Kathmandu 6 December 2011

By Gabriel Lafitte
Among Tibetans and their supporters worldwide, Nepal evokes dread. The news out of Nepal is invariably bad. The 20,000 Tibetan refugees in settlements are prisoners, unable to move freely, unable to obtain certification of their refugee status, unable to find employment or get an education, stigmatized and excluded. They may not publicly vote, protest or even hold religious celebrations of the birthdays of their most revered lamas.

China’s power over Nepal extends to equipping and financing the armed forces to patrol the border with Tibet, to apprehend Tibetans using the only route of escape. China’s ability to get the Nepali army to do its security work is aided by the willingness of Nepali politicians to be seduced by the largesse of China’s aid program, no strings attached, no accountability auditing of where the money went. From the outside, it seems that Nepal, riven by revolution, is agreed on only one thing, right across the spectrum, from Maoists to royalists: no-one likes the Tibetans.

It is not just the elite that is prejudiced. The Tibetans, like the landless urban poor in the Kathmandu slums along the riverbanks, are considered sukumbasi, a term so broad it includes all the excluded, the displaced, landless, unacknowledged refugees, with no means of subsistence, suspected of thievery, gold smuggling and an inclination for criminality. Sukumbasi are feared and sneered at, especially by the upper caste Bahun Hindus who depict them as dangerous outsiders, despoilers, polluters of the rivers, a threat to the nation. The slum dwellers are seen as puppets of the Maoists, a rent-a-mob willing to swarm into the city on command to fill rallies with their shouts. The sukumbasi are said to have toppled the king, and that behind the scenes, they are tools of foreign meddlers or get undeserved help from NGOs.

The Tibetan refugees stranded in Nepal have been granted permission by the US to migrate, but Nepal refuses to let them leave. This is one of the lowest points in 50 years, and some are choosing to return to Tibet because every opportunity in Nepal is blocked.

That’s the bad news. It’s not the whole story. The more hopeful news, that gets little publicity, is that the many Nepalis of Tibetan and/or Buddhist cultures have a new name, and a new dignity, which may soon extend to the refugees as well. The landless sukumbasi may also become jana-jati, a term that includes everyone in Nepal who is racially and religiously not Hindu or of Indian origin. Nepal’s Himalayan Buddhists of Tibetan origin are a lot of people, perhaps even a majority in today’s Nepal, and they are finding their voices.

The rights of jana-jati, indigenous adivasi, outcaste dalits, refugees and the socially excluded are being actively debated in Nepal at present. The new Constitution should be drafted soon, and a “Maoist” Prime Minister deeply sympathetic to minority rights is in power.

Nepal’s violent but inconclusive revolution brought in a demotic awakening, a new consciousness that the pedagogy of the nation state need not submerge the heartfelt identity of Himalayan peoples of Tibetan origin and their loyalty to the lamas and thus to a wider concept of Tibet as the spiritual home.

Now, despite a repressive political scene, with thousands of police mobilized to beat Tibetan pilgrims and refugees, Nepal’s Tibeto-Himalayan peoples are awaking, discovering new space in which they can be both Nepali and Gurung or Sherpa or Tharu; both citizens and Buddhists; inheritors of traditions far older than the Hindu monarchy, going all the way back to the birthplace of the Buddha, which is in Nepal.

For their tentative coming out, they assembled in Lumbini in late 2011, far from the mountains, on the plains bordering India, in a newly built temple financed by Germans wanting the Buddha’s birthplace back on the map. The Himalayan Buddhists, by assembling on the plains adjacent to India, declared their existence, no longer veiled by the nationalist/royalist/Hinduist discourse of a single Nepalese identity. Their confidence is growing, people are getting used to having a voice, and keen to learn from indigenous communities worldwide that have overcome marginalisation and now assert their difference.

In a first for the multilingual Tibetan Buddhist Nepali communities the conference featured simultaneous translation in three languages, 17 members of Nepal’s parliament, the Constituent assembly attended and the Deputy Prime Minister, Vijay Kumar Gacchadhar, a Tharu Buddhist himself becoming the Chief guest. The Himalayan Buddhists have achieved two things: 1. informing the Nepali leaders and the international community that they exist 2. That Buddha was indeed born in Lumbini, and thus in Nepal.

