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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

‘The Mother of the Land of Snows’



For [43] years, I have devoted my life to children. I do not know anything about politics and I am certainly not a politician. I do not work for honours or for a monument to be erected in my memory. I want to remain honest to myself and to my religion, Buddhism. I sincerely want to serve the children and this is my contribution to the Tibetan cause.1

In 1961, when Jetsun Pema first arrived in Dharamshala, she found “a place withdrawn from the world, far from civilization”. The scene at McLeod Gunj was “one of complete chaos: three buildings, just one shop, and canvas tents everywhere. The Tibetans were in rags, children were crying and trembling with cold, and the women seemed stunned by the weight of their misfortune. What suffering must they have gone through before arriving at this town of misery?”
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Some 80 thousand Tibetans had followed His Holiness the Dalai Lama, when he escaped to India in 1959, and relocated the Tibetan administration in Mussoorie, and then, Dharamshala in 1960. The main tasks before the exile administration were rehabilitation of Tibetan refugees in exile and restoration of freedom in Tibet. However, other than relief supplies, finding work for the Tibetan refugees proved to be a tall order; most of them, being peasants and nomads, lacked professional skills. The immediate solution was road building in the hilly regions of Kullu and Jammu, where gangs of two to three hundred Tibetans were dispatched.
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Besides, “The children have been a special anxiety2,” His Holiness writes in his memoirs (My Land and My People, published in 1962). “It is even harder for children than for adults to be uprooted and taken suddenly to an entirely different environment, and many of them died in the early days from the change of food and climate. We had to do something drastic to preserve their health—and their education was also a matter of great importance.
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”Traditional Tibetan education, despite all its virtues, had failed to catch up with the sprinting world outside Tibet. His Holiness therefore could not agree more when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru told him that the education of children is Tibet’s hope for the future. With generous assistance from the Indian government, boarding schools were thus established, first at Mussoorie on 3 March 1960, and later at Darjeeling, Shimla, Kalimpong and Dalhousie.
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Excluded still were the preschool infants, who suffered “most of all from the climate of India, and the exposure to infections which hardly exist in Tibet. Their parents knew only too well that they could not look after them properly.” Many children moreover were orphaned or separated from their families during the arduous escape across the Himalayas. Writes His Holiness, “So, I offered them all my personal protection. I decided to set up a Nursery and place it in the hands of my elder sister”, Tsering Dolma Takla, since a batch of 51 children had arrived from Jammu on 17 May 1960, after Tibetan officials had fanned out in various road camps, urging the refugees to enroll their children under the administration’s care.
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“The result was somewhat overwhelming,” says His Holiness. “Almost before we knew where we were, 800 tiny children had been handed over to our care. My sister and her voluntary helpers had to improvise the barest necessities of life for this enormous family. We still cannot afford to give these little children the slightest luxury, but we can make sure that they are loved and kept healthy and happy—insofar as the children of refugees can ever be happy.”
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For this, the Government of India, generous as ever, rendered three disused bungalows in gradual succession—Conium House, Egerton Hall and Kishore Nivas. “After gathering the children in Dharamshala, my sister kept the youngest with her and sent those who were over eight, in groups of between 20 and 50, to the various boarding schools, according to where rooms were available,” writes Jetsun Pema in her memoir (Tibet: My Story, published in 1996, out now in ten different languages). But then, “Soon these five schools were full, so we had to keep the children in the then ‘Nursery for Tibetan Children.”
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When Jetsun Pema, after appearing for the Senior Cambridge exams at Loreto convent in Darjeeling, first set foot in Dharamshala, the sheer gravity of the situation “drove [her] to action rather than to despair”. “My sister had the greatest need of me. The children had to be washed, dressed and given their meals. Several elderly Tibetans volunteered to help. I served as an interpreter for the doctors and nurses of the Swiss Red Cross.”
