Exile – the nursery of nationalism


‘There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one’s native land.’

– Euripides, 431 B.C.

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SINCE the beginning of the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1949, approximately 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed, a figure denied by the Chinese Communist Party. ‘The estimate is not reliable because the Tibetans were not able to process the data well enough to produce a credible total. There were, however, many casualties, perhaps as many as 400,000,’ writes Patrick French.1 

Monks and nuns are still imprisoned, and many Tibetans (mostly monks and nuns) continue to flee Tibet every year.

The Chinese persecution of the fleeing Tibetans caught the limelight when a Romanian mountaineer documented on camera a group of 80 Tibetan civilians who were trying to reach a refugee camp in Nepal, and came under fire from Chinese troops on 30 September 2006, resulting in the death of a 27 year old Tibetan nun, Kelsang Nartso and some others. ‘They were hunted like rats and were shot like dogs,’ the Romanian climbers, Alexandru Gavan and Sergiu Matei, reported. It became an international incident, causing widespread outrage when a Romanian TV station and BBC aired the video footage.


According to Article 1A (2) of the Refugee Convention, ‘A refugee is someone who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of the country.’

The Chinese government systematically attacks and tries to eradicate the cornerstones of Tibetan culture – language, monastic life and Buddhism. With no exercise of human rights, what is missing profusely is the freedom of expression, resulting in the Tibetan language and Tibetan culture coming close to extinction. Facing an increasing infant mortality rate and decreasing life expectancy, forced abortion and sterilization, Tibetans have become an ethnic minority in their own land. Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that: ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’

A large numbers of Tibetans first arrived in India in March 1959, after a failed uprising against the Chinese suppression that compelled the flight of the Dalai Lama into India. ‘Tibetan refugees arrived at the height of the Cold War, after Communist China asserted control over the region,’2 writes Susan Banki. More than 54 years after the exodus, the Tibetan population in exile now numbers around 130,000. (2009 census by the Planning Commission office of Central Tibetan Administration)

Tibetan refugees, transiting via Nepal to India, have to face many mishaps. Yet, tens of thousands of Tibetans continue to hazard the perilous month-long journey across the Himalaya. Even the sealing of the Chinese side of the border in 1960, has not managed to stem the flow in exile.

From the Old Testament to ancient Greece, Shakespeare’s fictional lover Romeo to the world’s spiritual leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama, stories of exile are an integral part of our historical imagination. Born in exile in India, I can only reflect on it with innate nostalgia. ‘The moment of exile is, probably one of the most intense experiences in the lives of the individuals subjected to it’, wrote Pamela Ballinger.3


Considered as foreigners under the 1946 Foreigners Act, the Tibetans have been accorded the basic rights of most citizens but are not allowed to contest or vote in Indian elections. Separate settlements were identified and established in geographically suitable areas so as to provide them with economic, social and religious autonomy. There is ever a fully democratic Tibetan Government-in-Exile established in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. Yet, as Oivind Fuglerud said in 1999, ‘Exile is not primarily a geographical location; it is a state of mind through which one becomes what one has left behind.’4

It is common to distinguish between internal exile, i.e, forced resettlement within the country of residence, and external exile, deportation outside the country of residence. The Tibetan story caters to both, but the focus is on the latter which is essentially a self-imposed departure from one’s homeland to avoid persecution.

The biggest fear after 54 years in exile is of cultural degeneration, in particular, the loss of language. The Tibetan youth gets easily inclined to an alien culture and tends to integrate easily into the mainstream life of the host country. ‘I am more of an Indian, except for my Chinky Tibetan face’, states Tenzin Tsundue.5


Tibet is today a stateless nation, with an alien government controlling the country. Nevertheless, Tibet as a nation thrives in the spirit and psychology of the Tibetans, both inside and outside Tibet. Tibetan nationalism, in a nutshell, reflects positive nationalism and patriotism.

The upsurge of Tibetan nationalism, however, appears marked by a general outlook of moral ambivalence. It can be argued that to a large extent Tibetans did not have a full-fledged nationalism before 1950. But this does not mean that prior to 1950 Tibetans did not have any sense of themselves as belonging to a country. It was in the aftermath of 1959 protests that the awareness of belonging to a single country began to spread and this marked the birth of Tibetan nationalism.

But Tibetan nationalism has thrived in exile. The dominant religious character of nationalism is well captured in the Tibetan national anthem, modelled after traditional religious prayers used by Tibetans in exile to express their nationalistic aspirations. Under the strong influence of Buddhism, the exiled Tibetan looks at the Chinese forces as lacking in rationale and kindness.

The fiercest and bravest advocates of Tibetan nationalism are often young, in their twenties, deeply devoted to His Holiness Dalai Lama and their idea of Tibetan nationhood is clear, absolute and impassioned.


Tibetan nationalism in exile is a long-distance nationalism with the nationalistic struggle spearheaded by groups like the Students for a Free Tibet, Tibetan Youth Congress and Tibetan Women’s Association, often by relying heavily on digital activism. As Benedict Anderson points out, ‘Newer examples of nationalism are the long-distance nationalisms of migrants like the Tamils in Norway working for their own state in Sri Lanka. Some of the most ardent Sikh nationalists are situated in Australia and Canada – thanks to the Internet and cheap airline tickets.’6

September 1995 saw strong expression of Tibetan ‘female’ nationalism, when nine exiled Tibetan women successfully staged a peaceful demonstration in Beijing during the UN 4th World Conference on Women. From the Tibetan perspective, these women had created history by becoming the first Tibetans ever to hold a protest on Chinese soil.

