Tibetan Settlements


Besides the Sakya Tibetan Society, popularly known as Puruwala Zichag, with which I am most familiar, I visited in January 2000 the oldest Tibetan settlement in Bylakuppe, South India, much larger and more complex than the one at Puruwala. Therefore in what follows, I attempt a background history and general picture of the settlements in Bylakuppe and Mundgod, both in Karnataka , which will give the reader some general ideas and information about the Tibetan settlements in India.

Historical Background

Today there are 46 Tibetan settlements in India, Nepal and Bhutan, home to most of the 100,451 Tibetan refugees in South Asia (Planning Council 1998 figures).  It has been said that the Tibetan leadership, anxious that the Tibetan refugees should retain their culture and identity, did not want then to be scattered all over the subcontinent, but wanted them to live together in settlements.  As early as 1959, the Dalai Lama and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru agreed on this principle and Nehru wrote to the governments of the Indian states, requesting them to make land available. The Government of the State of Karnataka was the first to send a positive reply to New Delhi’s request for land on which to settle the refugees. An agreement was reached between the state and central governments ( in consultation with the Dalai Lama’s representatives) to settle 3,000 refugees on a 1,500 – hectare tract of uninhabited jungle land on lease at Bylakuppe, 80 kilometres west of the town of Mysore in Karnataka. Other Indian states followed. In June 1962 the Government of Bhutan also granted enough land to settle about 3,000 refugees with funds from the Indian Government in two separate settlements.

In the beginning it was not easy.  The jungle had to be cleared, infrastructure laid and houses built. Adaptation to lower altitudes and a different climate caused health problems for the Tibetans. Moreover, a large number of refugees were nomads, unfamiliar with settled agriculture.  Thanks to the combined efforts of the Government of Mysore, the Indian central government, the UNHCR and , of course, the Tibetan themselves, villages were established in a comparatively short time. Groups of five persons were allotted two and half hectares of land and a one –room tenement.  Soon international NGOs committed themselves to the rehabilitation work, the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation (SDC) arrived first.

Within a span of few years, the refugees from Tibet became self-supporting and emerged as ‘one of the most successful refugee communities in the world.  This self-estimate is corroborated by social scientists such as Melvyn Goldstein, an American anthropologist, Girija Saklaini, an Indian Sociologist, and Tanka Subha, a Nepali anthropologist.

The Tibetan refugee achievement is not confined to relative economic success in a country where  40% of the host population lives below the poverty level. Finally the refugees’ preservation of their cultural identity and religious institutions has been so successful that a well-known European anthropologist, Christoph von Furer-Heimendorf, has termed it the ‘renaissance of Tibetan civilization’ in exile.  After studying the cultural scene among the Tibetan refugees in India & Nepal, he concluded:

The ability of homeless and impoverished groups of refugees to build and fund in foreign lands numerous monasteries of a remarkably high architectural standard and their success in developing viable monastic communities similar to those of Tibet is one of the miracles of the 20th century.

Right from the beginning in 1959, Jawaharlal Nehru showed keen personal interest in the Tibetan refugee problem. 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 proof of his policy failure.  Moreover, in India there was widespread sympathy for the Tibetan cause, because of India’s cultural affinities with Buddhist Tibet. It was probably to compensate for his political inability to do anything for Tibet at the international level that Nehru sought to put the Tibetan refugee problem high on India’s domestic agenda in the 1960s.

On 31 March 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.   India’s deep sympathy for the people of Tibet was translated into its concrete concern for the refugees.  Though it was the last component of India’s foreign policy, the fact that the Tibetan people figured in that official policy statement meant that the question of Tibetan refugees was high on India’s agenda. It made a tremendous difference to the Tibetans.  In this way, Nehru’s political guilt was compensated by his deep personal concern for the refugees from Tibet.

