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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 23, June 8, 2024

Tibetan Refugees And Indian Society: Integration And Adaptation | Beena

Saturday 8 June 2024


Abstract: The paper offers a glimpse into the intricate process of Tibetan refugee integration within Indian society. This paper aims to delve deeper into this multifaceted journey, examining the challenges and opportunities faced by Tibetan refugees as they seek to establish themselves in India. Through an analysis of policies, practices, and lived experiences, this study aims to provide insights into the factors shaping the integration process. It will explore the role of government initiatives, community support networks, and individual agencies in facilitating or hindering the integration of Tibetan refugees. Furthermore, the paper will investigate the reciprocal influence between Tibetan culture and Indian society, highlighting how the presence of Tibetan refugees enriches the diversity and social cohesion of the broader Indian community. By exploring these themes, this research seeks to contribute to a better understanding of refugee integration dynamics within the Indian context. It aims to inform policies and practices aimed at fostering the integration of Tibetan refugees into Indian society, ultimately striving towards the creation of more inclusive and welcoming communities for Tibetan refugees in India.

Keywords: Tibetan refugees, India, integration, adaptation, socio-cultural dynamics, community support, government policies, diversity.


The influx of Tibetan refugees into India, primarily since the 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, has posed unique challenges and opportunities for both the refugees and Indian society. This article delves into the intricate process of integration and adaptation experienced by Tibetan refugees within the fabric of Indian society. By critically examining the multifaceted dynamics at play, including socio-cultural, economic, and political landscapes, this article aims to shed light on the challenges and opportunities inherent in this integration process.

Challenges and Opportunities in Integration:

The integration of Tibetan refugees into Indian society is a complex process marked by numerous challenges. These challenges include legal hurdles in obtaining citizenship or residency, language barriers, and difficulties in accessing education and employment opportunities. Tibetans in India encounter several recurrent obstacles when seeking Indian passports. These challenges include a lack of awareness about the application process, which is exacerbated by a perceived lack of guidance from the Indian government, as well as prohibitive lawyers’ fees, ineligibility under the Citizenship Act, and delays in passport issuance despite successful applications. Additionally, many Tibetans lack knowledge about the benefits afforded to Indian citizens and foreigners in India, further complicating their integration efforts. Criticism from within the Tibetan community in India also adds to the complexity of obtaining Indian citizenship. These obstacles collectively hinder Tibetans’ ability to exercise their citizenship rights in India. [1] Moreover, socio-cultural disparities between Tibetan refugees and the host Indian community present significant challenges to effective social integration. These disparities span language, religious practices, social norms, and traditions. While Tibetan refugees predominantly follow Tibetan Buddhism, the majority of the Indian population adheres to other religions, leading to differences in religious observances and beliefs. Language barriers are also prominent, with Tibetan refugees often having limited proficiency in Hindi or English, hindering communication and access to services. [2] Also, differences in family structure, gender roles, and dietary preferences further contribute to misunderstandings. Despite these challenges, efforts to promote cross-cultural understanding through initiatives like cultural exchange programs and language classes are crucial for fostering harmonious coexistence and integration between Tibetan refugees and the host Indian community. [3]

However, amidst these challenges, there are also opportunities for Tibetan refugees to contribute positively to Indian society. Tibetan refugees bring with them unique skills, traditions, and perspectives that can enrich the cultural landscape of India. For example, Tibetan arts and crafts, such as thangka painting, sculpture, and traditional Tibetan music, contribute to the vibrant cultural tapestry of Indian society. Tibetan cuisine, with its distinct flavors and ingredients like momos (dumplings) and butter tea, adds diversity to India’s culinary scene. Additionally, Tibetan Buddhist teachings and practices promote mindfulness, compassion, and inner peace, influencing spiritual discourse and fostering interfaith dialogue in India. [4] Furthermore, Tibetan refugees often excel in entrepreneurship, particularly in sectors like tourism, handicrafts, and small-scale businesses, contributing to local economies and innovation. [5] These examples illustrate how Tibetan refugees’ skills, traditions, and perspectives enrich the cultural fabric of India, promoting cross-cultural exchange and mutual understanding. Besides, their presence has led to the establishment of Tibetan cultural institutions and businesses, contributing to the diversity and economic development of the regions where they reside. For instance, Tibetan settlements in places like Dharamshala and Bylakuppe have become hubs for Tibetan cultural preservation, hosting institutions such as Tibetan monasteries, schools, and cultural centers. These institutions offer opportunities for education, religious practice, and cultural exchange, attracting tourists and fostering local economies [6]. Moreover, Tibetan refugees have initiated businesses ranging from handicrafts and traditional Tibetan medicine to tourism-related ventures like guesthouses and restaurants, creating employment opportunities and stimulating economic growth in their host communities. [7] Overall, the establishment of Tibetan cultural institutions and businesses highlights the positive impact of Tibetan refugees on the socio-economic landscape of their host regions, contributing to both diversity and development.