Tibetan nationalism also reflects a deep moral tension between solidarity with oppressed Tibetans in Tibet and a growing resentment with more than half a century of struggle in exile. It often feels exasperated with international bodies and the key slogan for the March 10 Anniversary commemoration is ‘United Nations, we want Justice’. Yet, despite the pain and a feeling of desperation, it is the unconditional positive regard for their culture and faith that keeps the struggle going. ‘Three generations of Tibetans have lived through this darkest period of our history, undergoing tremendous hardship and suffering, yet the Tibetan issue is still very much alive.’ (H.H the Dalai Lama, 2001)

H.H the Dalai Lama proposed a pragmatic solution of a peaceful Middle Way approach, seeking genuine autonomy within the framework of the PRC. In part, he was moved by the fear of the extinction of Tibetan culture in Tibet in the face of an overbearing Han Chinese culture becoming the dominant presence. This posed a difficult ideological shift: from claiming complete independence to a move for genuine autonomy within Chinese rule.


Tibetan nationalism thus reflects not a unified discourse, but rather serves as a site of contention, with conflicting visions competing for allegiance. There are many Tibetan nationalists who are markedly uncomfortable with benevolent nationalism. Nationalism also wore an antagonistic angle when eleven Tibetan protestors travelled from Hunsur, Karnataka state to Delhi, and hurled petrol bombs at the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi in 1992.

Then the astounding activities of Tenzin Tsundue, first breaching security, much to the embarrassment of the Indian government during the official visit by Chinese Premier Li Peng to India in 2001, and then scaling the 14th floor of the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai to unfurl the Tibetan National Flag during the visit of Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to Mumbai in January 2002. He completed a hat trick by breaching security at the British era building of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) during the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Bangalore in April 2005, shouting anti-China slogans. ‘What revolutionary nationalism does in exile is to provide a name for individual nostalgia and shared exclusion from the host society.’7


November 2006 witnessed new heights of patriotism with a nation-wide protest by Tibetans who literally chased Chinese President, Hu Jianto out of India, during his first state visit to the country. Needless to say that the host country, India, was appalled by such nationalistic activity, forcing the Indian government to issue a deportation warning to the high profile Tibetan activist and writer Tenzin Tsundue, a week prior to 23 November 2006, in contravention of Article 22 of the convention that states: ‘No contracting state shall expel or return... a refugee... to the frontiers of territories where his life…would be threatened...’

Though the plight of Tibetans commands international attention, they have always had unsolicited counsel proffered to them from people with a strong interest in not offending China and yet desiring to be seen as caring about the issue of Tibet.

Tibetans in exile, which was hitherto an Indian affair, is today a global phenomenon. Tibetans have also moved abroad, and adapted themselves very well. The most active and successful student-led activist group, Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), functions with its headquarters in New York and through its branch offices across the globe.

The quest for a Tibetan home-land can be seen in the emergence of narratives of nostalgia generated by Tibetans living in exile. Tibetans consider the Tibetan Plateau to be the ground on which their entire cultural and religious heritage was established. But exile creates situations in which the very basis of social memory and collective identity are reshaped. With every successive generation born into exile, the remaining vestiges of Tibetan culture are being gradually defused.

Lord Acton (1834-1902), one of the great historians of the Victorian period made an aphoristic statement: ‘Exile is the nursery of nationalism’. Nationalism in exile sees the facades of both pros and cons in positive actions and unrestrained resentment, but truly it is only in exile that nationalism takes birth and gets nurtured.


Reflecting on the 53 years in exile, one can only wonder at the near miraculous unbroken ties of unity that knit the Tibetans strongly under the realm of a common goal and supreme faith in the spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Disunity is the least feared factor.

It is only in exile that we can trace the nursery of Tibetan nationalism. Hoisting the Tibetan national flag, singing the national anthem, donning the walls with the portrait of the H.H the Dalai Lama and significantly working for the restoration of freedom inside Tibet, while a norm in exile, can easily become a cause for criminal conviction and prosecution in homeland Tibet.



1. Patrick French, Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land. HarperCollins, Delhi, 2003.

2. Susan Banki, New Issues in Refugee Research: Refugee Integration in the Intermediate Term. UNHCR, October 2004.

3. Pamela Ballinger, History in Exile: Memory and Identity at the Borders of the Balkans. Princeton University Press. Chaps 6 and 7, 2003.

4. Oivind Fuglerud, Life on the Outside: The Tamil Diaspora and Long-Distance Nationalism. Pluto Press London, 1999. (Chap 8: ‘The Nature of Tradition’)

5. Tenzin Tsundue, My Kind of Exile. Snowline Publications, 2003.

6. Benedict Anderson, Long-Distance Nationalism in Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World. Verso London, 1998.

7. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed., Verso, London, 1991.



Anthony D. Smith, Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Richard Black, ‘Fifty Years of Refugee Studies’, International Migration Review, 2001.

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E. J. Hobsbawn, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

E. Gellner, Nations and Nationalism. Blackwell , Oxford, 1983.

Georges Dreyfus, ‘Proto-nationalism in Tibet’, Tibetan Studies, 1992.

Guy S. Goodwin-Gill, The Refugee in International Law. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996.

James C. Hathaway, The Law of Refugee Status. Butterworths, Toronto, 1991.

Warren W. Smith Jr., Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1998.

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