Tibetans in India: Are They Refugees or Diaspora? 

Shouldn’t Tibetan refugees in India get Indian citizenship? 

6 min read
Making an offering to the Dalai Lama at the monastery in Mcleodganj. (Photo: Sumegha Gulati/The Quint) 

When pictures of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi being washed ashore a Turkey beach first surfaced a few weeks ago, 32-year-old Tenzin watched the news all alone. The circumstances between himself and Kurdi seemed painstakingly similar – 30 summers ago, when he was “almost the same age as this boy”, his own parents had undertaken a treacherous journey from their hometown in Tibet to reach the safety of India.

Born in Dam near the Tibet-Nepal border, Tenzin today has no recollection of his years in his country. He was raised in India and two younger brothers were born right here – in Mcleodganj in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district, one of the largest Tibetan Settlements in India.

Why Are Tibetans Denied Citizenship Rights in India?

Tenzin attended the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) school in Dharamshala and later went on to pursue higher studies in Buddhist philosophy from Dehradun. He aspired to become a translator but “jobs were few and hard to come by”. He left his course mid-way, returned to Mcleodganj and started learning how to cook Italian and Tibetan cuisine from a cousin – who, in turn, had trained in Delhi. Today, he runs the Lobsang’s Four Seasons Café on Jogiwara road in the town.

Having lived all his life in India and not knowing any other “home”, Tenzin has an important question to ask – why is he still being denied citizenship rights?

India is a great country and we are grateful. But there is a constant feeling of impermanence. Each year, we have to renew our Registration Certificate (a document given to all Tibetans by the Indian government that makes their stay here legal). We cannot be under any illusion that we will be able to return to a free Tibet within the foreseeable future given the existing circumstances. So, it is important to have some sense of settling down.
– Tenzin Lekshay, Media Co-ordinator, the Office of His Holiness Dalai Lama to The Quint

A view of Mcleodganj town, home to India’s Tibetan refugees. (Photo: Sumegha Gulati/The Quint)
A view of Mcleodganj town, home to India’s Tibetan refugees. (Photo: Sumegha Gulati/The Quint)

The Difficulty of Being Tibetan in India

Tibetans in India cannot apply for government jobs and routinely face difficulties. Land lease documents are not issued to them, there’s insecurity due to eviction fears from rehabilitated areas, the youth face unemployment and the community cannot access the government’s developmental schemes.

Moreover, there is no clarity about their legal status – which becomes most evident while applying for loans, passports or gaining admissions in Indian universities.

Indian activist Jyotsana Sara George, who works with Students for Free Tibet, routinely comes across cases where students apply for admissions but authorities are unclear under which category to admit them.

Some institutions, such as Delhi University, have worked out an understanding that though these students are not Indians, they are refugees and have to be charged the way general category Indian students are charged. However, the policy is not the same and as clear-cut for all institutions. So, in many universities and colleges, particularly those offering professional degrees, Tibetan students end up paying their fees in dollars as they are considered to be foreigners.
– Sara George to The Quint

A primary health centre on Jogiwara road, Mcleodganj. (Photo: Sumegha Gulati/The Quint)
A primary health centre on Jogiwara road, Mcleodganj. (Photo: Sumegha Gulati/The Quint)

“I’ve Served 20 Years in the Army Yet I Can’t Own Property”

Lack of opportunities, according to Tenzin, is why so many young Tibetans are moving to the US, UK, Canada and other countries where citizenship is granted after a certain period, generally 5-10 years. “Huge numbers are leaving,” he says.

All his life, Tenzin has stayed in a rented house; he even runs his café on a rented property. “30 years on rent – can you imagine that?”

It is a question 43-year old Lobsang has asked himself often.

Born in East Tibet in 1972, the “oppressive Chinese regime” which curbed “all religious, political and educational freedom” suffocated the young Lobsang. At 18, he fled to India, leaving behind his parents and seven siblings whom he hasn’t seen in all these years. Here, he joined the Indian Army as a Special Force Paratrooper and was posted among other locations, in Ladakh, Assam and Uttar Pradesh. He never married.