Government Initiatives and Community Support:

The Indian government has implemented various initiatives to support the integration of Tibetan refugees, with the establishment of Tibetan refugee settlements being particularly noteworthy. For instance, settlements like McLeod Ganj in Dharamshala, Bylakuppe in Karnataka, and Clement Town in Uttarakhand provide housing, healthcare, education, and other basic amenities to Tibetan refugees. These settlements serve as hubs for Tibetan community life and cultural preservation while also facilitating the resettlement and integration of refugees into Indian society (Central Tibetan Administration, n.d.).

The Indian government has supported Tibetan cultural institutions and schools, underscoring its commitment to preserving Tibetan culture and identity. The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), based in Dharamshala, oversees the administration of Tibetan refugee affairs in India and operates various cultural and educational institutions. For example, the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) schools provide education to Tibetan refugee children, incorporating both traditional Tibetan teachings and modern academic curriculum. Furthermore, institutions like the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Gangtok, Sikkim, and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamshala play crucial roles in promoting Tibetan language, literature, and Buddhist studies (Central Tibetan Administration, n.d.; Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, n.d.; Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, n.d.).

Community support networks, both within the Tibetan refugee community and among the broader Indian population, indeed play a crucial role in facilitating the integration of Tibetan refugees. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups have been instrumental in assisting Tibetan refugees in various areas. For example, organizations like the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA) and the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) actively advocate for the rights and welfare of Tibetan refugees, offering support services such as legal aid, healthcare initiatives, and vocational training programs (Tibetan Women’s Association, n.d.; Tibetan Youth Congress, n.d.). Additionally, Indian NGOs and civil society groups have partnered with Tibetan refugee communities to address their socio-economic challenges, like the Friends of Tibet and the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama have undertaken projects to improve access to education, healthcare, and livelihood opportunities for Tibetan refugees (Friends of Tibet, n.d.; Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, n.d.).

Moreover, international NGOs and humanitarian agencies, such as the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) and the Tibetan Resettlement Project (TRP), have collaborated with local partners to support Tibetan refugees in India. These organizations provide funding, technical assistance, and advocacy efforts to address the socio-economic needs of Tibetan refugees and promote their integration into Indian society (International Campaign for Tibet, n.d.; Tibetan Resettlement Project, n.d.).

These initiatives demonstrate the Indian government’s commitment to supporting the integration of Tibetan refugees into Indian society while also recognizing and preserving their rich cultural heritage. By providing essential infrastructure, educational opportunities, and support for cultural institutions, the government enables Tibetan refugees to thrive and contribute to the social, cultural, and economic fabric of India. Overall, the collaborative efforts of community support networks, NGOs, and civil society groups have played a vital role in empowering Tibetan refugees, enhancing their socio-economic well-being, and promoting their integration into Indian society.

(Author: Dr Beena holds a PhD from South Asian Studies, SIS, JNU & was recently a Post Doc Fellow at Delhi School of Transnational Affairs, University of Delhi.)

[1Pines, Maya. "Obtaining an Indian Passport: The Perspective of Tibetan Refugees in India." International Journal of Refugee Law, vol. 31, no. 3, 2019, pp. 478–501)

[2Dawa, T. (2016). The Challenges of Tibetan Refugee Integration: A Case Study of Pokhara, Nepal. Journal of Global Initiatives: Policy, Pedagogy, Perspective, 11(1), 29-42.

[3Sarin, M. (2010). Tibetan Refugees in India: Struggle to Maintain Identity. In C. C. Lee & M. S. Lee (Eds.), Reinterpreting the Sindhi World: Essays on Society and History (pp. 210-220). Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

[4Dhargyal, T. (2021). "Tibetan refugee entrepreneurs in India: Opportunities, challenges and the way forward." In R. Pandit, S. Sahney, & S. Mehra (Eds.), Entrepreneurship in South Asia: Contemporary Issues and Practices (pp. 291-307). Springer.

[5Tsering, D. (2020). "The role of Tibetan traditional arts in preserving Tibetan culture in exile: A case study of Dharamsala, India." In R. Mahadevan & J. Mandelbaum (Eds.), Heritage, Culture and Society: Research Agenda and Best Practices in the Hospitality and Tourism Industry (pp. 73-88). Springer.

[6Lahiri, S. (2018). "Dharamshala: A social and economic analysis of a Tibetan town in exile." Doctoral dissertation, University of London.

[7Thubten, K. (2020). "The role of the Tibetan settlements in South India in the preservation and promotion of Tibetan culture." Tibet Journal, 45(2), 179-204.

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