Tibetan Choice

The Burden of Freedom

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Tibetans in India are caught between the right to vote and their commitment to the cause. Is it hypocritical?
In a single-room apartment on a rundown road in McLeod Ganj, Upper Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, a Tibetan princess runs through her sparse possessions. She is a descendant of the great Dharma kings of Tibet, whose empire in ancient history extended from parts of Bengal in the south to Mongolia in the north. Namgyal Dolkar Lhagyari overturns the unwashed utensils on the kitchen slab, ruffles through books on the bookshelves, and checks under the mattress of her bed. Resting her hands on her waist and pursing her lips, she says, “Crap! Now, where did it go?” Almost on cue, a Lhasa Apso appears and barks as if in disapproval of her language.

Behind her is a photograph of the Dalai Lama with her sisters, mother and brother, and her—taken several years ago at the coronation of her brother, Namgyal Wangchuk Lhagyari, as the king of Tibet. The brother, mother and one of her sisters now live in the US (the other sister is in Australia). She is the only member of the family who is still in India.

As she runs through the bookshelves, a slim booklet drops to the floor. “And to think of all the trouble I went through for this,” she says, picking it up to reveal a familiar lion emblem. It’s an Indian passport. And it bears her name.

Little is known about the legal status of Tibetans in India. Officially, they are not ‘refugees’, as often believed, and do not enjoy any rights derived from such a status; India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations’ Refugee Convention. Rather, they are ‘foreigners’ who have to register themselves at a Foreigner Registration Office every year (in some cases, every five years) to extend their stay here. The Indian Government gives them a Registration Certificate (RC), which they have to keep renewing, and an Identity Card (IC) to be used while travelling overseas. The Tibetan government-in-exile issues each Tibetan a Green Book, which is proof of their original nationality. As foreigners in India, they are not permitted to own land, cannot avail of most job opportunities, and must keep their political voices muffled.

However, a recent Election Commi- ssion (EC) directive and a Delhi High Court ruling a few years ago changes all that. It enables a large population of ethnic Tibetans born within the country to become Indian citizens. According to Indian citizenship laws, anyone born in India between 26 January 1950 and 1 July 1987 can be an citizen. Going by this, a large section of the estimated 100,000 Tibetans living here and their children can claim citizenship. But few Tibetans have applied for it; most of those who have, have been denied citizenship. When Namgyal was denied an Indian passport, she took the matter to the Delhi High Court, which eventually ruled in her favour in December 2010. This has proved to be a landmark case for Tibetans in India; some of them are now using this case as a precedent to apply for Indian citizenship. The EC recently issued a directive asking that eligible Tibetans be issued Indian voter cards so they can vote in this general election.

“It is a big deal,” Lhagyari says, dressed in a grey Tibetan bhakku and a pink blouse. “You are stateless for so many years. Then suddenly, you have a legal standing, you have rights.” Her father, Trichen Namgyal Gyatso Lhagyari, enjoyed a ceremonial role as a king in Tibet. Following the Chinese invasion, the Lhagyari palace was ransacked and he was imprisoned for 20 years. When he was released, he sought asylum in India, where he remarried. Namgyal, who now works as a vice-president in the Gu-Chu- Sum Movement of Tibet, an association for former political prisoners in Tibet, is the first child from his second marriage. She was born in Dehradun in 1986.

When she applied for a passport, the Indian passport officer in Dehradun denied her the document and warned that she could be jailed for applying for one. Namgyal then sought financial help from her mother and fought a three-year long case in the Delhi High Court before she got a ruling in her favour. “I never realised I was doing something important. But as people started calling and congratulating me, I have come to understand its importance for my people,” she says.

Yet, the recent EC directive hasn’t been welcomed by all. It has, in fact, created a deep schism within the exiled community. Those against seeking Indian citizenship argue that Tibetans in India must remain ‘refugees’, as symbols of their captive nation; it should not appear, especially to Tibetans still living in Tibet, that for the sake of a comfortable life, Tibetans in exile have given up their national identity and taken up Indian citizenship.

Tenzin Tsundue, a well-known Tibetan activist and writer, dressed in his characteristic red bandana and horn-rimmed glasses, says, “We can argue for arguments’ sake about the pros and cons [of taking up Indian citizenship]. But the fact remains that very few Tibetans will take up Indian citizenship.” He points out the complicated web of issues involved, of forgoing one’s identity, of how this could eventually lead to the dilution of the Tibetan identity, the fate of various Tibetan institutions like its ‘parliament’ and schools if Tibetans apply en masse for such citizenship.

A number of Tibetans, however, are secretly applying for citizenship. The daughter of a Tibetan shopkeeper in Dharamshala, born here in 1986, has recently given birth to a baby girl. After hearing of the EC directive, the shopkeeper has recruited the services of an Indian lawyer to help his daughter and granddaughter attain citizenship. “When I came to India, I came as a refugee, but it needn’t be so for my daughter and granddaughter,” he says. The shopkeeper who sought refuge in India at the age of 10 in 1962 rents his shop premises, since he is not allowed to buy one. He lives in a flat he has purchased, but the paperwork shows that the previous owner gifted the apartment to him.