When the refugees  first began to arrive India in 1959, the responsibility for them was placed not with the Home Ministry but with the powerful Ministry of External Affairs where Nehru himself was also Foreign Minister.  In June 1962, at Calcutta, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, the Indian Political officer of Sikkim and representatives of the Government of India and the Dalai lama met and agreed that about 3,000 refugees should be settled on land given by the Government of Bhutan. All these incidents demonstrate that in order for a refugee community to be successfully resettled, the highest echelons of the host government’s political decision-making, involvement and interest are necessary.

Indigenous Leadership & Organization in Tibetan Refugee Society:  
Organized Participation

Although co-ordination and co-operation among NGOs may not be unique to the Tibetan case; it was, however, more striking and persistent throughout the rehabilitation period, which  undoubtedly contributed to the overall success of the Tibetan settlements. But by far the most fundamental features of the Tibetan success lay in the indigenous leadership and organization that emerged out of the traditional social and political structures.  Such leadership and organization, especially during the initial and critical years were instrumental in the successful implementation of various projects. They ensured that the NGO funds went beyond mere relief operations to the building of an infrastructure.

When the Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959, a number of aristocrats ad monk-officials (rtse-grun)who ran the Tibetan government at Lhasa, came along with him. It was the nucleus of such ex-officials, and some new recruits who, under the aegis of the Dalai Lama, re-established the Tibetan government (bod-gzhun) in Dharamsala.  The legal fact that no state in the world recognizes this ‘Tibetan Government in –Exile’ headed by the Dalai Lama, does not alter the social fact that it provided legitimate leadership to the refugee community as a whole.  Its social function, and not so much its international legal standing, is relevant to refugee studies.  The fact is, this bod-gzhun has all the basic features of a complex political organization.

As far as refugees from Tibet are concerned, the Dalai Lama’s complex organization in Dharamsla has performed three vital and integrative functions.  It has assumed a virtual monopoly to represent and act on behalf of the refugees in negotiations with the Government of India and the NGOs concerning relief, rehabilitation and settlement of Tibetan refugees in India and to a lesser extent in Nepal and Bhutan. At the same time it organized the scattered refugees into several settlements and established its direct control over them.

From the beginning the Dalai Lama and his officials interacted with the Government of India on behalf of the refugees. They immediately set themselves up as the sole spokesman for the refugees and even maintained offices in the transit camps. The Government of India tacitly accepted the Dalai Lama’s assumption of leadership over the refugees from Tibet partly as a mark of respect for the institution of the Dalai Lama and partly as a concession of India’s inability or unwillingness to recognize the ‘Tibetan Government in-Exile’, despite persistent pleas and considerable Indian public support for such a recognition, especially after 1962. In any case it was more convenient and effective for the Government of India to recognize the moral authority of the Dalai Lama and the leadership role of his organization within the Tibetan refugee community. Such a policy resulted as far as Dharamsala was concerned, in the Indian affirmation of the Dalai Lama and his organization’s right to exercise administrative control over the refugee settlements in India. Moreover, this policy was in line with India’s desire that settlements should be designed in such a ‘non-assimilative’ way as to enable the Tibetan refugees to preserve their cultural identity and religious institution while in exile.

Most of the NGOs tend to recognize the Dalai Lama as the legitimate leader of the refugees from Tibet and accordingly include his representatives in their discussions on rehabilitation projects. Most refugee matters were conducted on a tripartite basis:  Indian, NGOs and Tibetan representatives. And in most cases this worked well.

The settlements are not completely identical in their organization, but they follow a pattern, the terms for the functionaries and levels may differ.   In principle there are three layers of decision-making.  At the head is the settlement officer, who belongs to the Tibetan Central Administration. The settlements----nowadays comprising between 1,000 to 8,000 people----are divided into camps also called villages.  The inhabitants elect a camp leader called chimie.  These are assisted by four spokespersons called chupon, representing approximately 250 inhabitants.  Originally the chupon represented ten households, but as the population has increased, this number is nowadays not strictly adhered to.  This echoes the traditional Tibetan decimal organization, hence the refugees had no problem accepting this system. Every settlement has a cooperative society.

