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Tibetan Refugees in India- Education, Culture and Growing Up in Exile

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Item Code: NBZ663
Author: Mallica Mishra
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9788125054979
Pages: 325 (26 B/W Illustrations)
Other Details 9.00 X 6.00 inch
Weight 500 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

The Tibetan refugee community occupies a complex and unique position in India and the world. This volume offers a nuanced understanding of not just their socio-cultural and educational reality but also the steps taken by the community to preserve their civilisation in exile.

Tibetan Refugees in India focuses on how education for the Tibetan community, as conceived by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, is not only about protecting and preserving tradition but also engaging with modernity. The volume recognises the dilemmas that the community grapples with in trying to achieve a balance between 'tradition' and 'modernity' in education and the strategies it has employed to deal with the issue.

The Introduction sets the tone with a discussion of refugeeism as a complex and problematic global reality. The ensuing chapters examine the educational options available to the Tibetan youth in India-Tibetan schools and Indian schools, respectively. They detail the curriculum and pedagogy in both sets of schools and the impact that these diverse backgrounds have on Tibetan youths, their sense of identity, the idea of Tibet in their imagination and their attitude towards the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan struggle.

The volume also explores the role of other social institutions like the family, the community (Tibetan and Indian) and the role of organisations like the Tibetan Youth Congress as agencies of socialisation.

It dwells upon the educational and economic aspirations of young Tibetans and the opportunities available to them for realising these aspirations.

This volume will be useful for students and scholars of Sociology of Education, Anthropology and for those engaged in Forced Migration Research and Refugee Studies.

About the Author

Mallica Mishra is Associate Faculty (PGDMS-Development Studies), at the Entrepreneurial Development Institute of India, Ahmedabad.


This book is based on my Ph.D. Thesis submitted to the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. My thesis was an exploration of the state of affairs in the education of Tibetan refugees and issues of culture, ethnic identity and opportunity in India. It was based on in-depth, 'deep' conversations and interviews with Tibetan students pursuing higher education in Delhi University My decision to work in this new area of 'refugee studies' within the discipline of Sociology of Education in India, has its roots in my close interactions with refugee communities during my Internship at United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), India and employment in the office of one of its implementing partners, the Socio-Legal Information Centre, New Delhi.

Based on these findings, this book is an exploration in situating the relationship between culture and text. Taking education as the key to enter this debate, the texts available within the refugee society and its interface with the mainstream society are woven. Looking at the conventional debates and its lacunae, an attempt is made to recast the debate and provide fresh thinking to explore this relationship. The chapters in the book are arranged in logical sequencing, building on the arguments that can be read as independent in an essayistic style as well as inter-connected with each other. The Introduction sets the tone with the idea of and about refugeeism as a complex and problematic global reality. This problematic arises due to the negotiation of education with issues of culture, ethnic identity, economic opportunity and self-experience. The second and third chapters look at the overall context governing the lives of Tibetan refugees in India and the government policies (Indian and Tibetan) on their education in India. The policy section reveals contradictions and inconsistencies within Tibetan education in exile, curriculum and pedagogies. It also highlights how the language in exile becomes an offshoot between the official discourse and the changed scenario which also creates a hiatus between culture and power. The fourth chapter explores a range of educational experiences in exile of Tibetan refugee youth from diverse school backgrounds through indepth interviews. It throws light on popular perceptions and dilemmas on the issue of Tibetanness faced by officials-both Tibetan and Indian and the tension and pressure that the refugee youth constantly struggle with, because of this exclusive identity and legacy as refugees in exile. The fifth chapter brings out the point that the 'cherished image of Tibetanness is not just an outcome, but an on-going process. Life in exile, thus, emerges as a continuous learning experience for the community with trying to be 'exclusive' yet also to prevent 'exclusion' in a modernised world. The last chapter sums up the chapters and provides a conclusion.

It is hoped that this book will help increase understanding of this refugee community and its sheer socio-cultural and economic resilience and dogged survival in the midst of exile. Education for the Tibetan community, recognised as one of the most 'successful' refugee communities in the world, is an important ingredient that was conceived to protect and preserve tradition as well as engage with modernity by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile assisted by the Government of India. The book recognises the dilemmas that the community grapples with in trying to achieve a balance between `tradition' and 'modernity' in education and the strategies it has sought to deal with the issue. The unique situation of the Tibetan refugee community in India is complex and a nuanced understanding of the same is what this book has sought to provide.

