Tibetan Review, July 1994

Dharamsala revisited: Shangrila or Sarajevo?

The telephone rang frantically at about midnight on 23 April.  It was for my colleague Sonam Chophel from his wife in Lower Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) School, asking him to come to Dharamsala as anti-Tibetan rioting had started after a Tibetan boy from the Arts and Metalcrafts Centre had stabbed to death an Indian youth belonging to the local Gadi tribe.  My wife Dolkar, who practices Tibetan medicine in Delhi, kept on dialling her sister in Dharamsala but could not get through.  There were no more calls that night.

Around noon the next day, my friend Tashi Tsering was on the line from Dharamsala.  He said the mob had reached Gangchen Kyishong, the administrative compound of the Tibetan government-in-exile, around which several other institutions are also located.  Tashi informed us that everywhere Tibetans were under attack. Tibetans were not retaliating at all.  They were watching in horror their properties being damaged, shops being looted and gutted.  Only one member of the Tibetan cabinet was in town.  The chairman of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies was also away.  People rang the local Indian administration, but no response was forthcoming.  Tashi asked me to get in touch with anyone we knew in Delhi who might be able to help resolve the crisis.

As the situation demanded immediate attention, we started ringing up our friends to seek advice and guidance.  Our friends reacted with immediate understanding of the situation and rang up the Home Ministry.  They gave us the numbers of all concerned authorities and recommended us to talk directly to the Home Secretary.

Meanwhile more phone calls came from Dharamsala.  From McLeod Ganj, the main Tibetan town in Upper Dharamsala, Dolkar’s brother-in-law gave us graphic details of the rampage there.  From Lower TCV School, Sonam’s wife and other teachers called to give us the scary details of how the school was being attacked from all directions, how the water supply to the school was dismantled, how efforts were being made to set the school on fire.  From Gangchen Kyishong, Tashi told us of not only the actions of the rioters and arsonists but also how inadequate the Tibetan management under emergency was.

All these developments made us restless.  Dolkar decided to personally request a few senior Indian officials she knew for help and guidance and made appointments with them.  Late that evening a ray of hope dawned in the form of Professor M.L. Sondhi of Jawaharlal Nehru University.  Professor Sondhi, a long time friend of Tibetans, had dropped in to see Dolkar and renew his prescription of Tibetan medicine.  He was not aware of the seriousness of the crisis in Dharamsala as Tibetan officials he had met earlier did not even hint that anything was amiss.  Dolkar had always advised the professor to forget politics and concentrate on his health and peace of mind.  So it must have surprised him when she made a fervent appeal to do whatever he can to resolve the tension in Dharamsala and save the Tibetan community from further victimization in the hands of local politicians.

I then explained to Professor Sondhi how Krishan Kapoor, a member of the state legislative assembly belonging to the BJP party, a Congress-I politician Chandreshkumari, a Communist politician from Jogiwara, and disgruntled local elements of Himachal Bachao Samiti (Save Himachal Organization) had come together to exploit the isolated fatal incident to express through agitation and rioting their long pent-up grievances and grudges against the Tibetans.  After discussing many possibilities, Professor Sondhi told me that an eyewitness Tibetan must come down from Dharamsala to conduct a press conference on the situation.  After he left, called Tashi and told him that I needed someone responsible and articulate to hold a press conference in Delhi.  He promised to hold a meeting of the Amnye Machen Institute (AMI) directors (himself being one), get in touch with Tibetan government officials and inform me at the earliest.  Professor Sondhi rang soon afterwards to tell me that he had reported and discussed the matter with highest officials and the BJP high command which had at once deputed its Vice President Krishan Lal Sharma to deal with the situation in Dharamsala.

Tashi called the next morning to say that AMI is preparing a comprehensive report which will be faxed soon and that they have decided to send Jamyang Norbu, one of their directors, for the press conference.  Apparently, the Tibetan administration was trying to play down the crisis and was hesitant about the idea of a press conference.

