Life in Exile

Exile is hard. A prolonged exile from one’s own land, animals, climate and all that is familiar is especially hard. We Tibetans are now raising a new generation born into exile. They have never experienced the vastness of the grasslands, the beauty of the Snow Mountains that ring our homeland nor have they even seen so much as one yak, those great friends of the Tibetan people who made our human use of the entire Tibetan plateau possible.

The new generation has grown up as refugees in India, which offered us extraordinary hospitality when in 1959 we were forced to flee our land of snows, and instead learn all over again to survive in the tropical jungles of India. Now, we are scattered all over India, from the cold deserts of Ladakh to cool Himalayan hill stations in the North to the intense heat of the far South, only 12 degrees from the equator. We are a drop in the ocean of India’s billion-plus population, yet we have been able to retain our identity and maintain our culture against all odds.

Although we Tibetans are no more than 140,000 in India, Nepal and Bhutan, we have adapted to new circumstances of the host nation. We keep alive a culture that to this day is under intense pressure in Tibet, and in danger of suppression, in a land our young generation have not seen. What is it that keeps us going, as guests in a poor country where we must fend for ourselves, and be the guardians of a culture that could die unless we maintain it?

The secrets of our successful adaptation is the settlements, on land leased to us by India over four decades ago. Before China took our country and persecuted our most respected leaders and teachers, we were an overwhelmingly rural people. It may be that Tibet was the least urbanised of lands. We were farmers and nomadic pastoralists, stewards of a land as big as Western Europe, and we managed our land sustainably and productively for thousands of years.

As refugees, we had to begin all over again, but our desire for a quiet, grounded rural life remained with us. We had to clear jungle by hand, learn to deal with marauding elephants, face many problems we had never before experienced. But the settlements succeeded, and many social scientists have noted our ability to adapt with the situation.

We learned to grow new crops, and with the income earned we not only fed ourselves but also financed a fledging Tibetan administration headed by His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, to enable Tibetan voices to be heard on the world stage. We gave our time and money wherever possible to the rebuilding, in India, of monasteries that had been destroyed in our homeland. They are often close to our settlements.

This we considered vital, because this is a balanced partnership, enabling us to achieve, as a community, both mental and physical development. In Tibet, it was our custom to support the monks and nuns, because they work compassionately for all sentient beings, and in exile, the continuity of our traditions of mental development became all the more precious. The first exiles, many of whom were nomads became farmers, learning to use tractors, were the founding pioneers of a new Tibet in exile that succeeded in holding families together, maintaining our culture providing livelihoods for a whole generation.

That was more than a generation ago. The situation today is very different, even though we remain as exiles, unable to return, with no way of knowing how long we must wait to see our country again. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has often reminded us that we must hope for the best, and prepare for the worst. That has been our guiding principle in seeking to make our agricultural settlements as viable and sustainable as possible, for the long term, if necessary even for generations yet to come.

We now face many challenges. In the past 15 years there has been a fresh influx of Tibetans fleeing across the Himalayas, taking the dangerous midwinter journey as the only way of regaining an authentic Tibetan life. Our population has grown, but the land available for our settlements has not. A high proportion of those fleeing were nuns or monks. In Tibet they were under intrusive political surveillance inside the monasteries, so the practice of our traditions of mental development is hardly possible. Those who flee usually want more than anything else, to take up a full-time monastic vocation, so we now have a big monastic population to compensate for the heavy restriction on religious freedom inside Tibet.

Those of us who are lay people in no way begrudge the heartfelt wish of so many to become professional virtuosi of inner development. Nor do we begrudge having to support the education of thousands of children brought from Tibet to our exile system of boarding schools, knowing that inside Tibet a decent education is not possible. Our Tibetan tradition cherishes knowledge, especially inner knowledge of the deepest mental sources of human happiness. Traditionally, Tibet was a knowledge economy, and in exile this has become more so, with a strong emphasis on both traditional and modern knowledge.

The practical consequences is that we have limited leasehold land which, as guests in over-crowded India, cannot be expanded, and a high dependency ratio, with many young and old monastics to support. So, our desire to be self-sufficient is yet to be realised, and we continue to need external assistance from compassionate friends around the world.

Even though, Tibet remains a conflict unresolved, in the past 50 plus years India has changed greatly, and so too has the world. This affects our settlements in many ways, and challenges our ongoing wish that rural life continue to provide a meaningful life for the new generation. We have adapted to new circumstances not once but as a process of lifelong learning crops and commodities that once were in demand now fetch prices that barely make growing worthwhile. India is part of the global economy and under WTO rules must soon let in a flood of agri-business imports from other countries.

The older generation of Tibetans made many sacrifices to enable their children to get the best education India can offer, and we now have many University graduates, even postgraduates from international Universities who return to serve our people. But how? This is the new challenge, in a rapidly modernising India which has great difficulty in providing employment for graduates.

Responsibility for tackling these challenges are vested in the hands of Central Tibetan Relief Committee or (CTRC), which is registered under Indian law as a non-profit Charitable Organization to co-ordinate all development activities. CTRC, and its parent, the Department of Home in the Central Tibetan Administration, have become the dynamic catalyst of a fresh round of adaptation and innovation for all Tibetan refugee settlements.

This is the story of CTRC – and its initiatives in building a 21st Century sustainable rural livelihood for Tibetans. We want to share our story with you because we need help, ideas, training, transfer of skills and appropriate technologies. We seek your engagement in this process of reinventing an organic agricultural base for our settlements suited to 21st century realities.

Credit: CTRC Newsletter Dated 2003