Minority within a minority: being Bonpo in the Tibetan community in exile
This thesis presents a study of the Bonpo in Dolanji, a Tibetan refugee settlement in North India. The Bonpo are a distinctive religious minority within the Tibetan refugee population. In the 1950s, Chinese Communist forces occupied Tibet and, in 1959, the fourteenth Dalai Lama fled Tibet into exile in India. In 1960, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile was established in Dharamsala, and emphasised a ‘shared’ Buddhist heritage as being central to the Tibetan national identity. This discourse, which represents the Tibetans as being homogeneously Buddhist, effectively marginalised followers of non-Buddhist religions, including the Bonpo. As a result, the Bonpo have been compelled to adapt, whilst resisting the marginalisation of their religious identity and the constraints embedded in their refugee status. Based on twelve months of fieldwork carried out in 2007-2008 in Dolanji, this thesis explores the ways in which the Bonpo engage with their marginality and manipulate the constraints applied to their situation in order to empower themselves. It argues that on the margins, where the boundaries between inclusion and exclusion are contested and negotiable, the Bonpo are permitted some flexibility to create their identity with different ‘others,’ and to develop new affiliations in order to modify their situation. This thesis unpicks the ‘dialogues’ the Bonpo have established with the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, including their discourse on ‘the Bon traditions’, the participation of the Bonpo in the Tibetan national community, their relationship with foreign patrons and the Chinese Government, and the representation of the Bon religion in school textbooks. It is contended that the margins provide a consistent energy which feeds the dynamics of social relationships, informing cultural and social change. Today’s Bonpo remain situated on the margins of the Tibetan refugee population. However, this thesis demonstrates that in the past decades of exile, the Bonpo have utilised the marginalisation that was forced upon them by multiple ‘others’ to develop what they claim to be ‘Bon traditions’, in order to illustrate their distinctive, but equally important, status in contrast to Buddhism within the Tibetan ‘national’ identity.