Materialism Drowns Out Young Cries for a Free Tibet

by Ranjit Devraj, IPS, Dec 14, 2004

NEW DELHI, India -- Almost half- a- century after following the Dalai Lama over the high Himalayas into exile in India, Tibetan refugees are finding it hard to keep their progeny strictly within the fold of Lamaistic Buddhism and committed to the cause of a free Tibet.

''We are not against modernisation but we are very worried about alienated forms of progress - after all every Tibetan should care about why he is in exile,'' Phuntsok Tsundu, chief planning officer in the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile in Dharamsala town told IPS in an interview.

No one knows Tsundu's concerns more than Tsetin Norbhu, the daughter of Tibetan refugees and now the mother of a girl studying dentistry in northern Uttar Pradesh state and a boy who is schooling in the mountain resort of Darjeeling, where the Norbhus have their home.

Besides English, Norbhu and her husband Riwo speak fluent Hindi and work as ground staff for India's flag carrier Air India. But the family is most at home speaking Nepali the accepted lingua franca of the Himalayan region in which Darjeeling falls.

What about the Tibetan language? ''It is a struggle to get the children to speak Tibetan - as for reading and writing forget it,'' said Norbhu who has one sister living in Tibet and another she has never seen, in mainland China.

Norbhu's family, like many others, disintegrated in the trouble and turmoil that hit Tibet in the wake of a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 and the enforcement of Chairman Mao Zedong's 'Cultural Revolution' by the People's Liberation Army..

But it would seem that those managed to flee the Cultural Revolution were destined to be quietly swallowed by the hospitable but alien culture of their adopted homeland India and more recently by the trend towards globalisation that respects no identities.

The picturesque Himalayan town of Dharamsala with its 21,000 Tibetans is where the Central Tibetan Administration is located but a larger settlement exists in southern Karnataka and there are sizeable ones of 10,000 or more in central India, Darjeeling and Sikkim.

In all, there are 131,000 Tibetans now live outside Tibet with India alone accounting for 100,000 of them while Nepal has another 25,000 and Switzerland and Bhutan 2,000 each.

''Most second and third generation Tibetans have known no other home than India (or adjacent Nepal) and are drawn to India's catchy pop and cinema culture and to the stuff that streams into living rooms over satellite television,'' said Norbhu.

With their high cheekbones, slant eyes and light skins, Tibetans are racially distinct from Indians who tend be darker, hairier and to have more prominent eyes and noses.

But those outward differences do not deter young people from both groups, who may share similar outlooks from having gone to school and college together, from dating and even getting married - though this is generally frowned on by elders in both the conservative communities.

The brighter crop of young Tibetans take advantage of various scholarships available to them to move on to western countries and, according to Tsundu, while most return to India and serve the Tibetan cause, the trend now is to stay on to take better advantage of economic opportunities in the western world.

Tsundu who returned to serve the government-in-exile in Dharamsala, after a stint studying geology in Germany, said a situation was growing whereby Tibetan settlements in India and Nepal were becoming unviable as result of a ''second exodus'' to the United States, Canada and Europe.

''In many ways globalisation is proving to be more disastrous for the Tibetan cause than the cultural revolution,'' said Tsundu who decried the trend among his compatriots to turn into what he calls ''dollar coolies.''

Like many exiled Tibetans, Tsundu is a polyglot. But he resents the fact that when he is called to speak at the many international seminars on Tibet, he is compelled to speak in English, Mandarin or any other language other than Tibetan.

Besides his many chores in planning, Tsundu is also helping to put in place an education policy that would not only serve the current needs of exiled Tibetans, but also serves as a blueprint when Tibet becomes self-governing in the future.

That policy, said Tsundu, ''expects Tibetans to learn to abandon the two extremes of the widely spread systems of capitalism and communism; the two extremes of affluence and hardship and dependence on wrong means of livelihood.''

Others like Youdon Aukatsang who returned to India in 2000 after majoring in international law and diplomacy in the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship have a more realistic view of the current situation.

''There is no dearth of Tibetan schools but when it comes to a formal education, parents naturally tend to go for what is of practical value to their children and that which can equip them to meet the challenges of an increasingly competitive world,'' she said.

''Parents do have an extra responsibility in preserving language and culture but in the end Tibetans in India are no different from expatriate communities anywhere ... Indian children who grow up in the U.S. or Canada may speak very little of their mother tongues for example,'' Aukatsang pointed out.

Like Tsundu, Aukatsang thinks that the new generation of Tibetans is not motivated in the same way as were their forebears in fighting for Tibet's freedom. They attribute this to the current pressures on young people in the present environment where personal careers are more important in a highly competitive environment.

But Aukatsang does not agree that the new generation of Tibetans in India is in danger of losing their identity despite the many influences they are subjected to such as an English medium education and exposure to a variegated regimen of Hindi films, western music and satellite television.

''We do feel a bit overwhelmed at times but deep down, beneath all those layers of identities, we are still Tibetan,'' she told IPS.

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