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Tibetans in Exile

As a writer, George Woodcock consciously strived for versatility and he took much pride in having different types of arrows in his quiver. He believed writers should develop their skills in a variety of genres, from being a polemicist to being a poet—and few could match his range. This essay, written for an academic journal, shows his predilection for being an historian. It is a strikingly non-prejudicial account of a subject that moved him deeply. He avoids mentioning his personal relationship with the Dalai Lama in favour of providing a succinct summary entirely in keeping with the essay’s non-dramatic title.

By George Woodcock
tibetan refugees

Tibetans began to leave their country in small numbers immediately after the Chinese army reached Lhasa in 1951. At first these expatriates tended to be relatively well-to-do people who foresaw that their possessions might soon be threatened. A number of noblemen and their families made their way—with their portable property—to Calcutta, where some of them still live, and some of the wealthier Lhasa merchants transferred the scene of their business activities to the Darjeeling-Kalimpong reigion. In numbers these exiles who came between 1951 and 1959 were very few, and since they did not require assistance they passed almost unnoticed in the polyglot and polycultural society of West Bengal, which contains many native-born people of Tibetan race.

It was after the Dalai Lama’s flight from Lhasa in March 1959, with the concurrent uprisings in Lhasa and in Kham, that large numbers of Tibetans of all classes began to cross the mountainous frontier not only into India, but also into the smaller Himalayan states of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. They fled for a variety of reasons: some because they feared religious persecution, some (particularly the nomads who came into the frontier areas of Ladakh and Nepal) because they feared collectivization of their herds, and some (particularly among the Khambas) because they ahd fought unseccessfully as guerrillas against the Chinese army. Especially in the west, towards Ladakh, the flow of refugees continued quite strongly until 1962; since then, there has been a slight but steady trickle of individuals and small groups (Peter Aufschnaiter told me of meeting a family of newly arrived nomads in northern Nepal in the summer of 1969), but not enough to make an appreciable difference to the refugee situation as a whole.

Since many, particularly women and children, died in crossing the 16,000 foot passes in the spring of 1959, or were killed in guerrilla actions against the Chinese, it is hard to estimate how many Tibetans fled their own country. It is even difficult at this date to say just how many reached their host countries in the early months of the exodus. In 1962 Tony Hagen, who was then in charge of International Red Cross operations in Nepal and whose knowledge of the country is considerable, told me that there were 30,000 Tibetan refugees in that country alone.

When I went there in December 1969, it seemed certain from the information I was able to gather that no more than 12,000 remained. Certainly the death rate in Nepal, where the government has never helped the refugees in any way, was extremely high up to about 1966, and many of the Tibetans who originally went there later found their way into India either directly or through Sikkim, so that Hagen’s figure many indeed have been true for 1962 but not for 1969. However, there are now no reliable means of checking it, and the same applies to the early estimates of Tibetan refugees even in India.

For today it is possible to present at least roughly accurate figures. In India, according to official government estimates, there are now about 55,000 refugees, including those Sikkim. This figure is misleading, however, since it takes no account of the children (at least 6,000) who have been born and have survived since their parents reached India, or of Tibetan men and youths recruited into the Indian army; of these, there are thousands—a high official in the Dalai Lama’s administration told me the figure was as high as 7,000—some of them organized in special commando units this means that in reality there are between 65,000 and 70,000 Tibetans in India and Sikkim, while a further 600 refugees from India have emigrated to Switzerland and some individuals—mainly scholarly monks—to Britain and the United States. A few have gone as loggers to Maine and others may follow.

Tibetans in ExileIn Bhutan there are about 3,000 Tibetan refugees, and from 10,000 to 12,000 in Nepal, of whom about 3,000 live in the valley of Khatmandu and other settled areas and the rest (a census has never been taken of them) in the remote valleys in the northern frontier region which is still approached only on foot; in the same region there is also an undetermined number of Khamba guerrillas who still from time to time operate against the Chinese forces in Tibetan territory.