Meanwhile, Dolkar had got in touch with a very important official she knew and explained the situation.  Soon there was a call asking us to see a certain official with a full report.  Sonam and I went to him with copies of the AMI report, press clippings and other documents.  We made it clear to him that we were not members of the Tibetan government and had come there at the recommendation of his senior.  He said the highest authorities had been alerted, that he will also get in touch with His Holiness’ bureau in Delhi and that there was no need to worry.

I phoned Amnye Machen and Tashi told me that Jamyang Norbu’s trip was cancelled since there were unmistakable signs from the Tibetan cabinet that they did not want to play up the crisis.  Professor Sondhi, hearing of this, felt that the media must be set on the right track or it will misunderstand and confuse the issue.  At his suggestion, I told AMI to get as many Tibetans as possible to respond to newspaper reports with letters to the editors.  Many of the letters were faxed to us in the new few days and we reached them to the various newspaper offices.

Professor Sondhi and we thought it might be good for a team from Delhi to visit the sites of destruction and meet both Tibetans and Indians in Dharamsala.  We started contacting some important people to join this team.  However, Tashi informed us the Tibetan cabinet was unable to decide whether it should invite such a team.  Finally, AMI issued an invitation to Professor Sondhi to lead such a team.  In view of this, Professor Sondhi thought it would be wiser to lead a preliminary team consisting of important people from the media and others with influence in the Himachal Pradesh state.

As I was making transportation arrangements, we were informed that the cabinet had finally agreed to invite the team to Dharamsala.  Minister Rinchen Khando Choegyal personally telephoned the invitation to Professor Sondhi.  Everything was settled.  Professor Sondhi asked me to be in Dharamsala a day before the team’s arrival.  So Sonam and I left for Dharamsala by taxi at 3’o clock on the morning of 3 May.

Though Dharamsala is quite close to Delhi, I was going there after about two and a half years.  Ever since I left it in the mid-‘80s, I have not been able to spend more than a few days at a time there.  But throughout my college years in Darjeeling, Dharamsala was always on my mind.  It was the seat of the Dalai Lama, the centre of Tibetan learning, and the heart of the Tibetan struggle for political independence.  Ever since I set foot there in late 1975, it has exercised a strange siege over my mind.  If it made me immensely happy at times and filled me with a sense of purpose in life, it made me extremely angry and irritated at other times.  If it filled me with a lasting sense of Tibetan cultural identity, it often confused and disillusioned me with the many layers and shades of its ineffective and anachronistic political and social rituals.  Many a times I felt that Dharamsala lived on wrong emphases, mistaken ideas and identities, and pursued illusory goals which left them neither here nor there in a kind of Bardo state.  Above all, Dharamsala Tibetans lived in well-demarcated little “empires” and “principalities” ruled by masters and mistresses, leading somnambulistic lives yet dreaming of political nirvana while neglecting the more samsaric aspects of social and cultural survival.  Schools, inappropriately staffed, taught irrelevant values inadequate to meet the modern day-to-day challenges.  Monasteries mushroomed with monks who gradually came to wallow and bask in the comfortable sunlight of misguided Western patronage.  The central Tibetan administration, then run by the old guard of dedicated and faithful ministers and deputies, made sporadic attempts to come to desperate terms with the changing times.  Otherwise, they led an isolated political life, aloof from the aspirations of the Tibetans at large.

Somehow Dharamsala was perfectly sited for such peculiar Tibetan exercises of the mind and the body.  It is one of the mot backward hill tops in the whole of Himachal Pradesh.  Formerly a part of the Punjab, it was perhaps used as a transit camp for the British soldiers from whose postal address Dharamsala (meaning rest house) came to acquire its name.  Otherwise the name could easily be Dhauladhar because of the mountain range.  Nearby Palampur was a POW camp where Italian prisoners are said to have languished for years during the Second World War.  For both Buddhists and Hindus, Dharamsala and the Kangra valley were sacred pilgrimage sites.   Many antique temples and ruins survive.  Tilopa and Naropa, the famed Buddhist masters, roamed these valleys and hills.  The present Gaddi community immigrated to these hills with their sheep over 300 years ago from elsewhere.  Yet wandering Tibetan Buddhist ascetics and translators had set foot on these very hills and valleys long before that.

