Exiled Tibetans Discover `Happy Valley' Sometimes Isn't

EACH year, about 35,000 foreign tourists trek to this picturesque Indian town, along the foothills of the Himalayas, to get a taste of Tibetan culture. They attend meditation classes, buy Tibetan handicrafts, and sample steamed momos, a Tibetan specialty.

Mostly, however, they come in hopes of meeting Dharamsala's most famous resident: His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan spiritual leader, and his government-in-exile, have been based here since 1959, when he fled Chinese occupation. ``When we came here it was a ghost town,'' says Tempa Tsering, secretary of information for the government-in-exile. ``Now Dharamsala is on the international map.''

But ``Happy Valley,'' as the region surrounding the town is sometimes known, has been decidedly tense in recent months. On April 22, a Tibetan youth stabbed a local Indian to death during an argument over a taxi fare. Hours later, an enraged mob of about 200 Indians burned down a Tibetan school and looted Tibetan shops. The two-day- long riots caused an estimated $150,000 in damages.

In addition, the town was flooded with anonymous leaflets warning the Tibetans to leave by July 25 or face violent ``consequences.'' The deadline passed without incident, but many of the 7,000 refugees living here are clearly frightened. ``There is a feeling of insecurity ... particularly among the elderly groups,'' says Tsewang Phuntso, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress. ``This has given a very shocking message.''

The Dalai Lama nearly moved his government- in-exile because of the disturbance. ``Tibetans and Indians have been friends for 35 years.... I think if friends have to depart, they must depart in a happy frame of mind,'' he told reporters in early May.

Urging His Holiness not to leave

Shortly afterward, many Indian business owners and politicians flew to Dharamsala to urge the Dalai Lama not to leave. Eventually, he agreed to stay. ``The majority of the local people don't want His Holiness to go,'' says Mr. Tsering.

Today, in fact, there are few obvious signs of discord. Local Indians, foreign backpackers, and Tibetan monks, dressed in their traditional maroon robes, quietly go about their business on Dharamsala's narrow streets.

The riots were instigated by a ``few misguided and exploited people,'' Tsering says. ``Some vested interests - particularly politicians - exploited the situation for their own vote.'' Tibetan refugees cannot vote in India. According to the local press, a local politician belonging to the extremist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, Krishnan Kapoor, reportedly helped provoke the riots.

Relations between the local gaddis, or shepherds, and the Tibetans never been close. The gaddis accuse the Tibetans of, among other things, insulating themselves from their neighbors. The Tibetans have built their own hospitals and schools, which are considered far better than Indian ones. The gaddis also accuse the Tibetans of illegally acquiring land.

Economic tensions

Mostly, however, the tension is economic. Tibetans have prospered by catering to Western travelers. Dharamsala is crammed with American-style establishments like the Chocolate Log Restaurant (serving deep-dish pizza) and the Zen Video Theater (featuring ``When Harry Met Sally'').

``The problem is that young Tibetans have become arrogant,'' says Rakesh Narayan, secretary-general of the Indo-Tibetan Friendship Society. ``They have money and good contacts with the Westerners.'' Young Tibetans are often seen driving expensive cars and sporting the latest Western fashions - items that most of the local gaddis can only dream of.

But some local Indians have also benefited from the Tibetan's presence in Dharamsala. Virtually all of Dharamsala's 100 taxis are owned by Indians, as are many of the restaurants and hotels. They are concerned that if the Tibetans were to leave Dharamsala, their income would evaporate. In some ways, ``the riots were a good thing,'' says Pintu Sharma, owner of the Malabar Restaurant. ``The Indians have to realize that if it hurts the Dalai Lama, it hurts the Indians.''

In addition to Dharamsala, other pockets of Tibetan refugees are sprinkled throughout India. In total, about 100,000 Tibetan refugees live here - by far the largest concentration in the world. India's open support for them has always been one of the sore points in its relations with China.

After decades of strained relations between India and China, last year the two nations resolved a longtime border dispute. That has some Tibetans worried that India may now be more willing to appease China on the Tibet issue.

Indian officials insist they are not about to abandon their support for the refugees, but ``the Tibetans are in a delicate position,'' says Robert Barnett, director of the London-based Tibet Information Network. ``They can't press directly for all of their demands while they are on Indian soil, and it's not clear where else they would go if they had to leave.''

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