Thursday, September 04, 2014

Organizing for Exile through Self-Help! The Tibetan Narrative

Sudeep Basu

Unlike the rehabilitation strategy for the permanent agricultural settlements in Southern India which were built at the behest of the Tibetan Government-in-exile in Dharamsala and the Government of India, the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre (TRSHC) which came up in Darjeeling town, India, in 1959, emerged spontaneously and autonomously with the idea that no refugee could ever be rehabilitated in the fullest sense of the word without “Self-Help”, a realization that this “vital element could only come from within the community from within one’s selves”. And this vital element could only come from within the own community (mi sde) from within one’s selves.” This sums up in categorical terms not only the orientation of the inhabitants of TRSHC to life in exile as a whole but also provides a glimpse of the form and the limits to the relationship which they intend to forge with their hosts; other diasporic members of their ethnic group, Non-Governmental Organizations and the State. What began as the labeling of target groups – in this case the Tibetan as ‘refugees’ who are recipients of aid led on the one hand to client conformity and loyalty with the institutionally imposed stereotype and on the other to a gradual transformation of the identity expressed through the adoption of Goffman-like metaphors to describe alienating feelings like “we are foreigners here”; by asserting individuality and by not remaining acquiescent.

A ten-member committee was formed in Darjeeling to organize a rehabilitation centre which came to be known as the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre. Over time, the TRSHC has acquired a simple administrative structure consistent with its ethos of self-help, unlike the administrative structure seen in the Tibetan settlements in south India.

The initial fund for setting up the TRSHC was raised locally by subscriptions, donations, charity shows and an exhibition football match. This was augmented shortly afterwards from contributions by a number of voluntary agencies through the Central Relief Committee notably CARE, Catholic Relief Services, American Emergency Committee for Tibetan Refugees, National Christian Council, The Red Cross, World Veterans Federation, American Friends Committee, Church World Service as well as several individuals. With the reception of this aid, the Tibetans who fled from Tibet back then gradually became labeled as refugees. Their ambivalent response to relief programmes in the subsequent years came through in that with client-group compliance and dependency there has also been indifference in the refugees’ reactions to the relief programmes arising out of the resultant perceived loss of status and dignity of the group. Situated at “Hill-side” Lebong West in the area locally known as “Hermitage”, the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre in Darjeeling town is one of the oldest refugee centres in the Tibetan Diaspora. This refugee settlement came into existence on October 2nd 1959. It initially provided base for distribution of emergency relief to Tibetan refugees who had brought nothing with them apart from the clothes they wore and the little provisions they managed to bring along during their hazardous trek over the Himalayas into India. The “Hill-side”, a small estate comprising 3.44 acres was originally leased and eventually bought from St Joseph’s College. There was space to build and develop a small community outside the town but easily approachable by motor road. The Hill-side had a special significance for Tibetans, for it was here that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama had spent his exile in India between 1910-1912 following the Chinese invasion of Tibet at that time.

The refugees who chose to stay in the Refugee Centre and other settlements were those who were not in a capacity to establish themselves privately mainly due to the lack of capital. The rest preferred to stay in the town but remained connected to TRSHC. The visible success in charting out a career in exile became a source of worry for the refugees and produced caution in their management of social relations. For they knew that their achievement did create what they often say, feelings of “jealousy, envy and deprivation” among locals. Previously, the Tibetans were sore about the Gorkhaland movement precisely because it had severely affected their economy which principally depended on tourism (Subba 1987-88). The sheer numerical majority of the Nepalis must have dissuaded them from any intention of opposing the Movement. In recent times, the All Gorkha Student’s Union (AGSU) has on few occasions vociferously expressed their resentment to the emerging domination of Tibetan refugees in the region and their alleged or surreptitious use of Voters’ Identity cards for gaining employment or commerce. Four Tibetan youths interpreting the relation between Tibetans and Nepalis, hasten to add that “Nepalis think good about Tibetans, they want to make friends with us; Nepali girls nowadays want to get friendly with Tibetan boys because they think we have a lot of money (dngul). They are in a majority, there is no point avoiding them.” For Tibetan refugees, sensitivity to potentially hostile feelings of locals is deemed crucial in order to maintain peace and order. It enables them to gain self-confidence and avoid potential conflict, by invoking an ideal image of a “non-violent Tibetan refugee”. On examining this canvas one can also assert that the movement of Tibetan refugees, unlike their Bhutia co-ethnics remains incomplete, rendering the refugee community’s relationship to Darjeeling tentative and precarious. What is also at work in these forms of social action is the process of ‘re-territorialization’ as Tibetan refugee groups faced with a protracted exile condition attempt to delimit and influence relationships with ‘others’ over a geographic area (Darjeeling town). This process assumes significance in places like Darjeeling where the rights of access to and use of, sources of livelihood are apportioned on the basis of territorially anchored identity. The unfolding Tibetan-host relationship characterized by conjunction and disjunction relative to local circumstances makes it possible to appreciate the significance that the Tibetans attribute to their refugee identity and the ‘spatial practices’ by means of which the Tibetans produce and maintain a sense of ‘place’ in a contested environment.

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