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After surviving the first months of exile in Dharamshala, she left for further studies in Switzerland and England. When she returned in 1964, some improvements had come to pass in what was by then a virtual village, with over 800 children and 100 staff. “Tsering Dolma now had an office, even though it was only a narrow room, with a typewriter and a few chairs.” But 1964 turned out to be “a black year”, doomed for damnation, as only months after a car accident nearly did her in, her sister, Tsering Dolma Takla, passed away in a prolonged battle with cancer. She was 44.“
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Tsering Dolma had devoted her life to the children in exile,” Jetsun Pema recalls. “She had created from scratch the structures which had enabled hundreds to avoid almost certain death and, after the first urgent medical care, to receive little by little a sound education in a climate of love, tenderness and understanding.”
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Although ashes of the deceased are normally consigned to mountains or rivers, hers are still preserved in an urn by the village. “Perhaps one day, when we return to Tibet, we will take them with us.”
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Jetsun Pema knew what her entire family expected of her in the wake of Tsering Dolma’s demise. So when His Holiness called upon Jetsun Pema—the name bears the hallmark of being the first ever name given by His Holiness3—to carry forward her sister’s endeavours, she simply “rolled up her sleeves and got on with it”. But, a heavy responsibility, it nonetheless was, especially for a young woman of 24. “I felt completely lost.” Every day presented a new challenge to surmount with bare minimum resources at her disposal. And often when faced with a conundrum, she would avail of His Holiness’ sagacity. “Although sometimes he must have had enough of my coming in to ask for yet more advice, he never showed it.”
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Meanwhile, year in, year out, children kept pouring in, in droves, as did the amount of cheques dispatched by various organizations and individuals from across the globe. But with each year passed in exile, the odds against a speedy return to Tibet stacked up. And in order to hold out for the Tibetan cause, the need of a strong base in exile began to sink in. The plan then was not to build merely houses, but homes with virtual families. As the scheme of “sponsoring a child at 10 dollars” hit the ground running, Jetsun Pema relentlessly pursued building more homes—beginning in 1966, when the first home for 25 sponsored children was built at the cost of 20,000 rupees.
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“This home system worked wonders”, for only in such an environment could the deep emotional wounds and mental anxiety common in the children of refugees be healed or “exorcised”. In order to revamp into “a fully integrated community where children under its care would receive not only the warmth and security of a home and a mother to share with brothers and sisters, but also a good education”4,the Nursery for Tibetan Refugee Children registered under the new name of the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) in 1971. In the same year, it also became a full-fledged member of the SOS Kinderdorf International, Vienna, which has since continued to provide “the backbone support for all the major projects of the TCV”.
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With a sound financial standing, the village could provide a better, holistic modern education, firmly entrenched in Tibetan religion and culture, and also, upgrade the level of school curriculum from Secondary to Senior Secondary (10+2). The village also had considerable freedom in adapting its education programme, especially in the primary and middle levels, to suit the actual needs of the Tibetan people. In 1985, inspired by the Indian policy that every child should receive primary education in their mother tongue, the village began the pioneering task of “Tibetanising” the primary education by changing the medium of instruction from English to Tibetan (which was later successfully replicated in all the present 80-odd Tibetan schools across India and Nepal).
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In just about half a century, from a modest crèche of 51 children to a multi-state juggernaut of over 15,000 children and 1,200 staff, “The TCV grew out of sheer necessity”, along with the swelling tide of orphans and destitute children in exile—especially the glut of children in the 1980s, when thousands escaped into India, following relatively relaxed Chinese policies. In between 1980 and 1982 alone, “more than 1,000 managed to reach Dharamshala”. Several hundred of which went straight into the fold of the TCV. “There was absolutely no question of us turning away children from Tibet...they represented not just our only hope but also the only hope for their parents,” Jetsun Pema wrote. New children’s villages, schools, youth hostels, technical and vocatiowitnal training centres were thus established across the length and breadth of India, from Ladakh in the North to Bylakuppee in the South.