Lobsang asks:

Today, the Indian government says I cannot own property here. Why? I have lived half my life in this country; served 20 years in the Army; risked my life and yet, I am an outsider. When Tibetans can be employed in the Indian Army, why can’t they own land on Indian soil?
– Lobsang to The Quint

Construction in Mcleodganj as the local Indian and Tibetan refugee community expands. (Photo: Sumegha Gulati/The Quint)
Construction in Mcleodganj as the local Indian and Tibetan refugee community expands. (Photo: Sumegha Gulati/The Quint)

“We’re Not Complaining”

Unlike Tenzin and Lobsang, 23-year old Otzer was born here in Ladakh. Since completing her training from Dehradun to become a secretary, she has been working with the Tibetan Settlement Office in Dharamshala. However, she too does not have Indian citizenship.

As per a 2010 court order, all Tibetans born in India before July 1987 would be “naturally” considered Indian citizens. Though she was born in the ‘90s, Otzer claims even those fulfilling the criteria find it difficult to procure citizenships.

“The situation on the ground is very different from what is specified in papers,” she claimed. “It is easy to say we grant Indian citizenship but how many people actually get it? Very few.” Then, as an afterthought, she adds: “But, it’s okay. India has given security to His Holiness. This country has given us our religious freedom. So, we are not complaining.”

25-year old Nawang Jigme, who came to India in 2008 from Kham in Tibet, agrees. Having escaped “the brutal Chinese military”, Jigme says there is “more than enough to thank India for”. Though he eventually wishes to return to Tibet “someday”, for now, he is enrolled in English classes in Mcleodganj and plans to start a business here.

Waiting for the New Policy to Kick In

Jigme, like scores of other young Tibetans, is now waiting to see how well the Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy 2014 devised by the Home Ministry will be implemented on ground. The policy, on paper, allows Tibetans to officially pursue jobs across sectors including nursing, teaching, chartered accountancy, medicine and engineering. Benefits of state and central schemes like the Public Distribution System, Indira Gandhi Awas Yojna, etc., are also expected to be extended to Tibetan refugees “subject to availability of food grains”.

According to Tenzin Lekshay, media coordinator at the office of the Dalai Lama, the issue of Indian citizenship is “complicated” and “divided” within the Tibetan community.

Will Citizenship Dilute the Tibetan Cause?

A large number of Tibetans, he said, believe taking Indian citizenship will “dilute the cause” – an argument seconded by Delhi University Professor and Tibet expert Abanti Bhattacharya. “There is a difference between being exiled refugees and diaspora,” Bhattacharya says.

India has given the 90,000 Tibetans maximum space in 14-15 settlements across the country – in Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Dharamshala, Karnataka, Nagpur, Arunachal Pradesh and others. Locals have been accommodative; the Central Schools for Tibetans funded by the Union government are specifically meant for Tibetan children – so we are just very grateful and comfortable. We do not stop anyone from applying for Indian citizenship but we do need to ask if our personal cause is above the national cause. What about the Tibetans inside Tibet who do not have such options?
– Tenzin Lekshay, Media Co-ordinator, the Office of His Holiness Dalai Lama to The Quint

As for property rights, Lekshay responds that any refugee community “did not need to own land in a foreign country” and it was only fair, with India’s own population problem that “there are certain restrictions”.

On the issue of lack of civic amenities and overcrowding in major Tibetan settlements, Lekshay says he does not feel India needed to expand the current or add more Tibetan settlements.

Tibetans are a very slow-growing community. Late marriages are a norm and birth rates are very low. It is not a question of expanding or adding more settlements. We only need to develop what we have.
– Tenzin Lekshay, Media Co-ordinator, the Office of His Holiness Dalai Lama to The Quint

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