Letters to Home: Dharamsala, India

My Dearest CMC,

I write to you from Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan exile government where I’m studying this semester.  My routines include alternately eating Tibetan momos (steamed dumplings) and outrageously spicy Indian food, and rocking a hat to keep warm even though it’s April…not all of India is hot!

Before I introduce a topic that’s become incredibly important for my studies this semester, I’ll provide you with some background info.  Chinese People's Liberation Army invaded Tibet in 1949. 10 March 1959, the Chinese government invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama to a performance without bodyguards. Tibetan laypeople surrounded his palace to make sure he didn't attend, which erupted in protests against Chinese occupation. His Holiness the Dalai Lama fled to India soon after.

Tibetans now celebrate uprising day on March 10, although the Chinese don't recognize this day. In India, His Holiness the Dalai Lama gives a political speech, which is followed by a freedom demonstration. On March 10, I went to the temple with Dawa (my host brother) but then left him outside to get a radio. This was a mistake: I didn't even try to tune in to the English translation of the Tibetan speeches. I went into the temple a bit later and found seats on the cement floor with the rest of the students on my program.

All the dignitaries marched in to Tibetan music (did you know Tibetans played bagpipes?!).  After the Tibetan national anthem and a prayer, a representative from the Tibetan government spoke. Then His Holiness the Dalai Lama addressed the crowd; it was powerful to see him in person and hear his voice—surprisingly strong and clear, and always joyful—but of course he spoke in Tibetan. I followed along in my English packet.

His speech emphasized many issues, but perhaps the most important and interesting was His Holiness the Dalai Lama's announcement that he will devolve all political power with the coming elections. That part of the speech made the BBC world news later that evening, which I didn't expect. My amala (host mom) told me later that she cried at the news. Tibetans really feel attached to His Holiness and do not want him to cede any power, even though the Dalai Lama believes in free democratic elections.

After the speeches, a massive demonstration took place. People joined together to scream slogans, wave flags, and march down to the courthouse in lower Dharamsala. The place was crawling with cameras and film crews: if you are a Tibetan who wants to return to Tibet, it is not in your best interest to show your face at the rally.

My group found a shortcut and encountered some young Tibetans chanting in Tibetan, English, and Hindi. Walking with this group made me quite uncomfortable—especially because some of the slogans called on the U.S. and the U.N. to take action to aid Tibet.

Amidst the crowd of screaming people, I was forced to consider some particularly difficult issues. I don't feel that I’ve learned enough about the “Tibet issue” to have a well-developed opinion about whether Tibet should be its own country. More than that, though, I found myself feeling personally attacked from the rising chants.  I realize that there are many more implications than just Tibetan freedom if the U.S. or U.N. chooses to get involved.

Global politics is complex: there's a difference between what I think all people deserve (basic human rights) and how people can work towards attaining them. I wish I could say that in all situations you should always work towards securing for people basic human rights as soon as possible, but unfortunately global politics does not always function in favor of this ideal.

International politics has an established framework, and Tibetans here play their part by demonstrating and trying to draw attention to the cause.

A Tibetan monk even set himself on fire, which garnered an article in the New York Times. I don’t fault Tibetans for fighting for what they believe is right, but walking right in the thick of things forced me to think about my role in global society, and made me more uncomfortable, than reading in a classroom ever could.


Michelle Brody

Like what you've read?  Read more about Michelle's study abroad adventures on her blog.