It is after more than 50 years that the Indian government and the Tibetan government-in-exile have eased their stand on the future of over 1.5 lakh Tibetans living in-exile in India, finally giving them Indian citizenship and voting rights. What prevails on ground, however, is some happiness and cheer, a lot of confusion, and a fear of losing their dream of a free homeland.
New Aruna Nagar, popularly known as Majnu ka Tila (MKT), is one of the largest colonies of Tibetan refugees in the country after McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh.
The narrow winding lanes are choc-a-bloc with restaurants that serve the best Tibetan food in the city, shops that sell ethnic Himalayan ware and guest houses, as the colony is also considered the most important transit point for any Tibetan in the country.
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An August 2013 order of the Karnataka High Court clarified that children of Tibetan refugees, born in India between 1950 and 1987 as mentioned in the Citizenship Act, 1955, are to be considered Indian citizens by birth. Pursuant to that, the Election Commission, in an order dated February 7, directed the electoral officers in all states to include children of Tibetan refugees, aged above 18, in the electoral list “because they are citizens of the country”.
MKT, incidentally, falls under the Chandni Chowk parliamentary constituency. But, despite the formal notification, and at a time when every radio jingle and every billboard is smeared in the pre-poll fervour, MKT is different. Hoardings and posters of political parties and candidates are completely missing from this colony of about 300 families.
Karten Tsering, pradhan of the Residents’ Welfare Association, said none of the Tibetan residents of MKT have received voting cards for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. “No special camps were held to enrol voters from here, but those who submitted their applications to the nearby election office have all been sent back, with the Delhi Election Office clarifying that they do not have sufficient time to verify the place of birth of the applicants,” he said.
The Indian government first offered citizenship and voting rights to Tibetans-in-exile in 1970s. But the offer was turned down by the then Tibetan government-in-exile, Tsering said. He went on to say that the Tibetan youth are happy about the Indian government’s decision and the fact that the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) is not reluctant anymore to give out No Objection Certificates to those who wish to be Indian citizens.
“Apart from surrendering our Registration Certificates (which is our document of the refugee status and needs to be renewed every year) and our Identification Certificates (which is our travel document), we also need NOC from the CTA, which we did not get in the past, but have started getting now,” said Sangpo, the 33-year-old president of the Dharamsala Association, the umbrella organisation looking after the 38 guest houses and 15 registered restaurants at MKT.
Sonam Tsetan, an independent filmmaker, said there is no clarity on the procedure. “Just applying for citizenship is a complex process and no one knows what is to be done. There is little guidance. The biggest hassle for many of us is the absence of birth certificates, as the EC wants to know the place of birth.”
“We have already started the process, but due diligence is required to make sure that the EC guidelines and the stipulated parameters are strictly adhered to. It is a case of Indians versus foreigners and it is very important to verify the place of birth in this case with due diligence,” Delhi’s chief election officer Vijay Dev said.
Though there is concern of a weakening struggle for a “Free Tibet” for Thinley Tsetan, voting rights in India would provide the Tibetan refugees more flexibility in their everyday existence. “Apart from getting admission in higher education institutions in the general category than in foreigners’ quota, we won’t be denied jobs and could also open bank accounts without any hassle.”
Tsering believes voting rights and citizenship to Tibetans-in-exile would affect the free struggle for Tibetans, “but in a positive way.” “It is a very positive initiative by the Indian government. Having been settled here since 1963, Tibetans will do better as Indian citizens, they will have more chance to be heard than ending up protesting at Jantar Mantar. All Tibetans will always be together in the ‘Free Tibet’