For a dramatic glimpse of dislocation, one needs look no further than the lives of Tibetan students – both refugees in India, Nepal and Bhutan; but also those in their homeland. For the tens of thousands of Tibetans growing up in India – so close, yet so far from their ancestral home on the other side of the world’s highest mountain range – the chance to maintain ties to their culture has not come easily.
In 1959, the Dalai Lama and some 80,000 Tibetans fled Tibet, crossing the Himalayas to find refuge to the south. Today, more than 120,000 Tibetans live in exile, with the largest number dispersed across South Asia, according to Current Situation of Tibetan Refugees in Exile, a paper by Paljor Tsering – a Tibetan teacher living in India.
“After coming into exile in 1959, the Dalai Lama gave top priority to education and requested the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to be allowed to establish separate schools for Tibetan refugee children,” Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet told The Diplomat.
“The purpose of establishing separate schools for Tibetans in India was for provision of quality modern education and preservation of the Tibetan language and culture at the same time,” Saunders added.
Over time, the Tibetan Government in exile (known as the Central Tibetan Administration, CTA) evolved into a democratic institution, with the Dalai Lama as its spiritual head. Alongside supporting more than 200 monasteries and thousands of exiled Tibetan monks and nuns through its Department of Religion and Culture, the Kashag (Cabinet) also has a Department of Education, which runs its own schools through a number of bodies.
“We have (about) 60 separate schools for Tibetan refugee children in India though there are a few Tibetan children who go to local or private public schools,” Topgyal Tsering, secretary of the CTA’s Department of Education told The Diplomat. Of these schools, there are 28 run by the Central School for Tibetans (CTSA), 11 Sambhota Tibetan schools, 18 Tibetan Children’s Village schools and 2 Tibetan Homes Foundation schools.
Saunders added 12 schools run by the Snow Lion Foundation to this list and said that a total of around 24,000 students and 2,200 staff members study and work in these institutions.
“These schools have both Tibetan and Indian teachers and twenty five percent of them are Indians,” said Topgyal, who added that the school curriculum includes Tibetan language classes in all schools.
Last month it was announced that the CTA will oversee all Tibetan schools in India – a transfer of control that will take place over the next three years. While Topgyal explained that the curriculum will not be significantly altered by the handover, it will nonetheless ensure even greater Tibetan influence in the classroom.
This is a vital fact for Tibetans who continue to make the journey south. An average of 2,000 to 2,500 flee to India each year, of which more than 17 percent are young children (up to age 13) and 44 percent are teenagers and young adults (aged 14 to 25).
“(The) Tibetan refugee community in exile is considered one of the most successful refugee communities in the world,” Paljor wrote. “They have managed to rebuild their lives in a completely alien environment achieving almost total economic self reliance.”
Topgyal added, “It is known to the world that Tibetan refugee communities outside Tibet, particularly in India, have been very successful in keeping Tibetan culture and its identity based on the Buddhist religion very much alive.”
Tibetans in their homeland, however, experience a vastly different reality. For them, the experience of dislocation comes via imposed assimilation into a culture that is not their own.
“The Tibetan Children’s Village in India used to receive around 850 students each year who escape from Tibet,” Saunders said. “But since a wave of protests swept Tibet in 2008, the number of Tibetans who have been able to escape into exile has dramatically decreased due to an aggressive crackdown by the Chinese authorities. The Chinese government also pressures parents in Tibet to bring children back from schools in India or face consequences such as loss of work, pension, or worse.”
Tomorrow we will look at the fundamentally different experience of Tibetan students in their native land, as well as emerging signs of hope.