Tibetan Buddhist Monastics and the Problem of Itinerancy in Indian Citizenship Laws, 1940s–60s

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Swati Chawla, University of Virginia
The poster presents two instances of Tibetan Buddhist monastics applying for Indian citizenship from the 1940s to the 1960s. These cases from the Indian Home Ministry’s Citizenship Section records underscore the bureaucratic suspicion of borderland populations who were customarily on the move in the decades immediately after Indian Independence (1947). The Ministry’s handling of their applications shows a profound mistrust and incomprehension of the routineness of itinerancy within the Tibetan Buddhist monastic tradition. Through detailed maps interspersed with personal histories and a visual timeline, I attempt to show how the imagination of a Tibetan cultural region (comprising large parts of northern and eastern India, Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, and Tibet) for these applicants was at odds with the quickly tightening borders of these nation-states, and to bring out the difficulties of traversing one of the most challenging escape routes in the world. I will also show how these applicants were retracing older routes of migration established through inter-marriage, religious patronage and trade, that predated the emergence of India as a sovereign state and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (1949).

The vows of ordination among monastics typically required the erasure of all natal identities, but these monks and nuns were forced to identify themselves in terms of “original nationality,” even if it was only to renounce it according to the newly drafted citizenship laws. For many such applicants, it became important to prove their “Buddhist leanings and opposition to Communism” in order to prove they were not Chinese spies. In slowly evolving bureaucratic shorthand, “Buddhist” came to encompass everything from an espoused faith in Buddhism, to a proclivity for Indian classical music, and an interest in learning Sanskrit. “Communist,” on the other hand, became a catchall for “suspicious activities” ranging from alleged spying, to prostitution, and frequent movement. The poster approaches Tibetan migration to India in the second half of the twentieth century through the longer history of lay and monastic movement in the region to ask new questions of nationalism and bureaucratic regimes of citizenship in South Asia and how they interacted with itinerant populations such as monastics, beggars, and performers (Indrani Chatterjee, 2013; Niraja Gopal Jayal, 2013; Wim van Spengen, 2000; Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, 2007).

The poster will feature two case studies from the Citizenship Section records through detailed maps of the applicants’ migration routes, including sites from their individual biographies, and a timeline for their lives. The maps will also include important monastic sites, geographical features such as natural passes, border posts, and administrative centers, as well as the most common pilgrimage, escape and settlement routes of Tibetan migrants in the Indian subcontinent. Although presented in a static format for the conference, the poster components will be prepared with Neatline (http://neatline.org), the digital humanities tool developed at the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab. The accompanying two-page handouts will include basic facts about Tibetan migration to the subcontinent, brief descriptions of the larger project and the two cases, and an A4 size printout of the poster.

See more of: Poster Session #1
See more of: AHA Sessions