In Bylakuppe, where about half the Tibetan refugees in South India live, there are two settlements: Lugsung Samdupling, founded in 1961, therefore also called the ‘old settlement’. It has a population of 7,631 according to 1998 Tibetan census.   The second Dekyi larsoe, founded in 1969, with 3,096 people, is the ‘new settlement’.  In addition there are about 7,000 inhabitants of the monasteries:   monks, novices and staff.  The four sects in Tibetan Buddhism have rebuilt their famous monasteries, namely Sera, Tashilhunpo, Kargyu and Namdrolling next to the settlements. These monasteries and monk population follow their own organization and have to find their own funding; they are not part of the settlement administration.  There is a liaison officer though.  Only at elction times do electoral officers carry out their duties inside the monasteries.  Monks perform Religious ceremonies in the settlements, play a major role in festivals and the settlers participate in some of the events in the temples.

The structure of the two Bylakuppe settlements mirrors the three-layered hierarchy with the chuponor ‘head of ten’ at the base. This is a traditional Tibetan form of organization, but nowadays there is flexibility regarding the number of households.  The chupon’s duty is to organize labour for community projects, call for meetings, organize festivals, hear grievances. Such deputies, numbering for in each camp, are annually elected. The most important functionary is the chimie or ‘ general leader’  nowadays called camp leader.  He/She is the link between the administration and the settlers. Camp leaders are elected for one year and receive meager salaries from Dharamsala. Camps comprise about 1,000 people, thus the Lugsung Samdupling Settlement has six camps, but given the size two camp leaders--chimie-- per camp.

Above these democratically elected positions, are the appointees of Dharamsala, and chief among them is the Settlement Officer, sku-tsab or  dbu-‘zin.  He heads a fully staffed office and is accountable to the Department of Home of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA).  Bylakuppe having such a large population, one of the settlement officers is a ‘Representative’ of  the CTA. 

The  settlement officers and their staff plan the policies for the settlement as a whole with respect not only to economic matters but also to socio-cultural ones.  Such policies and projects are implemented through the useful offices of the chupon after consultations with the chimie.  Internally, the settlement officers seeks to integrate diverse subcultural units by articulating pan-Tibetan identity and ideology. The settlement officer also uses the prestige of his office to mediate disputes, but only if efforts at the lower levels fail.  Externally, he often acts on behalf of his settlers in their dealings with Indian legal and political officials. 

The two settlements are well provided with schools: there is a CTSA school, going up to class 12 and five elementary schools up to class 5.  The SOS Children’s Village also has a secondary school for their 1,160 children, and the Sera Monastery runs its own high school for the novices.

The Tibetan refugee organization at the Mundgod settlement seems slight different. However, we cannot fail to observe the centrality of the Dharamsala-appointed settlement officer and the organizing principle of the social organization. They are characteristically Tibetan.

The economic and political nerve-centre of the Mundgod Tibetan settlement –as in other settlements --- is the Tibetan Cooperative Society whose membership is open to all the male heads of all the households in the camp.  At the head of the cooperative society is the Secretary, a representative of the CTA.  The Secretary and his staff, who operate the settlement’s  secretariat, are directly paid by Dharamsala.  The Secretary acts as an administrative link between the Dharamsala administration and the Mundgod settlement. He is also the proper channel between the settlement and the respective Indian governments, both at the state and centre levels.  Moreover, all the foreign charitable organizations operate through the cooperative society and its secretary.

The Mundgod settlement consists of nine villages, and each village elects a leader called gambo meaning ‘ the elder’ ( corresponding to the chimie at Bylakuppe).  The village leader acts as a link between the village and the Secretary of the Co-operative Society.  The Secretary delegates authority to the village leader and the latter transmits messages and policies from the cooperative society;  he Tries to solve his villagers’ problems such as getting loans from the bank, mediating in civil disputes, getting fertilizer from the cooperative;  and above all he gets tasks and projects ordered by the secretary done by all the villagers.

