World’s Most Successful Refugee Community – The Case of Tibetan Refugees in India Citizen Kaun - a CJP Series: Did the preferential treatment of the Tibetan refugees result in their success?

18, Feb 2020 | Manan Mehra

When in 1950, China sought to ‘Liberalise’ Tibet, what it did in effect was persecution of the native Tibetans by attacking their unique culture in an attempt to impose Chinese Marxist ideology and practices in the social and political culture of Tibetans, who practice and preach Tibetan Buddhism – with the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader. In an attempt to save themselves and their identity after a failed revolt against the Chinese in 1959, the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans came to NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) in India. They were immediately granted asylum by the Indian Government and relief operations were kick-started.

The aim of this article is to analyse how refugee Tibetans became the world’s most successful refugee community, as is proclaimed by all leading scholars on the subject.

Melvyn Goldstein, the American anthropologist arrived at Bylakuppe January, 1966 to do field work among the refugees in South India. Within five years of starting the settlement from scratch in 1962, the refugees at Bylakuppe had “become a tremendous economic success” by 1966 (Goldstein, 1978: 399). He observed very little manifestation of the dysfunctional behaviour commonly associated with the “refugee” syndrome. There was little incidence of mental and emotional disorders and no incidence of alcoholism.

Citizenship has been defined as the right to have rights. Over the past six years, there have been clear political moves to fundamentally assault and redefine this Constitutional basis of both Indian nationhood and citizenship. Especially now, with the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 being passed and a not thoroughly debated all India-level NPR-National Register of Citizens (NRC) process. CJP is urging people to understand, organise and fight back democratically. Let’s stand up for the Constitution of India. We must unequivocally reject CAA 2019 and at the same time in the same breath, NPR/NRC. For this we need your support.

Girija Saklaini, an Indian sociologist, did exhaustive fieldwork and research on Tibetan refugees living in Dharamshala, Delhi and Dehradun (Northern India) and her findings are similarly positive. She wrote that Tibetans have, on the whole, “successfully emerged from a self-sufficient barter economy into a competitive economy, and have adjusted to the new situation which is a tribute to the Tibetan community in exile” (Saklaini, 1984: 216).

The reasons for the ‘success’ of the Tibetan refugee community are sociological as well as political. A few of these come from Girija Saklaini’s explanations as noted by her during her anthropological study of Tibetan refugees: such as work ethics, lack of sexual division of labour, simple entrepreneurship. These simple characteristics can go a long way. For instance, in a country with plenty of unskilled labour, a refugee community without abilities of entrepreneurship and business skills could never have achieved self-sustenance.

However, all of these reasons could not have proved sufficient without the active support that the refugees received from the Indian State. As noted by various scholars, a factor of supreme importance when it comes to settlement of refugees in third world countries is the political charisma shown by the echelons of the host State’s government.

In the instant case of Tibetan refugees, it was Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India who came to their rescue. Right from the beginning in 1959, Jawaharlal Nehru showed keen personal interest in the Tibetan refugee problems. One of the main reasons was that his China policy was severely criticized in India throughout the 1950s, and his critics took the Tibetan crisis as the proof of his policy failure. Moreover, in India there was widespread sympathy for the Tibetan cause, mainly due to India’s cultural affinities with Buddhist Tibet. It was probably in order to compensate for his political inability to do anything for Tibet that Nehru sought to put the Tibetan refugee problem high on India’s domestic agenda in the 1960s.

On March 30, 1959 the Government of India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama. On April 4, 1959 Nehru stated in public that India’s policy was governed by three factors: the preservation of the security and integrity of India; India’s desire to maintain friendly relations with the People’s Republic of China; and India’s deep sympathy for the people of Tibet (Holborn, 1975: 719). India’s deep sympathy for the people of Tibet was translated into her concrete concern for refugees from Tibet. Though it was the last component of India’s foreign policy, the fact that the Tibetan people figured in that official policy meant that the question of Tibetan refugees was high on India’s agenda. It made a tremendous difference to the Tibetan refugees in India. In this way, Nehru’s political guilt was compensated by his deep personal concern for the refugees. The government provided for settlements by requesting various State governments to allot land for such settlements. Many of them answered Nehru’s call. Further, Bhutan and Nepal also provide land for refugee settlements.

