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A home ... far from home?

The migrant has almost always arrived in India, ravaged and terror-stricken, in waves, most often the result of political upheaval in his country. Initially unwelcome and persecuted and then tolerated and allowed to integrate into society, the refugee here has always been an interesting study in contrasts - the subject of numerous novels and films. Over the years, how has he fared and adapted to his new surroundings? What have been his hopes and aspirations? ADITI KAPOOR, SUBHORANJAN DASGUPTA and GOUTAM GHOSH focus on the Tibetan, East Bengali and Sri Lankan Tamil communities.

More Indian than Tibetan


FOR Yang Chen, a teenager, India is the only home she has known. Yet, her heart is in Tibet, the land of her ancestors and her parents who fled Tibet to settle in India with the Dalai Lama 41 years ago.

"I have never seen my homeland, so I am not too sure how I will adjust there if Tibet gains azadi from China and we do return," she confesses. "But I am sure I will adjust."

Her father, Gyurmey, who is also the pradhan of Delhi's largest Tibetan settlement with about 300 families at Majnu-ka-tila, nods vigorously. "Oh! She will adjust alright. That is our home."

For Gyurmey, returning home is a desire that burns brightly in his heart. "I accompanied the Dalai Lama when he fled from Tibet and came to India," he says. "The Indian Government has given us a great deal, but this is still our temporary home."

* Indian influences

Tenpa C. Samkhar, cabinet secretary (political) of the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, estimates that as many as 60 per cent of the Tibetans now in India were born here. "These youngsters are more Indian than Tibetans," he says. "They are very fond of Indian food, especially the South Indian thali system and Hindi is their second mother tongue. Tibetan girls often wear salwar kameez because they find it more comfortable than their own native dress. The young are more fond of Hindi films and film songs than Tibetan songs. Even elderly Tibetans enjoy Hindi films and music."

A Fulbright scholar, Samkhar says many of the Tibetan Fulbright scholars who grew up in India could have settled down in the United States, but a strong attachment to India brings them back to this country. "We feel this to be our second home," he says. A sentiment echoed by Samkhar who recalls the many cultural and religious links that India has had with Tibet. In 629 A.D., for instance, Songtsen Sampo ascended the throne of Tibet and made Tibet the mightiest military power in Central Asia. His most well-known minister, Thonmi Sambhota, was sent to India to learn the Devanagri script which was later used as a base to invent the Tibetan script. "Our script today is very similar to the Devanagri script," says Samkhar. "We too have to learn ka, kha, ga ..."

Again, in 755 A.D., King Trisong Detsen invited the Indian tantric master Padmasambhava, and Indian scholars, Santarakshita and Kamalashila, to spread Buddhism in Tibet. Later, in 1042 A.D., the Bengali Buddhist sage-scholar, Atisha Dipankar, visited Tibet and revived Buddhism, which had barely survived the persecution under King Lang Tharma.

Even today, Tibetans confess that they are very satisfied with what modern India has to offer. Says Pradhan Gyurmey, "If we were back in Tibet, our children would not have received as much education or exposure as here in India." Indeed, the literacy rate of Tibetans in their own country is an abysmal 25 per cent, whereas in India, almost 90 per cent of the children in the school-going age have enrolled in schools.

Gyurmey is also clear that Tibetans have a greater freedom to practise their religion and in a manner in which they want to. Back home, he says, under the domination of the Chinese, this freedom would have been curtailed.

"There are, of course, some differences," says Yang Chen who, though being born here, knows a lot about Tibetan culture. "Back home I am told that Diwali is at least a 10-day affair. Here it is just a two-day affair."

* Safeguarding Tibetan culture

Interestingly, there is a conscious effort on the part of the Tibetan community to protect and nurture its own culture, language, dress, diet, religion and way of life. Most of the youngsters who have grown up in India have gone to Tibetan schools, being run by the Central Tibetan School Administration, or the Tibetan Children's Village schools. Most of these are residential schools and children are sent here while they are still in their pre-teens. At a younger age they go to day schools run by these organisations in the Tibetan settlements.