McLeod Ganj, euphemistically described as “Little Lhasa” in some publicity materials by the Department of Information, has become the main town where Tibetans pursue petty business of selling garments, books, incense, and second-hand sleeping bags, tape-recorders, pens and other assorted items left behind by Western tourists and students.  Slightly richer Tibetans run small hotels and guest houses.

In the last decade or so, more shrewd and enterprising Indian businessmen from outside have fully tapped the tourist boom by coming up with a number of excellent hotels.  Such rush to attract the tourist money has led to random constructions overcrowding the small town.  What little peace and beauty Dharamsala had has been drained.  Now it has become less appealing and less healthy.

Even then Dharamsala brings back to me some o the sweetest and fondest memories.  It is here that I found my foothold both in personal and national senses.  It inspired me in some of the warmest and lifelong friendships.  It took me through the labyrinth of the Tibetan struggle, infusing in me Marxist ideas, disturbing me with thoughts of guerrilla warfare and political revolution, and filling my dreams with the glory of fighting for an independent motherland.  There was a different Dharamsala, suffused with the presence of the Dalai Lama, who was experimenting with different ideologies and ideas to uplift Tibetans, encouraging and inspiring the young to come forward with ideas of democracy, freedom, intellectualism, of mixing Buddhism with Marxism, of universal brotherhood, of middle path and compassion in practice.  But that Dharamsala, which no one seemed to reach or relate to except the Tibetans, a Dharamsala which was real only in the minds of Tibetans, seems to have vanished like the summer rainbow.  Increasingly, it became more conservative, more cautious and less confident.  It was time for the opportunists, for the hangers-on and the Tibetan Lawrences of Arabia to make their brief appearances, to feed on the carcass of the Tibetan body politic and generally have a good time by leading the gullible and naïve Tibetan policy makers from one issue to another, from one wrong step to another.  Dharamsala has lived through and survived all these scenarios and more.

But this time, as we entered Kangra valley and looked on the Dhauladhar range, the feeling was not one of nostalgia and homecoming.  Instead, anxiety and fear of the known had gripped me.  Though everyone seemed busy in their own way, I felt as if all eyes were turned on us with menace and malice.  As we entered Lower Dharamsala, where Tibetans were pulled down from cars and beaten up only a few days ago, the heat of the sun inside the cab became intolerable.  Only one or two Tibetan shops were open.  Tension still seemed to lurk behind every face.  Tibetan restaurants were closed as they were damaged in the attack.

As our cab neared the lower TCV School, we saw the first real signs of destruction.  The windows of all staff quarters were broken.  Some repairs were going on.  But even the repairmen had fear written large on their faces as they had been threatened to stop repair work for the Tibetans.  Near the school we saw policemen guarding the main gate.

The Lower TCV School boarded about 700 children, looked after by 74 qualified and well-trained staff members.  Left to itself, it was coming up as one of the better schools in the Tibetan community.  It has as its neighbour the Tibetan Arts and Metalcrafts Centre, run by the Department of Religious and Cultural Affairs.  For sometime now the Department had shifted its emphasis from cultural administration to one of commercial management.  It had placed distinct importance on producing Tibetan dolls, garments, mufflers, masks, woodcarvings, posters, bags and other such items that attract tourist souvenir interest.  It is also said that in its ambition to be the one and only cultural “empire” with an all-round image, strong but vain attempts were once made to bring under its direct control the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, the Astro- and Medical Centre, etc.  Perhaps such failures to centralise and control existing cultural structures made the thinkers search for alternative means.  For purposes and reasons that are still a mystery, they have put up a mammoth construction called Norbu Lingka which, despite special mention in the Vogue magazine, remains a half-breed between a cultural institute and a supermarket.