I am not concerned directly with the political situation of the Tibetan refugees, a whole essay could be written on the political structure of the refugee community, its tensions and intrigues. Here I am dealing primarily with the resettlement of the refugees in their host countries. However, in order to understand that process it is necessary to consider the policy-shaping groups that have been involved—the governments of the host countries, the foreign agencies that have provided most of the funds for relief and resettlement work among the refugees, and the Tibetan leaders in exile.

The Indian government, considering its own problems with Indian refugees from Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon and East Africa, has on the whole carried out with grace and generosity its obligations as a host country. The Ministry of External Affairs and later the Ministry of Rehabilitation has been responsible for relations with the Tibetan refugees, and the Indian government has provided food rations, funds for education, and monetary aid in some other directions. To supplement official supervision, quasi-voluntary organizations directed by Indians have been set up. The first was the Central Relief Committee, founded in 1959.

The Indian government sought to channel all funds from abroad through Central Relief Committee, and even to give that Committee the power to decide where the funds should be spent; this process understandably aroused considerable opposition among the foreign relief agencies, some of whom deliberately ignored the Committee, until eventually a Master Plan Committee was set up under the auspices of the Central Relief Committee with a majority of members representing the foreign agencies. Since that time other Indian societies with special functions have appeared, including the Tibetan Schools Society (which administers on behalf of the Ministry of Education the government-financed residential schools for refugee children at Mussoorie, Simla, Darjeeling and Mount Abu), the Tibetan Industrial Rehabilitation Society (an offshoot of the World Council of Churches devoted to small settlements in the Himalayas), and the Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency (devoted to the large resettlement projects recently started in South India).


Refugees in Sikkim have come mainly under the aegis of the Indian government. The government of Bhutan has given land and financial assistance of the 3,000 refugees in its territory; this is in fact the only group that is completely settled among Buddhist co-religionists and pose no further problems. In Nepal the government has not even acknowledged—at least openly—the existence of a refugee problem. Officially, the Tibetans in Nepal are visitors who have come over the traditionally open norther frontier and are responsible for their own needs. In practice, the government has allowed a limited group of foreign agencies to work among the Tibetan refugees in Nepal.

tibetan pedlar in NepalThe International Red Cross was the first, mounting an expensive operation whose results were unimpressive; its place was later taken by the Swiss Red Cross, which in turn was replaced by the Swiss Association for Technical Assistance, largely financed by government funds from Bern. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also been allowed to start work in Nepal, and co-operates closely with the Nepal Red Cross. Other foreign agencies giving aid in Nepal, such as Schweizer Tibethilfe and the Tibetan Refugee Aid Society of Canada, have to work through these few approved agencies.

In India a wider group of agencies has operated. In the beginning, from 1959 to about the end of 1962, the larger international relief organizations were prominently at work—CARE, Red Cross, YMCA, Friends, Catholic Relief. Of these only Catholic Relief remains in the field, administering American government funds. By 1960 organizations specifically devoted to Tibetan aid had begun to appear, including Schweizer Tibethilfe, the Tibet Society of Great Britain, the Tibetan Refugee Aid Society of Canada, the American Emergency Committee for Tibetan Refugees (which mysteriously and abruptly ceased operations in 1967 and left other groups to complete its obligations), and similar organizations in Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia.

The total lack of aid from organizations in Buddhist countries was strikingly evident. For a long time the Indian government opposed the intervention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and it has only been within the last two years that his help has been accepted and his representative allowed to work in India on behalf of the Tibetan refugees.

A similar sensitivity towards its role as a host affected the Indian government’s attitude to foreign volunteers working among the Tibetans. In the beginning there were many volunteers, particularly English and Americans, some of them working as individuals, others representing organizations like Service Civil International, Save the Children Fund, and, later, Canadian University Service Overseas. By the end of 1962, a tactless criticism of Indian official policy published by a young Dutch volunteer who had returned home led to a ban by the Indian Government on individual volunteers working among the Tibetans. For a while the volunteers representing organizations were allowed to stay, but by 1966 even they were asked to leave, and now only a few isolated foreigns are for special reasons allowed to work in close contact with the Tibetans.