Talk to any Tibetan, senior or junior, and there is a passionate outburst on the need to preserve all that is Tibetan. "Even many of the India-born Tibetans who send their young ones to Indian public schools later prefer to transfer them to one of the four major Tibetan boarding schools at Mussoorie, Shimla, Dalhousie and Darjeeling," says Sonam Choephel, Tibetan Welfare Officer of the Dharamshala-based government, who came to India when he was just five years of age. "This is true of even Tibetans who live abroad, as in Switzerland and the U.S.."

Tashi, who sends his toddler to a private school, says the child will go to one of the Tibetan hostels when she turns seven. "The public schools give good English-medium education, but in our Tibetan schools our children learn not only good English and Hindi but also the Tibetan language, something about our scriptures and culture. What good are our children if their face looks Tibetan and their blood is Tibetan but they cannot speak the Tibetan language?" he asks.

* Caught between cultures

Many Tibetan youngsters are defining their own culture. Even as they speak their language and worship Lord Buddha, their clothes, habits, behaviour, norms and attitudes have undergone a sea- change that the elder Tibetans are finding difficult to digest.

For instance, studying and growing up together in co-educational residential schools have broken the barriers between boys and girls, leading to more open relationships and pre-marital affairs. Choephel makes a distinction between "pre-1959" and "post-1959". "Before 1959, our society was not so open and pre- marital affairs were nipped in the bud through community pressure. Today, the social pressure has definitely decreased. Even though there are very few unwed mothers, more youngsters believe in staying together before marriage."

Interestingly, Choephel also points to the breaking down of a certain caste-like system in Tibetan society that prevailed "before 1959". The social divisions acted as a barrier to a more "open" society. The post-1959 community has been more homogeneous.

With the "openness" has come western music, jeans and related western mores. Choephel does not blame the Indian social fabric for these influences. "If we cannot safeguard our own culture, it is our own fault," he says. For instance, though most of the Tibetans are an industrious lot, stories of drug peddling and trade in wildlife products like tiger skins have made news headlines in the past. Choephel acknowledges that "very few" Tibetan youths have taken to drugs and criminal activities - happenings that have the Tibetan community worried. This is also a reflection of the larger world where the young belonging to other communities too have taken to these activities.

* Carving a niche for themselves

Even at Majnu-ka-tila, there is a Bohemain spirit in the narrow streets. Men, women, boys and girls walk about with a casual air, dressed informally, busy with various errands. Young and older boys play carroms on the road, while older women just sit and stare at passers-by.

Prayer flags flutter atop many of the houses and a recently built majestic gateway announces the existence of this Tibetan settlement. The sprawling 11-12 acre complex by the roadside close to the Delhi University is a labyrinth of narrow, mostly unpaved, kutcha roads, full of puddles of small streams following a shower. Mounds of construction material and rubble indicate that housing activity is in full swing even as one wonders whether there is any space for additional cover. The only breathing space is provided by the open temple square in the middle of the settlement where the residents worship Lord Buddha. And the architecture of the "Gumba", or the temple, transports one immediately to the land of the worshippers.

From the outside, the settlement has a facade of a commercial complex. Small, dingy restaurants and petty shops line the main road. Step through a gateway, or into one of the few tiny lanes off the main road, and one is amiamid a cluster of houses dotted with shops selling everything from photographs to travel itineraries. Many of the restaurants sell chang, a barley beer usually made by the women and sold to Indians. As one moves to take a photograph of customers drinking chang, one is stopped by Gyurmey. "Most of the families have been forced to take this up as a means of earning income," he says. "Traditionally, making of chang is not a respected profession."

The popularity of chang is, however, visible in the number of customers who throng the small restaurants in the hot summer sun. "A day's income from chang buys us food for that day," says one woman manufacturer-owner. At Majnu-ka-tila, almost one in every four families makes and sells chang.

