Somewhat successful in wooing western countries, the Tibetan exile government seems to treat South Asia as a backwater. Understandably, the primary focus of the public relations effort has been to gather international (read North American and European) support. Faced with the stringent restrictions placed by India and, more so, Nepal on. Tibetan activism, Dharamsala has been concentrating elsewhere.
The lack of interest in Tibetan affairs among even educated South Asians reflects the realpolitik that has guided official Indian and Nepali policy, which resists any talk of Tibet as being anything but part of China. But a foreign policy position need not have the result of burying or discounting the social, cultural and economic ties that the Himalayan rimland populations have had with Tibetans for centuries.
Though Tibetan refugees find themselves among South Asians, they have either given up trying or have not tried hard enough to reach out to the Indian and Nepali politicians and intelligentsia. Lodi Gyari, who till recently handled international relations for the government-in-exile, says, “One has to be candid. We have failed in reaching out to the region. For immediate gains, we felt it important to emphasize raising awareness in the West because only the West has the economic and political power to make an impact on China. But for the long term, it is more important to create an awareness in India and Nepal than in, say, the United States.”
It is easy for Tibetans to be waylayed by Westerners because the latter come looking for them. Somehow, the exile Tibetans’ cause seems to have struck a deeper resonance in the West. Whereas the Nepali or Indian is liable to look at Tibetans as just one more ethnic group among so many, except that these are refugees from “Bhot”.
In the United States and Europe, it is not uncommon to find overzealous Westerners who are more Tibetan than Tibetans themselves: proclaiming their Buddhist beliefs, the righteousness of Tibetan nationalism, and the virtues of remaining traditional. Having made their point, these vicarious Tibetans return to their comfortable homes on the outskirts of New Haven, Zurich or Dusseldorf.
Many of them also make frequent visits to places where Tibetans are to be found, such as Kathmandu and Dharamsala. Says a bookshop owner in Dharamsala, “By and large, the Westerners who come here are misfits running away from their own societies. Their adulation is another kind of tranquiliser for us Tibetans.”
Says Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan historian, “We have totally neglected the Indian public and media. As a result, the Tibetan issue never gets play on Doordarshan. The Dalai Lama’s office has always been more interested in western journalists with fancy video cameras.”
Vijay Kranti, a journalist close to the Dalai Lama, agrees. “They do not go to the Indian press except when there is a demonstration in New Delhi. Tibetans sometimes forget that they are as Third World as Nepalis and Indians and that this is the society they have to influence.”
Occasionally, members of the Tibet Youth Congress and the Tibetan Womens Association attract attention in Delhi with demonstrations and hunger strikes. Given Nepal’s extreme vulnerability to pressure from Beijing, however, the Tibetan exile community in Kathmandu is cautious to the point of inaction, though they have more than made their’ presence felt in business and in religious activities. Even the Bhutan People’s Party’s liaison office makes more noise in Kathmandu than the Dalai Lama’s representative. When Tibetans fleeing across the border are captured and handed back to the Chinese, unless you are connected to the refugee grapevine, you would not know it.
It angers Tibetan officials in Dharamsala when they hear of diplomatic toasts that refer to “age-old ties” between China and India, or China and Nepal, “Those age-old ties were all with Lhasa, never with Beijing, which was thousands of miles away,” says one official.
That might well be true, but in the Indian or Nepali realpolitik, a billion Chinese totals a billion people. And, the representatives of 1.2 lakh Tibetan refugees, courting western states, need to find time to do less-glamorous but as crucial lobbying in South Asia’s less-receptive capitals.
Kanak Mani Dixit is founding editor of Himal Southasian.