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The young new faces of Tibetan politics

United in the longing for a land their people once called home, a new generation of Tibetans is bringing fresh perspectives as they contest elections for the Parliament in Exile

Tibetans living in exile in a protest march to mark the Tibetan Uprising Day on March 10, 2020. (Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP)
Tibetans living in exile in a protest march to mark the Tibetan Uprising Day on March 10, 2020. (Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP)

Tenzin Kalsang’s role in Tibetan politics has been moulded by the hands of women in her family. “My grandmother’s hands—she worked above Narkanda (near Shimla, Himachal Pradesh) in road construction. You can see from her hands that she is someone who has done hard labour her entire life,” says the 27-year-old co-founder of Drokmo, an organisation set up to pursue gender justice in the Tibetan and other Himalayan communities. “Then there is my mother—even when she was in school, she was taking care of the younger siblings, younger cousins, sometimes even going to construction sites to take my grandma’s place. You can see from both their hands that they have seen the hard life of refugees.”

Kalsang’s grandmother was one of over 85,000 Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, when he escaped from Tibet in the wake of the Chinese invasion. Her side of the family was led entirely by women. This is among the main reasons, Kalsang says, that she has pursued gender justice within her community through her formative years and then full-time. Her collective works to help organise scholarships for education, create awareness on reproductive health and enable access to equal opportunity in employment and livelihoods. “If you look at my hands, I have never had to go through any of that (what my grandmother and mother did). But it’s clear to me, whatever education I have, whatever abilities I have, they have to be used for the service of my own community. That is the only way for my life, work or education to have any meaning.”

This year, Kalsang is one of the youngest candidates standing for elections to the Tibetan Parliament in Exile (TPiE). And she’s not alone. Of the over 150 candidates in the running for 45 seats, a sizable number are under the age of 40. Many of them are the first generation born in exile: They studied in the Tibetan Children’s Village Schools (TCVS), they engage with Indian and global politics and work passionately for the Tibetan cause—the memory of a home they have not seen.

Dechen Pemba, 42, is the founder of smartvote Tibet, a platform that helps voters assess their preferred MP and Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) presidential candidates based on their responses on 37 parameters. She says that in comparison to the 2016 election, there are more young, new faces this time. “With them there are new perspectives, such as lobbying for Tibet issues with various governments, digitisation, cybersecurity issues, gender equality discussions, representation of minorities, etc,” she says. “Among these new candidates are activists, administrators, experts who promise to bring dynamism to the Tibetan movement.”

Not only has the exiled community transplanted its government structures and institutionalised and democratised them, but it has also established a state-like polity in exile. (Photo: Getty Images)
Not only has the exiled community transplanted its government structures and institutionalised and democratised them, but it has also established a state-like polity in exile. (Photo: Getty Images)

On 3 January, Tibetans living in exile voted in Himachal Pradesh’s Dharamsala in the first phase of the global election for the Sikyong—the head of CTA and members of the 17th Tibetan Parliament. The second phase of polling is on 11 April and the final results are expected on 14 May. As many as 79,697 Tibetans have registered for the vote, according to the CTA’s election commission in Dharamsala. Of them, 55,683 live in India.

This is among the key differences between the Tibetan community in exile and others, according to scholars.“While less functionally operational than a territorial nation state, the Tibetan community in exile is more politically organised and established than a socially networked diasporic community. Not only has the exiled community transplanted its government structures and institutionalised and democratised them, but it has also established a state-like polity in exile,” writes Fiona McConnell in Democracy-in-Exile: The ‘Uniqueness’ And Limitations Of Exile Tibetan Democracy.

The CTA, however, is not officially recognised by any country, including India, though several countries do engage with the Sikyong and other Tibetan leaders through various forums. CTA president Lobsang Sangay even attended the oath-taking ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. Last November, Sangay, who was recently invited to the White House in Washington DC, claimed the US had recognised their government-in-exile.

Kalsang, who is contesting from the U-Tsang region, is inspired by a "more left-leaning style of politics"; one, she says is characterised by US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, young Dalit activists and her peers in the social sector in India. But she never intended to stand for elections, though an uncle has been a minister and she has worked with the Guchusum Movement of Tibet for political prisoners, with The Tibet Fund on women’s empowerment and the government-in-exile as a project officer for the USAID Tibetan Self-Reliance and Resilience Programme.