Another reason for successful settlement is also sociological is nature. The Tibetan refugee community in India already had a systematic leadership and power distribution mechanism in place, which they were successfully able to implement in India. When the Dalai Lama took refuge in Dharamshala in India, his ministers and advisors came along with him. This endured that there was no vacuum of control, as well as, that the Indian Government as well as the NGOs and various Aid groups, whether Indian and or International, always had a distribution network available to them which was free of corruption and worked smoothly. The micro level organisation was intricate and at each level, there were elected or nominated leaders who were accountable to their superiors, who were skilled administrators and were also paid a meagre salary by the Tibetan Government in exile at Dharamshala. There were procedures for dispute resolution and bank loans, employment, schooling, as well as health and wellness.

Here, an observation can be made, that it was the successful settlement of these refugees, that ensured that the host population does not come in conflict with them. A few points are worth considering here: first, these Tibetan settlements were planned and execute in such a way that the Tibetan culture does not get assimilated with the culture of the host population. This was the view of the Indian as well as the Tibetan (exile) Government.

Second, in a span of two decades since their establishment, these settlements became self-sufficient. Since Tibetans primarily prefer trading, the local population was hired for agricultural activities all round the year, such as tilling, sowing, harvesting etc. Even though there was some resentment in these workers of the fact that their land was given to the refugees, they nevertheless benefitted from the employment created, which was not there earlier.

Members of the host population are employed by Tibetan refugees in other spheres too. In Nepal numerous local Nepalis are employed in Tibetan refugee carpet factories, which are the largest foreign exchange earner next to tourism. Moreover, increasing number of Tibetan refugees are entering secondary occupations such as selling sweaters in winter, running restaurants and hotels etc. in which local workers are being employed as can be seen in Delhi, Dharamsala, Darjeeling, Kathmandu etc.

The other beneficial type of refugee impact on host society is the extension of Tibetan facilities to the host population. Most of the Tibetan settlements are located in remote parts of India which had not received much attention from New Delhi in terms of developmental funds and projects. With the establishment of Tibetan settlements in such areas, the surrounding Indian or Nepali villages began to receive side benefits. Tibetan schools and hospitals are open to the host population as well. While digging tube wells or making irrigation canals for the Tibetan refugees, foreign charity organizations also have sponsored similar schemes for the surrounding local village as well. To such remote and poor villagers in India or Nepal, the establishment of a Tibetan colony in their locality means new jobs, more business opportunities and new modern facilities.

The scheme of things in the 21st century is different. Now, the third generation Tibetans, have more expectations, and wish to live rather than survive. The young are often disgruntled by the imposition of multiple identities on them. They are told to remain true to the ‘Free Tibet’ cause and retain their culture uniqueness amongst a sea of local population. And, on the other hand, their belongingness and attachment to India is asserted by them since they have grown up here and consider it their Home.

Even though they can apply for Citizenship, they almost never do so. The Dharamshala Government maintains that if the Tibetans take Indian Citizenship, they will lose focus of their cause and struggle. Based on the Indian Government’s laws for Tibetans born in India who seek Indian Citizenship, it is imperative that they let go of all their benefits provided as members of the Tibetan refugee community. They cannot live in Tibetan settlements, take benefit of employment or education provided by the Tibetan Government, etc.

Thubten Dorje, a Tibetan in exile since the 1960s, has run two thriving small businesses in Dharamsala for decades, raised two children and supported his extended family, but despite his many successes there, he remains optimistic that India is merely a temporary refuge for himself and his family. He is frustrated that his talented son, who is ineligible for seats reserved for specific Indian minorities, will have to pay an unthinkable sum of rupees to gain admission to a good medical college in India. He says,

“We aren’t Indians. We don’t get benefits. We can’t buy land. There is no Indian citizenship for us. There is only a residential certificate that we have to renew once a year. We can’t take loans, no buying lands, and we can’t get good jobs. You can apply for Indian citizenship, but it’s very difficult to get. We pay taxes to the Indian government, and one tax to the Central Tibetan Administration too . . . Tibet is always in our mind. We are still hopeful. We want to be totally independent, but I don’t think there’s any chance of that. Time is fading and he [the Dalai Lama] is getting older day by day. . .”

