“We are very grateful to the government of India, but we don’t want to fight for any right other than what we have," said activist and poet Tenzin Tsundue. "Our legal status is ‘foreigners registered to be living in India.’ That is all.”
India is thought to be home to around 120,000 Tibetans, approximately 48,000 of whom are eligible to vote. The community has lived in India in large numbers ever since their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, crossed the border in 1959, fleeing repression by the Chinese in their homeland.
At present, Tibetans not born in India are considered foreigners and have to apply periodically for registration certificates from their local Foreigner Regional Registration Office. The Citizenship Act of 1955 states that all people born in India are legally considered citizens, which allows Tibetans born in India since then to claim Indian citizenship. However the act was amended in 1986 and the provision that conferred Indian citizenship on any child born in India was removed.
Since many Tibetans are already considered Indian citizens by law, the Election Commission is not unduly extending franchise to people who are not citizens. “We are only implementing existing court orders,” said Deputy Election Commissioner Alok Shukla. “Only Indian citizens have voting rights in India. Who is considered a citizen is a matter of adjudication.”
The question of Indian citizenship for Tibetans began to be debated in 2010, when the Ministry of External Affairs denied a passport to Namgyal Dolkar Lhagyari, a Tibetan born in India in 1986. She challenged the order in the Delhi high court. The ruling in December 2011 reminded the government that when the Citizenship Act of 1955 was amended in 1986, home minister P Chidambaram categorically stated that it would not be retroactive and that all those born in the country before July 1987 would still be regarded as Indian citizens. The court also said that unless citizens took active steps towards renouncing their citizenship, they could not be deprived of their rights. A Karnataka high court confirmed this ruling in a similar case in August 2013.
Lhagyar has welcomed the Election Commission order. “I really appreciate that the Commission is clarifying this,” she told Scroll.in. “They are just confirming a right that already exists. All my case did was to bring visibility to the issue because nobody knew the legal status of Tibetan refugees at the time.”
The issue of accepting foreign nationalities has also been the subject of heated debate within the Tibetan community. It was only in August 2013 that the Tibetan government-in-exile, based in Dharamshala, declared that it would not prevent any Tibetan from seeking Indian citizenship. This was a change from its earlier insistence that Tibetans retain their status of ‘stateless’ refugees.
But Tsundue and other activists fear that accepting foreign citizenship will dilute the already weakening identity of Tibetan refugees, who aim to return home one day. “There may be some people who have taken citizenship, but these are very few,” he said. “I don’t think any Tibetan would take advantage of such schemes.”
Not all Tibetans in India agree with him.
Every year, Tibetans across the country have to spend time and money to travel all the way to their local FRRO to renew their registration certificates. Their travel within India is also restricted and they are technically obliged to report to an FRRO every 14 days, though the rule is often observed in the breach.
“While of course I cannot speak for the community, I think this will make many of their lives much easier,” said Shibayan Raha, a former Grassroots Director at Students for a Free Tibet, an activist organisation campaigning for Tibetan rights.
The reason very few Tibetans have asserted their Indian citizenship is the lack of legal awareness, Raha said. Once younger Tibetans realise they are actually Indian, many will apply for citizenship proofs such as voter identity cards and passports.
There are many benefits for doing so. “At present, they can work only in the private sector wherever they get employed, at places like call centres," Raha said. "They have to pay higher fees at universities because they are not from this country. This will entitle them to more benefits such as government jobs and less harassment by officials who have never heard of registration certificates.”
Indian officials clarified that Tibetans of any age or place of birth will remain free to retain any identity they please. They will not face any official interference and may continue to apply for registration certificates annually. However, if they want to assert their Indian citizenship, they will have to apply for official papers.
“Only when someone wants to get enrolled on the voters list, do they have to categorically state that they are citizens of India,” reminded Shukla of the Election Commission. “Until then, they need not clarify anything.”