"It looks like a middle class slum," grins Wilson, an Indian who has been frequenting the settlement since 1976. "But these Tibetans are prosperous even if they do not show it." Samkhar agrees: "Tibetans are, by nature, entrepreneurial and very hardworking. So they are doing very well here."

Some residents of Majnu-ka-tila also own shops - actually a little bigger than kiosks - at "Tib-tabs", a Tibetan refugee market about three kilometres south of the settlement. Residents of Buddha Vihar, another Tibetan settlement of about 40 families in the vicinity, own other shops. The Government of India gave the land for this market, situated under a flyover next to a Tibetan monastery, as part of the rehabilitation package. The market does brisk business in products ranging from smart casuals to mountaineering and camping gear. The prices are reasonable and the young, especially university students, find it a good shopping stop. Families too come to buy clothing, footwear and a range of electronic goods, including imported watches, calculators and hair-dyers.

* Seasonal migration

Of the officially estimated one lakh Tibetans in India, at least half are traders. Nearly 70 per cent do seasonal trading, particularly in woollen clothing. The Tibetans call this "petty trading" and for many a family, children lend a helping hand in this form of business during their holidays. Other means of livelihood include agro-industries, carpet weaving, export and the service sector.

At Majnu-ka-tila, it is difficult to get an exact answer on the number of families living here because there is a lot of seasonal migration. "At least one out of five families goes off to the hills in summer to sell different wares, including woollen clothes," says Norbu, secretary, Tibetan Welfare Office, an arm of the Dalai Lama government. "Where the parents are old, the younger men and women go off." For a race from the world's highest plateau, it is natural to escape to the cooler climes of Shimla, Mussoorie, Nainital, Dalhousie and Darjeeling.

"The Tibetans here make good money but footpath selling is very difficult," says Samkhar. "The sweater selling sites are not hygienic and often the police chase the traders away. In some cities, however, like Agra, Ranchi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Udhagamandalam (Ooty), the Tibetans have been given good sites by the municipalities."

In Mussoorie, for instance, the municipality has recently given a long, narrow, steep road, just off the main Mall to the Tibetan market association, which does brisk business. Interestingly, the local Garhwali traders, who face keen competition from the Tibetans, are up in arms over this decision because they wanted the prime location.

"These are rare cases of minor friction between the Indians and the Tibetans," says Tsering Tashi, secretary of the Delhi-based Bureau of the Dalai Lama. "Business rivalry is natural and sometimes rears its ugly face. Otherwise, however, we Tibetans feel very much at home in India. Many of us have grown up with Indian friends and are very close to them."

The writer, a freelancer based in New Delhi, writes on environmental and social issues.

* * *

Unwelcome now


THEY were first called "migrants" - an innocuous term - when they left Noakhali in small groups and crossed over in the last three months of 1946. But when Gandhiji's fearless "One-man Army" failed in riot-scarred Noakhali as well as in other districts of East Bengal and Partition struck with full force, "migrant" was found to be too weak and inapposite an expression to label the sufferers. They arrived, ravaged and terror-struck, in waves and were called "refugees" or, in Bengali, udbastu.

The massive exodus began in 1947 and continued right into the 1960s. How many came? Without indulging in statistical jugglery, it may be safely assumed that before the 1970s, five million refugees had left East Bengal for West Bengal. In Punjab it was one mighty slash which saw a comparable exchange of population between East and West in the course of three years (1947-1950). But in Bengal it was a series of gashes which led to the kafilas moving, primarily, from east to west for almost 20 long years.