The impact of this is that Prachanda, supreme leader of the Maoist revolutionaries in war and in the present peace, invited the Buddhists for the first time in the history of Lumbini to discuss about the future of Lumbini and agreed to include five Tibetan Buddhists members in the 12 member committee that will develop future Lumbini.

Lumbini today is a prize contested on all sides, but the Buddhists, with their usual long view, remember that Lumbini was forgotten, an overgrown ruin like Angkor Wat, engulfed by forest, consigned to the silence and amnesia essential to nation building. It was U Thant, the Burmese Secretary-General of the United Nations, who in 1967 made a pilgrimage to the ruins and shed a tear, which grew into the gradual rediscovery of this obscure village and its axial son.

Now Lumbini is hotly contested, by competing elites. China has apparently trumped all other initiatives dangling the fabulous sum of $3bn before bedazzled Nepali eyes as the sum total of an as-yet unexplained scheme to make Lumbini a Buddhist Disneyland, complete with six-lane expressway connected to Kathmandu. Other than the expressway, little else has been revealed, but the message is clear: Nepali leaders, local and national, are salivating, confirming China’s firm belief that the answer to any problem is money, the only question being how much. China’s leaders are used to promising big packets, naming eye-popping amounts as if they will be parachuted in at any moment, sufficient to bedazzle even austerity-strapped western governments. The money seldom materializes, but it takes years to discover that the hard way, and in the intervening years, the prospect of a short cut to riches suffices to hook the venal into chronic hopeful expectation. Thus does China get its’ way, often at minimal cost in fulfillment of maximal promise.

Kenzo Tange’s plan for Lumbini is a three square mile mandala that leads in concentric circles to the sanctum sanctorum: the circular sacred garden surrounding the Mayadevi Temple. The eastern monastic zone was set aside for Theravada Buddhism from Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka and a Vipassana Centre, and the western zone for Mahayana Buddhism from Tibet, China and Bhutan. Tange’s plan is being followed but not all the temples and monasteries conform to the overall harmony and scale he had in mind. He died in 2005, at the age of 91, his vision for Lumbini eclipsed by revolution.

Tange was involved in the replanning of the city of Hiroshima after its destruction by the atomic bomb on 6 August 1945. At the heart of the revived city, Tange built a peace centre, raised on stilt-like, Le Corbusier-style columns, faced by a monument that married ancient forms and the latest structural technology. This peacetime fusion of a traditional Haniwa tomb and a concrete parabola was very much a symbol of new Japan, resolutely looking to the future while proudly recalling the best of its pre-imperial past.

New money, or the smell of it, is especially effective as China’s primary tool of diplomacy, because there is no competition. India, holder of the other key pilgrimage sites of the Buddha’s life, enlightenment, teachings and death, has little interest in promoting Lumbini. Only the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation promotes Lumbini as part of its Maha-parinirvan Express package tour. IRCTC’s video is worth seeing, less for its snapshots of the holy places of Buddhism than its lingering shots of railway catering.

Yet Lumbini is contestable, notwithstanding the eye-bulging promise of $3bn. The Buddhists who rediscovered Lumbini before Nepal and China did, are not without influence. Elaborate and culturally sensitive plans for restoration of Lumbini were drawn up by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, and UNESCO is keen to see the restoration/reinterpretation built. WWF has plans for the surrounding landscape, on a large scale, not as theme park but forest of the kind that flourished at the time of the historic Buddha, now a rarity as the Terai lowlands of Nepal adjacent to India, forest until less than a century ago, was cleared by settlers flooding in from India. With some celebrity backing –maybe from the monk Mathieu Ricard or the evangelical Prof Bob Thurman- the big corporations which discharge their corporate responsibility funding through WWF could mobilize the money to fulfill the Lumbini vision.