Such novel steps of cultural preservation and economic upliftment of Tibetans, through tourist and other commercial channels, brings forth a compromise between the good, the bad and the ugly.  Any young Tibetan boy or girl who shows an aptitude for tailoring or tinkering is qualified for admission.  As the exile community abounded in school- and army-dropouts and fresh arrivals from Tibet, such centres became a haven for many raw and untamed youth.  Efforts to train young Tibetans in their traditional arts and crafts are laudable.  But the infrastructure and the intellectual discipline to appreciate the traditional arts must be inculcated.  The tendency to overemphasize and overdo the cultural souvenirs is more an exploitation than preservation of the skill of the master craftsmen and aptitude of the students if the dignity of the discipline is lost on them.  The young boys and girls of the Centre are ignorant and innocent victims of cultural fantasies visualized and shared by outsiders who have no idea of what Tibetan culture means and what young Tibetans aspire to.

Given such a tough and narrow back-ground of tinkering with metals and machines for hours every day, it was but natural that quarrels and clashes with the surrounding Gaddi villagers and other callow elements often took place.  It was not in the first fight of three decades that a Tibetan boy had fatally stabbed a Gaddi youth.  Clashes and quarrels have often taken place on Khanyara Road between the locals and the Arts & Metalcrafts Centre boys.  Many a times, other Tibetans, especially the students and staff of the Lower TCV school, had suffered at local hands for fights started by these boys.  Sometimes the Tibetans were at fault as when they sang Hindi film songs and imitated film dialogues at local girls.  Sometimes the Indians were at fault as when they took hidden photographs of Tibetan girls bathing in the nearby waterfall.

In our time too, many quarrels and fightings took place, over basketball or football matches and during dance parties.  But lately Tibetan brawls and fights have lost their innocence.  They have become more dangerous and sometimes fatal.  Some say it is because of the entry of anti-social and criminal elements, sent by the Chinese to destabilize the exile society and tarnish the Tibetan image.  But the Tibetan boy involved in the recent incident is not a fresh arrival from Tibet.  He is from the exile community in India itself.

As the dead body was being carried home, crowds collected to pay condolences.  The fury of the mob fully converged on the Arts & Metalcrafts Centre, where the alleged murderer Yeshi Chophel was an apprentice.  Soon the Centre was under stone and brick attack.  The workshop was on fire.  The staff and apprentices ran helter-skelter.  In the noise and general confusion, some Gaddi families came to help and shelter a number of Tibetans who could not escape. Risking the anger of their own community, they not only fed and sheltered the Tibetans but also kept them in disguise throughout the crisis.

 One Tibetan boy ran up to inform the Department of Religion & Culture of what had happened.  He was hit on the head with a stone but went ahead and made his report.  A lone staff of the department, on deputation from Sikkim, ran down to the Centre and did everything possible to save and guide the apprentices and the staff.

It was around 9:30 that night, when the five to seven-year old students were fast asleep, that the attack on the Lower TCV School began.  The mob broke over 2,000 window panes.  Some entered the section where the small children were housed, took away the clothes that were dried outside, and set fire to a pile of wood nearby.  The anxious staff and elder students broke into two groups.  The first rushed to put out the fire while the second, groping in the darkness over broken glasses, went to the homes of the small, terror-striken children and carried them to safer places.  The students and the staff stayed awake most of the night, fearing further attacks.  The school had no instructions from the Tibetan administration nor help from outside.  Luckily no further attacks came that night.

The Lower TCV School had another ominous sight to contend with.  The cremation ground was quite close to the school.  The next morning, crowded in three main rooms of the school, the staff and students huddled together in fervent prayers for safety and peace.  At around 2 pm, the school trembled with the shout of the approaching 600 or so angry and sad mourners.  Presiding over the funeral, the BJP politician, who also happened to be uncle of the deceased, made a long inflammatory speech.  A small section of the crowd started attacking the school.  As the funeral came to a close, they started shouting anti-Tibetan and anti-Dalai Lama slogans.  Although there were a few riot policemen with the mob, about 40 people forcefully entered the school compound.  Armed with stones, sticks and iron rods, they rushed menacingly towards the hospital block and the girls hostel, smashing what remained of the window panes and doors on the way.  The crying and the screaming of the girls and sick children reached a crescendo when the staff and elder students rushed to the spot and closed the hospital and hostel doors.

