Nestled in the upper Kangra Valley, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, lies the quaint little hill-city of Dharamsala. Tortuous roads lead you into the city which is quiet, the peace marred only by the incessant honks of the buses. The picturesque upper town of Dharamsala, Mcleodganj, is called little Tibet, with Indian hospitality at its peak. The city is home to the largest population of Tibetan exiles and the amalgamation of Indian-Tibetan cultures imparts a different flavor to the place.
Amidst the hustle-bustle of the tourist spots, backpackers trotting across undulating roads and sweet smells wafting from little bakeries across the street, the plight of the Tibetan refugees is the elephant in the room. A town, a memoir of disillusionment, pain, suffering and intrigues, Dharamsala has for decades housed aspirations and concerns of thousands of Tibetan refugees, who made the difficult journey from Lhasa, to escape the clutches of the communist regime in China, into a country which symbolized hope and offered at least a consolation of a future.
But the hardships that accompanied the first voyage to start anew have remained almost the same many decades later. Tibetan exile groups, who have been asking for Independence, fight a battle against an enemy that is powerful, often beyond rhetoric. Their life in India is a shadow of their existence, exhausted by economic barriers, which need to be analyzed from a sociolinguistic lens.
In an effort to protect their own culture, Tibetan assimilation in India has been slow, more pronounced in the second-third generation of refugees, who bear the brunt of a tumultuous past that evades their memory. Unlike other countries like US and UK, which grant Tibetans citizenship after a cut-off period of about 5-10 years, Tibetans do not have right to citizenship in India. Advocators of Tibetan Independence have argued that granting exiles Indian citizenship when the exile administration is headquartered in India would be contrary to the very idea of such an organization. But those born to Tibetan parents in India face a severe identity crisis, unable to weave in their culture with the idea of their birth country perpetually in limbo.
Tibetans, even those born in India, cannot apply for government jobs. Mr. Lobsang Tenzin, who guided us during our visit to Mcleodganj, talks about how difficult it is to pursue education and the cycle of unemployment continues unabated. “It is hard to get into a college because our citizenship status is so ambiguous. Some administrators consider us as foreigners and expect the college payment to be made in dollars. Even if you get into a college, then jobs remain an issue and so does traveling. The youngsters wish to stay back and pursue careers, buy property and settle down, but the previous generation still harbors a dream of going back.” This internal tussle between the original struggle to retain their identity and the natural instinct to blend in with the Indian way of life enshrines the life of this diaspora. “The education rate among the youth is high, all credits to the efforts and support of the Indian government but the future is still in a quagmire since few can follow it up with higher studies or a stable job. The Tibetan language is taught in schools as primary till 10th, after which the syllabus is integrated to match the national boards of the country. The most common outcome of this is that while most Tibetans-in-exile are conversant in English, Hindi and their mother tongue, they rarely are fluent in a particular language.“ Most Tibetan children continue to study at Tibetan Children's Village schools.
The intimate glimpses of the lives of displaced individuals are emotionally jarring. The migration of Tibetan individuals to other parts of the country in search of employment serves, to some extent if not entirely, their ties with their ancestral country and makes their return a distant dream in a hazy glass.