By - VIJAY KRANTI* Published in: 'Border-Affairs' Oct-Dec. 2002 (N.Delhi)

Until first week of September, Tashi (35) a mid-ranking official in the 'Paljor' (Finance) department of Dalai Lama's Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) popular name for Dalai Lama's 'government-in-exile', was an excited young man. As a part of the ongoing privatization process in the CTA setup Tashi had opted for taking over a departmental book-shop as a part of the golden
handshake. He and his wife who also holds a government job in another department of the CTA, had all the plans ready to convert the shop into an attractive business establishment.
But the sudden news of a Tibetan delegation's visit to Lhasa and Beijing has put cold water on the enthusiasm of this young Tibetan refugee couple. "If all this leads to an agreement between Dharamsala and Beijing then what is the fun of selling books in India?" asks an utterly confused Tashi.

Tashi's dilemma represents the prevailing mood in Dharamsala, a north Indian Himalayan town and the seat of exiled Tibetan ruler Dalai Lama's 'government in-exile', the air is filled with gloom, anger and confusion. A very opposite of the excitement, determination and hope that this little hilly town has been known for since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet following the aborted uprising against the occupying Chinese PLA in 1959.

The just concluded 18-day visit of Dalai Lama's representatives to Beijing and Lhasa has left the 150,000 strong Tibetan community and its supporters confused and divided. The four member Tibetan delegation was lead by Lodi Gyari, Dalai Lama's Special Envoy in Washington DC. Other members include Kalsang Gyaltsen, who is the Dalai Lama's representative in Europe and two senior officials Sonam Dagpo and Ngawang Rabgyal. The visit comes on the heal of Gyalo Thondup's visit to Beijing and Lhasa early August this year. Thondup, an elder brother of Dalai Lama and an enigmatic personality among the Tibetan refugee community has been known for his close CIA links until mid 1970s and later for his close Chinese connections.

NEW CHAPTER ? The main purpose of the visit of this Tibetan delegation, seventh of its kind since early 1980s and first after the contact snapped between the two sides in 1993, was to prepare a ground for a dialogue between Tibet and China. As Mr. Lodi Gyari said in his statement on the delegation's return to Dharamsala, "We have made every effort to create the basis for opening a new chapter in our relationship. We are fully aware that this task cannot be completed during a single visit. It will also need continued persistent effort and support from many sides.", one should expect more visits and a longer dialogue. But one wonders if this will also mean a longer period of confusion and anxiety among the refugee community?

The dialogue is aimed at finding a mutually agreeable solution to the Tibetan issue on the basis of what Dalai Lama has termed as the 'middle path ' that envisages 'genuine autonomy' for Tibet within the sovereign framework of PRC.

Until a couple of years ago when Dalai Lama started talking seriously of 'middle path' Tashi used to be among the enthusiastic and determined refugee crowds shouting 'Rangzen' (i.e. 'freedom') for Tibet. But today Tashi, like many other Tibetans, sincerely believes that not agreeing with the autonomy theory of his leader means nothing less than opposing the Dalai Lama personally. For a common Tibetan the idea of opposing Dalai Lama has no place even in dreams. That is why Tashi has started supporting the autonomy theory even if his heart still remains tuned to the war cry of 'Rangzen'. That should explain the uneasy atmosphere of confusion, rather bewilderment among a sizeable section of refugees.

But unlike Tashi a large section of the Tibetan community, especially the youths working independent of the CTA, are neither confused nor dejected. They are angry.

Kalsang Phuntsok Godrukpa, President of the Diaspora's most popular organization Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), is one who not only opposes the concept of autonomy, but he is also openly attacking the wisdom behind the new CTA initiatives. "Going by past experience with China you can not believe in what they say or promise", says Kalsang outright dismissing the idea of a dialogue with Beijing.

The TYC has over 25,000 active members among the community and has been the main political training ground for a large majority of Tibetan refugees who occupy the best of places in the CTA today. The most prominent among them are the 'Prime Minister' of the exile government, his cabinet members, heads of departments and most staff members of 'Theckchen Choeling' Dalai Lama's private office.

DRAMATIC VISIT Meeting in the wake of a high profile and dramatic visit of Gyalo Thondup to Tibet and Beijing early August, the TYC expressed its disgust within a fortnight. Agitated over the ongoing dialogue process on the 'middle path' an agitated CENTREX of the TYC announced the reversal of its basic policy of keeping off the election process that elects the members of 'Chitue' the Tibetan exile 'Parliament' as well as the 'Kalon Tripa' (Prime Minister) of the CTA. "So far we believed that they (CTA leadership) are our leaders. And we supported them. Now TYC itself will lead the Tibetan community in its struggle for national freedom," says an agitated Kalsang.

