Issue of preserving cultural identity
in a foreign society has always been a challenge for any refugee or migrant
community. How these communities cope up with such challenges has been a subject
of academic studies for long.
Here it is remarkable that the social institutions of a
society are not just the part of a culture, they are also the carrier of the
said culture. Traits of a culture not only appear in a person’s social life, it
also makes impact on his decision-making strategies and choices in various
However, in situations of refuge, role of the youth and
youngsters of a community enhances for survival of their cultural identity since
they become the primary medium to carry forward their ancestral culture in alien
The Tibetan refugee community which arrived in India as exile
was fractured by internal political conflict over authority, cultural and
linguistic dissimilarities between refugees from distinct parts of Tibet, and
sectarian religious affiliations. They could hardly be called a homogenous
Tibetan community. Unity was only fostered later through various adaptive
strategies employed by the administration that was to grow out of the Private
Office of the Dalai Lama.
If we broadly look
at the efforts by Tibetan refugee community to preserve their cultural
distinction, it involves: the creation of a Tibetan national identity in
response to the Chinese occupation, the use of education in maintaining that identity,
the effect of non-Tibetan groups on the re-creation of national identity, and
an analysis of material culture as a tangible expression of identity.
In exile, establishment of separate rural agricultural and
handicraft based settlements for the refugee and their supervision by the Dalai
Lama’s administration sheltered the Tibetans from the alien culture and
climate. Even for the Tibetan refugees who stayed outside the settlements, the
Dalai Lama’s administration gave a sense of protection.
Similarly, as an
attempt for maintaining solidarity amongst the Tibetan refugees and to pass
idea of Tibetan nationalism in new generations, education in CTA run schools
are made highly focused on Tibetan Culture and language (Mallica 2007).
Educational policies giving precedence to
patriotic concerns as against pragmatic ones have therefore been formulated. A
‘national’ consideration of survival of the traditional Tibetan language,
culture and identity is prioritized in the educational policies as against
‘individual’ educational and economic aspirations in exile. In the final go, it
is not individual choice but the greater good of the community that seems to drive
the educational policy of the refugee government in exile due to the need for
preservation of Tibetan culture in the host country.
But in recent
years, this education policy is creating tensions within the exiled Tibetan
community. The tensions are created as the youth fails to express the same
opinions as the older refugee generation. This issue is attributed to outside
cultural influences and failure of traditional education in fulfilling their
modern days individual requirements. Graduates are scattering to Indian cities due
to lack of employment opportunities in the community. Increasing number of younger generation
leaving their settlements is a serious cause of concern as it may prove a
potential threat to Tibetan identity and culture in exile soon. Studies have
reported that some schools in the settlements are on the verge of closing for
lack of students.
One of the evident among the youth is growing unemployment.
Job opportunities are less in general, so employment in lower grade jobs has
increased. The modernist trend among youth and the large influx of migrants
from the transformed Tibet in recent years for whom the CTA’s articulation of
‘Tibetan culture’ appear anachronistic have increased the pressure on CTA
leadership in India. Since already many have left to the US and Europe in search
of greener pasture and their commitment to Tibetan cause cannot be taken for
granted. Some others want to take up Indian citizenship according to the Indian
Citizenship Act of 1955. But Tibetan leadership in India generally discourages
Tibetan claim to Indian citizenship as it considers it as detrimental to
Tibetan road to independence. Because as
a component of their political struggle, Tibetans have categorically refused
citizenship in India and Nepal, the two countries in which the refugee
community has primarily resided since 1959. Tibetan administration in exile
argue that to accept citizenship would compromise their political claims to
But same approach
is not being adopted when a stateless Tibetan tries to get citizenship of the
USA. As Hess
noticed that Tibetans now see the adoption of U.S. citizenship not as
capitulation but as a tool for becoming more effective transnational
spokespeople and political agents in the same political struggle. They see this
happening not only through the opportunity to educate western world about the
Tibetan cause, but also because a US passport allows them to travel more
freely, including to visit Tibet. The implications of accepting US citizenship
are not uncontroversial or uncontested, however. While opinions vary about the
degree to which a “brain drain” has become a problem, all agree that
remittances have had a large impact on Tibetans in India. Whereas many argue
for their positive impacts, others suggest that remittances have led
competition and tension within families.
The endeavour of
the Tibetans to protect their cultural and religious identity has so far faced
minimal opposition from their Indian hosts, barring a few minor incidents.
