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Unease in Dharamsala

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

After 50 years in the hill station, have achieved no more than a wary truce with locals

Our driver Anil stops the taxi next to a pair of chatting Tibetan men. We are in McLeod Ganj, near the offices of the Tibetan government-in-exile. “Ustaad ji namaste,” Anil says to one of the men, who is middle-aged and wears a fresh bruise on his cheekbone. “Mujhse koi galti ho gayi to maaf karna.” (“Forgive me if I’ve done anything wrong.”)

The Tibetan doesn’t recognise Anil, so Anil reminds him. He says the previous night this Tibetan had toppled off his motorcycle and down a slope. Seeing this, Anil had rushed to help. Sheepishly, thanks are expressed. We drive on.

Then Anil tells us that when he had approached the Tibetan to help, the man said, “Yeh Indian kahan se aa gaya?” (“Where did this Indian come from?”) The man was drunk — the Tibetan new year, or Losar, holiday is going on — but Anil’s implication is plain, that the see themselves as separate and better.

He is not alone. Injured pride appears to be widespread among non-Tibetan locals, along with other negative feelings, from fear (“These people are overwhelming us”; “The young people are violent”) to resentment (“They think they own the place”; “They get away with flouting the land laws”) to incomprehension (“They are Westernised and they influence our children”; “They don’t mix with us”) and envy (“They don’t need to work, they get money from abroad”). There is just enough truth there to keep the antipathy alive.

The worst clash between the two communities, indeed the only one that everyone remembers, was in 1994, when a local youth of the Gaddi tribe was killed, apparently by two A riot followed, and the politicians got involved. Thubten Samphel, TGIE’s information secretary, explains that the fight began over a cricket match, when a “foolish” young Tibetan cheered for Pakistan. It was not a communal issue to begin with, but there was tinder for the spark.

Some slogans, Samphel says, demanded that the Tibetans leave But faced with the loss of this revenue stream — it was the Dalai Lama’s 1990 Nobel peace prize that generated interest in the West and brought in the tourists over whom the locals and Tibetans were beginning to compete — the politicians relented and asked the Dalai Lama to stay.

On an everyday basis, says Tenpa Chonjor, 35 and an “exile-born” Tibetan, “The aggression stays on the right side of the law.” On the narrow streets a passing driver may make a rude comment, but “You can’t say anything. You can’t even do the Buddhist thing and explain why what he is doing is wrong.” He smiles wryly.

Chonjor is not an angry young man. He points out that in 1984 a Sikh trader’s truck was seized from a nearby depot and stripped — not by Tibetans. “People will take advantage of a situation.” After every clash, he adds, there is a “cool period” on both sides. Since 1994 there have been “no votebank politics” to stir things up, yet “relations are worse than they were 20 years ago”. Others disagree.

The youthful is the acting Settlement Officer. Her office helps Tibetans with paperwork — driving licence, bank account, gas connection, vehicle registry, scholarship form, refugee card. It also mediates (though without judicial power) in disputes between Tibetans and Indians, with the help of the Indo-Tibetan Friendship Association, a group of local businessmen. There are fewer than five cases a year, says Yeshi, and all minor: an argument which becomes a fight, tenancy disputes, and so on. There is little daily friction.

On crime, Kangra Superintendent of Police Diljeet Thakur is suave but noncommittal. In his office in Lower he tells us that no specific crime figures for the refugee population are kept, and he will not comment on trends. A thana sub-inspector reluctantly mentions cases of drunken fighting and molestation of local women and adds that police are often unwilling to arrest a Tibetan because senior officers don’t want to deal with the “letter-baazi” that inevitably follows. A Tibetan in McLeod Ganj, however, says that when there is a fight, even a small one, inevitably the police arrest the Tibetan, to assuage the majority; and that Tibetan women also face molestation. In general, crime appears to be minor and episodic.

Before tourism grew to dominate, says Chonjor, the economy ran on construction. “The locals don’t labour,” he says, so the work was done by Tibetan refugees. (Now others do it, like Biharis and Nepalis.) “It’s a master-servant thing. When the servants get richer, there is resentment.”

What’s more, he says some businesses are informally out of bounds. “In the 1980s and early 1990s, STD booths were not licensed to Tibetans,” though Tibetans who had relatives abroad were the main customers. “It was big money then, Rs 8,000-10,000 per day.” More recently, he says, Tibetans have been kept out of the cybercafe business and the taxi trade.

On the other hand, Anil says of his Tibetan customers, “These people can afford to take taxis every day. Even if I earned Rs 25,000 a month I couldn’t afford to do that.”

