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3 Feb, 2009 09:00

Young Tibetans in exile get restless

Tens of thousands of Tibetans have taken refuge in India since 1959, when China invaded their mountainous homeland. Since then, generations of Tibetans have grown up in India without ever visiting their motherland.

One of the largest settlements of Tibetans in India is at New Delhi. The community is close knit and has preserved its culture, even though many of the younger generation were born in India. The Indians respect the Tibetan community for their discipline and quiet existence. But the present generation are more outspoken.

“I have seen young Tibetans in our University, outside as well, I have spoken to them; they talk a different language. They are not as prone to non-violence, they are easily agitated and there is a certain desire to do something for the motherland,” says Alka Acharya from the Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Having been born into a democratic country, they are used to questioning and demanding equal rights. While they accept they enjoy nearly all the privileges of Indians, including the right to work, they are unhappy about not being given citizenship. This means they are denied a passport and can’t travel freely overseas. Instead, Tibetans are forced to get special permits to travel abroad.

“When one goes to Canada as a political asylum seeker one gets citizenship in one year. Everyone wants to be a citizen of a country,” Ten Zin explains, a Tibetan social health worker.

The young want to move beyond making and selling handicrafts. Just like other young people in India, they aspire to study and work abroad for a while.

“What I have seen is that 90 per cent are thinking that they will get a chance to go abroad. They are not saying that India is not good but because they feel they can earn more in the West,” Phuntsok Topgyal says, a Tibetan welfare officer.

But when it comes to calling a place home there is one vision that binds the generations.

“Every person would like to go to his own land and drink the water, enjoy the food, build a house on the land and tell our children and the next generation that this is our country and our land,” Ten Zin says.

Over the years, the community has peacefully protested for their dream. But some are concerned the next generation may not be so patient. But Indian-born Acharya Phuntsok, who has never been to Tibet, says there has been no change in their non-violent approach – so far.

“Since the establishment of the Tibetan Youth Congress until today we have never made any threat to Chinese life or physical violence anywhere,” Acharya Yeshi Phuntsok says. He’s a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile.

He advocates modernising the approach of the protest movement, in keeping with the aspirations of the youth.

“Miss World and Miss Universe are also platforms that we can use while retaining our culture and traditions,” he says.

But the Dalai Lama’s message to the youth is clear – open your arms to change but don't let your values go.

So far, they seem to be following his advice.