New Delhi: In 1987, a bullet came through Lobsang Denzin’s bedroom, shattering a window and his sleep.
He was six years old at the start of that two-year uprising in Lhasa, and Tibetans and Chinese police were clashing just as they are today.
A decade later, Denzin left his family to come to India, to attend a Tibetan school in Bylakuppe, near Mysore, before starting a course in commerce at Delhi University.
Provoked:Jigme Yeshi (left) and Lobsang Denzin in front of Lunta — a Tibetan flag with prayers written on it.
Here, Denzin is friends with Jigme Yeshi, a history student born and schooled in Darjeeling. Both have the earnest seriousness of young student protesters. Both live in the Tibetan Youth Hostel. Both lie awake at nights, fretting about the bloodshed back home.
But there is one integral difference: their passports. Denzin is officially a refugee, while Yeshi is an Indian citizen. That formal difference is a classic example of what a government-in-exile official calls “the status of statelessness,” an issue that impacts everything from how Tibetans educate their children to whether they choose to become a part of the booming Indian economy.
Their refugee status allows Tibetans a registration certificate and an identity certificate, but these papers are often not enough to apply for government jobs, or for jobs that require extensive travel. When asked why Tibetans did not simply apply for an Indian passport, Yeshi laughed, glanced at Denzin, and said: “Because in our community, applying for an Indian passport is taboo.”
Like his father, Yeshi has an Indian passport, and added: “I know what it feels like. Initially, I was called names, and there was a lot of jeering. If you hold an Indian passport, people think you have lost your nationalism.”
While no government-in-exile directive forbids Tibetans from applying for Indian passports, officials concede the social constraint exists. “There is a mental barrier against losing your refugee status,” said Youdon Aukatsang, a member of the Tibetan government-in-exile. “If you’re not a refugee, you’re not Tibetan.”
Curiously, this absence of officially belonging to a state gives Tibetans in India their collective identity. The paradox reflects the larger tension infecting Tibetan youth in India: to preserve their culture and fight for a homeland, on the one hand, or to try to build a career and be professionally competitive, on the other.
“No other youth have to deal with that kind of dual purpose,” said Aukatsang. “They live in exile, so they are in a double jinx. And we have very few organizations that deal with social issues, issues of livelihood. There is a big gap there, and it needs to be filled.” That gap is the source of considerable anger and frustration, and while Aukatsang insisted that it does not translate into the surprising violence of Tibetan protest, some youngsters feel otherwise.
“The anger spills over, and there is a lot of it,” said Yeshi, president of the New Delhi chapter of the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress’ Student Working Committee. “The private sector is booming, but Tibetans need to be equipped for it, with knowledge, with English skills, with the will to compete. But they aren’t.” Karma Gelek Youthok, education secretary in the government-in-exile, estimated that 40% of Tibetan graduates are unemployed. “We call it the ‘problem of floating educated youth’.”
The problem sets in from the very first year of education, in any one of 80-odd Tibetan schools spread across India, Nepal and Bhutan. By no coincidence, Yeshi, who went to a Jesuit school, speaks far more fluent English than Denzin. “Our English skills are very poor,” said Denzin, vice-president of the student council at the Tibetan Youth Hostel. “In our English classes, the teacher would read out a poem, explain it all in Tibetan, and field questions and answers in Tibetan. This is a huge problem when we look for jobs.”
In 1996, Tibetan schools switched from an entirely English medium of instruction to teaching in Tibetan until class V. The government’s latest education policy, formulated in 2004-05, shows its intent to extend teaching in Tibetan until class XII. “In an education system having traditional education as its core, it is appropriate to have the medium in which the traditional learning abides as the medium of instruction,” the policy reads. “Hence, efforts shall be made to gradually convert the medium of instruction in all Tibetan institutions of learning from the pre-primary level up to the highest research study level, into Tibetan language.”
Before the policy was released, there was a two-year debate within his ministry, involving teachers, scholars and parents. “We have not ignored English, sincerely not,” Youthok said. “We’ve learned that some fundamental changes are needed, not just patches here and there. This policy will upgrade both modern education and the Tibetan culture and language.”
Around 1,000 students graduate from Tibetan schools in India every year, Youthok said, only 500-odd go on to universities. Partly this is for financial reasons, because scholarships are limited. But Tibetan schoolchildren also receive almost no exposure to help them decide on a career path that interests and suits them.
This is one reason, Yeshi said, that youngsters leave school and plunge into classic Tibetan occupations such as selling sweaters. “I’m not putting down that work. My father raised me only by selling sweaters,” he said. “But they need to know about other options available to them. The schools have some counsellors, but they don’t know enough about the changing professional landscape.”
In January, Aukatsang responded by setting up Empowering the Vision, a New Delhi-based non-governmental organization that aims to build “successful young Tibetans for a successful nation.” Its activities will include exposure visits to New Delhi for schoolchildren, and personality and confidence development workshops. “Being a refugee community, Tibetans are insular, even those born here,” said Aukatsang. “That has its advantages and disadvantages, but in terms of overall growth, that is bad. “Ghettoized” is too strong a word, but there is very limited interaction with the locals.” Denzin remembers only one day in his entire school life when he interacted with students from an Indian school, during a debate. The heat of struggle also singes university students badly. “Three days ago, 56 students of this hostel were in Tihar Jail,” said Yeshi. “Our activism leads to loss of attendance, and we turn in assignments late, which creates a negative impression about Tibetan students. We all have exams coming up, but many students have lost focus. They say they don’t feel like studying.”
Most of all, there is the news from home. Last week, when Denzin called his sister, she told him about the Chinese police hunting for suspects door to door, and how she could hear gunfire on the street.
That 1987 gunshot fresh in his mind, Denzin can picture the fearful mood in Lhasa, and he wants to go back as soon as his exams end. “I’ve applied to the Chinese embassy, but I’m not sure I will be allowed,” he said. And then, plaintively, he added: “But I’ve been here for more than 10 years now. I want to see my mother.”