The Tibetans, as refugees, are not even entrants in the money stakes. Yet China’s expressway to Lumbini, right on India’s border with Nepal, is a move too far and too soon. Even though the Chinese entrepreneurs had cobbled together an improbable business alliance, embracing the Economist Intelligence Unit, the UN Industrial Development Organisation and a Chinese foundation with no record, it all fell apart after being prematurely announced in July 2011. Suddenly, everyone nominally associated disowned it, no-one knew anything.

Chinese entrepreneurs on Party business are not easily deterred. Within weeks it seemed a fresh start had been made, not through an obscure UN agency with limited capital, but to the UN Secretary-General himself, appealing to Ban Ki-Moon as a Korean who would want to see a Buddhist site restored, to lend his prestigious but powerless name to endorse the alpha of Buddhist destinations. The Economist reported in August: “As for Lumbini, the Buddha scheme has been shot down, but attempts to revive it are already under way. If the would-be investors handle it better next time, such a huge project may prove irresistible.”

The “Maoist” government of Nepal is finding ruling trickier than revolution. Their own rhetoric of power to the masses has become a pedagogy in which the masses, including the Buddhists of Nepal, are now well-versed. They demand inclusion in the development plans for Lumbini, and are organised to march in the streets if the Maoists’ dirigiste commandism persists. On 5 December 2011 the “Maoist” government opened its Lumbini development project to include on the steering committee Buddhists and women, for the first time, while appealing to the World Bank, UN and UNESCO to become stakeholders who might finance a meeting of the biggest Buddhist states at Lumbini in 2012. The Chinese dream of monopolising a Buddhist theme park has been both localised and internationalised. The “Maoist” rhetoric of social inclusion has bite.

What makes the project resistible to the upper castes without the right connections to the money pot is that it brings Chinese influence to India’s doorstep, and showcases Nepal’s Buddhists who, officially, are but 20 per cent of the Nepali population. The Tibetan Buddhists of Nepal, who are growing increasingly confident to say publicly they are a majority of Nepal’s population, themselves resisted the irresistible by manifesting, in November 2011, as the first International Conference of Himalayan Buddhism, in Lumbini, thus planting their vajra in the subtropical soil of southern Nepal. In so doing they declared themselves to be both Nepalese (not Tibetan refugees) and different, and to share in ownership of Lumbini, as children of the Buddha.

Media simplify these multiple meanings by reducing it to an India/China power contest. But on the ground, the Tibeto-Buddhist peoples of Nepal know time is on their side, democracy and regional autonomy are taking shape and cannot be rolled back. The tide has turned, the unitary state is exposed as a fiction, multiplicity is blooming, custom is making a comeback, and devolution is a fruit soon to ripen.

China seems to have recognised this, and is starting to go beyond duchessing the elite, across the spectrum from Maoists to royalists. As well as squiring the political class for all-expenses paid junkets to Shanghai, China is aware it needs more than one client in Nepal if its power projection is to succeed. Taking advantage of its physical position in Tibet, overlooking the Nepalese mountainsides below, China now trucks in loads of rice to poor villagers, something the Nepalese ruling elites never did, no easily could do by hauling rice upwards, since there are so few roads. Whether China will succeed in mobilising villagers, to turn against fleeing refugees en route to safety, or to renounce their lamas, remains improbable. Loyalty to local lamas is intense, and villagers know the presence of lamas has grown, because of the tragedy over the range, on the other side of the Himalayas.

Centuries of Gorkha rule from Kathmandu failed to persuade these mountain dwellers they are Nepalese, or to see Nepal as their home or benefactor. Decades of Chinese rule over Tibet, on the far side of the high passes, only strengthened the Himalayan Buddhists of Tibetan origin, who found their revered lamas no longer far away, across the vast expanses of Tibet, but among them, as refugees. The presence of lamas, khenpos, geshes and educated monks and nuns in the Himalayas has countered the usual seductions of lowland urban modernity, turning a steady decline gradually into a renaissance of language, culture, education, pride in identity and awareness of rights. The monasteries planted on the soil of Nepal by exiled lamas, engines of enlightenment and bastions of learning, are now full of monks and nuns who are Nepali citizens from the Himalayan belt. Similarly the Tibetan monasteries in the plains of India now attract Indian citizens born Buddhist in the high Himalayas of India, from Ladakh, Lahul, Spiti and Zanskar in the west to Tawang in the east.

