Generating meanings in exile


back to issue

IN the Tibetan exodus, cultural forms and institutions that were once taken for granted were suddenly brought into high relief by the experience of exile. This sentiment is combined with a strong commitment to survival, further solidified with a vow for the continuation of a primary cultural identity as articulated by the Dalai Lama. Since 1959, Tibetan refugees have been engaged in an ongoing ‘confrontation of representations’ with Chinese officials in which the two sides compete to legitimize their own representations of Tibetan history as well as current events in Tibet.

In recent years, a new dimension to the confrontation has emerged with the display of culture becoming one of the most important means through which Tibetan and Chinese claims to legitimacy are contested. Tibet activists’ use of cultural and religious performances for political purposes reflects the global emergence of ‘culture’ as a favoured idiom of political mobilization for indigenous, minority and diasporic groups. The narrative of Tibetan culture put forward by Tibet House is congruent with this traditional Tibetan religio-political framework and with the diasporic self-consciousness about Tibetanness, which emerged after 1959.

From the earliest years of exile, Tibetan refugees were aware of the need to preserve Tibetan Buddhism not only as a valued set of practices but also as the basis for reconstituting a collective Tibetan identity in exile. Keeping alive the possibility of returning to the homeland requires keeping alive the memory and lived experience of Tibetanness to perpetuate the felt sense of loss and hope. Tibetan refugees born in exile are taught to remember the experiences of others. For these Tibetans, Tibet is an idea of a land informed by official and lay efforts in exile to preserve and teach traditional culture, images from foreign made documentary films and coffee table books, political and economic information from newspaper clippings, and the first-hand stories from older relatives, tourists and new arrivals. The Dalai Lama has constantly emphasized the need for refugees to maintain their traditions, not only for their own sake but for the sake of Tibetans living in Tibet.

While Tibetan refugees have received unprecedented material and rhetorical support, they have had to walk a fine line to keep their sponsors and themselves satisfied that they are succeeding in staying the course, maintaining the purity of their unique culture until they can reclaim their proper place. At the same time, achieving the kind of accessibility necessary to attract aid and sympathy requires great acts of accommodation and change. The general perception is that they are hardworking and have successfully maintained their culture against all odds.

Such commendations are not uncommon and have been a consequence of the general tendency to take sides in writing about Tibet and the Tibetan diaspora at the expense of a critical assessment of the Tibetan issue. Such a tendency has arisen partly from the importation of the functionalist model for the study of refugees. The implicit functionalism of much work in ‘refugee studies’ is especially clear when one is dealing with questions of identity, culture, ethnicity and tradition. Recurrent in this literature is the assumption that to become uprooted and removed from a national community is automatically to lose one’s identity, tradition and culture.1 This has had a marked effect upon the study of Tibetan refugees wherein any cultural reemergence or the presence of past cultural practices is interpreted as evidence of cultural continuity that gives an image of a refugee society which is supposedly stable and orderly.2

The presumed linearity – of then and now, of tradition and modernity –in the use of these concepts to understand social change among Tibetan refugees has often led to unexamined conclusions. The generally uncomplicated celebration of political solidarity, economic success and cultural preservation in exile in much of the work on Tibetan refugees is in keeping with the romantic image of Tibet. Such public representations of Tibetanness have tended to smoothly gloss over the striking unevenness of experience encompassed in Tibetan refugee lives in the diaspora.


For Tibetan refugees, the dominant framework for thinking about and attempting to understand exile is the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation and its promise of eventual release through good action and compassion. The idea of ‘taking refuge’ is also, in addition to belief in reincarnation, a cornerstone of Tibetan culture. Since the 1950s, the idea of ‘taking refuge’ has taken on a highly politicized level of meaning for Tibetans. Inspired by the Dalai Lama, many Tibetans therefore work hard through focused spiritual practice to regard the predicament of exile as a source of inner strength.

In an effort to characterize how Tibetan refugees deal with the experience of exile, it is, however, not sufficient to stop at the formal Buddhist belief and practice. While the Dalai Lama asserts that when you are a monk, any place that is habitable becomes your country, most lay Tibetans in exile feel deeply out of place and often fearful in India. Focused as Tibetans and their western supporters are on preserving and gaining access to an ideal Tibetan way of life, India is reduced to a temporary and unfortunate backdrop for their struggle. There is, therefore, a need to foreground the Indian context in which the exile experience takes place.


The experience of exile and the encounter with Indian democracy were important in developing the commitment to human rights and democratic values expressed in the constitution promulgated by the Dalai Lama in 1963. This constitution in turn inspired activists within Tibet, particularly the young monks and nuns who demonstrated against Chinese rule in 1987-88. These young people saw the Dalai Lama’s stance as reflecting a progressive political position through his articulation of key Buddhist concepts such as compassion and the prohibition of killing. These young activists based their democratic principles on Buddhism, which is depicted in texts and the media as a set of undog-matic religious and moral principles compatible with human rights and democracy. This was consistent with the Tibetan leadership’s concerns over preserving the image of a ‘non-violent Tibet’.

The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) has since its inception been consistently democratic. It acted as a loyal opposition to the government, a tendency which the exile leadership was not keen on encouraging. The cabinet gradually worked to get compliant people elected into the leadership of the Congress. The TYC is increasingly being used as a springboard to a career in government service.


In the Tibetan exile community, no such formal channels exist for aspirations or criticisms to be formulated into policy. It is clear that while the Dalai Lama officially champions autonomy, many Tibetans such as those belonging to the TYC or the newly formed Rangzen alliance disagree and wish to fight for independence. Statements of any originality or boldness or a counter view can easily be construed as seditious or against the Dalai Lama or China or India and thereby denounced. Even self-immolations or sacrifices, like the one by Thupten Ngodup and others in Tibet, are thought of as incompatible with the basic tenets of Buddhism. They thereby fail to generate political capital. A dignified existence for the Tibetans in exile becomes possible only when support comes from empathetic Indian hosts.

The gesture by Baichung Bhutia, the former Indian football captain who has Tibetan affinities, to drop out of the team that was to carry the Olympic torch on its Indian leg in New Delhi for the Beijing Olympics, has symbolic significance. ‘I sympathize with the Tibetans and their cause. I have sent a letter to the IOA (Indian Olympic Association) refusing to carry the torch,’ Bhaichung Bhutia told The Telegraph (Calcutta, 1 April 2008). Bhutia’s decision points to how ‘places’, politics and ‘cultures’ continue to be implicated in the ongoing debate on Tibet’s historical and geopolitical status.



1. Barry N. Stein, ‘The Refugee Experience: Defining the Parameters of a Field of Study’, International Migration Review 15(1), 1981, pp. 320-30.

2. Liisa Malkki, ‘Refugees and Exile: From "Refugee Studies" to the National Order of Things’, Annual Review of Anthropology 24, 1995, pp. 495-523.