Today, her views have changed. “I have always been someone who acts on things instead of complaining about them, and the pace and bureaucracy of things always used to get to me. I feel I can bring change from within,” she says.

When asked what she can offer as a young politician, Kalsang is clear: “Our political struggle has taken centre stage for so long. And yes, even during elections, that should be central to our political campaigns because our whole identity is of political refugees. But I think it is wrong for us to relegate social issues to being of secondary importance.”

She adds: “These have to go hand in hand. While we are waiting for a future to happen, the present is slipping by. So I have been focusing more on breaking this dichotomy. We must address issues of social justice, feminism, healthcare etc. simultaneously as we focus on the national struggle. A movement is made up of people. You have to feed your soldiers.”

Looking back to look ahead

“On the 31st anniversary of conferment of the Nobel Peace Prize to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, I’m announcing my nomination for the U-Tsang Chithue 2021,” wrote Sonam Tobgyal, 33, on his Facebook page on 10 December. Tobgyal, who comes from a nomadic family in the border village of Sumdo in eastern Ladakh, has a doctorate in political science and diaspora studies from the Central University of Gujarat. “As nomads, we would travel a lot. Fifteen years ago, the place where we used to go for grazing, it is now under China, he says. “They occupied the territory. When I would tell my Indian friends and faculty members that this is happening, they would say I am spreading nationalist propaganda; now, after the conflict, it’s there for the world to see.”

Part of the first generation of Tibetans born and raised in exile, Tobgyal’s political awareness came at a young age, during his years at the local TCVS. Every year, on 10 March, which is commemorated as the Tibetan uprising day, the village would make effigies of the Chinese premier of the time, “tie it on a horse and drag it. People used to throw stones. And I (Tobgyal) used to see all this.”

The Rangzen ideology advocates complete independence rather than the middle-way approach, or Umaylam, adopted in 1988 by the CTA and the Dalai Lama. (PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES)
The Rangzen ideology advocates complete independence rather than the middle-way approach, or Umaylam, adopted in 1988 by the CTA and the Dalai Lama. (PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES)

“When we were young, we also used to play games like Chinese versus Tibetan. No one wanted to play the bad Chinese. We could not eat while standing —that’s a Chinese tradition. These kinds of memories, and the stories of our ancestors’ escape, they stay with you,” he says.

A researcher with the Tibet Watch research centre in Dharamsala, Tobgyal believes in the Rangzen ideology that advocates complete independence rather than the middle-way approach, or Umaylam, adopted in 1988 by the CTA and the Dalai Lama. The latter is perceived as effectively abandoning the dream of an independent Tibet in favour of seeking “genuine autonomy for all Tibetans living in the three traditional provinces of Tibet within the framework of the People’s Republic of China”. Many, like Tobgyal, also believe it is not feasible in the current political context.

“As someone who has studied Chinese politics and policies, I am keenly aware that China is not interested in a dialogue. Under the rule of Xi Jinping, even the low level talks with the Tibetan government in exile have ceased since 2010,” he says.

The lack of space within Tibetan politics for a challenge to this stand, he believes, would hamper his chances of winning the election and is among the reforms required in both Tibetan politics and the TPiE.

As reported in Mint in 2019, this is a defining dilemma for Tibetans keen to reclaim their homeland. In a 2015 interview to The New York Times, activist Tenzin Tsundue said pressures against his protests challenging the Chinese government in India, during state visits from the Chinese premier, came from the Tibetan establishment in Dharamsala, “which discounts Tibetans demanding independence as ‘anti-Dalai Lama’”.

Tobgyal hopes to inject greater political and sociological nuance into "these existing barriers" in Tibetan politics and the CTA.

It was on 29 April 1959, that the Dalai Lama established the Tibetan administration-in-exile at the hill station of Mussoorie—a continuation of the monastic government of “independent Tibet”. A year later, the CTA was moved to Dharamsala.

As the CTA experimented with modern democracy, a parliament, initially called the Commission of Tibetan People’s Deputies, was set up on 2 September 1960. It became a full-fledged legislative body, now known as the TPiE . In 1991, the Dalai Lama increased the number of TPiE members to 46 and empowered it to elect the Kashag, or council of ministers, which was made answerable to elected representatives of the Tibetan community. Ten years later, the Tibetan parliament, on the advice of the Dalai Lama, amended the charter to provide for direct election of the Kalon Tripa (the highest executive authority). Till then, the Kalon Tripa used to be appointed by the spiritual leader.

