Saturday, September 09, 2006

In Dharamsala: The Children Are the Key to Preserving the Tibetan Way of Life

As reported in Outlook Magazine, September 18, 2006

By Chander Suta Dogra

Dharamsala -- When the Dalai Lama took up the 'middle way' approach, virtually accepting China's suzerainty over Tibet, many people believed he had abandoned his land and his people to be swamped by the Han Chinese culture.

But in the serene environs of Dharamsala, you discover another facet to the story.

Forty-seven years after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet to take refuge in India, thousands of ordinary Tibetans still care enough about their spiritual and cultural heritage to risk the lives of their children by sending them across the Chinese border into the safe hands of the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile.

The children from Tibet come here to get a better education and enjoy the luxury of growing up in an unconstricted, liberal environment. They come to get an audience with the Dalai Lama-the lifetime goal of devout Tibetans.

But most of all, they come to India to grow up as unadulterated Tibetans, in tune with their cultural heritage.

Of the 3,000-odd Tibetans who flee China each year and land in Dharamshala, around 75 per cent are in the 6-25 age group.

Across Tibet, the word is that if you can somehow manage to send your children across the border to Nepal, the apparatus of the exiled Tibetan administration will take care of them from thereon.

This is how it works.

Escape from Tibet generally takes place during the harsh winter months when, due to the intense cold, border patrolling by Chinese guards is slack.

Groups of Tibetans generally make their way across the border with the help of 'guides' who charge 4,000 to 5,000 Chinese Yuan to take them across.

The 'guides' are people from the border areas of Nepal and China who are familiar with the territory.

Lhamo and Chotan are two 17-year-old girls from the town of Shigatse in Tibet.

"Our parents are peasants and we are the first ones from our families to come to India. Our group of 12 hid under the tarpaulins of a truck and then had to walk for several days till we crossed the border," they told Outlook.

Entering Nepal is not easy as the Nepalese border guards sometimes hand them back to the Chinese, and young girls often face molestation at the hands of the border patrols.

Once in, the refugees reach the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) at Kathmandu where, after registration, they are sent to the Tibetan Reception Centre (TRC) at Kathmandu, run by the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGE) in Dharamsala.

They remain there till the Indian government issues them permits to enter India.

A tiring three-day bus journey then brings them to Delhi, and from there onward to the TRC at Mcleodganj in Dharamshala.

The TGE runs 80 schools across India, and of the 27,000 children studying in them 11,000 are children who have fled from Tibet.

All of them receive free education up to Class 12; vocational training is also available to those who want it.

Tenzin Tsundu, a Tibetan freedom activist, points out, "Tibetans are reluctant to send their kids to school in China because not only are values based on Buddhist teachings absent there, but the children are taught distorted history. It is also an indication of the confidence which they have in the schools run by the Dalai Lama for their children here."

Conscious of the faith reposed in them by their brethren back home, the TGE has formulated a new education policy which places emphasis on traditional culture and study of the Tibetan language.

Says Karma Yutok, education secretary of the TGE, "The main aim of the policy is to preserve the Tibetan identity and values. These children are our future."

For TGE, the task of preserving Tibetan identity has become that much more challenging in the face of recent aggressive attempts by China to assimilate Tibet into the Chinese mainstream.

The railway line to Lhasa, commissioned last month, is seen as a major new threat to an already besieged Tibetan culture.

The Tibetans who send their children to India can draw comfort from the upbringing their offspring receive far away from home.

The children are brought up in an environment which closely replicates a family structure. Groups of 25 or 30 live in homes in Tibetan Children's Villages along with a set of foster parents who are exiled Tibetan volunteers.

And, just like in any normal family, the parents go out to work while the children go to school and also help in household chores.

All of this is free of cost, which further encourages many poor Tibetans to shift the burden of educating and bringing up their children onto the TGE in India.

Idyllic, yes, but scratch the surface and the rawness shows.

It shows in the angst of the newly-arrived youngsters who find themselves different from the Indian-bred Tibetan youth. They are aggressive, brash, cannot speak Hindi or English, and as Tsundu explains, "It's painful to see 11 or 12-year-old boys smoking and getting into brawls in Dharamsala."

The tremendous goodwill that the Dalai Lama, and through him the Tibetan cause, enjoy worldwide, enables the TGE to get generous aid for the schools and homes it runs.

And while the idea of a free Tibet lives on only in the minds of a handful of diehard activists, the thousands of Tibetan children who come to India annually has given the TGE a powerful new incentive to ensure that Tibet's unique spiritual and cultural tradition is kept alive in India.