The most important development in terms of financial aid to Tibetan refugees since the exodus in 1959 was the dedication in 1966 of $3,500,000 in funds from European Refugee Year to the final solution of the problem by means of large-scale resettlement. On the basis of this fund, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands was instrumental in creating a Common Project to which the United States, Canadian and some European governments as well as voluntary relief agencies are contributing. Their financial grants are expected to bring the total funds for resettlement to about $9,000,000.

The magnitude of these funds, in comparison to anything previously raised for the Tibetan refugees, has meant that the Common Project and its Indian counterpart, the Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency (established in 1968) have become the most important factors, outside the Indian government, in the effort to integrate the Tibetan refugees into the general Indian community. Not all the organizations that aided the Tibetans in the early days have welcomed the Juggernaut approach of the Common Project, and some at least (certainly Schweizer Tibethildfe and the Tibet Society) are likely to remain aloof and to pursue independently projects which they regard as suited to the interests and needs of particular groups of refugees.

The Tibetans themselves are—at least overtly– represented by the shadow government which the Dalai Lama maintains at Dharamsala, where he has given his residence a look of permanence by moving from the old tin-roofed bungalow he inhabited in the early years of exile to a new palace (built in the dreariest of Indian PWD styles) which looks across from its heavily guarded hillside to a large new temple built from the contributions of the devout. Officially, the Indian government does not recognize the Dalai Lama as an exiled head of state, but in practice he occupies that position and retains the traditional Kashag, or cabinet, whose three members now deal respectively with education, religious affairs, and resettlement.

He also maintains offices in Delhi, Geneva, New York (for the United Nations) and Khatmandu, though there his representative is not recognized even de facto by the Nepal government for fear of offending the Chinese. There is now an elected assembly of the Tibetan refugees in India, which appears to represent all classes, but int he unreal circumstances of an expatriate life it is hard to determine how far this marks a genuine turn in the direction of democracy.

In practice, the Indian government and the foreign agencies deal partly with the Dalai Lama and his officials, and partly with more obscure leaders who range from the “grey eminences” at Dharamsala (powerful among them the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, Gyalor Thondup) to the gurus of minority groups. For the Tibetan community is fissured—how deeply an outsider cannot estimate with complete accuracy—by sectarian differences.

At Dharamsala, and generally in the exile administration, the members of the Gelukpa sect (Tibet’s equivalent of the Church of England) are in control, but many of the refugees belong to the smaller but older Sakya, Nyingmapa and Kargyupa sects; some even adhere to Bon, the pre-Buddhist shamanistic cult of Tibet. These sectarians like to live in the physical locality of their gurus, some of whom are immensely venerated incarnations like the Sakya Lama near Dehra Dun or the Karmapa Lama at Gangtok, or were formerly leaders of prestigious monastic communities in Tibet. The consequence is that a number of small groups have formed themselves in the Dimalayan foothills, each sharing a certain sectarian stance, and all resistant to incorporation in large resettlement projects under Gelukpa control.

Monk Churning butter TeaThese groups, which are likely to include both monks and laymen, and which usually follow some important exiled abbot or tulku, maintain that they are worse of physically because the Gelukpas discriminate against them. I am not convinced that a disparity actually exists, since I have seen many completely destitute. Gelukpas and some sectarian communities which were relatively prosperous. The Dalai Lama’s officials strongly deny the accusations of discrimination and argue that the present friction between sects presents a situation that did not exist in Tibet. They blame the present differences on foreign dilettantes who gather around the gurus of the older sects (because these are thought to be more willing to impart the so-called “secret doctrines” of Lamaist Buddhism) and encourage the sectarians in their sense of grievance. I would agree that many of the numerous westerners who seek to milk the Tibetan refugees for knowledge or sensation are often irresponsible in the way they encourage divisive tendencies between sectarian groups. In practice terms, the situation means that the Tibetan refugees cannot be treated as a homogenous mass. The desire for separation on the part of the sectarian groups has inevitably affected resettlement plans.