Today, each region of Tibet is represented by 10 deputies, two of them women. Each Tibetan Buddhist sect— Nyingmapa, Kagyupa, Sakyapa and Gelugpa—provides two deputies. Since 1976, there have been two Bon Buddhist delegates. In addition, two deputies each represent the Tibetans in Europe and North America. The only precondition for a Tibetan to serve in the CTA structure is that the candidate must officially be a member of the Tibetan community in exile and support the political pre-eminence of the CTA.

Kalsang, too, believes there is a need to create more space for differences of opinion. “Differences do not have to divide necessarily. But it has become a source of division in our community, and we cannot afford to be divided right now,” she says. “So whatever your ideology is, as long as we are working together for one common goal—ultimately being of service to the people inside Tibet living under the colonial rule of China. In this conversation, we, in exile, take a back seat.”

Realistic promises

Tenzin Jigdal, 38, a CTA candidate who seeks to represent Tibet’s Dhotoe region, runs a slick campaign. “Coherence but not commotion, aspiration but not agitation, resolve and resolution but not rhetoric. It is time,” he says in a video shared on his Facebook page. Jigdal, who has a postgraduate diploma in computer science, has been working with Students for a Free Tibet and the International Tibet Network for many years. “I think standing for elections, for me, will always be about the unfulfilled dream of being in Tibet. Through this election, I hope to be part of the CTA, which is going to represent the larger movement,” he says.

Tenzin Jigdal (Photo: Geleck Palsang), Sonam Tobgyal and Tenzin Kalsang.
Tenzin Jigdal (Photo: Geleck Palsang), Sonam Tobgyal and Tenzin Kalsang.

"Owing to the pandemic, this election is relying heavily on technology—giving younger candidates an edge in communication and campaigning. It is these candidates who have been able to produce graphics and videos to spread their messages on social media platforms,” says Pemba of smartvote Tibet. Kalsang’s manifesto, for instance, is available on Facebook and Instagram as well.

Jigdal, meanwhile, has created a bookmark which he hopes will not only spread the word on his election promises but also encourage more Tibetans to read. “Personally too I’ve always loved non-fiction, I’m presently trying to finish this book called Asian Juggernaut by Brahm Chellaney. I’m also interested in later reading this book by Shashi Tharoor called Battle of Belonging,” he says.

Still, Pemba maintains that the success of younger candidates is not certain. She says Tibetan voters tend to be conservative in their choices and set in their ways. The Tibetan electorate, however, is not unique in this regard. According to a study titled Youth Participation In National Parliaments: 2018, conducted by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union—an organisation of national parliaments—people under the age of 30 constitute just over 2% of the world’s parliamentarians and the global proportion of MPs under 30 has increased by only 0.3% since 2016.

As for young candidates from Tibet, Pemba says it is difficult to generalise. It would be important, she insists, to analyse the regions separately and in greater detail. “In India, we had some interesting young candidates,” she says. “But in Europe, for example, we know that there is a lack of interest in, and knowledge of, Tibetan issues among the younger generation compared to the elder ones. The younger generation is also less involved in community life. There have also been no serious efforts by associations and groups representing the younger generation to organise themselves and formulate policy positions that they favour.”

One thing that does tie young candidates together is their clarity on the identities that have shaped their politics. Kalsang, for instance, is not conflicted about the coexistence of her Tibetan and Indian identities—she embraces both, and “that doesn’t make me any less Tibetan”. Jigdal, too, engages with this duality in his own way. His father was part of the armed resistance in Tibet before fleeing to India. Here, Jigdal’s father worked in road construction and eventually served with the Special Frontier Force (SFF). It’s the same regiment to which Nyima Tenzin, the Tibetan soldier who died fighting the Chinese in Galwan Valley in August, belonged.

“At the grass-roots level, I think it became much more evident after the India-China conflict last year that we as Tibetans in exile have also contributed our fair share for the defence of this country. Be it Bangladesh or Galwan,” he says. “And if you look at the Himalayan border—the 4,000km that borders with Tibet which China claims to be their own—the basic foundations of those roads were laid by Tibetans.”

Political differences aside, generations of Tibetans are united in their longing for a land they called home. “It is famously said that home is where the heart is. And right now, my heart is incomplete,” says Jigdal. "To make sure I find my whole heart, I have to achieve the dream that our older generations had. They died without seeing it come true. But now, we will carry it forward and work to make it a reality.”

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