The comparison with Punjab appears unavoidable. While the Nehru Government left no stone unturned to provide relief and rehabilitation to the refugees of the West with almost clockwork precision, it was - to the say the least - niggardly towards the victims languishing in Tripura, Assam and, above all West Bengal, where most of them had congregated. The then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Bidhanchandra Roy, had to beg, plead and then threaten in order to secure more funds. In fact, Nehru and his ministers were tempted to believe that the Nehru-Liaquat pact of 1950 would prompt the uprooted Hindu refugees to return to their villages in East Bengal. Nothing of that sort happened and the Government had to concede as late as 1954 that the refugees had come to stay. Unwelcome and unwanted, persecuted and humiliated, these lakhs of "Bengals" (a derogatory term used for Bengalis living on the other side of Padma river) soon became the stuff of remarkable novels, plays and films like Ba-dwip (Delta" - a novel by Sabitri Roy), "Natun Yehudi (The New Jew" - a play by Salil Sen), and of course the unforgettable "Meghe Dhaka Tara (Star hidden in Clouds" - a film by Ritwik Ghatak).

But even these creative records could hardly conceal the naked disparity. While the Centre had spent Rs. 9.80 every month on every single refugee on an average who came from West Pakistan, it had allotted a meagre Rs. 1.20 on a single refugee who crossed over from East Pakistan till the cut-off year of 1960. One shudders to think what would have happened if someone less influential and less persistent than Dr. Roy had been at the helm - West Bengal would have surely received less. Dr. Roy tried to make the best of an atrocious situation by appealing to all, especially social service organisations like the All Bengal Women's Union, the Nari Seva Sangha and others to help in every way possible. When one reads eye-witness accounts of dedicated social workers like Ashoka Gupta who made tabular comparisons of assistance received by refugee camps in the west and the east and goes through the annual reports of the All Bengal Women's Union covering the period 1947 to 1954, one is struck by the simple query, "How did the refugees survive?"

The answer is simple - by fighting heroically against stifling odds. Indeed, this determined battle for survival turned the "victim" looking vacantly at Sealdah station into an agent and protagonist. The refugees spread out in refugee camps, then moved out of the camps to build colonies in snake-infested, marshy lands, established small businesses and acquired skills, made the optimum use of the scanty help they received, and within the course of two decades, set up 171 habitable colonies. These new settlements which are now decidedly middle class in character and an integral part of the State's landscape bear witness to the days and nights of relentless struggle. Even their names are revealing - "Bijoygarh" which means "Fortress of Victory", "Saktigarh" or "Fortress of strength", "Pratapgarh" which meaneans "Fortress of Might".

The Left Front in West Bengal, led by the undivided Communist Party of India (Marxist) was the partner of the refugees in this battle. Party workers organised the refugees in their colonies, voiced their demands and encouraged them to take part in rallies and demonstrations. In the process, these thousands turned into the Left's reliable "vote bank" and helped it capture power in 1977. Those were the days of Red activism when party cadres stood hand in hand with refugees to thwart the armed aggression of landowners. Recalling that period, Pranab Sen Sharma of Rabindrapalli Colony of Jadavpur said, "For each and every inch of land we had to fight the police and goondas. Moreover, development, in the true sense, came with the Left Front which built roads and provided water and electricity." Finally, the once-uprooted received land rights in 1986. That acquisition marked the official end of the heroic saga.

"Refugee", the word of sympathy was also used during the Bangladesh War in 1971 when eight million people - Hindus and Muslims - entered West Bengal. They just poured in - 1,700 every hour - in five months. This time, however, Indira Gandhi's Government worked together with the State Government to put up an exemplary show. Dr. S. Komar, Yugoslavia's Ambassador, wondered, "How was it possible (for India) to have taken care of such an unprecedented influx in such a short time?" But the crucial question is - how many preferred to stay back? According to an unofficial estimate, while 9.27 million refugees returned by the end of March 1972, another 1.5 million refugees continued to stay in India. Many of them were Hindus who merged with post-Partition refugees to join the swelling ranks in settlements like the Promodnagore Colony in Dum Dum.