Tibetans are good at finding something constructive in a negative. The negative way of looking at the monasteries of exile, whether in Nepal or India, is that they depended on an endless stream of refugees escaping Tibet seeking only a religious life, and recruits among the refugees growing up in Nepal or India. The recruitment of exiles dried up many years ago, as the young discovered modernity and its attractions, especially the magical solution to all discontent, escaping to the West. Recently, the number fleeing Tibet has dropped greatly, due to intensive militarisation of the China-Nepal border on both sides, with massive Chinese subsidies to the Nepalese Army.

This could have emptied the monasteries, leaving huge monastic assembly halls with only old monks. At the same time, an exile dedicated to cultural preservation saw with alarm the erosion of Tibetan Buddhist civilisation along the southern flanks of the Himalayas, eroded not by communist frontal assault but the seductions of modernity and lowland comforts.

Two negative make a positive. The Himalayan renaissance has provided the brightest young people growing up in the mountains new ways of becoming modern, educated and successful. Instead of becoming traders or tourist guides, they become monks, teachers and community leaders able to connect lowland to highland, development to continuity.

In turn, that generates another positive. If the great monasteries established by exiled lamas, that surround the sacred Boudha stupa of Kathmandu are full of Nepali citizens, are they any longer alien institutions barely tolerated by a unitary, centralised state? Are they not the new homes of traditional Himalayan learning, for Nepal’s many Himalayan Buddhist communities, all of whom are to have greater local autonomy in a decentralised democracy? The situation is transformed: samsara is nirvana, nirvana is samsara.

This is the Tibetan genius. Everything depends on how you look at it. Nothing much may have changed, yet everything has changed, if you change perspective. Something can be made of nothing. The Tibetans, with their long term outlook and strongly positive view of the world and its workability, have countless times pulled the trick of succeeding where conventional perspectives see only problems.

What enables the Tibetans to bob up after catastrophe, time after time, is an inner strength that remains invisible to outsiders. Because outsiders are so important to Tibetans, who are only one in every 10,000 of India’s population, what is invisible to outsiders is sometimes invisible to Tibetans too, especially the young exiles to whom Buddhism remains a mystery, now that there is no longer even one monk in every family.

Sympathetic outsiders, whether Indian or angrezi inji, see the Tibetan situation from afar, through a geopolitical lens, seeing everywhere only danger, threat, vulnerability and China’s omnipresence, even omnipotence. A quite typical expression of the Tibetans framed as pawns of geopolitics, is an India Today article of 5 December 2011. Filed from Kathmandu, The Himalayan Race recycles the Great Game of the British Raj, arguing that “two Asian superpowers battle for control of Nepal. As China woos with aid and infrastructure, India struggles to contain China’s rising influence.” China’s Lumbini aerotropolis proposal “could potentially weaken the Dalai Lama’s hold over Tibetan Buddhists.” Meanwhile, “Nepal is on course to becoming another glittering jewel in China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy designed to encircle India.”

If such jingoism, alternating between nationalist bombast and paranoia, were merely the parlour game of retired generals and inheritors of Lord Curzon’s viceroyalty, they should be left to sticking their pins into maps. But a steady drip-feed of such venom into the veins of India has its toxic effect, creating an elite mindset that is half fear, half belligerence. It is necessary to the worldview of the political class that Tibetans are but pawns, the eternal victim, powerless and hopeless.

To Tibetans, especially those with the inner strength that comes of Buddhist practice, of experiential familiarity with the nature of mind, the idea that a Chinese aerotropolis could weaken the reverence Tibetans have for the Dalai Lama is ridiculous. China’s interventions in Tibet, including the massive spend on infrastructure projects, have only enhanced the standing of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan hearts. The more they see of China, they gladder they are to be Tibetan, and to have a leader who can be fully trusted.