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“A tragedy is revealed”, when Jetsun Pema leads the third fact-finding delegation to Tibet in 1980—after the Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping conveyed that anything but complete independence is negotiable, and that the Tibetan exiles could visit Tibet and bear witness to its actual progress. However, after a three-month long journey, the findings of what was an “educational delegation” only proved that “even the notion of education is a farce in Tibet”. Wherever they went, the Chinese officials bombarded them with rosy figures of “permanent lies and deceit”. “In some villages, the Chinese even went so far as to create a school just for the duration of our visit.” Crestfallen, the delegation returned to Dharamshala with a sackful of letters, or petitions—about 7,000 in total, most addressed to His Holiness—which were discreetly handed to them during their journey across Tibet.
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After a series of landmark changes ushered in the process of democratizing exile Tibetan polity, in 1990, Jetsun Pema became the first woman to be elected as Kalon in the exile history, or in fact, the entire Tibetan history. Her enduring legacy as the Education Kalon5 was the “Tibetanization” of education in all Tibetan schools, including those directly under the Indian Ministry of Education.
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Surprising as it may though appear, when it came to her being a Kalon, she had been brutally self-deprecating, claiming she was “a bad choice at a time when Tibet had so many problems. In my opinion, the community already had a sufficient number of talented people. I had no idea about politics; my only talent lay in the field of education.” She offered to resign four times; His Holiness accepted her resignation finally in 1993. Even in an interview last year to Tibetan World, when asked if she could be the next Kalon Tripa, she conveyed the same message: “Oh not at all!...I think if you are action-oriented, it’s better to be at the grass roots level than higher up there.”6
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Even as Jetsun Pema is 66 today, she continues to persevere with her knack to remain “hands-on” and “action-oriented”—evident from the modest fact that all her three children have had their schooling not in some privileged, “English schools”, but in the TCV, just as its orphans and destitute children.
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“My retirement doesn’t mean I will just sit back and chant mantras,” she was quoted as saying, after handing over the presidentship to the then executive director of the village, Tsewang Yeshi, who was democratically elected by the members of the governing body, in a conclave on 5 August. In her new role as chairman of the newly inducted, seven-member executive council, the highest decision making body of the village, which will supplant the erstwhile nine-member governing body, Jetsun Pema continues to remain committed to the larger goals of the TCV, and its mammoth undertakings like construction of a Tibetan college in Bangalore.
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Although not yet in the twilight of her career, Jetsun Pema’s accomplishments thus far have been extolled from a wide spectrum of perspectives: from the lyrics of “Ama Jetsun Pema la”, the song of the year 2004, in which an ex-TCV, sophomore in the Delhi University pours his heart out in gratitude for his “loving and compassionate mother”; to the honorary title of the “Mother of the Land of Snows”, conferred by the Assembly in 1995, “as an expression of gratitude for [then] over 35 years of her selfless service to the Tibetan cause”, adding that “The TCV is the greatest of tangible accomplishments achieved under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” The best, perhaps, was in the citation of her recent nomination for the prestigious World Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child7: “Her tireless work has saved lives and given tens of thousands of Tibetan refugee children a home, a family, education and hope for the future."

Footnotes:
(1) Tibet: My Story, Jetsun Pema
(2) My Land and My People, His Holiness the Dalai Lama
(3) Just days after she was born, His Holiness named her Jetsun Pema. His Holiness was only five years old.
(4) “Caring for the Weakest: The Children’s Villages” by Jetsun Pema, published in Exile As Challenge: The Tibetan Diaspora, 2003
(5) She was also the Kalon for Health
(6) Tibetan World, July 2005, Vol. II, Issue 1
(7) The World Children’s Prize, founded by the Swedish organization Children’s World, conferred the World Children’s Honorary Award to Jetsun Pema on 20 April 2006, in Sweeden
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Dhondup Gyalpo
DG

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