Friday, June 18, 2010

Reflections on the Tibetan Paradigm of Exile

Sudeep Basu
[Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion, National Law School of India University, Bangalore]

Articulating Exilic Tibet

In the introduction to the edited book, “Exile as Challenge: The Tibetan Diaspora,” Bernstorff and Von Welck remarked that the Tibetan Community in exile since 1959 has performed three remarkable feats, notwithstanding the historical fact that they had remained secluded from the rest of the world during the period known as “The Great Game”1 in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These are “First, individual Tibetans and their families stand on their own feet economically and are able to maintain themselves. Second, a school system has been built up which has transformed a large illiterate society into a fully literate society within two generations-a testament to the political will. Finally, the Dalai Lama introduced democratization and reduced his own power step by step, so much so, that in 2001 the Prime Minister of the Government in Exile (Chief Kalon) is no longer appointed by the Dalai Lama but directly elected by the Tibetan diaspora” (Bernstorff and Von Welck 2004: 1).

The general perception about the Tibetans in India is that they are hardworking (Saklani 1984). The decision to create settlements where the refugees could rebuild their lives has been exemplary (Bernstorff and Von Welck 2004: 1). This contrasts with other refugee groups who have lived in provisional camps for decades entirely dependent on assistance.2 Such commendations are not uncommon and have been a consequence of the general tendency to take sides in writing about Tibet and the Tibetan Diaspora at the expense of a critical assessment of the Tibetan issue. Such a tendency has arisen partly from the importation of the functionalist model to the study of refugees (Stein 1981 and Keller 1975). What is recurrent in this literature is the assumption that to become uprooted and removed from a national community is automatically to lose one’s identity, tradition and culture (Malkki 1995). This has had a marked categorical effect upon the study of Tibetan refugees wherein any cultural reemergence or the presences of past cultural practices is interpreted as evidence of cultural continuity that gives an image of a refugee society that is supposedly stable and orderly. The presumed linearity- of then and now; of tradition and modernity in the use of these concepts to understand social change among Tibetan refugees has often led to unexamined conclusions. The generally uncomplicated celebration of political solidarity, economic success and cultural preservation in exile in much of the works on Tibetan refugees is in accord with the romantic image of Tibet. Such public representations of Tibetanness have tended to smoothly gloss over the striking unevenness of experience encompassed in Tibetan refugee lives in the diaspora. Keila Diehl’s book is an exception in this regard. She asserts that it is crucial to explore the “not-saids” in this exiled community and reiterates that her intention is “not to dwell on the negative aspects of the Tibetan refugee community; rather, it is to make more believable the accomplishments of this group by complementing those accounts with the tales of disillusionment, in-group tensions and change that make those accomplishments meaningful” (Diehl 2002: 20).

Generating Meaning of Life in Exile

For Tibetan refugees, the dominant framework for thinking about and attempting to understand exile is the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation and its promise of eventual release through good action and compassion. The idea of “taking refuge” is also, in addition to beliefs in reincarnation, a cornerstone of Tibetan culture. Since the 1950s, the idea of “taking refuge” has taken on a highly politicized level of meaning for Tibetans. Inspired by the Dalai Lama, many Tibetans therefore work hard through focused spiritual practice to regard the predicament of exile as a source of inner strength, which Kiela Diehl sees as an approach reminiscent of what Edward Said calls the “redemptive view of exile” (Said 1984: 47-55). In an effort to characterize how Tibetan refugees deal with the experience of exile, it is not sufficient to stop at the formal Buddhist belief and practice. While the Dalai Lama asserts that when you are a monk, any place that is habitable becomes your country, most lay Tibetans in exile, as Diehl has observed in her study feel deeply out of place and often fearful in India. The Tibetan refugee case is no exception to this tendency since the orientation towards homeland has dominated most scholarship and discourse about Tibetan exiles. Few studies grapple with the Indian context in which the exile experience takes place. Focused as Tibetans and their Western supporters are on preserving and gaining access to an ideal Tibetan way of life, India must it seems be suppressed and reduced to a temporary and unfortunate backdrop for the struggle with the result that a blind eye has been turned to the myriad ways in which India and Indians are in fact integral to any understanding of contemporary Tibetan culture or identity in exile (Diehl 2002: 110).

Since 1959, Tibetan refugees have been engaged in an ongoing confrontation of representations with Chinese officials in which the two sides compete to legitimize their own representations of Tibetan history as well as current events in Tibet. In recent years, a new dimension to the confrontation has emerged with the display of culture becoming one of the most important means through which Tibetan and Chinese claims to legitimacy are contested. Tibet activists’ use of cultural and religious performances for political purposes reflects the global emergence of “culture” as a favored idiom of political mobilization for indigenous, minority and diasporic groups. The narrative of Tibetan culture put forward by Tibet House is congruent with this traditional Tibetan religio-political framework and with the diasporic self-consciousness about Tibetanness, which emerged after 1959. From the earliest years of exile, Tibetan refugees were aware of the need to preserve Tibetan Buddhism not only as a valued set of practices but also as the basis for reconstituting a collective Tibetan identity in exile. The Dalai Lama constantly emphasized the need for refugees to maintain their traditions not only for their own sake but for the sake of Tibetans living in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly claimed that for him, the Tibet issue is not a political matter but a spiritual struggle. By equating the Tibet issue with the preservation of Tibet’s spiritual heritage, a particular construction of Tibetan religion and culture itself becomes the object of political action.


1 The “Great Game” involved the countries of British India, Russia and China.
2 One is reminded of the refugee camps in parts of Africa, such as Sudan and Tanzania, where refugees have to live out their lives for decades in camps.
3 Tibet was for many a “forbidden” land, by virtue of its vague political status nestled among three great empires, its naturally enclosing topography and conscious efforts by Tibetans to remain uncontaminated by the outside world.
4 Kiela Diehl arrives at this conclusion despite the results of one of Saklani’s survey questions to which 75% of the Tibetan refugees who responded chose “India Only” as their choice of country of domicile (Saklani 1984: 356).


Bernstorff, Dagmar and Hubertus Von Welck, eds. 2004. Exile as Challenge: The Tibetan Diaspora. New Delhi: Orient Longman.
Diehl, Keila. 2002. Echoes from Dharamsala: Music in the Life of a Refugee Community. California: California University Press.
Keller, S.L. 1975. Uprooting and Social Change: The Role of Refugees in Development. Delhi: Manohar Book Service.
Malkki, Liisa. 1995. Refugees and Exile: From “Refugee Studies” to the National Order of Things. Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 495-523.
Said, Edward. 1984. Mind of Winter: Reflections on Life in Exile. Harper’s Magazine.
Saklani, Girija. 1984. The Uprooted Tibetans in India: A Sociological Study of Continuity and Change. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.
Stein, Barry N. 1981. The Refugee Experience: Defining the Parameters of a Field of Study. International Migration Review 15, 1: 320-30.

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