Geography is not history

CHAWENG BEACH on Samui Island in the Gulf of Thailand and the Thamel tourist quarter in Kathmandu Valley have a lot of common, most obviously in those trying to sell wares to tourists. Like all exotic places where tourism is the mainstay of the local economy, trinket-wallahs of Samui, like their breed in Kathmandu, seem to be on a perpetual holiday – chatting up Western tourists in Italian as if they had no intention of selling anything at all. Before you realise it, however, you have bought things you never even knew existed – how often do you use a backscratcher shaped like a hand with fingers in perpetual rigor mortis, or a 'crazy hat' in velvet?

Another similarity between the hawkers of Thamel and Chaweng is that they talk to each other in Nepali. This is a pleasant surprise for the Indian or Pakistani – and there are many of them these days in Thailand with Bangkok having emerged as a major venue for all kinds of South Asian seminars and workshops (due to Indian and Pakistani flight bans back home) – for the Nepali will invariably understand some Hindi/Urdu. How pleasant to be able to bargain in your own language when even English sounds like Thai. But the question that begs asking is: how did these 'Nepalis' ended up in Samui Island, which few Nepalis have even heard of? Actually, the story is not very different that of other South Asian diaspora since the time of Girmitiyas to the Caribbean Islands in the 1840s.

Threatened identities

Nepali migrants started to find their way to Burma soon after the fall of Awadh in the wake of the brutal suppression of the 1857 'Sepoy Mutiny' by the British, which was achieved with some assistance of the Gorkha forces led by Jang Bahadur Kunwar. The Kathmandu satrap proved to the British rulers that they could depend on the loyalty of Gorkhalis should the need to subdue pesky natives arise again. Consequently, the colonisers actively encouraged Gorkhali settlement in the troubled regions under their control.

Meanwhile, in Nepal, Rana oppression was so ruthless that many Nepali peasants found British-administered India relatively more liveable. Out-migration of Nepalis to the hills of Assam continued right until the end of Second World War. Many, many war-weary 'Gorkhas' decided to settle down in the frontier regions of the Empire rather than go back to Rana-ruled tyranny. But when the British packed up their bags and retreated to their cold isle barely two years later, the fate of their former loyal subjects was in the hands of the chauvinistic local elites everywhere.

The heat and humidity of Burmese jungles were always going to be hostile towards highlander Nepalis, but it became impossible to live on in Burma only when, in the 1960s, intolerant regimes in Rangoon started using immigrants as a scapegoat for their own failures in administering their resource-rich country. In the 1970s, the Burmese generals expelled a large number of Nepalis. Thousands of them ended up in resettlement colonies set up by King Mahendra back in the Tarai of Nepal. In retrospect, it was a decision that set a bad precedent for repatriation of people of Nepali-origin to their home country, but that is another story, of thousands of Lhotsampas from Bhutan who have been languishing in refugee camps in eastern Nepal for more than a decade now.

Like so many Sikhs and Marwaris who were also expelled from Burma, many Nepalis crossed over into Thailand. Today, they continue to eke out a living in Thailand as a people without land or political identity. They carry their culture on their tongue, and proudly boast of their Nepali-ness even though most of them have never set foot in the land of their ancestors. One haberdasher told Saarcy on Chaweng Beach, ""Our land is in our hearts".

There is no dearth of people in and from South Asia who carry their lands in their hearts, but the most heart­rending story of them is that of the so-called Biharis of Bangladesh. These are the progeny of those Muslims in British India who had campaigned for an independent homeland and migrated to the then East Pakistan. The dreams of these Urdu-speaking migrants turned sour. Religion failed to bridge the linguistic divide, and when Bangladesh became independent in 1971, the non­ Bengali Muslims lost their identity once again. Despised for their loyalty to the cause of Pakistan and abandoned by the truncated nation that they had migrated to, these Bihari Pakistanis have continued to languish in the slums of Dhaka for more than 30 years now. Ignored by the governments of South Asia and forgotten by the rest of the world, they have nowhere to go even though it is impossible to stay where they are. That is why Saarcy salutes Imran Khan for making the plight of the Bihari Muslims stranded in Bangladesh an election issue in Pakistan. Khansaheb is the only Pakistani politician of any consequence who has boldly advocated that Pakistan must bring its loyalists to their adopted land.