Under a democratic constitution initiated by the Dalai Lama himself in 1960 the refugees have elected their Parliament 13 times so far. The peak of this democratic process came last year when refugees elected Prof. Samdhong Rimpoche as the current 'Kalon Tripa' (Prime Minister) through a direct and secret ballot. It is interesting to note that Mr. Gyalo Thondup was eliminated in the very first round of polling for the PM's post as he secured backing of less than 2 percent voters. Interestingly, the constitution empowers the elected Parliament to remove the Dalai Lama as the Head of State if it believes that he is not leading the nation correctly or is incompetent to govern.

Most Tibet Support Groups (TSG), a network of over 250 pro-Tibetan freedom action groups of non-Tibetan supporters all over the world, have observed a cautious silence over the sudden resumption of the Dharamsala-Beijing link and the Tibetan delegation's visit. But expressing the common fears of Tibet supporters the California based International Tibet Independence Movement (ITIM), founded by Prof. Jigme Thupten Norbu, the eldest brother of Dalai Lama, has come out openly with a statement denouncing any attempt to dilute the Tibetan demand of total freedom from Chinese occupation. Larry Gerstein, President of ITIM asked all those involved to be 'mindful' of the strong wishes of the overwhelming majority of Tibetans inside Tibet and those in-exile in favour of 'Rangzen'. The statement announced, "ITIM remains unwavering in its commitment to independence for Tibet as the only lasting solution to the China-Tibet dispute.. Anything less than Rangzen, endangers the future of the Tibetan culture and the protection of the Land of the Snowlion."

Aware of this strife among the refugee community and the dilemma of Tibet supporters, Prof. Samdong Rimpoche, a popular Gandhian and elected 'Kalon Tripa' (Prime Minister) advised the people to wait for the real outcome of the visit. Dismissing various speculations taking rounds among the exile community and a vast international network of Tibet supporters he sounded non committal about the outcome of delegation's visit. "It is too early to make anything out of the freshly established contact between Tibet and China", he said a few days before the delegation returned home. Soon after the delegation's return Prof. Rimpoche advised the Tibetans and Tibet support groups to refrain from anti-China demonstrations till June next year.

'MIDDLE PATH' All that neither made things any clearer for Tibetans like Tashi or those who are bitterly opposed to the concept of a dialogue over 'middle path'. The reactions of European Union and State Department at the Capitol Hill welcoming the Tibetan delegation's China-Tibet visit have only added to the anger of pro-independence lobby. The worst desperation came in the context of statement issued by Denmark, current EU President which underlined the Union's hope that "this visit will pave the way for direct dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, leading to a peaceful and lasting solution to the Tibetan question."

European Parliament's ultimatum to Beijing expires in a few months in next July. An EP resolution in 2000 made it clear to Beijing that if it failed to hold a meaningful dialogue with Dalai Lama within three years then EP would be compelled to ask its member nations to recognize the Dharamsala based Dalai Lama's Tibetan government in-exile as the 'only and legitimate government representing Tibet'. Most supporters of Tibetan freedom hold Gyalo Thondup responsible for, what they allege 'helping Beijing to wriggle out of EP ultimatum'. "This visit and dialogue have only helped China by sabotaging the first ever chances of winning international recognition to Dalai Lama's exile government", says an angry senior officer of the CTA who is unhappy over the dialogue but would not dare to make his name public.

Similar anger is being expressed in the context of reactions of US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher and Paula Dobriansky, the department's special coordinator for Tibetan issues who expressed their pleasure on the visit. US Congress was another Parliament that had issued similar ultimatum to Beijing as done by the EP. They are equally unhappy over the 'insulting' remarks of the Chinese Foreign Ministry who termed the visit as the one undertaken by the delegated in their 'private capacity' who were also permitted to 'meet their relatives in Tibet'.

There is no shortage of individual Tibetans who allege that the current exercise is aimed at making President Jiang Zemin's forthcoming visit to US for a summit with President George Bush at his private ranch in Texas. Tibetans and their supporters fear that the new initiative from the CTA will not only create a favourable atmosphere for Zemin in his last official visit before he relinquishes his post but it will also give an 'undue' respectability to the retiring duo of Zemin and Li Peng who are considered to be responsible for what these critics call 'murder of Tibetan culture and national identity' during their rule.

TOO EARLY In contrast, optimists among Tibetan refugees and their supporters would love to believe that it is still too early to reach a final opinion on the outcome of the delegation's visit. After all, the community had witnessed similar enthusiasm and anger in early 1980's when six similar delegations visited Tibet and direct as well as indirect channels of dialogue remained active for nearly 15 years before Beijing shut doors on Dalai Lama in 1993.

While the proponents of Rangzen are busy gathering all the steam at their command, common refugees like Tashi are loosing their faith in themselves as well the collective esteem. A very new situation within the refugee community which an aging Dalai Lama will have to handle in coming months.

VIJAY KRANTI e-mail : vijaykranti@vsnl.com