However, with increasing number of Tibetan refugees in exile and limited
resources available, the CTA administration is facing the growing challenges
and dilemma of not only looking after the settlement of these refugees, but
also preserving their religious identity from the rapid forces of moderniisation
Tibetans in exile are forced to exist in an economic and
social milieu (a person’s social environment) in which some characteristics of traditional Tibetan
culture, such as their business and trading acumen, are valuable, while others
are not. Tibetan language study suffers from the need for fluency in both Hindi
and English in India. Since these refugees are living in dominant Indian
cultural environment for many decades, it is natural that long and continuous
interaction with Indian culture might affect their cultural identity. It may be
noted that maintaining the distinct Tibetan culture, which is the crux of the
Tibetan condition in exile, becomes even more challenging when the refugees are
engaged in seasonal occupations and are constantly traveling to different
on foreign aid and tourism has strongly contributed to the rise of Western
influence in Tibetan exile life. Prost (2006) based on
study among Tibetans in Dharmshala, finds that
for many Tibetans and foreigners in Dharamsala, modernity is presented as a
cultural and spiritual exchange in which both parties have prescribed roles.
Tibetans share with their visitors the rich spiritual heritage of Buddhism and,
in return, may profit from some of what foreign donors have to offer:
sponsorship to children, biomedical clinics, money for temples and institutions
preserving the ‘traditions’ of Tibetan culture.
New generations of Tibetan who are born in India are facing
another challenge to catch up with the requirements of modern world and
changing requirements for livelihood along with preservation of their
threatened culture which is already being attacked by Chinese regime in Tibet
and is under pressure in exile due to continuous exposure to dominant foreign
cultures of host country i.e. India and of western culture.
Now a day,
difficulty amongst the Tibetans in exile in trying to reconcile individual
needs and community needs are clearly visible. Tibetan youth identity and educational
and occupational aspirations in exile is therefore, to be understood as
processes of negotiation and mediation. There are concerns of assimilation into
the host society’s socio-cultural milieu that is seen as defeating the very
purpose of flight to India. Difficulty in trying to reconcile these two ‘needs’
seems to be creating palpable tensions between the old and the new generation.
Back in Tibet, gaining a free hand by the departure of the Dalai Lama and
collapse of the traditional Tibetan government in 1959, the Chinese intensified
their attempts to transform Tibetan society according to the doctrines and
techniques of socialism. Traditional organisation of society was intentionally
fragmented, and an economic class basis was artificially implemented in the
society. Tibetan language was simplified, by elimination of honorific and the
introduction of “proletarian” terminology, and de-emphasised in
schools in favour of Chinese. Buddhism was eradicated as far as possible both
in its physical and spiritual forms.
Despite of above discussed challenges being faced by Tibetan
refugee community on the issue of nationalism, very high number of refugees
participate in their cultural and traditional festival with all spirit and
enthusiasm. According to them, it helps the exile community to come together.
Similarly, regular religious debates organised in various monasteries helps in
developing rapport with other monasteries and settlements. A study by Banakar B (2013) reveals that such efforts by Tibetan exile community are part of their attempt
to “re-establish their society in exile, so that if and when they go back
to Tibet, they could carry their culture back intact.
However, all these have resulted in a situation of
uncertainty of future for the community and an elusive recognition and identity
in the present as gap widen between CTA perspectives and youth aspiration.
While attainment of ‘free Tibet’ is a mirage to some, to others ‘cultural
preservation’ in its pristine form does not serve purpose as it alienates them
from the Indians and/or prevents them from relating to present global trends.
At the same time, lack of distinct identity is seen by many as defeating the
very purpose of fleeing from Tibet. For many of second and third generation
youngers, return to Tibet is not an attractive proposition nor would they
identify themselves emotionally with India. Therefore, cracks within the
refugee community on issues of identity and future are visible.
Here it is remarkable that till date, despite of the loss of
their independence, the Tibetans have neither been subsumed within the
“broad masses” of Chinese nor, in their Diasporas, they have assumed
the usual helplessness of the refugees. In the exile, they are continuously
making collective efforts to cope up with the challenges of refugee life and to
adjust in host country’s conditions to save their identity. In this process of
adjustment, many changes are taking in their society. Despite of challenges on
various fronts, the CTA has regularly tried to portray the community as
homogenous and unified a task in which it has largely succeeded till date.
Tibetan refugees today appear to constitute a nation within larger Indian
nation, yet non-inclusive in the latter. But with rapid internal as well as
external changes, identity and recognition as well as future of Tibetan
refugees especially of younger generations are now on a slippery ground and its
sustenance in the face of increasing frustration among youth seems difficult.
Hence, much more focus on the issue is required before it becomes too difficult
to be handled by the Indian leadership as well as by the Tibetan.