Here too the village leader is assisted by group leaders (chupon). The group leaders are subordinate to the village leaders and are in constant touch with him. They report to the village leader about the needs and problems of families whom they represent and who have elected them.  Communication and command flows through hierarchy: from the Secretary to the village leaders, from village leaders to group leaders and from group leaders to individual households.

The Mundgod settlement has an executive committee consisting of all gambo, the village leaders, and headed by the Secretary of Co-operative Society. The committee is an apex policy and planning board for the entire settlement.

Although Mundgod and Bylakuppe settlements share certain essential characteristics, there are some differences too.  The Bylakuppe settlement reflects the vision of a traditional Tibetan government official as its head; at Mundgod, the settlement officer located his ‘office’ in the centre of economic activity, namely Tibetan Co-operative Society.   Although the ultimate power was retained by the secretary, he attempted to encourage democratic participation in the decision-making process by inclusion of village representation. There is also more pluralism in the terms and conditions of gambo and  chupon ;   either through election or rotation. More such flexibility and modification are evident in Bylakuppe in recent years, where in the early years the decimally-based Tibetan social organization was rather rigorously applied.

The Impact of Refugees on the Host Population

Tibetan refugee settlements in India were deliberately designed in such a way as to recreate Tibetan society with its core values intact.  Such a re-creation of pockets of Tibetan culture and society in India was not only the popular desire and determination of refugees from Tibet;  it was to a large extent, endorsed and even encouraged by the Government of India as a matter of policy Two critical aspects of India’s policy towards the Tibetan refugees are --- (1)  the liberal ‘non-assimilative’ framework as reflected in the separate settlements, and  (2) the board ‘delegated’ authority of the Tibetan leadership headed by the Dalai Lama over the Tibetan settlements in India.  Such a benevolent policy ensures Tibetan cultural identity and social autonomy in a sea of host population. This seemed understandable in the 1960s but it is now coming under increasing criticism.  This criticism centers around the argument that Tibetans in India should no longer maintain their social. And cultural boundaries from the host society;  it implies that Tibetans should ‘ integrate’ with the Indians.  Some Tibetan critics on the other hand maintain that the Hindu caste hierarchy permits the maintenance of caste communities and their identity within each caste.  Hence the Tibetans might socially and culturally constitute a  jati and be permitted to  maintain their cultural identity and religious institutions.

As we stated before, one of the motives behind the forced migration from their homeland was the Tibetan apprehension that their cultural identity and religious institutions were in danger of disappearing under Chinese rule.  Most Indians sympathized with their concern.  The creation of separate settlements for Tibetans meant in effect maintaining social and cultural boundaries vis-à-vis the host society. This in turn means that the interaction between the refugees and the host population is limited to economic transactions in the market.

It may be surprising but true as observed by many social scientists such as  Goldstein and Palakshappa  that Tibetans have provided considerable job opportunities for the host population.

In agricultural settlements most Tibetans employ rural Indian laborers to till the soil, sow the seeds, and son on. It deserves mention that the monasteries also employ Indian labor.   Many members of the host population are engaged by Tibetan refugees in other spheres such as carpet factories, running restaurants and hotels, selling seasonal woollen garments etc as can be seen in Delhi, Dharamsala, Darjeeling, Kathmandu and other places.

The other beneficial type of refugee impact on the 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 India 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 voluntary organizations have sponsored similar schemes for the surrounding local villages 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. In fact most settlements have linkages with international donors, i.e. with NGOs as well as with individual sponsors, who support children in the SOS Tibetan children’s villages or individual monks in the monasteries. Indirectly the local people too profit from this inflow of foreign exchange.