As Dorje dreams of a better life for himself and his family, either in a free Tibet, he underscores that he will never feel at home in India as long as he is a second-class resident, a non-citizen, a glorified guest. (Jessica Falcone & Tsering Wangchuk, 2008)

This feeling can be traced in many of the second and third generation Tibetans and is proved by the fact that the Tibetan diaspora in India has been reducing each year. Families are migrating to US, Canada, France, Germany etc, since these countries provide better job opportunities and quality of life.

Finally comparing the experience of the ‘most successful’ refugee community with the rather bitter experience of the other communities, some observations can be made.

Firstly, it becomes clear that if the host State’s political leadership and the community shares ethnic and religious or spiritual connections with the refugee group, the settlement of the refugee group becomes peaceful and expedient. In this case, the people of India found spiritual connection with the Dalai Lama and empathised with the Tibetan Community. This helped avoid regional conflicts and violence, which would otherwise be plausible.

Secondly, a crucial factor that worked in favour of the Tibetan Community was their unwillingness and strong determination to not mix or assimilate in the socio-political fabric of their new home. This made the local communities comfortable in multiple ways. They didn’t perceive the refugees as political competitors, or even competitors for common government services and goods, since these facilities were to Tibetans not from the common systems for locals, but from the Tibetan Administration, with aid from multiple agencies as well as Government of India.

Thirdly, since Tibetans were moderately skilled persons with entrepreneurial capacity and individual agency to work, they benefited from the initial support provided by the government and became a self-sufficient community in less than two decades. This ensured that they were not perceived as a liability on the economy of a country in which 40% people at that time were below the poverty line.

Fourthly, and most importantly, the functioning of the Tibetan government in exile with its modern administrative techniques and concrete power structure ensured the well-being of all the refugees through efficient distribution channels. The Dalai Lama being perceived as representing the entire Tibetan Community enabled a centrality and stable dialogue between the Indian State, the Tibetan Administration, and various NGOs and International Donors.

Why India does not have a uniform policy framework for Refugees: Twin Perspectives

India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and does not have a national refugee protection framework. However, it continues to grant asylum to a large number of refugees from neighbouring States and respects UNHCR’s mandate for other nationals, mainly from Afghanistan and Myanmar. While the government of India deals differently with various refugee groups, in general, it respects the principle of non-refoulement for holders of UNHCR documentation.

However, it is a signatory to a number of United Nations and World Conventions on Human Rights, refugee issues and related matters. Hence its obligations in regard to refugees arise out of the latter. India has also voted affirmatively to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms rights for all persons, citizens and non- citizens alike.

Many experts in the area of refugee law believe that the more practical alternative to proposing an entirely new law is to push for changes in India’s current policy regarding refugees. As stated above, no current Indian law refers directly to refugees. The Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939, the Foreigners Act, 1946, and the Foreigners Order, 1948 are the primary documents dealing with the treatment of foreigners in India. Article 2 of the 1939 Registration of Foreigners Act defines a foreigner as “a person who is not a citizen of India.” The Foreigners Act of 1946 and the Foreigners Order of 1948 also uses this definition of a “foreigner.” Both the Act and the Order affirmatively grant the Indian government powers to restrict the movement of foreigners inside India, to mandate medical examinations, to limit employment opportunities, and to control the opportunity to associate, and the ability to refoule, or “return,” refugees. The Refugee Convention, however, bars all these actions.

Therefore, the reasoning that India’s policy toward refugees already matches international standards and is, consequently, not in need of any change is not acceptable to watchdog agencies like the UNHCR and the NHRC and rightly so. It is patently obvious that although India grants its refugees certain rights and privileges, these are only conferred upon select groups, leaving the question of equality and uniformity unanswered. A clear case of this is the preferential treatment conferred upon the Tibetan and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. [1]


[1] National Refugee Law for India: Benefits and Roadblocks, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi (2007).


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