It’s time Tibetan exiles became Indian citizens
This month of Losar, the Tibetan New Year, saw a tragic milestone — more than 100 people in Tibet lit their bodies aflame protesting against Chinese atrocities and shouting for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Last week, a Tibetan monk who had recently escaped into Nepal, self-immolated in Kathmandu and later died in a local hospital. The searing images of the monk’s burning body exposed to the world the high cost of China’s reign of terror in Tibet, which has been well concealed for over 60 years.
At a time when people in Tibet are burning themselves alive, when China has installed a formidable military infrastructure across the Tibetan plateau that bears down upon South and Southeast Asia, when no UN peacekeeping forces will rescue the victims of China’s police state, it is time to be realistic about how to assist the Tibetan people at this perilous hour. For as long as the Dalai Lama lives in Himachal Pradesh,Tibetans in India have a measure of protection. But a structural crisis is unfolding in the exile world; the Tibetan settlements created in the early 1960s by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru were never meant to be permanent. The old settlements are disintegrating, filled with poor, often broken families who are frustrated withpolicies that consign them to isolation and exclusion by prolonging their unsettled legal status.
As China increases military pressure along the India-China border and accelerates conflict in the Himalayan belt, Tibetan refugees are more vulnerable, less welcome and politically radioactive. In an era where there is less room and tolerance for refugees in all of South Asia, approximately 150,000 Tibetans in exile cannot remain stateless refugees much longer. At 54 years, Tibet is second to the Palestinians as the world’s longest unresolved refugee crisis. At this late date, Tibetans in exile want and need citizenship. They look up to their leaders who have obtained citizenship abroad and have prospered. Lobsang Sangay, the titular head of the Tibetan exile administration, for years resided in the United States, obtained a US green card and eventually settled his family in a comfortable home near Boston. Yet he has repeatedly said that his struggling brethren must remain refugees for the cause.
Mr Sangay has not explained how it helps the cause to keep his people shackled to a decaying, isolated camp system where they cannot work, vote, buy a house or register a business in India — the country that has rescued and protected the Tibetan people, a country where many Tibetans are already well assimilated, where the Dalai Lama lives and where Tibetan culture is much more intact than anywhere in the West, a country that is the world’s largest democracy and a global power.
What is not widely understood is that under Indian law, Tibetans in India are not recognised as refugees. The Indian RC, the official document provided to Tibetans, is a registration card not a refugee card. Under the Foreigners Act 1946 and the Registration of Foreigners Act 1939, Tibetans are listed as foreigners. This is a broad legal definition that includes other refugee populations in India, of which there are many.
The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) has never had any independently recognised international identity and with the retirement of the Dalai Lama, the original covenant with the Indian government is null. But the CTA still asserts de facto control over the exiles. A US consular officer told me that the CTA requested permission to grant final approval to all Tibetan visa applicants. I cannot confirm if the US embassy complied with this request but it raises the question about what legal entities have legitimate jurisdiction over the Tibetan population in India.
Tibetans are, in fact, subjects of the Republic of India and ultimately governed by its laws. In a highly publicised three-year court case, Namgyal Lhagyari of Dehra Dun attained Indian citizenship on the grounds that she was born in India and therefore qualified for citizenship according to the Indian Constitution. The verdict in Ms Lhagyari’s lawsuit encouraged Tibetans to apply for Indian citizenship. Yet, the CTA officials frequently state that Tibetans should remain refugees to keep their benefits, which bring far fewer benefits than those conferred by citizenship. Perpetuating the outdated prototype of the needy-but-cheerful Tibetan refugee distorts the realities and needs of exiles. It is especially harmful to young people who are culturally integrated with India, but are handicapped and stigmatised by foreigner status.
Mr Sangay can well appreciate the value of citizenship. The Bank of America website confirms that he was able to pay off his mortgage in full one week prior to being sworn in as the new exile leader. With a US green card, he is able to travel internationally without restrictions while Tibetans with only an RC cannot obtain visas and will face difficulty in obtaining a US mortgage.
As citizens, Tibetans would join a constituency of India’s Buddhists and Himalayan peoples. As refugees, Tibetans are perceived as an obstacle to relations with a threatening China. I am certain that a great many Tibetans in India would gladly accept Indian citizenship and the attendant financial and political rights, which Tibetan refugees sorely need. India has done more for the Tibetan people than anyone else, so I am also certain that Tibetans would be productive and patriotic citizens of Gandhi’s homeland.
At this late date, Tibetans with citizenship can do more for the Tibetan cause than impoverished and powerless foreigners. If the structural crisis of statelessness is perpetuated and ignored, the exile base will be further weakened by a festering criminal underworld of human traffickers and Chinese agents.
And if the exile base collapses, who will speak for Tibet? One winter afternoon, sharing tea and samosas in a Dharamsala garden, the poet and freedom fighter Lhasang Tsering stared into the golden light above the Kangra Valley and spoke, “We did not come into exile to become the world’s most successful refugees. We came to fight for our brothers and sisters in Tibet. We can never forget.” And that is what matters most.
Maura Moynihan is a New York author and journalist who has worked for many years with Tibetan refugees in India