The Bangladesh war formed the watershed because those who came, and are still coming unabated after 1972, are no longer called "refugees". Labelled "infiltrators", these late migrants are streaming in to survive. Poverty-enmeshed Bangladesh has driven them to such desperation that Muslim Bangladeshis do not even mind travelling to Shiv Sena-infested Mumbai to eke out a living. Evidently, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agents, smugglers, Islamic fundamentalists, dreaming of creating an Islamic homeland in the eastern region, and luckless Hindus form a part of this daily movement from east to west. Since 1972, most of these immigrants have settled in North and South 24 Parganas, Nadia, North and South Dinajpur, Siliguri, Murshidabad, Malda and Calcutta, and already 12 million seem to have made West Bengal their home. The annual inflow is three lakhs.

Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) hardcore leader L. K. Advani and CPI(M)'s Jyoti Basu agree on one point - this infiltration has to be checked. The immigrants are not only imposing a terrible burden on a small State bursting at its seams but are also making the vast border region unstable and insecure as a result of severe demographic alterations. Fences are being built along the border which would cover 1,200 km; detention centres will detain infiltrators on the spot and the Border Security Force (BSF) has been advised to push them back. But still they come, these marginal men - as infiltrators and not as refugees.

The writer is Senior Fellow, School of Women's Studies, Jadavpur University, Calcutta.

* * *

Seeking refuge hurts


ONE of life's worst blows would be if you became a refugee overnight. The tragedy, of man hounding out man, goes beyond pacts and facts. The instability that crystallises within a social framework - either because of internal discord or external aggression - sparks a dynamic process of crisis. The unstable equilibrium (peace) that is reached rests on a keg to be blown apart at any time. The victims are human beings, who are displaced internally or seek shelter in countries far away.

Refugees have few options, so their effective loss is greater. The trauma of leaving all behind for the unknown, expecting sympathy and support, but often finding hostility, has its impact only leaving a subtle scar or a festering wound. Refugees are more than mere numbers you read in a news report or watch on TV. They are individuals who have the right to live and the right to dignity. Like Sophie in William Styron's "Sophie's Choice", the refugees must, at times, choose between impossible options which tear them apart.

The 68,629 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees (till April 24 this year) housed in over 130 camps around Tamil Nadu, do not have worthwhile options, even when some are blessed with foreign remittances. The camp at Mandapam near Rameswaram, where fresh arrivals are housed before being sent to other locations, is under round-the-clock vigil and no non-refugee, other than authorised officials and security personnel, is allowed in.

Refugee children, like Senthilraja (14), wearing symbolic neck- ties under their crumpled collars, troop together to Government schools nearby at Mandapam. Most were born to refugee parents here and have never seen their land of origin. Many, like Parthiban (17) of Velvettithurai, a mechanic who adds Rs. 100 a day to his family income, dropped out of school. Some of them are bright, such as Selvi (19) from Vanni who completed her A-Levels but could not study further in India.

The asylum seekers paid between Sri Lankan Rs. 3,500 and SL Rs. 9,000 per head to be ferried to India. Annalakshmi (53) came with 11 members of her family in 1997. She is not sure if her house still stands in Yalppanachavadi (Jaffnachavadi). Helped by her son, who worked in a school before they left Sri Lanka, she now sells vegetables to refugee families. These vendor-refugees maintain credit accounts which are settled once the Government disburses the dole payments.

Refugees tend to be housed in specific zonal camps. Those from Vavuniya are in at least three camps - Adiannamalai, Kondam and Thenpallipettai - near Thiruvannamalai, and those from Vanni are in Gummidipoondi near Chennai.

What stood out at these camps was the quality of housing and the life the refugees led. At Adiannamalai, the free power supply has been cut because the colony has exhausted the consumption quota set by the Government. Allowed to use only one bulb at night, the families are expected to survive the scalding heat that radiates from the hill less than half a kilometre away. It was hotter inside the huts than outside. Fans were a necessity but disallowed. "Our climate is better than it is here," said Panneerselvam, refugee camp leader and a volunteer with the refugee-run Organisation for Eelam Refugee Rehabilitation (OfERR). Many children had skin eruptions from heat. Worse, there was only one hand-operated borewell for the 242 people in the camp.