That night too sporadic attempts to attack the school continued although there were police guards.  A group of young boys tried to set the woodshed on fire.  Here a lone old policeman rushed to the scene and repulsed them.

It was only six days after the rioting that some Tibetan officials paid a visit to the school on their way from somewhere else.  After all that the school had gone through, the only thing the bureaucrats did was publicly admonish the students and the staff for indulging in flashy or colourful life-style which the locals disliked.

Travelling further up the road, as we entered Gangchen Kyishong, we saw broken glasses, a burnt car, a burnt truck, more broken windows.  All institutions and residential quarters on the way were attacked with the exception of Delek Hospital.

Dharamsala is not Shangrila; it has never been.  McLeod Ganj is not Sarajevo; it can never be.  However, on the morning of 23 April, Tibetan families there came close to being in Sarajevo for a moment.  The Welfare Officer had told the people that rioting mobs are expected any hour of the day.  They were requested to lock themselves indoors and refrain from retaliating.  The usually busy and packed street was deserted.

Around 3 pm, a lone Tibetan boy ventured out towards Surya Hotel.  From nowhere an Ambassador car stopped.  Five local boys got out and started beating and kicking the Tibetan boy while other Tibetans watched in horror from rooftops.  Then they heard shouts and slogans.  The rioters came in groups of 15,10, five and even three, and ran amok in McLeod Ganj.  On the way there, at Jogiwara, they had beaten and robbed a Tibetan businessman from Nepal.  At Kotwali Bazar in Lower Dharamsala, Tibetans reaching Dharamsala by bus or taxi were pulled down and beaten up.  A young boy, a woman, and a monk were the three unlucky arrivals who had to bear most of the beatings before some policemen saved them.  In McLeod Ganj, the looting and pillaging went on till five in the evening.  Some Westerners who came out were manhandled, their cameras snatched and their film rolls taken out.  Two shops were broken into an looted.  While some rioters threw out the merchandise from the shops, others leisurely selected the things they wanted and set fire to the rest.  There were a few policemen in attendance but they remained mute spectators; some even joined in the sharing of the loot.  Those Tibetan families who lived outside the market-place had their money robbed; some even had their bed sheets pulled and snatched away.  In all about 15 Tibetans were injured.

On 24 April, a number of Tibetans living in Lower Dharamsala were forced to flee.  That day State Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh was in Dharamsala on prior engagement.  The local politicians presented him a five-point memorandum.  The main demand was that all Tibetans must be evicted from Dharamsala and Himachal Pradesh at the earliest.  The chief minister did not visit the affected sites, nor did he meet any Tibetans.

The whole incident was a rude awakening for the Tibetans in Dharamsala: an awakening to a reality long suppressed or simply forgotten.  Tibetans have come as refugees and are expected to live as refugees.  But Tibetans are hard-working.  In more than three decades, they have worked hard and prospered.  Sometimes it has been at the cost of their hosts but most often by sheer hard work and through backbreaking labour.  One enterprising Tibetan after another went down to Ludhiana or some such cities and towns, and bought wholesale winter sweaters and cardigans, hauled them in overcrowded trains and buses, on their backs and shoulders, though high hills and low plains, to almost every corner of India, and sold them during the cold winter days.  Whole families went into this sweater business.  During winters, half of Dharamsala, Manali, Bylakuppe, Orissa and many other Tibetan settlements went into this business not because it was high fashion but it was a tough business in which only Tibetans seemed to do well.  They were in Bhopal when the poison gas struck the city.  Some even strayed into the dangerous ravines of the Chambal Valley and sold sweaters to the legendary bandits there, who blindfolded them before and after the purchase and reached them to safety afterwards.  When guns were roaring and bombs were blasting in Kashmir, Tibetans were not far behind selling their wares wherever the curfew was relaxed.

