The late 1980s saw the start of unprecedented political developments in the Tibetan-speaking regions of the Himalaya. In 1985, agitations began in Ladakh for greater autonomy from Srinagar. In Tibet proper, over 50 major demonstrations resulted in the imposition of martial law in 1988, which lasted more than a year, and protests flared up once again earlier this year. Bhutan saw a sudden conflict erupt between the Tibetan-speaking Drukpas and the Nepali Lhotshampas.
These evenls, which have their origins in the assertion of the Tibetan ethnic identity, can also be ascribed to the concomitant resurgence of ethnic identity among other groups in the Himalayan region. For example, the Gorkhaland movement in neighbouring Darjeeling district contributed to the Drukpas’ fears, and the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in Kashmir helped deliver the Ladakhi agitation for separate status. The revival of identity and the resulting political action is led by the most influential sections of the societies concerned. In Ladakh, the leadership of the movement is in the hands of the Ladakh Buddhist Association, which has become a de facto political party. In Lhasa, all the demonstrations are led by monks and nuns, while in Bhutan it is theThimphu nobility which is defining policy and action.
While these conflicts have risen in different countries which have distinct polilical systems and ideologies, there is a connection between the diverse political happenings. This is not to say that there is a central organisation with a common objective which is engineering a simultaneous evolution of attitudes among the Tibetan fold. Each development is of course independent, and those engaged in political activities all over do not perceive themselves as involved in a greater movement beyond their boundaries. The connection is essentially historical and sociological — the recent political developments are part of the Tibelan-speakers’ growing sense of ethnic identity, which is perceived as being under threat from the outsider.
Who is a Bodpa?
During the height of the Tibetan resistance to the Chinese in 1959, a letter appeared in the Tibetan Mirror, symbolically addressed to “all tsampa eaters”. The writer had gone down to the staple, barley, as the most basic element which united the Tibetan-speaking world. If Buddhism provided the atom of Tibetanness, then tsampa provided the sub-particles of Tibetanness. The use of tsampa transcended dialect, sect, gender and regionalism.
The term ‘Tibetan’, as used by Western academics, may be employed to denote populations which have common history and tradition, and share the worldviews and myths about their origins. Tibetan Buddhism and the shared myths provide the bases for social relationships and ideology. Although there is obvious diversity from region to region, there is a strong family resemblance in language, lifestyle and culture. There is no indigenous term which encompasses the population denoted by the Western usage. A local term such as ‘Bodpa’ can be used only restrictively, even today. The nomads of Changthang use it for the people of the Lhasa valley, while for the people of Kham and Amdo it means exclusively the inhabitants of Central Tibet. Significantly, the person using the term ‘Bodpa’ never identifies himself as part of the group. Among the Tibetan refugee community, ‘Bodpa’ is now generally accepted to mean the people from Kham, Amdo and U-Tsang. Even here, the term is used specifically to denote the people under Chinese rule and not the refugees themselves, who might have their origins in those regions. Meanwhile, the people of Ladakh, Bhutan and Sikkim, even though they have consanguinous and cultural affinity with the rest of the Tibetan world, are excluded from this definition.
This peculiar use of Bodpa merely explains the internal diversity as seen by the Tibetan-speakers. The emphasis is on plurality of identity, which of course is not unique to the Tibetan world. The singular marker of identity emerges only in opposition to ‘the other’. Despite the diversity, the element which defines the Tibetan-speakers is their shared belief that Buddhism unifies them. They see themselves as ‘Nangpa’, which means ‘insider’. The sense of being Nangpa is shared almost universally by Tibetan-speakers, for whom the very sense of being Tibetan is fused with the Buddhist identity. The non-Tibetan is called ‘Chyipa’, the ‘outsider’, providing the marker for ‘us’ and ‘them’. The collective identity of the Tibetan-speakers, as opposed to the rest, can be witnessed best during the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra teachings, when people from all parts of the Tibetan world converge to take part in shared group rituals. Regional differences are smoothed out and a common identity is manifested.
Besides the common faith, the other threads which hold the diverse groups together are the written language and the corpus of literature produced over the centuries. The written language, which is often referred to as ‘Choskhed’ (language of Dharma), and to some extent the Lhasa dialect, formed the lingua franca. Monks from all parts of the Tibetan cultural world came to study in the great monasteries in and around Lhasa, and lay people flocked there on pilgrimage. The ruling classes of Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet were all linked by matrimony, and the Lhasa dialect was the court language everywhere.
Based on the strengths of its faith and language, the Tibetan cultural world spread from the shores of Lake Baikal to the rainforests of Yunnan, and from the Siberian wilderness to the southern foothills of the Himalaya. When the Mongols adopted Tibetan Buddhism in the early 14th century, it marked a departure in the development of Tibetan civilisation, for at that point it crossed the ethnic and linguistic boundaries of Tibet. Tibetan became the language of the elites and of diplomacy in Central Asia.
