Tongam Rina’s article “20 Chakma children from Changlang in Bangalore shelter homes” (Arunachal Times, 2nd December 2019) poignantly exposes an issue that has been my concern for a long time. I wanted to inform the authorities and public of Arunachal Pradesh about it but did hitherto not find an appropriate opportunity to do so. The article details a single case in a practice that has been going on for at least ten years now. It involves the removal, under false pretexts, of children belonging to vulnerable, poor backgrounds from the relative safety and security of their parental home and their village community. I have seen this happen in the Monpa-inhabited areas of Arunachal, but also in rural communities of Nepal and Bhutan, with similar cases probably happening elsewhere, too. The parents and local village leaders are told the children will be enrolled as ‘students’ in monastic ‘schools’ of the Tibetan exile community all over India. In reality, they are enrolled as simple monks in monasteries, made to recite prayers they don’t understand and perform rituals that have little meaning to them. They learn few if any skills that prepare them for a world outside the monastic community. They learn little English, Hindi, or basic subjects like mathematics or science.
In fact, the reality often is, that they are used as servants of the established, senior exile Tibetan monastic order. They are the dishwashers, the laundry boys, the sweepers, the gardeners and whatever else may suit their superiors. Tamangs from Nepal, Sharchokpa from Bhutan and Monpa kids from Arunachal have the reputation to be docile and submissive, following orders without much question or complaint. More worryingly, these children, some as young as five or six, are exposed to mental, physical, emotional and, perhaps in isolated but by no means uncommon cases, sexual abuse. They are scolded and beaten when not following orders and commands, when falling asleep during endless recitation and prayers services or when unable to maintain the order or show sufficient respect to their superiors. They often have little or no contact with their family at home, especially the younger ones, cannot visit their homes again, and lose any sense of belonging, any sense of ethnic affiliation, any sense of their language and culture. They do not learn the skills and lose the interest to live off their ancestral land. They are made to depend on the monastic community they spend their youth and adolescence in, and together with adulthood comes the realisation that, even if they would want to start a family and live a layman’s life, they do not have the skills, knowledge and experience to do so. Those who return to their village become what the Monpa often condescendingly call ‘drapa-dralok’, a term that has become almost synonymous with flirtatious loafers that, often faced with little means to support themselves and their families, commonly slide into a life of alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Those who manage to make a living, combining religious services to the community with subsistence agriculture, are often those that were enrolled in monastic communities closer to home, like Bomdila or Tawang. In short, in many cases, these children become a ‘lost generation’, lost to their family, lost to their community, lost to the state, and most sadly, lost to themselves.
Why do these Tibetan monasteries ‘recruit’ these children? It is a complicated question with many factors involved, but magnanimous compassion and sympathy is certainly not the main driving force. Since 2008, the Chinese occupiers of Tibet have tightened their control and grip on the Tibetan population, who have become second-class citizens in the land that was once theirs. The Chinese government is making every effort to create a socio-economic environment in Tibet where the state basically raises the people from birth till grave, making them dependent on their mercy for everything. Farmers and nomads are increasingly resettled in concrete urban jungles, where food rations and basic income are provided. Infrastructure, electricity, mobile network, internet and television, everything is provided by the government. Han Chinese migrants are attracted by the improved facilities and slowly start outnumbering the indigenous Tibetans. Whereas ethnic Chinese can move around freely, Tibetans cannot, and internet services are monitored and limited to content approved by the state security bureau. And without a useful daily occupation, alcoholism and other problems are rife among Tibetans. So many of them may want to leave for India and beyond, for freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom to live the livelihood of the forefathers, freedom to simply be Tibetan again.
But since 2008, leaving is no longer an option. New technologies have made it possible to effectuate a police state in which each and every citizen is kept under very close observation and control. Except for isolated cases, Tibetans from the Tibet Autonomous Region cannot apply for passports, hence they cannot travel freely outside China. More importantly, there are severe repercussions for those who leave their community and do not report back within stipulated time. Their names will be obliterated from official records within several weeks, rendering the person in question basically ‘dead’. As an even stronger deterrent, their family members will face severe punishment and restrictions. As just a few examples: those with government functions will lose their jobs, children will be denied access to free education, medical assistance to family members will be restricted, close relatives may be sent to re-education classes, farmers will lose access to subsidised farm inputs. Local village and community leaders will be punished for not controlling their people sufficiently. In all, the consequences of one person fleeing the situation in Tibet will affect this person’s family more than the individual himself: only extremely egocentric people would want to risk this.