When Tibetans started emigrating to Switzerland to work in factories there, the economic benefits flowed back into India and Nepal.  In Nepal, the Tibetan community has done so well in carpet manufacturing and export that it has become not only the pride of the Tibetans but a major revenue earner for the host government and a source of major employment for that country.

Nowhere have Tibetans lived as parasites on the host community or nation.  Right from the beginning of their exile it was the government of India that came to their rescue, with the building of resettlement colonies and central schools.  Western help and money, as seen and understood in Dharamsala, came much later.  It was the professional aid organisations like the Swiss Red Cross, American CARE and the Christian missionaries that involved themselves with the Tibetans in those early years.  But no refugee community, even one as small as the Tibetans, can survive on aid alone.  One hard-working generation of Tibetans passed its survival tactics to another.  Now in our time, it is emigration to the USA, money from Europe, Japan, and even Taiwan.  The most encouraging development is that of Tibetans coming out to help other Tibetans.  The recent World Parliamentarian Convention in Delhi was almost fully funded by donations from Tibetans in Nepal.

But all these developments in the economic status of Tibetans do not change the fact that Tibetans are still uprooted.  As stateless citizens of the world, they must not cross the invisible social and economic boundaries of hospitality and hostility drawn across the skyline, especially in a small place like Dharamsala where the mountain is not as snow-clad, the pine trees not as tall, or the mountain stream not as sweet as that of Lhasa or Chamdo. 

And then, it is not as if the Tibetans in Dharamsala have kept all the economic benefits to themselves, leaving the Gaddis and other locals out of it.  Not only in Dharamsala but throughout Himachal Pradesh, Tibetans have made small but definite contributions to the economy of the regions.  Long before the arrival of the tourist money, Tibetans have worked hard for the development of Himachal.  The motorable roads in the interior Simla, Kulu and Manali, over which army and cargo trucks roll now, were carved out of rocks and hills by Tibetan labour.  Many Tibetans have lost their lives building these roads.  My mother-in-law, the late Dr. Dolma, one of the best-known Tibetan physicians of all time and listed in International Who’s Who of Women, worked as a coolie on the Kulu-Manali highway construction.

Even today, if Tibetan guest houses in Dharamsala are full of foreigners, the tea they drink and the food they eat are bought from the local market.  If one Gaddi family owned one cow when Tibetans first came to Dharamsala, today the same family must tend ten cows as the demand for milk has increased tenfold.  But it is not as if Himachal has been the kindest place for Tibetans or Himachalis the most understanding.  In the mid-Sixties, a whole settlement of Tibetans was uprooted in Kulu when some Tibetans ate the meat of a dead cow.  Last year, when floods washed away the houses of some of the poorest Tibetans near Manali, the local villagers demolished the new houses granted to them by the state administration.  In the recent rioting in Dharamsala, many Tibetans were pained to see that those locals who were closest to the Tibetans were the most vehement leaders of the mobs.  A photography shop owner in McLeod Ganj, who made his fortune by selling pictures of the Dalai Lama to the Tibetans, was among the first to lead the slogan of “Death to Dalai Lama,” for which he was later reprimanded even by his elders.

Over the years, Dharamsala had become a strange and sensitive place.  Tibetans have become high-profile refugees, much written and talked about.  The smallness of the place, the petty mentality, the rising profile and economic prosperity of the Tibetans which some have always flaunted, do not go well together.  Tibetans should have known this.  There were enough indications.  In the local dailies Vir Pratap, Punjab Kesri, Jan Satta, and the Tribune of Chandigarh, article after article appeared that depicted Tibetans as meat-eating smugglers who sold contraband items openly in McLeod Ganj. In the national dailies, one persistent writer who specializes in pointing out how unwelcome Tibetans are in India is Nergis Dalal.  Tibetan officials made the mistake of inviting her to Dharamsala to see things for herself.  Her anti-Tibetan tone has not diminished.  Writing in the Times of India on 14 May, she held the Dalai Lama responsible for “his policy” of not taking Indian citizenship, of keeping the Tibetans in settlements or camps, of discouraging inter-marriages, and emphasizing the importance of “preserving their ethnic identity.”

