Luv Puri is a journalist who has reported on Tibetan issues, the Jammu and Kashmir conflict, and Indian foreign policy for The Hindu newspaper.
A vibrant and enterprising community of Tibetans lives in Ladakh, the easternmost area of the contested state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thousands of essentially stateless Tibetans have migrated westward to Ladakh since Chinese forces clamped down on Tibet in 1959. Although ethnic Tibetans in China have Chinese citizenship, the Tibetan exiles in India have residency permits but not Indian citizenship.
Tibetans arrived as refugees and remain refugees. The Tibetans feel at home in Ladakh, because of their common Buddhist faith and trading linkages. Even though many Tibetans were born in Ladakh, insurmountable statelessness pinches this Tibetan community.
Nawang Tso, a 47-year-old who has no imminent hope of returning to his ancestral land, said:
Neither we can get government job nor own land. I was born with this status and wonder how many generations of my family will have to live with this status.
For the last fifty years, Tibet has been governed by China. Tibetan refugees in Ladakh, like most other Tibetans, have rallied behind their spiritual leader. But the Dalai Lama does not demand complete secession from China. The present political stalemate between the Chinese government and the Tibetan leadership is over the territorial limits of the proposed Tibetan province, under Chinese sovereignty.
Tibetans want a Greater Tibet — the amalgamation of the Tibetan Autonomous Region with the whole of Qinghai province, western parts of Sichuan, areas of Yunnan and a part of Gansu. The Chinese government objects, emphasizing that ethnicity is no basis for border demarcation of Chinese provinces.
For the Tibetan refuges, Ladakh was a natural settlement area due to its culture, religion and landscape. Famous for its pristine beauty, Ladakh’s landscape has stark similarities with Utah’s Salt Lake City. Tibetan Buddhism influenced the culture of Ladakh and even vice-versa, as Buddhism spread to other parts of Asia through Ladakh. The centuries-old monasteries found in almost every village throughout Ladakh indicate this influence.
Similar to Tibetans, most Ladakhi homes have a small chapel containing various religious objects and sacred images. Other visible signs of the Buddhist faith are omnipresent prayer flags, stupas and mani walls.
Ladakhi cuisine shows the impact of the Tibetan community. This is true of restaurants thronged by foreign tourists and even of traditional Ladakhi homes. Gyal Wangchuk, a Ladakhi owner of the famous Siachen Hotel in the middle of Leh, Ladakh’s capital, said, “The majority of homes in the urban areas are no longer eating Ladakhi food, as now the new generation loves the Tibetan food. The famous Tibetan Momos can be found in every nook and corner of Ladakh.”
The Tibetan refugee community is staying in rented accommodations. The community’s employment prospects have been highly limited for the last five decades. In the middle of Leh, Ladakh’s capital, a Tibetan market has been established. The Tibetan community utilizes its contacts in Tibet to import black market Chinese-made goods to eastern Ladakh. Shoes, electronics, and pearls used to flood the main Tibetan markets, which are thronged by tourists during the summer. A pessimistic trader summarized the situation:
The times changed, as now the clandestine trade via eastern Ladakh became difficult. Most of the Chinese goods reaching here come through legal means, i.e. through the plains via Nepal. Profits have decreased. Uncertainty over our status will continue to affect us professionally, psychologically and physically.
– Luv Puri