The same inner strength that transformed Tibetans, in Indian eyes, from dirty beggars and grog sellers to old friends of the establishment, is now beginning to make its appearance in Nepal, at the very time Tibetan fortunes in Nepal appear, from afar, to have hit the bottom. The story the world is told is that the Nepalese elite, across the spectrum, from royalists to Maoists, are so much in the pocket of the Chinese, that the Tibetans trapped in Nepal, or seeking to flee Tibet via Nepal, are hounded, persecuted, beaten, robbed, detained, refouled and are helpless, intimidated, silenced and paralysed by fear. This is true, especially for refugees struggling across the border in midwinter, plodding through deep snow, evading the patrols of both Chinese and Nepalese armies, all moving in slow motion due to the combination of altitude, lack of oxygen, intense cold and snow cover. The freeze frame ballet of death, hunting down escapers in excruciating slo-mo, ends with the speed of a bullet. It could hardly get worse.

Yet the seed of a Tibetan flowering exists in the minds and long term thinking of Tibetan leaders, amidst the chaos of revolution and China’s grip on the Nepalese elite. The revolution created not only a supposedly Maoist party in power, popularly elected in a democratic vote, but out of revolution comes all the florid rhetorics of federalism, regional autonomy, a constitution filled with directive moral principles enshrining lofty goals of social justice, respect for difference, empowerment and effective rule of law to enforce such principles.

This revolution is far from won, and is resisted at every turn by vested interests unwilling to concede centuries of power. How it will turn out is impossible to predict. Yet some things can never be lost, especially the sense, among ordinary people, that they have a voice, and rights.

It is utterly Tibetan to be alert to paradox, to the phoenix hidden in the ashes, yet to arise, to find opportunity amid chaos and the din of confusion. Outsiders, led by Indians alarmed at “Maoist” popular democratic strength, see only a Nepal descending into being, at worst, a willing pawn of China or, at best, a mess of unresolved contradictions. To the Tibetans, vajrayanist peacocks thriving in the forest of poisonous plants, this is a fertile field of opportunity.

Any Buddhist claim to be a new majority will be fiercely contested, from without and within. The Hindu high castes will not yield their power easily. Not only do they dominate in Kathmandu, the centralised locus of power, they dominate the armed forces, media and the education system. They have India on side, and China eager to do deals.

On the Buddhist side, the Buddhists foreigners think of first are the peoples of the high mountains, the Sherpas, who migrated from Tibet a few centuries ago, or the peoples of Mustang and Dolpo. But in the context a small country with 30 million people, the 200,000 high mountain folk are less than one per cent, many in villages requiring a week’s walk on rugged trails, to reach from the nearest road. Their isolation may be in part due to neglect, benign or otherwise, but they are inevitably few, in the rain shadow of the high Himalayas, growing crops in the few valleys wide enough for fields irrigated by the mountain rivers, glacier-fed.

These Tibetan Buddhists will have to find common ground with the wave of low caste converts to Theravada Buddhism down on the plains adjacent to India, if numbers are to count. Yet most of Nepal’s Buddhists are neither in the plains or the high mountains, but in the hills, the most populous, contested heartland of Nepal. These peoples live alongside the Hindus in a complex mosaic that is now unravelling, revealing divergent identities that had been obscured by the mission of the state to create the world’s last pure Hindu warrior monarchy.

That mission, of the Gorkha conquerors of the Kathmandu valley two and a half centuries ago, was driven by the vision of a pure Hindu kingdom, free of the menacing British and, at a deeper level, uncorrupted by the Mughal Muslim wave that had conquered India centuries before. It was to be India reborn, in the hills, a preBritish and preMuslim purely Hindu India on a sacred mission to keep intact a civilisation which, on the plains, had succumbed to waves of invasion. The waves of immigrant Hindus who populated the hills, pouring in from what are now the Indian states of Himachal and Uttaranchal, found the hills a defensible zone for a warrior caste to vigilantly subdue. The uplands of inner Asia are sometimes romanticised by theorists such as James Scott, arguing that they are the refuge of small, anti-authoritarian, even anarchic communities fleeing the mobilised martial states below. But the Gorkha kingdom that made Kathmandu its capital in the mid 18th century saw itself as a high civilisation twice born, not an antinomian counterculture.