None can deny that the lot of refugees is better than our rural poor. With rice at 58 paise a kilogramme, the carbohydrate source is assured. But for all else, including kerosene, the fuel in great demand, the refugees have to pay. So the women go around gathering firewood. For healthcare, they reach out for the local hospitals unless OfERR provides medical facilities. One wonders why no other non-government organisation is allowed to work for refugee welfare.

The refugees' status is poor because as S. C. Chandrahasan of OfERR put it, "There is no law here specifically aimed at refugees." We have neither ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor have we signed the 1967 Protocol. But as Dr. Najma Heptullah, deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, put it at the SAARCLAW seminar on May 2, 1997, "We believe in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam - the ideal of global brotherhood. We deal with human sufferings with human compassion ..." India has allowed 25 million refugees to pour in from all the neighbouring nations since 1947 ("Beyond Fear and Hope", V. Suryanarayan and V. Sudarsen, 1999).

The Tamil Nadu Government spends nearly Rs. 15 crores a year on refugee welfare. It has opened the doors of higher educational institutions for Tamil refugee youth, and many have enrolled. Though the Government flaunts the Rs. 6 crore Collectorate in Thiruvannamalai as an achievement, no attempt is made to allow for a system that would permit the refugees to pay for power they use in excess of the set limit.

The Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939, and the Foreigners Act, 1946, require that refugees, including those who prefer to stay with their relations outside the camps, must enrol their names at local police stations. Their movement is restricted. The local tahsildar must issue written approvals, which involves a payment of upto Rs. 100 that does not enter the State's coffers.

The restrictions are severe at Mandapam where refugees must report by 6 p.m. for a head count. At other camps far from the local administration, the freedom is greater. The enterprising lot also get work as labourers.

Jayanthini, a teacher at the camp school in Gummidipoondi, is a vocal young woman who does not wish to work in any firm because she enjoys teaching. The school, headed by Mr. Dasarathan on deputation, is a three-room pucca structure built by the refugees. But it cannot handle all children. So two different grades have to sit together and try to listen to two teachers outshouting each other to teach two different subjects.

Despite the United Nations Executive Committee Conclusions on Refugee Protection and Sexual Violence proclamation strongly condemning "... persecution through sexual violence, which not only constitutes a gross violation of human rights ... but is also a particularly serious offence to human dignity ..." some refugee women suffer before and after they step into India. This correspondent met two women who had lost their minds after being sexually abused. There are others too who had suffered at the hands of people they had trusted.

The evidence of refugee mentality was everywhere. As Dr. V. Sudarsen and Dr. S. Sumathy, anthropologists, put it, "Refugees find it hard to trust others and the burden on the women is heavy." Many have moved to West Asia to work as domestic help. That foreign remittances elevated the standard of living was obvious at Thenpallipettai. The camp was clean, each house wearing a fresh coat of paint. Each had a small garden in front and almost every family owned a two-wheeler. The children dressed well and looked healthy. There was a reading room where dailies were kept. The average quality of housing is bad at best. A set of houses built for the most recent tide of refugees is one room each, typically 100 sq.ft. with a tin door and no common toilet or bathroom.

Even though The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) states that "We do know the anxiety of Tamil parents who await the return of their children from school fearing that they may be accosted and importuned to join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) .... We also know the helplessness of parents, who if they happen to trace a child removed by the LTTE, are told not to become traitors to the cause and are sent away". The support for Eelam is explicit.Every refugee wants Eelam and is determined to return once peace prevails in the north.

The Sri Lankan refugees look forward to peace and to return to their homeland, particularly those like Vazharmathi and her children who have had to seek refuge in India more than once. But does peace reign in Somalia, Eritrea or Fiji? The instability exists to this day.

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