Some years ago, a BJP politician in Manali denied sugar and kerosene to Tibetans from the allotted ration.  Another politician from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk went after the Majnuka Tila Tibetan camp.  In McLeod Ganj itself, a common and justified complaint was that Tibetan shopkeepers did not attend well to Indian customers while giving undivided attention to Western customers.  One such instance of unruly behaviour by a girl shopkeeper was reported to the Deputy Commissioner.  The DC came to the same shop and was also treated the same way.  This was reported to the Tibetan authorities.  But it did not improve the behaviour of the shopkeeper.  Another lady shopkeeper refused to show an earring to an Indian lady saying that it is too expensive for her to afford. A few days later the sales tax department raided the shop.  Picking up the earring, the officer observed that it was indeed a very expensive earring – he happened to be the husband of the insulted lady customer!

A similar incident was once exploited by an Indian political activist who was camping in Dharamsala.  In no time he managed to coax the taxi drivers and other disgruntled elements to go on a strike.  Traffic was blocked in Dharamsala for a couple of days.  At that time too the demand for an apology from the Office of the Dalai Lama was whispered.  The police swung into action immediately and the kingpin of the strike was thrown out of Dharamsala.  That saved the situation.  But the Tibetan authorities did not hear the whisper nor learn from the incident.

Days immediately following the recent riots were rife with rumours.  To add to the tension, a bomb blasted in a Tibetan house in Palampur.  No one was injured but the family was in panic and trauma.  But that was not all.  One day all fish in Dal Lake, a sacred place of pilgrimage for local Hindus, were found dead, floating on the surface of the lake.  The sadhu of the lake and local politicians suspected the lake was polluted by the sewage from the nearby Upper TCV School.  The TCV staff took the concerned authorities around and showed them that not a drop of sewage from the school passes into the lake.  Experts called from Chandigarh confirmed that the fish had died of suffocation due to overpopulation.

As a prelude to the Dharamsala rioting, a similar incident took place in Chauntara Bir in August 1992.  Here too a young Tibetan fatally stabbed an Indian taxi driver.  They were drinking buddies and were both drunk when the fight started.  However, it was treated as a communal incident.  The local people became wild with rage and attacked the Tibetan settlement.  Houses were burnt.  The monastery was looted of a large amount of cash which was taken out of the bank earlier for distribution to the winter sweater sellers.  But in the end, it was just one incident, soon forgotten.  No one thought something similar could happen in Dharamsala too.

On the morning of 4 May, we received Professor Sondhi and his team at Kangra airport.  Sondhi and two others went directly to Palampur to call on Shanta Kumar, BJP leader and former chief minister of the state.  The press contingent was taken to McLeod Ganj.  Later the two groups together met Tibetan ministers and visited the Arts & Metalcrafts Centre and the Lower TCV School.  The team then visited the police headquarters.  In the evening, over dinner, they held detailed discussions with local people and Tibetans.  They did not waste time, and did not mince words either with the locals or with the Tibetans.  They demanded facts and, to the furthest extent possible, verified what any side told them. As head of the team, Professor Sondhi drew the admiration of everyone for his tireless energy and initiative.

The next morning, the team from Delhi, ex-CM Shanta Kumar, BJP advocate Chopra, and the politician Krishan Kapoor had an audience with the Dalai Lama.  It was there that the Dalai Lama declared that if the presence of the Tibetans and foreigners who came to see him in Dharamsala is inconvenient to the local community, he will consider shifting out, perhaps to a place like Bangalore.  Shanta Kumar apologised on behalf of his party and requested the Dalai Lama not to think of shifting from Dharamsala.  Other members of the team also appealed to him to reconsider.