In 1959, when the Tibetan refugees arrived in India, the immediate problem was to save them from starvation. Many individual exiles brought with jewels and religious objects, which they sold to keep them alive for the early months of expatriation, and for some years, until about 1963, the bazaars of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and even Delhi were flooded with low-priced Tibetan artifacts. The Indian government avoided as far as possible the creation of the kind of large-scale refugee centres that so quickly take on the form of concentration camps (though one tuberculosis-ridden (temporary” settlement of 1,200 monks at Buxa near the Bhutanese border did acquire a justly unsavoury reputation during the decade before it was dispersed in 1969). The decision not to create large camps had obvious political reasons. Internationally, in1959, Nehru’s government was inclined to underplay the whole Tibetan situation in the interests of peace with China, while nationally there was the possibility of discontent among Bengali refugees if they had any reason to believe the Tibetans were better treated than they.

The price of avoiding the camps was that thousands of refugees joined the existing mendicant population of India, living for periods of months or years by begging and by small distributions of food arranged by missionaries or relief organizations. Two examples, from a report I wrote on a visit to northeastern India in January 1962, will give an idea of the number of people in this situation. “In Kalimpong 3,390 refugees queued up on the day [I] visited the town, for a distribution of powdered milk—the only food available—by a Christian organization. In Darjeeling the Dalai Lama’s representative in charge of relief said that 1,200 destitute people came regularly for the twice-weekly distribution of powdered milk and a little rice.”

In the years between 1959 and 1964, aid to the Tibetan refugees was haphazard and dominated by a sense of emergency. The only agency that even attempted general co-ordination, the Central Relief Committee, had no field staff to make its role effective, and in practice foreign relief agencies co-operated on an ad hoc basis, exchanging information to spread the available aid as widely as possible. Yet despite the absence during this early period of an effective co-ordination, three basic and complementary approaches to the refugee problem quickly became evident.

The foreign agencies were at first primarily oriented to child welfare, and the result was the establishment in the former British hill stations of the Himalayas (from Dalhousie and Dharamsala in the west through Simla, Kasauli and Mussoorie, to Darjeeling and Kalimpong in the east) of a number of residential schools, first supported by voluntary contributions and later taken over by the Indian government. In 1969 there were approximately 4,000 children in these schools, which consciously attempt, with the tacit approval of the Indian authorities, to inculcate and preserve a sense of Tibetan nationalism.

In addition to the residential schools, there are a number of more specialized institutions for child care and education, supported mainly by the foreign relief agencies. These include the Tibetan Children’s Nursery at Dharamsala, founded and directed by the Dalai Lama’s sisters; the Tibetan Homes Foundation for 600 children at Mussoorie, operated on the Pestalozzi village system by Mrs. R. D. Taring, a Lhasa noblewoman of exemplary devotion; and a number of institutions devised to provide vocational training, such as the Foundation Training Centre at Dehra Dun (established with American, Swiss, English and Canadian funds) and the misleadingly named Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Institute at Kalimpong where a great monastic scholar, Dhardo Tulku, pioneered in introducing Tibetan children to the kind of training in trades and crafts for which the old-fashioned and academically oriented Indian school curriculum makes little provision.

These institutions for the care of children were intended not merely for the many orphans and semi-orphans. They were also planned to give at least temporary homes for children whose parents were alive but unable to provide for their families. A small number of refugees had salvaged enough capital out of the ruin of exile to set up as petty traders in the largely Tibetan communities o fSikkim, Darjeeling and Kalimpong, or among the concentrations of refugees at Dharamsala and Mussoorie, and a few hundred with special skills as carpet-makers, metal-workers or weavers had found employment in handicraft centres set up at Dalhousie, Darjeeling, and later, Dehra Dun. But for many thousands a means to keep alive on a bare survival level was provided by work on the roads which the Indian government was building in the frontier regions and which were greatly extended for strategic reasons after the Chinese invasion in the autumn of 1962. The majority of the Tibetan road-workers were concentrated in Hamachal Pradesh, where they lived in makeshift camps; wages were so low that both men and women had to work, and the camps were so unhealthy that children had to be taken away to live in the residential schools or childrens’ homes until some means of re-uniting the families in settled circumstances could be found.