Economic Integration

The Tibetan refugee settlements in India were build in the 1960s and early 1979s with a specific purpose in mind. They were designed as self-contained cultural units sustained by self-sufficient agro and handicraft economies for a limited rather then an unlimited period of time. This plan proved to be more than sufficient for the first generation of refugees. In fact they, during their life-time in exile, creatively deviated from the planned agricultural economy to the sweater-selling business which they find more lucrative, and less time consuming, though more intensive. As it stands now, the new generation of exiles born and brought up in India or Nepal appears to face a dilemma in both their education and economy. They have reached the limits of educational levels and economic choices offered in the settlements.   Where to go from here?

The Tibetan exile population in India and Nepal is 100,490 according to the 1998 census.   Of this, literacy defined as those literate up to the primary level in India & Nepal is 69%.  But the generation between 19 – 25 years is 97% literate.  And by the late 1990s there were 2,628 higher secondary graduates, a number likely to increase year by year.  Where can they find employment?

Because the establishment in Dharamsala or the settlements in rural India are already saturated, will they be contented with the sweater-selling business, which their non-literate parents pioneered? 

The core of the Tibetan exile economy is by all accounts its informal sector, namely the sweater-selling business which official publications never acknowledge or mention.   This business takes place in the winter season roughly between October – February. It started with the sale of hand-knitted colorful sweaters of the type which can still be seen in handicraft centres in India & Nepal or in so-called One-World shops in the West. The fact that people from the cold peaks of the Himalayas marketed those sweaters lent them great credibility.  Soon the demand for these hand knitted woolens outgrew the supply.  So Tibetans started buying machine-made sweaters in bulk from factories at Ludhiana (Punjab) and spread all over India, targeting especially small towns and industrial cities.  The relations between the producers and the Tibetans are  said to be most cordial and based on mutual trust, they get their ware on very easy terms.  It is essentially this business, which has made the former Tibetan peasants and nomads better off then  the average Indian peasants are today.   Tibetans are culturally and economically free to engage in diverse economic activities. Hence the entire able-bodied population of the settlements engage in sweater-selling business in winter. However majority, after the winter season, resume their settlement routine such as agricultural work and various handicrafts.

While transacting and participating in the larger, though lower levels of the Indian economy, Tibetan commoners have learned the value and utility of elementary lessons of democratic functioning in their business relations with local Indian municipalities and Panchayats. The sweater sellers organized themselves almost spontaneously using their age-old tradition of decimal based organizations called  chu-shog or  rgya-shog.    Having thus organized themselves in groups, then they directly elect their leaders or members to act on their behalf in dealing with the local Indian authorities and to maintain discipline among the sweater sellers themselves.   This daily necessity of functioning outside the settlement environment might have taught the average Tibetan in exile more practice of democracy at the grass-root level in terms of popular participation than from the formalized and stylized democracy that is coming from Dharamsala.

During my visits to Bylakuppe (January 20000 and Puruwala (February 2001)) I saw a whole new generation of Tibetans who are literate yet engaged in the same sweater business that their non-literate parents pioneered.  This new generation is increasingly likely to face serious problems of  employment   and economic activities suited to their education and skills unless they integrate their economy with the larger economic systems beyond the settlements.

*This shortened article by Dr. Dawa T Norbu is  taken from the book titled “Exile As challenge – The Tibetan Diaspora”  ( 2004 ) edited by Dagmar Bernstorff & Hubertus von Welck .   Dr. Dawa T Norbu  was a Professor at the Centre Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.   He passed away in May 2006. Professor Dawa Norbu  was a prolific writer and  had authored  several books including ‘ Red Star  over Tibet’,   ‘Culture and  the Politics of Third World Nationalism’,  ‘ Tibet: The Road Ahead’, ‘ China’s Tibet Policy : Creating Confucian Consensus’.  His other publications include scholarly papers in several reputed journals as Asian Survey, China Quarterly, Royal Central Asian Society Journal, etc.