As a result, the flow of Tibetan refugees from Tibet has reduced to a trickle. In addition, many Tibetan refugees from India have moved to the west, claiming to be genuine refugees from Chinese-occupied Tibet, even though they were born and raised in freedom in India or Nepal. This includes many monks from the monastic institutions in India. Exile Tibetans want their children to go to school, learn a profession, and travel abroad: the ‘old’ practice of at least enrolling one son as a monk has since long been abandoned. Without new arrivals from Tibet itself, occupancy in the large Tibetan monasteries in India and Nepal has been gradually decreasing, threatening the long-term sustainability of the institutions themselves. Many rely on foreign donors, and foreign donations are based on the monk population (see, for example, the following page related to the ‘Gyudmed monastic school’ to which the Chakma children were supposed to go, this is simply a monastery: https://tibetfund.org/sponsorship-program/sponsor-a-monk/gyudmed-tantric-monastic-school/). With numbers of new enrolments dropping, the financial future of the monastic institutions is bleak. No monks, no money.
So, this is when the ‘recruitment’ of children, mostly boys, from poor, rural villages in remote corners of the subcontinent started. ‘Agents’, like the person implicated in the article, often ex-monks themselves, browse through the villages and promise uneducated parents to relieve them of the burden of educating and raising their children. They promise free and good education and a bright future. Despite the examples of return monks, especially in the Monpa areas, parents are still tricked into sending their children. They are faced with a government school system that is highly ineffective and only results in dropouts and youth unemployment and they are faced with limited financial scope to send their children to expensive private schools in the state itself. For the kids themselves, it all sounds like a big adventure: a long travel, by car and train, a new place, a new school. Especially when several kids from the same community are taken together, they often plead their parents to be send along. They are kids, they have no idea about what future holds for them. When, after several months or years the reality of their fate sets in, they have no chance to escape it. Their homes are far, their parents are neither financially not practically able to go and pick them up: often, they have no idea in which place or in which monastery their children are (‘close to the Dalai Lama’ is often what they are told and believe). I have listened to the kids, both those who are still in the monastery, and the few who managed to return. The life they live is not the life they expected. They cry and beg to be brought home, but their parents have no idea where they are, no funds to bring them back, and no idea how to get there. ‘Just hang in there’ is all they can say.
The parents, though gullible, cannot really be blamed. Neither can the agent, who earns his money this way. Neither can the monasteries, who have to think about their long-term sustainability, even though we may wonder to what extent this practice is compatible with Buddhist teachings. Taking away children’s youths and futures seems a far cry from compassionate action. In the end, the responsibility for these practices fully lies with the state of whom these people are the citizens. The inability to provide good, free, primary education and a meaningful future for the state’s children is the main driving force behind these instances occurring. Absentee teachers receiving a monthly pay but not doing their job, derelict school buildings, lack of teaching materials, bogus tests and exams and fake pass certificates till abrupt failure during board exams and subsequent drop-out from the education system are all too well known characteristics of schools in rural areas in Arunachal. Private schools are not only expensive but also force parents to make a choice: do I send my children to a Christian school, a Hindutva school, or a Buddhist school? The secularism, till recently a hallmark of Indian society and politics, is only limited to the free but dismal government school system.
Now that the Monpa areas are largely devoid of potential monk-candidates, the Tibetan ‘agents’ seem to have found a new target: the vulnerable Chakma refugees settled in Arunachal. I have come across Chakma children in Tibetan-run restaurants and in Tibetan homes in various places in India. What were the four girls in the group of twenty destined for, not being able to be enrolled in a monastic school for boys? Probably a life as a maid-servant, babysitter or dishwasher. Nothing short of modern-day slavery. Their parents must be hopeless to send of their children in this way. Hopefully, this case, and the publicity it may generate, will force the concerned authorities to take stern action, and prevent such incidences from happening again, anywhere, to any child. Hopefully, the lost children from Arunachal will be found and returned to their families if they wish to do so. Probably every Monpa village has several children longing to be reunited with their family.