It is easy to judge the balance of business in during Losar because Tibetan owners have shut their shops and stalls. Curio shops were once a Tibetan preserve; now the bigger ones belong to Kashmiris. Groceries and provision stores appear to be divided between Himachalis and Kashmiris. Along Kotwali Bazaar, the main shopping street of Dharamsala, hardly any Tibetan-owned businesses are visible. Even among hotels, eateries and travel agencies, many are owned by plainsmen.

One such is J P Agarwal, a chatty taxi owner who runs Punjabi Tadka, a dhaba-style eatery on McLeod Ganj’s main square. When he was young, he remembers, “children were told, behave or the Dalai Lama will take you away!” Now, Agarwal complains about Tibetans and foreigners who don’t want to pay for his food (the rajma-chawal costs Rs 140). In front of us he brusquely deters a young Tibetan by telling him the price of the dish.

At the Bhagsu, the tourism department hotel, the waiter who brings us tea looks askance when told we are staying at a Tibetan-owned hotel. Prodded, he says, “They own everything. Yes, money has come in, but money is not everything. Our children smoke charas. This is because of them. This place has become Goa. The local people [the Gaddis] used to be very innocent. Now they are different.” That is a widely held local opinion, across classes.

Marijuana is a lesser complaint against Tibetan youngsters. One hears more often about expensive shoes, motorcycles and Western fashion sense. Signs of spending are visible, but look closer and sample the shops, and what looks like branded gear is quickly exposed as unbranded, cheap or fake. Chonjor says with a laugh that barbers sometimes send away Tibetan youths with long hair, calling them “jungli”.

Other than a handful of businessmen, Tibetans are not well off. Tenzin Tsundue, a well-known activist, says most young Tibetans, with their poor English and Hindi skills and without higher education, don’t get work. “They wash dishes, do odd jobs, sell sweaters. They may make Rs 2,000 a month. Of course there is frustration.” There is individual sponsorship from overseas, but that tends to favour established refugees over new arrivals. The Tibetan government remains the main employer.

In February, Tsundue led a march to Sidhbari below Dharamsala, in support of the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, one of Tibet’s seniormost reincarnated monks. Karmapa, as he is known, is a young man who heads a rich sect. He was in the news because foreign currency worth crores was found in the monastery in Sidhbari where he has lived since he escaped from China in 2000. The cash was discovered after a property deal went wrong — the Karmapa had wanted to buy land to set up his own monastery. The police got involved, and seven people including an aide were arrested. His office has explained that the cash was donations from foreign followers.

In the Karmapa episode, various aspects of Tibetans’ local role come together. Not just is it a matter of avoiding the law, it is about land and, again, the taxi drivers. Now Sidhbari is quiet because Karmapa has (been?) moved temporarily to Sarnath. The taxi drivers were recently expelled from within the monastery, where their cars clogged the driveway. Karma Tenzing, 33, runs the small Shangri-La restaurant outside the gate. “If Karmapa is away,” he says in friendly, stumbling English, “neither the taxi drivers nor we make money. If he is here then we both make money.”

The long-term trouble is land. It is owned in small units, mostly by army families and retirees. It is difficult to assemble a large plot. According to the Tenancy and Land Reform Act, 1972, not even a Himachali can purchase farmland unless he already owns farmland. Tibetans have used this loophole to acquire land in a benami way, even though as refugees they cannot own it. To accommodate them the state government in 2006 thought up a compromise by which benami land reverts to state ownership but can be leased back to the users for a one-time fee of 10 per cent of market value. The only pending dispute, as Kangra Deputy Commissioner S P Gupta explains, is over whether the market value should be of 2005, when the proposal was mooted, or 2011.

To Gupta, the key issue is not the fate of Karmapa’s land but how the limited local resources will meet the needs of both communities in the future. “I think their number should be fixed,” he says. According to recent state figures there are 27,542 Tibetan refugees in Himachal Pradesh, and about 11,000 in Last year, about 3,500 new refugees were registered locally, according to police figures. TGIE’s 2009 Demographic Survey of Tibetans in Exile says over 15,000 Tibetans live in Dharamsala (of a total of 94,203 in India). According to India’s Census, the Dharamsala population, included, was 19,124 in 2001. Local reporters say Tibetans are now the majority.

Gupta believes the refugee community has to make an effort to integrate. “Somehow they have not taken this very seriously, that we are here and we have to remain here with the locals. That matching so far has not taken place.” Without accommodation and understanding, then, there is a constant risk that even small disagreements may build into big trouble.

First Published: Sat, March 19 2011. 00:23 IST