Despite the romanticisation of suffering and jingoistic overtones characteristic of most Hindi movies, Refugee is a realistic portrayal of the desperation of Pakistanis trapped in Bangladesh, and the extent they can go to make it to the land they want to be in. The dream of one homeland for the Muslims of the Subcontinent died in 1971, but it continues to kill people to this day all along the India-Pakistan border, and the Line of Control in the two parts of Kashmir – one under Pakistani occupation and the other under Indian control.

There are so many other distinctly South Asian cultural identities that are on the verge of extinction – the Sindhi Hindus, the Ahmadia Muslims, the Malayali Jews, the Bombayite Parsis – the list can be endless. The histories of all these cultures have one common feature: none of them ever had independent control of the destiny of their geography. In this sense, the story of the Tibetan diaspora is strikingly different. In the memory of our own generation, Tibet had an independent identity with its own geography, history and culture. To twist an Agha Shahid Ali metaphor about Kashmir, Tibet was a land with its own 'post office'.

The last sky

The agony of a person with a lost identity is too intense to describe in words. It was over two decades ago, but my encounter with a Tibetan person in the railway compartment of the Brindavan Express between Madras and Bangalore is as fresh as if it took place only yesterday. Like most South Asians in such a situation, I had asked my fellow traveller what her nationality was. "Tibetan", she had said. "When did you come to India?" I asked to continue the conversation. "When I was just 10 years", was her answer. "And when are you going back", I queried in all innocence. She gave me a painful stare, and replied after a long silence, "I don't know". She did not speak another word for the rest of the journey.

When there is no home to go back to, the world becomes too small, just as Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish bemoans in "The Earth Is Closing on Us":

Where should we go after the last frontiers,

where should the birds fly after the last sky?

Like the Palestinians in West Asia, Tibetans too seem to have scanned the last sky. Their nests continue to be occupied by predators. However, unlike Palestinians, Tibetans have refused to take resort to violent means to liberate their land. Perhaps peace is an integral part of the Geluk order of Buddhism. But for how long can the collective patience endure, if the world continues to ignore the plight of one of the most peaceful cultures of the world? It is a troubling question, but a question that the regime in Beijing must face sooner or later.

Padma Sambhava, the Buddhist sage who brought Dhamma into the Great Plateau in the 8th century, is believed to have prophesied, "When the iron bird flies, and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world, and the dharma will come to the land of the red man". Since the occupation of Tibet in 1949, Tibetans have indeed scattered all over the world. Of about 150,000 Tibetan exiles, nearly 100,000 are said to be in India. Nepal is the temporary home of another 25,000. That leaves only about 25,000 Tibetans in the rest of the world. With the Nobel Peace Prize for Dalai Lama, dharma indeed seems to have reached the land of the red man. But tell us, Soul of Guru Rinpoche: is it not now time for the ants to come back to their own hill?

Perhaps dharma has not yet truly reached the land of the red man. The world takes notice when an Ayatollah Khomeini declares war on Satan, or when a renegade Islamist Osama bin Laden turns against his own mentors in Langley, VA. After nearly 65,000 lives were lost and 1.6 million people were displaced, Sinhalas and Tamils decided to talk to each other under Norwegian cover in Sri Lanka. But South Asia is still waiting for an initiative from the world community to restore Tibet to Tibetans.

The Dalai Lama's rightful place in Potala Palace as the spiritual and temporal head of the Tibetan Nation need not even challenge the fundamental unity and integrity of the People's Republic of China. After all, the Qing Dynasty's arrangement of having an Amban in the Tibetan court is not much different from the "One Country, Two Systems" policy of the present regime in Beijing towards Hong Kong and Macao. There is no reason why Kashmir and Tibet cannot be two autonomously governed nation-states in South Asia. If Bhutan can manage it, certainly Kashmir and Tibet should be able to, distinctive postage stamps included. Maybe then the Tibetan lady that I offended 22 years ago will write me a letter forgiving me my insensitivity.

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Himal Southasian