A 35-year old Dharamshala-based Tibetan, Tenzin Dhendup voluntarily adopted an RC and IC when he finished schooling. His mother, a resident of Darjeeling, was an Indian citizen. He believed that these documents would strengthen his Tibetan identity. But now with the current directive from the EC, he too is applying for a voter’s card. “For a young Tibetan getting on with his life, I need citizenship and opportunities,” he says. Dhendup is an event manager in McLeod Ganj and is in the process of setting up an event management company in the town. “With ‘foreigner’ status, it is difficult to travel, to get the necessary permissions,” he says.

The Tibetan government-in-exile, known officially as the Central Tibetan Administration, lets Tibetans seek citizenship of other countries, but has in the past spoken against adopting Indian citizenship. A young deputy secretary in the exiled Tibetan government’s Department of Information and International Relations, Tsering Wangchuk, says, “We neither encourage nor discourage Tibetans to seek Indian citizenship. It is an individual choice. Personally, I am against it. Tibetans are relatively comfortable in India, and we shouldn’t forget that we are here temporarily. That we, at some point in time, have to return to Tibet.”

There has been a dramatic transformation within the local Tibetan community since the Dalai Lama, along with a large Tibetan population, sought refuge in India 55 years ago. Tibetans are no longer simply sweater-sellers and road-construction labourers, but ambitious entrepreneurs. Many have migrated to the West, and many are working their way to achieve that. No place is more illustrative of this than Dharamshala, the home of the exiled Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama. A sleepy town at the foothills of the Dhauladhar range, it is now a bustling tourist destination. Here, cafes and restaurants offering apple tarts and chicken Florentine alongside momos and thukpa dot the market square. There are Café Coffee Days, nightclubs with bouncers, Japanese and South Korean restaurants. There are White men and women running garages and trinket shops, dressed in Tibetan clothes. Many are on journeys of self-exploration. There is a young Tibetan man who dresses in a lavender-and-red shirt, wears oversized yellow glasses, a multi-coloured tie and bright blue trousers, and stands in the market square thrice a week to attract people for a solo-drama act. There are reiki classes, rock concerts and spiritual retreats. There are young Tibetan men teaching foreigners the Tibetan script over cups of cappuccino. There are monks who have renounced their vows and taken White brides. Fights are common between Tibetans and local Gaddis, resolved with the intervention of elders.

Yet there are also Tibetans, old and young, who circumambulate the hill at the end of the Dalai Lama’s monastery, unperturbed by the developments of modern life sweeping the town, praying for the cleansing of their sins and the long life of the Dalai Lama.

It is not as if the desire for a free Tibet has lost its hold on Tibetans, for it still remains the bedrock on which the exile community stands. But the 21st century has pressed in, too.

When Tibetans first escaped to India in 1959, following the fall of Lhasa, they were not expected to take up permanent residence here. There is now a structural crisis unfolding, as old Tibetan settlements across India are disintegrating. Many young people are moving out, resulting in broken homes, while those staying behind are mostly poor and aloof from the rest of India. The ageing Dalai Lama is officially recognised as an ‘honoured guest’, but no one is sure what will happen to Tibetans in India once he passes away, especially at a time when even India is courting Beijing. The Tibetan government in exile is officially not recognised by any country.

There is also something hypocritical about the discussion within the Tibetan community against seeking Indian citizenship. Such a discussion was largely absent when Tibetans began migrating to the West, seeking citizenship there. Among the current kalons or Tibetan ministers-in-exile, there are at least three who have the citizenship of other countries. The kalon of religion and culture, Pema Chhinjor, is an American citizen, the kalon of international affairs, Dicki Chhoyang, is Canadian, and the kalon of home affairs, Dolma Gyari, is Indian. The sikyong or prime minister, Lobsang Sangay, is also known to possess a US green card.

The news that some Tibetans are officially entitled to become Indian citizens has sparked jubilation among some. A 30-year-old Tibetan man born in Sikkim, Lobsang Wangyal, who works as a receptionist at a hotel in McLeod Ganj, is preparing to apply for an Indian passport and voter’s card. After his father died, his mother and sister moved to the US, leaving him behind as a child in the care of a monastery in Karnataka. Wangyal has since worked at the monastery without a salary. A month ago, he found a job as a hotel receptionist. He believes that with Indian citizenship, he can overcome the setbacks of his early life. He carries with him a bag containing his documents– a birth certificate, an RC, a driver’s licence, and a bank account passbook.

One morning when we are there, he is happy; his lawyer has told him over the phone that he has adequate documents to apply for Indian citizenship. But by evening, his mood is gloomy. The lawyer has informed him that the date of birth mentioned on the birth certificate does not correspond with that mentioned on the RC. The person who had applied for his RC when Wangyal was a child had filled in his date of birth incorrectly. “I thought I had it. Now I have to rectify my RC’s date of birth,” he says.

Outside, the day is turning dark. It is cold, but the darkness carries with it a strange sombre colour. And then it comes, a light drizzle, announcing itself first on window panes. Young Tibetan boys race on their motorcycles on the road outside, while old grandparents circumambulating the hill below rush through their chants. Women’s voices call from street corners, hawking sweets and firecrackers. In a few days, it will be Losar, the Tibetan new year. But the ordinariness of the evening does not suggest it. Through the rain and half-closed windows, all you see are young Tibetan faces waiting for the weather to clear.