A first plan for resettlement was actually made as early as 1960. Both the central government of India and the state governments of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh were (for different reasons) concerned about the number of refugees who collected in and around the towns of the Himalayan foothills, and who, naturally enough, were reluctant to leave the setting of the mountains and the neighbourhood of their own country. The central government was alarmed by the danger to security posed by the presence near the frontier of large concentrations of Tibetans among whom it was thought Chinese spies might take on protective colouring. The state governments were concerned about the adverse effect large numbers of Tibetan mendicants might have on the economies of hill towns like Darjeeling, Mussoorie and Simla which lived largely by their appeal as summer vacation spots. They were also aware of the scarcity of unused lands in the foothills on which to resettle the refugees.

In Himachal Pradesh, and to a less extent in the Mussoorie region, the road-building programmes provided a temporary relief by drawing off the majority of the refugees who had no other means of support. In the Darjeeling Kalimpong region the method which the Indian authorities decided on was the removal of several thousand destitute refugees to south and central India. In 1960 the first resettlement projects were planned, at Bylakuppe in Mysore, at Mainpat in Madhya Pradesh, and at Chandragiri in Orissa—all rather remote regions where jungle land was available. During the next few years about 6,800 people went to these settlements—3,600 of Bylakuppe and the rest fairly equally divided between Mainpat and Chandragiri. At all these places the Tibetans went through a difficult process of adjustment to the hot climates and low altitudes, which they were unfamiliar with local farming methods and with the kind of special difficulties they soon encountered; at Bylakuppe, for example, early crops were destroyed by elephants and several Tibetan settlers were killed in attempting to drive the animals away.

In view of the obvious lack of progress towards self-sufficiency in these early settlements, the Swiss authorities offered to help in modernizing farming methods, and in 1964 Swiss Technical Co-operation representatives arrived in Mysore and began to introduce scientific and mechanized farming at Bylakuppe. As a result, by 1967 Bylakuppe was self-supporting; its farmers (who possess one acre of land for each member of the family) grow two or three crops a year and live reasonably on the proceeds. The contrast with Mainpat and Chandragiri, where no Swiss teams went and the settlers had little guidance in agriculture, is striking, for at both these settlements the inhabitants are still dependent on food rations and monetary subsidies, and are psychologically depressed in comparison with the people at Bylakuppe, who have not only been able to solve their economic difficulties, but have also gained a fair degree of acceptance among the mixed local population of Kanarese, tribal people and gypsies.

When the Common Project was set up to administer the funds gathered during European Refuge Year in 1966, it was decided to concentrate on resettlement rather than continued relief, which (where it remained necessary) was left in the hands of established organizations like Schweizer Tibethilfe, Catholic Relief, the Tibetan Refugee Aid Society of Canada, the Tibet Society of Great Britain, Ockenden Venture, etc. In consultation with the Dalai Lama, the government of India and the government of Mysore, land was found for further settlements in Kanara, in the west of Mysore state, a hilly region which rises to a height of 3,000 to 4,000 feet and still retains a great deal of jungle cover. Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency was established and staffed mainly by retired Indian army officers, while land was made available at Mundgod south of Hubli, and on the Cauvery River close to Bylakuppe.

Late in 1966 the Swiss began clearing the jungle at Mundgod, and shortly afterwards the first refugees were brought there; groups continued to arrive in rapid succession, including people who had been working on the roadgangs in Himachal Pradesh and other groups who had been isolated in Ladakh and Sikkim. Now there are 5,000 people at Mundgod, including a group of 300 monks and a number of old people for whom homes have been built. Because the refugees had to live in insanitary grass and bamboo huts until their permanent homes were built, the health problem was severe, and many died in the early months of acclimatization. Now, however, the health situation has improved, the first crops have been reaped, and the settlement has in operation a primary-secondary school for 600 children and a 40-bed hospital which provides for the needs of the local Indian Villages as well as the refugees.

