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Reminiscence of coming to exile: China’s brutality and Grandpa’s tragic journey from Tibet to India

Scores of Tibetan fled to India in 1959 amid China's brutality in the region, the grandpa was among them.
Scores of Tibetan fled to India in 1959 amid China's brutality in the region, the grandpa was among them.

Known as the world’s rooftop, Tibet was a land of peace and harmony. It was 61 years ago when China occupied Tibet. The intrusion turned out to be very brutal and horrendous for Tibetans back then and still. As of now, there is restricted freedom of religion, belief, and association. During the 1959 Tibetan uprising, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and some of his government fled to India. Tibetans have been following the Dalai Lama to India through the Himalayas, mostly by walking the high passes with an aspiration for a brighter future and to get the basic human rights.

I am the second generation of my family to be born in exile. I grew up hearing the stories of 1959, stories of my country that I have never seen. My grandfather fled to exile when he was eighteen. Our family settled in a small Tibetan colony in Himachal Pradesh called Chauntra, which we consider our home now. As I grew up in India, my elders would always tell me that I should never forget the “R” I have on my forehead. But the irony is, Tibetans are not officially recognized as refugees in India. We are designated as “foreigners” because India has refused to sign the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees.

It was a misty cold at home. The sun had set already. I sat with my grandpa in the dining hall, feeling anxious about how to begin this conversation because I did not want him to recall his tragic past. I had to somehow, not just for the sake of this article, but for myself too, so that I can tell my children the story, of how our family ended up living in a foreign country one day.

The words of Grandpa

“I was around ten or eleven when I first saw Chinese people in Tibet. Even though they started coming to Tibet in the 1950s, planning their strategies, I was too you to remember any incidents. My brother who was a Rinpoche (is an honorific term used in the Tibetan language. It literally means “precious one”, and may be used to refer to a person who is holly) took me with him to Lhasa (Tibet’s capital) and there I saw Chinese people for the first time in Tibet. They appeared very different to me. I kicked one of the Chinese I saw, out of naughtiness and he got very angry and started yelling at me. I got so scared and ran away.” Grandpa laughed as he recalled this funny incident from his childhood.

Tibetan uprising march
Tibetan uprising march

“In early 1958, my brother told me we must go to India now that the situation is worsening all over Tibet. So I agreed and we started our journey from Kham along with 30 to 40 other people with our yaks and horses. There were some Chinese check posts on our way, and we told them we are going to visit Sakya and then go back to our town. As we reached Sakya, we went to visit the monasteries around and then continued with our journey again. When we reached Thopgyal pass in Tsang, we decided to upkeep the few guns we have brought along for our security as we heard from the locals that there are strict Chinese posts at Tashi Lhunpo.”

“When we reached Tashi Lhunpo, some Chinese officials came to us and started interrogating us. We lied to them that we came here for the pilgrim and we are going back to our native after this. They asked us when are we returning and we told them we are going back by day after tomorrow. But that day, we could not leave as our yaks and horses were too tired to walk. We needed to put new horseshoe to our animals by then. So we got stuck at the place. A day later, so many Chinese officials came and scolded us and ordered us to leave.”

“We decided to leave Tibet with a very heavy heart. There was no turning back. We faced a lot of hardships on the way. Around March of 1959, we reached Sikkim. And there we started a whole new life.”

Brutal China

“There were no means of communication from Tibet to India. Chinese surveillance became very strict after 1959 so I never got to hear from my sisters and brothers back in Tibet. I got words after some years later that, our family home, our properties, and everything were looted by the Chinese during ‘The Cultural Revolution’ in 1966 under Mao’s rule. They killed three of my elder brothers by using brutal and inhumane methods of killing.”

Thinking about everything he went through at such a young age and still making it through life so gracefully, inspires me to become a better person and holds me responsible for keeping alive our Tibetan roots and culture. My grandpa did not know if he was going to survive when he first came to India. But he ended up raising his own family and serving for the Intelligence Bureau of India until he retired. This is a story of reminiscence of coming to exile. And each and every Tibetan family in exile has its own story of 1959.

It is a holocaust relived, on another side of the world.

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s own and do not reflect the opinions or views of The Rational Daily.)

Tenzin Seldon

Written by Tenzin Seldon

Tenzin Seldon is a freelance journalist. Mostly writes on issues related to human rights, gender, and politics. The author holds a Master's degree in Journalism and Mass Communication.

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