After the audience, the team met with the Deputy Commissioner and Congress-I politician Chandreshkumari.  They also visited other sites of the riot.  The next day the team returned to Delhi.

The Dalai Lama’s idea of shifting from Dharamsala evoked mixed response from local residents and from the state and central governments.  Though the Save Himachal Organization issued a press release asking the Dalai Lama to set a definite deadline for shifting, the media on the whole viewed the situation with great concern and understanding of the wider implications.  In one of the most moving editorials on the issue, the Pioneer of 10 May pointed out how “exceedingly unfortunate” it was that two irresponsible politicians had been allowed to “whip up such a xenophobic frenzy against the Tibetan community in Dharamsala that the Dalai Lama has been forced to consider moving out of the small hill town.” The editorial concluded by saying that India’s record as “a haven for persecuted Tibetans cannot be bartered away for the small-time political gains of one State Assembly constituency.”  

Indian friends of Tibetans and top officials of the central government have since called on the Dalai Lama.  In a very emotional move, about 200 local representatives met the Dalai Lama.  Many of them fell to his feet with tears in their eyes, and appealed to him to stay on in Dharamsala.  Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh also called on the Dalai Lama personally and, in an hour-long interview, fervently appealed to him not to shift from Dharamsala.  On 17 May, it was reported that the Save Himachal Organization issued a statement saying that their agitation was not against the Dalai Lama but against the central and state governments whose myopic policies had led to the breach of peace in Dharamsala.  In a separate interview, Krishan Kapoor called upon the central and state governments to make separate budgetary allowances for Dharamsala in view of the presence of Tibetans and to draw up a detailed master plan to strengthen the “security of the Tibetans.”

In one sense the unfortunate incident is now over.  Yet the wounds of the conflict are not yet healed.  Permanent solution does not lie in moving from a smaller to a bigger place or vice-versa.  If only the Tibetans, especially in Dharamsala, will learn to follow a middle path in its day-to-day interaction with the local community as well as the foreigners, perhaps the first ray of resolving such conflicts will shine. A genuine respect for India and Indians must be instilled in the Tibetan mind.  Yet, the Indian Express of 26 May reported a Tibetan government spokesman as saying: As a race we do not like to socialize much.”  Apart from its xenophobic tone and inappropriate timing, it was blatantly untrue and irresponsible. Tibetans do like to socialize, and Dharamsala is full of socializing Tibetan boys and girls, lamas and monks, students and staff, running after any Westerner or Japanese that they can latch on to.

Neither can Tibetans survive on clichés like India being the holy land for Tibetans nor can we go on with India as our guru, the source of Buddhism, etc.  Those are parts of ancient Indian and Tibetan history.  Today we are living in a new India: an India which neither Asia nor the West can ignore.  India is not limited only to its foreign policy statement which now says Tibet is an autonomous part of China.  There is also a cultural India, an academic India, and a business India.  Before the China lobby becomes stronger than it already is in India and uses the major political and business machinery against Tibetans, it will be wiser for the Tibetans to interact with and trust India more fully than we have apparently allowed ourselves to.

In recent times, anti-Tibetan rampage has manifested in many parts of India.  In Sikkim, traditionally a cultural cousin of Tibet, sharing the same religion and recently hosting the Kalachakra ceremony, Tibetans in Ravangla market town were victimized, ostracized and evicted.  In Darjeeling, after some unwise remarks by the Tibetan Welfare Officer, anti-Tibetan posters appeared in town.  Members of the Arunachal Students Union, while demonstrating in Delhi against Buddhist Chakma refugees from Bangladesh, also carried placards reading “Tibetan refugees go back home.”  In Orissa and Gaya, local sentiments rose against Tibetans for breaking child labour laws.  Much will now depend upon the Tibetan public and leadership to keep themselves from further trouble so that, because of a few anti-social elements and miscreants, the whole community is not uprooted and subjected to a pogrom before the long night in exile comes to an end.
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