For Tibetans in exile, the way we approach Tibet is complex and varied. Tibet where some of us lived and still carry its memories. Tibet that is intertwined with both delightful and agonizing feelings for us to imagine persistently from a distance. Tibet that we celebrate as a nation through political symbols and social rituals at different times and places. Tibet, thus, is a multi-layered identity for us to retain with recollection, imagination, and symbols under everchanging circumstances. However, this all has its own origin in what happened to Tibet politically almost six decades ago, and we are the product of that history. When we lost our political freedom, our language, culture, and religion also began to lose its own autonomy and independence. As such, politics is the foundation of everything. Our ancestors foresaw that millennia ago.
In Tibetan, the term for politics is chab srid (ཆབ་སྲིད།). If we separate out this compound noun into singular nouns, Chab (ཆབ) means water, (Chab, being an honorific word, has its own origin in elite culture and society in Tibet, I will not elaborate on this here). Srid (སྲིད།) means length or governance. Therefore, chab srid is water length or water governance, and it also encapsulates some relevance of ancient global human civilization in general. The essence here was to govern the water resource in order to sustain one’s political authority, create economic growth, and advance military power upon a certain populace and geographic demarcation.
Even though we are not able to go back to the past, except reconstructing history solely through interpretations, we can still draw some assumptions based upon the existent textual sources relating to the Tibetan term “chab srid”. In Dunhuang manuscripts, we can easily find chab srid related terms such as chab bangs (ཆབ་འབངས།), and chab ‘og (ཆབ་འོག). The former literally means “people of the water” and the latter translates to “under the water”. They both indicate people under the water governance or people who live in the water territory. Our ancestors thus dubbed ‘chab srid’ for politics from early times. As water was an indispensable part of ancient civilization, it was the integral part of politics too. Like chab srid for our ancestors, politics is the inevitable telos of Tibetans for their freedom movement. Without becoming politically independent, nothing can be preserved permanently.
However, I would not theorize that Tibetans have to look at everything politically or render everything political. If we do that, it will narrow our perspectives, and we become less creative and significantly less diverse in our domains of knowledge and experience. Alternatively, it is important to comprehend the complexity and profundity of Tibet from various disciplines spanning religious, cultural, gender, political studies, and so on. However, do not dismiss the indispensability of the politics embedded into these disciplines when we think about Tibet, for it becomes an inescapable part of our cultural body, historic sense, and linguistic discourse in the fabric of our lives. In essence, it is not possible to divorce from politics even if we pretend to or hold it somewhere in our mind only. Our land, our culture, our history, and our language are unquestionably the politics.
Let us be creative and flexible, like water, for our freedom to erode the colonial power controlling Tibet’s sa chu me rlung (ས་ཆུ་མེ་རླུང་།) – “Earth, Water, Fire, and Air.”