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“They Asked Me If Tibet Was In The Northeast”: The Life Of Tibetan Students In Chennai

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By Meenal Thakur:

Chennai: Twenty three years have passed since the incident took place, but the memories of escaping from Tibet are still fresh in Tenzin Norbu’s mind. His story, he says, is the story of most of the Tibetan students who come to India, leaving behind their families, in search of a ‘free, secure and better’ life.

Source: Tibetan Students' Association of Madras
Source: Tibetan Students’ Association of Madras

I was smuggled to India when I was eight-years-old, on the pretext of going on a pilgrimage to Nepal. We were a group of 22 people, including children, monks and nuns. We trekked continuously for one-and-a-half months, travelling during the day and hiding during the night. Most of us suffered frost bites, some children died on the way, others gave up and returned home, the rest of us somehow managed to reach the Nepal border from where we were taken to India,” recollects Tenzin who entered India alone after his uncle was shot dead in a police firing while crossing Nepal.

Tenzin Norbu (30) or Ten Nor as his friends call him, says that just like him, most of the roughly 120 Tibetan students presently studying in Chennai were tempted by their parents to undertake the tough journey. “You will get lots of free apples and oranges in India,” his mother had told Ten.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are an estimated 1.20 lakh Tibetan refugees in India. Most of these people entered India through Nepal, Bhutan or Arunachal Pradesh. They studied in either the Tibetan Children’s Villages (TCV) schools in Dharamshala and Mussoorie or the Central School for Tibetans (CST) established in different refugee colonies in the country. However, higher education drew some of them to Chennai.

Colleges in Chennai are considered India’s Harvard in Tibet. Madras Christian College (MCC) and Loyola College are the most preferred institutions,” says Ten who studied in Loyola College and is now pursuing his PhD in English from Madras University. “The Tibetan Students’ Association of Madras (TSAM) assigns a few students every year who help new students in the admission process and in finding accommodation,” he says.

“We do not come with the intention of settling in India, but of learning and returning to our country. But with time, our individual survival and aspiration is hindering the fulfilment of our moral responsibility. This is reflected in the courses students have started studying here,” says Ten.

Earlier, English Literature, Political Science and Commerce were the desired courses, but now students are aware of the possibility of them staying back in India so they have started opting for courses like animation, which do not have much scope in Tibet, he added.

As far as jobs are concerned, earlier students would go back to join the Tibetan Government in Exile, schools and NGO’s operating in Tibet. But now, more and more students are staying back, working mostly in Business process outsourcing (BPO’s) with companies like Infosys and Wipro or in the hospitality sector. Some students leave Chennai, but to work with the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamshala; Dorjee Tsering who worked with Infosys here before leaving for Dharamshala is one of them. Ten, on the other hand plans to settle down in Delhi and teach at Jawaharlal Nehru University, “From Delhi I can easily visit Dharamshala where I spent my childhood,” says Ten.

However not all students who stay back, do so by choice. In 1996, the Chinese government had issued a notice to all Tibetan families whose children had been studying in India to call their kids back. The pressure was more on parents who were government employees. “My mother destroyed my birth certificate so that no one finds out about me. Now even if I wish to go back I will be spied upon, my family will be harassed and I will have to weekly report to the nearest police station to keep them informed about my whereabouts,” says Ten.

If going back is tough, living in India has its own set of challenges. These students’ phone calls are regularly tapped which restricts the conversation they have with their families whom they haven’t seen in years. “We cannot even name the Dalai Lama while talking,” says Ten who speaks to his family once in two days.

Another major problem is being identified as northeast Indians. “The first time I told my classmates I am from Tibet, they asked me whether Tibet was a state in the northeast. Sometimes people also call us Nepali,” says Kalsang (23) who is a second year Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) student in MCC. Like Ten Nor, he was also born in Tibet but came to India without his family, in September 2002.

This attitude of locals has made these students closer to their roots. “We get angry when people think we are from Nepal. This provokes us to use symbols like free Tibet bags and t-shirts to make people aware of the existence of Tibet,” says Ten. The celebration of Tibet’s National Uprising Day which is held annually is yet another way of educating the locals about Tibet.

Problems adjusting to the spicy South Indian food and the hot weather deter students from staying in hostels. Most of the students stay in shared apartments in Nungambakkam, Guindy and Tambaram due to these areas’ proximity to nearby colleges. Staying together also makes the girls here feel safe. “Compared to other states, Chennai is much safer for girls, but we still prefer staying with our own people,” says Pasang, who graduated from MCC and is pursuing her MA in English in Madras University.

Staying together is also convenient because there has been little support for these students from the State government, so much so that the Department of Rehabilitation in the State does not even have an official count of the number of Tibetans living in the city. “There are no Tibetan refugee camps in the city, therefore we do not keep an account of their population,” says S. Bhaskar, Superintendent, Department of Rehabilitation.

An unfamiliar local language and no family to fall back on has made the TSAM a close-knit community with students looking after each other. Though the TSAM has been holding the community together since its inception in 1993; these students have also found support in a local resident here.

Since June 2001, Mrs. Asha Reddy, popularly known as Aunty Asha has been acting as these students’ local guardian, helping them with college admissions, arranging internships, organising cycle rallies , hunger strikes, medical camps and even taking care of them in case of medical emergencies.

Mrs. Reddy (58) is a housewife, who was first introduced to the Tibetan students in Chennai, when she attended a meeting of the TSAM, on the persuasion of her daughter’s Tibetan roommate Nyima Tsam at MCC. “I am amazed at how much responsibility these students shoulder at such a young age. I have great respect for the pride, passion and patriotism they have for Tibet”, says Mrs. Reddy who has been given the Tibetan name, Tenzin Yangchen, by the Dalai Lama for dedicating her life to the Tibetan cause.

With Tibetan students coming to Chennai every year, questions about their contribution to the society tend to rise. To this Ten responds, “Tibetan Buddhism has its roots in India’s Nalanda tradition of Buddhism, which was based in Magadha (present day Bihar) but with time it lost its popularity in India. When we came to India in 1959, our monks brought back the same Buddhism that India had once given us, thus enriching India’s lost tradition. Not only this, around 5000 Tibetans are serving in the Indian Army under ‘Establishment 22’ or the Special Frontier Force (SFF), something that the Indian government wants to keep a secret from the Chinese, but at least Indians should know about it.”

There is a lot more these students want to give back to the city which has been their home for so many years, but the community expectations with which these students are sent to India puts them in a dilemma. Explaining the situation Ten says, “We will forever be grateful to this city but we also need to tirelessly work for Tibet’s freedom. We need to fulfil the dreams of our people back home who see us as mawongbhodkyisontsa- the future seeds of Tibet.”

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