India Stands To Lose Strategic Leverage Against China As Exiled Tibetans Leave Settlements – OpEd


Tibetans exiled in India are leaving their settlements in droves. Over time, these settlements had become platforms that nurtured Tibet’s political aspirations while protecting the Tibetan identity. Since 2014, however, there has been a sharp reduction in the number of exiled Tibetans living in these settlements.

Heightened security along Nepal-Tibet border made it almost impossible for Tibetans to come to India. Also, a large number of Tibetans in these settlements, especially the youth, moved away in search of work and better living. With India happy to maintain status quo, these settlements can become unviable, denying it a strategic leverage against China.

Home away from home

After the 14th Dalai Lama escaped from China in 1959 with 80,000 followers, India sheltered them in designated settlements. There were three categories: agriculture-based, handicraft/industry-based and scattered settlements. In order to set these up, India leased land to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). Till about 2010, the number of Tibetans exiled in settlements boiled over, forcing them to scatter all over India.

During 2011 Indian Census — the last census conducted — 182,685 persons reported Tibetan as their mother tongue. The number included exiled Tibetans as well as those who were Indian citizens. This figure reflected a 114.22 percent increase compared to the previous decade. Indian media, quoting government officials, reported the number of Tibetan refugees to be around 150,000 during the same time. In the 2004-2014 decade, CTA received between 4000 and 5,000 Tibetans each year at Dharamsala. These were Tibetans coming for pilgrimage, for admission into monasteries, schools, meeting relatives; and of course, the major part of the traffic was to receive an audience from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

However, there was sharp reduction in the number of refugees in the next decade, more specifically, between 2011 and 2022 — a trend corroborated by CTA officials. According to data collected by the (CTA) in 2022, there were 72,000 Tibetan refugees living in India, either in 39 settlements or scattered all over the country. The number now exiled in India is less than the number that accompanied the Dalai Lama.

There are two reasons behind this: heightened security at the Nepal-China (Tibet) border has made it almost impossible for Tibetans to come to India. The flow has now shrunk to 100-200 annually. Massive halls constructed at Dharamsala to welcome refugees have been converted to training centres.

Moreover, a large number of Tibetans, especially the youth, are deserting the settlements in search of work and better living. In addition to migrating to other parts of India, they are going abroad, USA being a favourite destination. According to CTA estimates, 15 years back, there were 5,000–7,000 Tibetans in America. But now the number is close to 15,000. Nearly 5,000 Tibetans live in New York city itself. Faced with this exodus, it has become a challenge to accurately estimate the number of exiled Tibetans in Indian settlements. “We could not even locate individuals or families living outside the settlements,” said a senior official of the CTA Home Department.

Dwindling numbers make the settlements vulnerable to local pressures

The CTA South Division has 15,000 acre of prime land leased to it by the local state government of Karnataka, spread over five agricultural settlements. With Tibetans moving out, more and more of this land either remains uncultivated for years, or are being informally sub-leased to local operators for contractual farming.

There have been instances when real estate developers (propped up by politicians across all parties) have tried to grab these unused land, prompting local administrators to step in and sort out the matter. CTA leadership has been counselling Tibetan refugee cultivators to respect the law of the land and not sub-lease settlement land. CTA is advocating a review of India’s 2014 Rehabilitation Policy to ensure a pan-India rehabilitation SOP.

Settlements fight Chinese onslaught on Tibetan identity 

In the past 60-plus years, these settlements not only enabled exiled Tibetans to pursue their political goals, but most importantly also helped them preserve their cultural, linguistic and religious identities, even as refugees imbibed India’s diverse local culture. Unless Tibetans, more specifically the youth, do not to come and stay in India, their long term political goals may become impossible to achieve. Jigmey Tsultrim, CTA’s Chief Representative, South Division, explained: “If the Tibetan communities get fragmented in a foreign land, there is a risk of these fragments getting absorbed and lost. So we are encouraging the Tibetan youths in exile to think in terms of their longer interest in serving in the settlements.”

Preservation of Tibetan identity has become a key weapon to fight China’s state-sponsored Sinicization drive. Other than prohibitive and discriminatory fees and inadequate facilities in rural areas, Chinese authorities have shut down local schools in Tibet and forcibly taken away children to boarding schools located between 1,000 and 2,000 km away from their homes. In these schools, nearly 100,000 Tibetan children are being taught the official Chinese curriculum in Mandarin as well as the positive aspects of Chinese Communist Party and administration, in the process, eradicating Tibetan language, culture and heritage.

Tsultrim said CTA was fighting this Chinese onslaught by encouraging Tibetans exiles to return to Tibet so that they can tell people back home them that Tibetans are no longer aspiring for complete independence from China, but to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China. Young and senior monks who study in different monasteries in Indian settlements are encouraged to go back and serve their respective monasteries in Tibet. In return, Tibetans would like the Chinese government to guarantee autonomy of Tibetan culture, language, religion and other rights so that their distinct identity is protected. 

India’s attitude on exiled Tibetans: no escalation

India’s position over Tibetan settlements needs to be understood in the context of its bilateral relation with China as well as in the context of Asia’s emerging geopolitical narrative (where India is gradually getting surrounded by hostile neighbours with pro-China tilt). Maintaining status quo with settlements rather than leveraging Tibet — with US support — to provoke China appears to be India’s strategy at the moment.

According to a member of India’s National Security Advisory Board, India is not interested in provoking China before 2028 by stoking the Tibet issue. Nor is it prepared to surrender its strategic leverage against China which Tibet provides. The current thinking within India’s security establishment is that by 2028 (prior to the 2029 parliamentary elections), it will be in a position to resist China in case of a full-blown war. Till that happens, India is happy to restrict its hostility against China to the level of low-level border skirmishes with Tibetan settlements left to grapple with their own issues locally. 

Sourabh Sen

As a writer and commentator on politics, security and human rights issues in South Asia, Sourabh Sen (born 1961) contributes to major print, television and online media platforms as an expert on regional and geopolitics. Sourabh was a senior journalist with The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, and Sunday Magazine, before joining U.S. Consulate Kolkata as a Political Specialist, from where he retired in 2021.

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