This unity of faith, culture and language, however, never transcended into the idea among Tibetan-speakers that they constitute a single people, nor into a sense of political unity. The individual regional identities were so strong that they never allowed the emergence of charismatic leaders who would seek the unification of the diverse group into a single nation. Since the 10th century, after the passing of the ‘Dharma kings’ such as Song Tsen Gampo, Khri Song Detsen and others, political power never got centralised. The locus of authority remained diffuse. The Dalai Lama’s own political authority never extended beyond Central Tibet, and even this was challenged by the Tashilhunpo, which regarded the Tsang area as the Panchen Rimpoche’s fiefdom.
Right up until 1959, the Tibetans had very little sense of being one group. When the Chinese first crossed the Yangtse, then marking the border between Tibet and China, it was the Khampa militia recruited by the Chinese which attacked and ransacked Chamdo. There was no sense among the militia that their brethren were being invaded by the Chinese. Similarly, when the Khampas had to endure the most horrendous oppression during the Great Leap campaigns, the people of Central Tibet showed little or no inclination to support the Khampas. Many Khampas rode hundreds of miles to appeal to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government, but no help was forthcoming.
The newfound unity in exile has not supplanted the traditional sectarian and regional loyalties. Among Tibetans, the primary loyalty had always been to the regional leaders and, more importantly, to the Tsaway Lama (Root Guru). The Tibetans never achieved a sense of loyalty to a country or a nation. It is evident that the people did not think in terms of their country being attacked, but of their way of life and religion being under threat.
Fall of Lhasa
Until 1950, all Tibetan-speaking people regarded Lhasa as the centre of their universe. Until the Chinese restricted cross-border interaction, all the Tibetan-speakers of Nepal looked towards Central Tibet as the source of their culture. Monks from Ladakh, Lahaul and Spiti journeyed eastward to study, some travelling as far as Labrang, in present-day Gansu Province. Besides language and religion, there was also extensive trade and commerce between the periphery and the centre.
The people from the periphery were not merely passive spectators, however, and they played a significant role in the formation of Tibetan culture. Some of the most controversial figures of the 20th century had their origins in the periphery. For example, the prominent scholar Geshe Chodrak was a Mongol, and Tharchin Babu, editor of the only Tibetan-language newspaper,the Tibetan Mirror, was from Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh.
When Lhasa was finally ransacked by the Red Guards, it marked the demise of the centre of Tibetan civilisation.
The fall of Lhasa is comparable to the fall of Constantinople and the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. The breakaway of the centre meant that the regions had to devise a means of survival, and preserve their own identity and culture. The collapse of Lhasa also left Bhutan as the last Tibetan kingdom. Only in the Druk Yul is the ultimate state power in the hands of Tibetan-speakers. Elsewhere, the Sherpas, Manangbas, Lobas and Dolpowa of Nepal are led by the Bahun- and Chhetri-dominated political culture of Kathmandu. The Ladakhis perceive themselves as disadvantaged by the Kashmiri-dominated state politics of Srinagar. Today, the boundaries that separate the Tibetan-speakers are firmly set between the territorial nation states of Nepal, India and China.
The marginalisation of theTibetan people is most clearly seen in the use of language. Even in Bhutan, the language of education and administration is not wholly Dzongkha, while in Tibet proper Chinese is in use. In other areas inhabited by Tibetan-speakers, the primary languages of instruction are Urdu, Nepali, Chinese and English. The gap between the language of the elites and that of the local people has naturally excluded the Tibetans from fully participating in the respective systems. This refers particularly to the poorest sections, who cannot afford the luxury of modern education, which provides the only means of integration and social mobility. This perceived disadvantage vis-a-vis the elite groups is the main cause of the resurgence of ethnic identity among the Tibetan people all over.
Fear of Eclipse
The situation of Bhutan is unique in the Tibetan cultural world, and quite different from that of Tibet or Ladakh. Although it has managed to survive into the 20th century as the last remaining Tibetan kingdom and shares affinity with neighbouring Tibetan societies, the Druk Yul has since its very inception maintained a strong and separate identity. The kingdom came into existence because of the persecution of the Drukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism in Central Tibet. It was founded in opposition to the dominant Gelugpa sect of Tibet. This opposition was so strong that as late as the 1950s, Gelugpa lamas who came to Thimphu on invitation were asked to dismount when they entered Bhutan. However high a Gelugpa Lama might be, he could not enter the land of the Drukpas on a horse, and Gelugpa monasteries have never flourished in Bhutan.
Bhutan has always kept a vigilant watch on its Drukpa heritage. While Ladakh never Ladakh-inised Tibetan Buddhism, Bhutan was able to evolve its own brand of Drukpa religion and culture and develop its own cultural and religious heroes. The Bhutanese heroes Pema Lingpa, Drugpa Kunley, Shabdrung Ngaw and Namgyal and others remain quintessential Bhutanese figures. The genesis of the country is linked with these great lamas, and their leachings and writings are dominant only in Bhutan.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Bhutan was unified under a strong monarch providing centralised leadership. Today, Bhutan sees itself as not only defending its unique identity but also fighting for its survival. Such fear has been dismissed by the Lhotshampas as paranoia and unfounded, but nevertheless is perceived as the truth by many Bhutanese. The Drukpa fear that the Tibetan-speaking population is on the verge of being reduced to an insignificant minority is also shared in the other areas. The Tibetan-speakers, after all, inhabit a region which is sandwiched between the two most populated regions on Earth, China in the east and the Indian Subcontinent to the south.
