation in his voice as he told us his story, one representative of many Tibetans. Dharamshala is a place of refuge for them, but the warmest embrace will always grow cold with the thought of home.”
Dharamshala is a cautionary tale about the limits of nonviolent resistance without broad political support. For 55 years, since the ouster of the Dalai Lama and his residency in Dharamshala, the Tibetan diaspora has been waging a war of words in the international media to raise support for Tibet. Despite widespread sympathy with them, there has been little concrete action on their behalf since the failed CIA effort to train Tibetan fighters in the mid 1950s. Indeed, the current has been moving in the opposite direction, such as when the United Kingdom changed its designation of China’s role in Tibet from suzerain to sovereign in an attempt to curry favor with the PRC. Even India has ceased to care about Tibet.
Tibetan independence is not only flagging externally, but also internally. The effect of frequent Tibetan protests has been muted with the increasing influx of Han Chinese into metropolitan areas. These imports in some cases now outnumber the indigenous Tibetans, such as in Lhasa, where most Tibetans live in the small old city, which is surrounded by a larger settlement of Han Chinese. Furthermore, the Roof of the World can only support a limited number of people, and many of them flee to India each year. Tibet hemorrhages Tibetans, and Chinese fill the gap.
Most people enjoy a triumphal narrative. They like the “good guys” to succeed and the “bad guys” to fail. But history is not a narrative except in the minds of historians. It is a chaotic, jumbled mess in reality, and in this case, the triumph will likely never materialize. Like Sangye, Tibetans will always want to return home, and just like him, they likely never will. Perhaps they will fade into just another minority group in northern India, separated from their historical land and keeping it alive only in memory. Perhaps, like the Jews, they will one day return to that land after many years. It is truly impossible to say.