I would like to thank my M.Phil. and Ph.D. Supervisor Professor Geetha B. Nambissan for her guidance and encouragement. I am thankful to the officials at the Bureau of the Dalai Lama, New Delhi; TCV Schools, Dharamsala; Department of Education; Department of Publications; Guidance and Counseling Department; the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives; the Scholarship Department of the Central Tibetan Administration, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh and Central Tibetan Schools Administration (CTSA), New Delhi for consenting to being interviewed and for provision of official reports. I am thankful to Tibetan youth activist, Tenzin Tsundue for an informal yet enriching discussion and also lawyer-activist Lawrence Liang for his research inputs contributed via e-mail. I am also grateful to Mr Jigme, the Director of the Tibetan Youth Hostel, Delhi for allowing me access to the hostel with the permission to interview Tibetan youth and to spend quality time with them. I am grateful to and extend my heartfelt thanks to the Tibetan youth in the study who opened up their lives to me and shared their precious memories and experiences in exile for the purpose of my research. I am thankful to my alma mater Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for its academic environment that encourages creativity and innovation in research in India. I am also grateful for being awarded the Sarai-CSDS Independent Research Fellowship, 2006 and the Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship, 2012 in International Migration Unit chaired by Professor Irudaya Rajan, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram and funded by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, Government of India. These Fellowships provided me resources and encouragement for my research. I am grateful to the space and encouragement to research provided by my current institution, Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India, Ahmedabad where as Associate Faculty (PGDMS-Development Studies) I have the opportunity to be creatively involved in the teaching-learning process of Sociology, Development and Gender Studies with my students. I am thankful to Mimi Choudhury, Publisher, Orient BlackSwan for her interest in my research and for approaching me for its publication. I appreciate and value the outstanding editing of this volume by Seema Sreenivas, Editor, Orient Blackswan and also for her immense patience. I thank my mentor Ikeda Sensei for helping me learn that every moment of life is a celebration of being alive. To my family, and specially my parents, I stand indebted for their blessings and unconditional love.


The present study is an exploration of the situation of the education of Tibetan refugees in India and the interrelationship between issues of education, culture, ethnic identity and opportunity in exile. The central theme of this study is that education, economic opportunities and perceptions of ethnic identity of refugees in the host country are closely related with the experience of refugeeism and the entire gamut of pre-migrational and post-migrational experiences.


The 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person who 'owing to a well-founded fear of persecution 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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country' (UN Convention on the Status of Refugees 1950). The refugee category is defined by 'trauma and stress, persecution and danger, losses and isolation, uprooting and change of the refugee experience' (Stein 2001: 2). Refugees, in brief, may be regarded as a special group of people who are forcibly torn and uprooted from their native milieu and are transplanted to a different environment due to circumstances beyond their control. Solutions to their problems are seen in terms of facilitating their repatriation, local integration or resettlement in a third country. At times, however, they are forced to stay in semi-permanent refugee camps for protracted periods of time. Refugee camps have been referred to as 'similar to barracks, asylums, schools and prisons, but reducible to none of these modern apparatuses' (Lippert 1999: 309).

Refugees are usually seen as 'homogenous'; and the constructs of these groups are usually 'stereotypical' and 'monolithic'. Differences, however, abound amongst them in terms of country of origin, ethnicity, race, religion, culture, language, gender class, disability, socio-economic and educational background prior to and after migration, etc. (Stein 2001: 5).

Refugees are, however, different from other immigrants and ethnic minorities in a country who voluntarily move to another country in search of greener pastures, to improve their economic position. Refugees also cannot be categorised into either 'voluntary' or 'involuntary' migrants as they are, as observed by Ogbu, affected by unique factors specific to their situation (Ogbu 1992: 290). Refugees share similarities with other ethnic minorities, as they also have a subordinate position in society and a culture different from mainstream society. Their inherent status and treatment in a host country is far more complex, however, with specific geo-political and socio-cultural contexts governing the former.

Refugees, however, also share similarities with other ethnic minorities. This is mainly with regard to having subordinate position in society and a culture different from the mainstream host society. Their inherent status and treatment in a host country is, however, far more complex, with specific geo-political and socio-cultural contexts governing the same. This differential context that governs the life of refugees becomes apparent from the following lines by Hannah Arendt, who wrote on the condition of refugees after the end of World War II:

The first loss which the rightless suffered was the loss of their homes and this meant the loss of the entire social texture into which they were born and in which they established for themselves a distinct place in the world..: `What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one. Suddenly, there was no place on earth where migrants could go without the severest restrictions, no country where they would be assimilated, no territory where they could found a new community of their own. This, moreover, had next to nothing to do with any material problem of overpopulation; it was a problem not of space but of political organization (Arendt cited in Xenos 1993: 427).

The problem of refugees in our time, is therefore, said to be 'a symptom of the uprootedness or homelessness of the modern age, where 'space is not really geographical but rather political' (Xenos 1993: 427).