This tendency to integrate the Tibetan resettlement in Mysore with improvements in the conditions of the local people is further embodied in the conditions on which the Mysore government has given land for the third (Cauvery River) settlement and for the fourth settlement whose site is being negotiated at the time of writing. Instead of paying for the land, the Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency will use part of its available funds to help resettle the tribal groups and other landless people in Mysore, and it is already providing tube-wells and tractor stations in new Indian villages. This approach not only integrates Tibetan resettlement into the general development of the backward regions of Mysore, but also removes any reason for the local people to resent what is being done for the Tibetans. Incidentally, the cost of resettling the Tibetans has been very carefully kept within the guide-lines which the Indian government has set for its own refugees from Ceylon, Burma and elsewhere. In each case the equivalent of about $400 per head is being spent.

The four Mysore settlements will eventually include 16,000 people, not counting the natural increase (which may be high since the Tibetans are politically disinclined to practice birth control and want to build up their numbers in exile against the day when they may return to their own country). Another 6,000 are in other settlements in south and central India and NEFA. Some 5,000 (many belonging to such sectarian groups as the Sakyas and the Kargyupas) are being accommodated in small settlements in Hamachal Pradesh and near Dehra Dun, founded mostly under the auspices of the Tibetan Industrial Development Society and—since land is expensive and hard to get—based on a mixed economy which includes industries, handcrafts and agriculture. About 5,000 refugees are estimated to have settled on their own, and some have become quite prosperous as traders of building contractors. This accounts for more than half the refugees, whose numbers—not counting those in the Indian army—probably total about 61,000.

The remaining 29,000 include some 1,500 destitute old people, for whom the United Nations High Commissioner is providing homes at Mundgod and Chandragiri; 2,500 monks, of home some are being settled in situations where they can work for their upkeep; and 6,500 children in the various schools and homes, many of whom will soon rejoin their families in the resettlement projects or will take vocational training or higher education to strengthen the tiny core of professional workers and technicians in the Tibetan community. About 18,000 people remain to be provided for. Some are younger road-workers who now earn fairly good incomes on new piecework contracts and are likely to remain to remain in the hills.

About 3,000 are nomads in Ladakh who have retained 40,000 animals from their former herds, and rehabilitation based on stock-rearing is planned for them. Some 3,000 refugees remaining in the Darjeeling-Kalimpong area are gradually becoming assimilated into the local Tibetan-speaking society and are beginning to maintain themselves independently of relief. Taking these groups into account, it does not seem impossible that the aim which the Indian government and the foreign agencies have established—the liquidation of the basic living problems of the Tibetan refugees in India by the end of 1972—may be substantially achieved.

In Nepal there is no such prospect, owing to the peculiar difficulties of that country. Some of the Tibetans in the locality of Khatmandu have been organized by Swiss relief workers into self-sustaining handcraft groups, and these have a standard of living not lower than that of the local Newari farmers. There are also fairly successful farming and handcrafts settlements at Pokhara and two other places in southern Nepal. But owing to the lack of airstrips, and the immense cost of sending in food by porter, little has been done, even in terms of elementary relief, for the thousands of refugees near the northern frontier. Reports by the few travellers who have seen these refugees—the territory is forbidden to most foreign visitors—suggest that they keep alive through the help of the local Tibetan-speaking native population, who give them some kind of work and help them with food, but the general standard of living in the region is so low that many of the refugees have a difficult time surviving.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is concentrating on this problem in co-operation with the Nepal Red Cross and a new government bureau set up for developing remote areas. Seven centres scattered through the northern border region, each with a school and a dispensary, will for the first time bring modern medicine and education to the local people as well as the refugees; in co-operation with FAO, it is also hoped to build up herds and recondition land for the use of refugees. However, many years will pass before the refugees in northern Nepal can live in anything but a precarious way in a region where nature is singularly inhospitable.

The physical resettlement of the Tibetan refugees leaves unsolved their political fate. Their dispersal into widely scattered parts of India suggests and underlying hope on the part of the Indian authorities that their attachment to Tibet will diminish and they will become resigned to integration into the fabric of Indian life. But the present generation is unlikely to think of itself as anything but Tibetan, unlikely to relinquish the hope to return, while the young are being taught to regard Tibet, not India, as their homeland. Even the attitude of the Indian government might change if its foreign policy shifted towards a less passive stance.
[Pacific Affairs, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Autumn, 1970). Pp. 410-420]


(Note: some of the longer paragraphs have been broken up to enable easy monitor reading)