In today’s Nepal, these things can now be openly said. Not only does the actual diversity of Nepal manifest on the streets, and in the armed revolution that tore the country apart, but in the peace that followed, the establishment has been unable to reassert its master narrative. In the public sphere, the riotous diversity of Nepal is most obvious on television, in the proliferation of raucous channels mocking the old elites with earthy humour.

Assembling a Buddhist majority, that can find common cause, see itself as a majority and then persuade the whole country, will take time, perhaps a decade, perhaps longer. At present, it is little more than an idea of a few, who take the long view. Being Buddhist, their approach is not dualistic, or confrontational. They take care not to antagonize Hindus, even when Hindu ideology claims Buddhism to be a minor protestant movement within Hinduism, the Buddha merely one of the many incarnations of Vishnu. Since Shiva’s home is Kailash, they joke, and he only comes down from his mountain once a year, he must be a Tibetan the other 364 days. Who whom? The Hindu ideology of inclusiveness, even when it smothers difference, is not refuted but nor is it accepted. It remains a Hindu gift to the Buddhists that lies on the table, returned politely to the giver.

The Buddhists are clear that the problem is not Hinduism, but the dominance of one specific Hindu caste, the Bahun/Brahmin. The Bahun not only oppressed the nonHindus to the point of making them invisible, but also oppressed the big population of dalit untouchables on whom they relied for all manual labour. It is Bahunism that is the problem.

The inborn assurance of entitlement, the systemically entrenched corruption, the ingrained sense of privilege of the Bahuns led Nepal to ruin, destitution, violent revolution and now, after the exhaustion of an inconclusive civil war and 15,000 violent deaths, a state that sways between failure, farce and renewal. Through it all, the Bahuns have never questioned their divine right to rule, which now translates, more respectably, as the Bahun as the only group with modern education, holding by far the most top jobs in any field from army to media. Their mini-imperium is unraveling, yet they remain in denial and defiance of the new order, led, inevitably by a Maoist Bahun with a PhD in architecture and a mastery of turgid Marxist prose.


It is the “Maoist” appellation that freezes the brains of India’s political class, which kept Nepal on the US list of terrorist states until the end of 2011, and led both countries to pour weaponry into the Royal Nepalese Army in a vain attempt to halt the revolution. The Maoism of the “Maoists” could be likened to Mao’s strategies of the 1930s, nothing whatever to do with the China of the past 30 years. But naming is powerful, blinding India, the US and others to unswerving adhesion to the Bahun as the only hope for a decent future for Nepal and its neighbor. But the ground has shifted, the same old will not do. The subalterns have spoken, and can never be silenced.

The Maoist party, and current elected government, has detailed plans for realizing ethnic autonomy including a separate autonomous state for the Sherpa and another for the Bhotelama, as those of Tibetan descent are known. Further, the Sherpa are to be given their own autonomous iilaka districts within other new states where they are not the majority, including the proposed new states of Tamsaling, Kirant and Limbuan.

Tibetans seeking genuine autonomy for Tibetans under Chinese rule should look no further than these detailed “Maoist” blueprints of ethnic autonomy in a federal future Nepal.

Many now read the calligraphy of Nepal’s new pluralism, the enduring legacy of the Jan Andolan, the revolution in which ordinary people found their voice, their identity which had been submerged by centuries of Gorkha regime efforts to suppress the highlanders quite different history and orientation, towards Buddhism and Tibet.

The revolution, keen observers say, may have brought China further into Nepal, although the Bahun high caste Hindus so used to monopolizing power were always ready to accept lavish trips to Shanghai as their entitlement. But China’s ever extending penetration of Nepal is only one of the energies unleashed by the revolution, even if it is what the headlines focus on. Behind the headlines a new Nepal is being born, and the Tibetans, whether as refugees given real rights of asylum and protection under a new constitution, or as Nepali citizens, the jana-jati indigenous to the high mountains, have a place in it.