The Dalai Lama warns that the migration of the Han Chinese into traditionally Tibetan areas, if allowed to continue unchecked, presents the greatest danger to the survival of Tibetans as an ethnic group. The introduction of new economic policies in Tibet in the 1980s saw the influx of Chinese migrants and traders into the region, who began to dominate the economy. As thousands of Chinese traders moved in, among Tibetans the feeling of being disadvantaged became heightened. Perceived socio-economic disadvantage leads to growing awareness of ethnic identity.
If the Nepali Tibetan population has been relatively passive, this is partly because the growth of tourism has brought direct economic benefit to some Tibetan-speakers. The Sherpas maintain a strong grip on the trekking industry, and have subsequently moved out into other tourism-related areas such as rafting, travel and transport. The population of Manang, too, has been economically productive due to a special dispensation on foreign travel and trade granted during the time of King Mahendra. All is not calm under the surface even in Nepal, however. Large Tibetan-speaking areas such as Humla, Dolpo and Mustang have been kept outside the general development, and there are signs that these people are beginning to feel the exclusion from the national power structure.
Invention of Tradition
In the past, the commonality of faith has proved to be the strongest element in unifying ethnic Tibetans. At the height of the opposition to Chinese rule, the Tibetans were mobilised not in the name of their nation but in the defence of their faith. The ‘other’ was identified as Tendra, ‘enemy of the faith’, and the resistance fighters were Tenzhung tnang mi, ‘defenders of the faith’.
Today, if the Tibetan emigre community in the Subcontinent has achieved some measure of uniform identity, it has been founded more on anti-Chinese ideology than on faith. The unity has also been fostered in exile though the manipulation of symbols and the deliberate invention of tradition. The prerequisite paraphernalia of nationalism, such as the flag and the national anthem, have been introduced. Most Tibetans in exile are now socialised into thinking of themselves as a homogeneous group, through schooling and group rituals such as the celebration of the 10 March Uprising and the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. Both rituals are recent devices, primarily designed to raise political consciousness. The 10th of March helps separate ‘us’ Tibetans from the Chinese. The birthday celebrations provide an opportunity to focus on a single leader.
There is strong evidence that the symbols invented in exile are being adopted by the people inside Tibet as well, and that they have the power to move people into action. The demonstrations in Lhasa are marked ceremoniously by the unveiling of the Tibetan national flag. If in the past the Tibetan masses were called to defend their faith from the faithless Red Chinese, today a very different message is expounded and the masses are called to defend the flag. This shift of focus from the faith to the flag is meaningful, as it shows the changing nature of the core of Tibetan identity. The move from the purely religious-based identification to a more secular notion of Tibetartness is clear.
The resurgence of ethnic identity is also marked by a shift in the nature of political participation. Under the traditional feudal system, political affairs were the monopoly of the elite. Moreover, ‘politics’ essentially meant coterie intrigue and rivalry for power among the rulers. The appeal to shared identity has meant, for the first time, that a populist political movement has begun. In Tibet, the political agenda is beginning to be set by the masses, and the debate is taken to the streets of Lhasa. Elsewhere, too, there is an attempt to mobilise the masses in defence of a common interest and identity. In Ladakh, villagers from remote areas came to Leh to demonstrate and show solidarity. lt is reported that in Bhutan, many Drukpa peasants are volunteering to serve in the militia to defend the ‘Tsa wa sum’ (king and country) against ‘anti-nationals’.
At the core of the modern identity among the refugees in the diaspora is the concept of Tibet as the trinity of Kham, Amdo and U-Tsang, commonly known as ‘Bo Cho Ka Sum’. This idea is at the centre of the political aspiration of the refugee community. lt is evident that the notion of ‘Greater Tibet’ is applied only to regions under Chinese control and, at least for the present, no one is articulating the idea of ‘Greater Tibet’ based on unity of all Tibetan-speaking peoples.
Despite the increasing ethnic confrontation, it is unlikely that a process of Balkanisation will begin in the Himalaya. In Nepal and India the Tibetan-speaking population constitute a tiny minority, and they could never hope to challenge the ethnic groups in power. The situation in Bhutan is, of course, different. While its status as an independent nation state is indisputable, the question remains how long the indigenous Drukpa population can maintain their hegemony over power.
The situation inside Tibet proper is complex. Beijing is confronted with economic and political problems which do not have easy solutions. If the economic underdevelopment and the disparity between the success of China and the stagnation in Tibet are to remain unchanged, there will be further and more strident demands for independence. Whether the Tibetan-speaking people are in search of independence, greater autonomy, or maintaining hold over a power they already have, they are also collectively enmeshed in a political and cultural crisis of confidence, which has primarily to do with the question of identity.