Interpreting the Tibetan Diaspora: Cultural Preservation and the Pragmatics of Identity

By Basu, Sudeep | CEU Political Science Journal, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Interpreting the Tibetan Diaspora: Cultural Preservation and the Pragmatics of Identity


Basu, Sudeep, CEU Political Science Journal


1. Introduction

Since 1959, one of the primary concerns of the exiled Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugee community has specifically been to preserve the "rich cultural heritage of Tibet." (2) This attention to the preservation of linguistic, religious and artistic knowledge through both documentation and education (3) was prompted by two legitimate threats: the disappearance of Tibetan culture in the homeland under Chinese rule (4) and the disappearance of exiled Tibetans into their host societies.

Melvyn Goldstein on writing about the development of ethnic boundaries operative within and outside of the Tibetan community remarked that the "two critical aspects of the Government of India's (GOI) policy towards the Tibetan refugees have been 1) the liberal non-assimilative' framework as reflected in the separate settlements and 2) the broad 'delegated' authority of the Tibetan leadership headed by the Dalai Lama over the Tibetan settlements in India." (5) The proposed settlements were a kind of compromise because their envisioned size of three to four thousand was large enough to sustain Tibetan language and other institutions easily. The GOI further facilitated this cultural preservation effort by allowing Tibetans considerable autonomy and in particular by permitting the Dharamsala administration to exercise administrative control over the settlements. (6)

Scholars working on the Tibetan issue in the 70s and 80s unequivocally agreed that Tibetans had been extremely successful in retaining their ancestral way of life in the face of acculturation and constituted a model of good integration with their host populations. (7) These early anthropological studies emphasized notions of adaptation, acculturation and change as the key processes through which a history of Tibetans in exile might be charted. It is not surprising that the anthropologists' primary research agenda became to assess the Tibetans' rate of adaptation to their new surroundings and their degree of acculturation. The result of this approach to refugee studies has been the tendency to portray exile life (8) of "self-settled" refugees or urban refugees of Darjeeling town in India as an atrophied vestige of the traditional Tibetan society. Scholars and visitors unofficially deride it as "inauthentic" and little worthy of investigation. The presentations of exile Tibetan culture which is exclusively focused on Dharamsala (the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile in northern India) has the tendency to reify the "story" of exile primarily constructed by Tibetan administrators, intellectuals, lamas and "cultural performers" who are conversant with, and eager to engage in, debates about "the construction of Tibetan culture" on terms set by Western audiences. The rationale for engaging in the field-based study of Tibetan refugees in Darjeeling has been to critique, along Toni Huber's lines (9), this primarily Dharamsala-centred construction of Tibetan exile culture. This study endeavours to know how Tibetans as refugees experience place (Darjeeling) and how it becomes "inextricably bound up" with their identity. Ruling elites and few lay Tibetans of pre-exilic Tibet who came from Tibet before 1959 secured a comfortable niche in the socioeconomic environment of the Darjeeling region. Some of them had come along with their cattle and others with enough riches, gold and precious stones, to be soon counted among the richest in the region. These pre-exilic Tibetan hosts--Bhutias in Darjeeling town--extended financial and other forms of assistance to those less fortunate Tibetan refugees coming after 1959. The cultural affinity between the Bhutias and the Tibetan refugees would have had a role in creating a temporary home for Tibetans in exile. The proposition put forward by Tanka Subba (1990) that proper adaptation of groups is a function of cultural affinity would be critically examined. This ethnography of the displaced seeks to explore how the "refugee--host" dynamic in a "place" and the individual accounts of Tibetan/refugee identity that emerge from there reinforces those articulations that angle away from the stereotyped ways that Tibetans are read and suggest alternative currents that produce plural or hyphenated identities. …

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