The International Refugee Regime and the 'Refugee'

The term refugee was originally coined in the west to specify French Protestants who fled from the forced conversion policy of the French state in the late-seventeenth century. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century, following the American Revolution, that refugee began to be used to refer to human beings that `leave their country in times of distress' (Lippert 1999: 302).

The refugee problem was acknowledged as having international dimensions and requiring global cooperation in 1921-22 in the aftermath of World War I, the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Revolution. However, the real movement to protect refugees began only with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaimed basic rights for all human beings irrespective of their nationality or citizenship. It was recognised that refugees are not simply 'victims of human rights violations. They also represent a distinct group of individuals who are 'without the protection of a national state. The international system of refugee law (see Annexure 1.1 for details) was adopted to replace the protection, which is normally provided by and is the responsibility of national governments for their citizens (Gorlick and Khan 1997: 341).

The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, in particular, lays down general guidelines for the protection of refugees. The interpretation of these guidelines, however, remains the prerogative of individual states because there is no authoritative sanctioning body to impose a particular interpretation of the language of the Convention. The problem of refugees is thus, a complicated problem with the 'question of sovereignty at its core' (Xenos 1993: 422). While, more than 189 states have ratified or adhered to at least one of the international human rights treaties (see details in Annexure 1.1), there are also many countries, including India, which despite hosting many refugee groups, has not acceded to the 1951 Convention. This means that the host government's protection as well as grant of welfare measures, including education, is dependent upon the individual state's policies.

What needs to be recognised is that a global refugee problem exists today, with the world total in 2001 being 14,544,000 (USCR 2001: 1). Armed conflicts in countries like Afghanistan, Angola, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Burundi, Colombia, Guatemala, Lebanon, Liberia, Myanmar, Iraq, Turkey, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Zaire, etc., have created millions of refugees. The situation and treatment of these and other groups of refugees in different countries of the world is determined by differing geo-political contexts which effects their protection and welfare including education and life chances in exile and needs to be highlighted.

Refugeeism, Culture and Identity

Studies on refugee groups suggest that they regard the issue of preservation of their native culture and identity in the host country as an important component of their adaptation. The need for acculturation and integration as against assimilation with the host society is regarded as important. This consideration becomes important in the context of refugees as they are uprooted from their homeland and are transported to alien lands. As a result, they are often said to experience a 'constantly challenged identity, perpetually required to mediate between a 'scattered historical inheritance and a heterogeneous present' (Chambers 1994: 6). Simone Weil’s notion of rootedness helps to understand the problem of refugeeism, the loss of `roots' and the need to seek the preservation of these 'roots' in exile:

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community, which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that, it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw well-nigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part (Weil cited in Xenos 1993: 425).

Seeking to re-root their lives along with preserving their culture and identity in an alien country also emerges as a difficult task. This includes, amongst other things, the changed realities of their situation in the new country and the tensions between their traditional value system and that in exile. Liisa Malkki's research on migrant and refugee populations is important, as she regards as erroneous, work on immigrant cultures that conceptualise the process of relocation and reconstruction as a 'smooth journey of people who neatly pack their roots and "transplant" them later in an orderly manner in a new society. Such a representation, she observes, is problematic as it, `glosses over the fact that immigration constitutes an epistemological crises of great magnitude involving changes in legal and political status, ruptures in families, struggles for economic mobility, and the tensions between older social and cultural values and the norms and values of the new society' (Malkki cited in Rayaprol 2001: 166). The attempt to balance tradition and modernity for survival in exile produces several dilemmas and tensions in the identities of the young and the old order. Julian, in the context of Hmong refugees in the west, refers to it as, 'tensions between "unity" and "tradition" on the one hand, and "diversity" and "translation" on the other' (Julian 2004: 9).

Hebdige's contention in the context of Caribbean music and cultural identity also throws light on the changing realities and lives of refugees in alien lands, the roots themselves are in a state of constant flux and change. The roots don't stay in one place. They change shape. They change colour. And they grow' (Hebdige cited in Rayaprol 2001: 166). Group pasts, because of these changes, become difficult to reproduce in daily life and refugee groups seem torn between nostalgia for the past and the present realities of acculturation in their life.

Studies on ethnic groups, culture and identity are also useful in studying refugeeism. There are two major theoretical approaches on ethnic identity: the 'Primordialist approach' and the 'Optional-Situational approach. The Primordialist approach conceives of ethnic identity as 'rooted in similarities in physical appearance as well as common culture that may include a shared language, religion, and a sense of common origin and history and perception of shared life chances. Ethnic identity is understood to be something eternal that persists through change.

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