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To be or not to be: Voting rights for Tibetans in India decoded

What does it mean, and what does it take, for Tibetans to hold an Indian voter ID? The Indian Express traces the journey of two Tibetans born in India, whose hearts still beat for a homeland they never saw. One is registered as a voter, the other opted not to be

Written by Divya Goyal | Kangra |
Updated: May 15, 2019 9:34:37 am
To be or not to be: Voting rights for Tibetans decoded Tibetan colony at Chogan, Bir-Billing (Express photo by Gurmeet Singh)

She was born in Shimla in 1964. “The year Jawaharlal Nehru died,” she says. Her son is pursuing engineering at a college in Punjab while she “dearly misses” her friend from college who now lives in Ludhiana. She visits her often. For 55-year-old Chime Dolma, the time she spent in college in Chandigarh remain the best days of her life.

“It is very difficult to take India out of me,” says Dolma but then “Tibet is in my blood.”

Dolma is part of majority from her community who have opted to not register themselves in the electoral rolls in India despite being eligible, “by virtue of being born in India to Tibetan refugee parents”.

“My heart doesn’t allow me to apply for any document that takes our identity away from Tibet. It dilutes what we are fighting for – free and prosperous Tibet,” explains Dolma. “We are grateful to India. It has let us live here for 60 years now. But then, we are foreigners living on compassionate grounds. I remember my parents reciting stories and folktales of Tibet to me in childhood. They kept Tibet alive in us. I have never been to my own country but it is my dream to step on that soil one day, she says, and adds, “maybe, if we can have something like dual citizenship…”

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Portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan hang to that of the Dalai Lama in her cabin at Sambhota Tibetan School in village Bir of Kangra district where she works as a headmistress.

“We teach our children about Nehru and Dr Radhakrishnan and celebrate Children’s Day and Teacher’s Day,” says Dolma. She had started teaching 33 years ago.

She doesn’t hold an Indian voter ID, but has been keeping a track of the ongoing Lok Sabha polls. “Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi tries to please China it seems. Any party, which doesn’t get scared of China and takes own stand is good for us. Indira Gandhi used to be my favorite,” she says.

Her parents were among 80,000 Tibetans who had moved to India with their spiritual leader, The Dalai Lama, after Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959. In Himachal Pradesh, which has almost 22,000 of them, they are mainly based at Dharamshala and Bir-Billing (Baijnath) – both in Kangra district. The state has second highest Tibetan population in India after Karnataka, which has more than 40,000. An administrative body called Central Tibetan Organization (CTA), headquartered at Dharasmshala and unofficially also known as Tibetan Government In-Exile, works for welfare of Tibetans.

Tibetans also elect their own Parliament in exile through voting.

According to CTA website, there are 1.28 lakh Tibetans worldwide of which majority 94,000 are in India as per 2010 survey. However according to the sources, Tibetan population has declined to roughly 85,000 in India in recent years as many youngsters have moved abroad.

In Himachal Pradesh, which votes of May 19, a little over 1,900 Tibetans are registered as voters, mostly in Kangra Lok Sabha constituency, said a source at HP Chief Electoral Office. The Election Commission of India (ECI) does not maintain any category-wise data of voters officially.

Meanwhile, A fight to belong

Some two hours drive from Bir-Billing, lies Dharamshala, where CTA is headquartered and where lives a Tibetan man who led a fight to get an Indian passport. When he won, it brought victory for his entire community and the right to apply for Indian passports.

Lobsang Wangyal (48), was denied a passport despite having Indian voter ID which he got after proving that he was born in India in 1970 and hence was a citizen of India by birth. He moved Delhi High Court in May 2016.

To be or not to be: Voting rights for Tibetans decoded Lobsang Wangyal shows his Voter ID. (Express photo by Divya Goyal)

An independent photojournalist who travels abroad often and also runs a news website ‘Tibet Sun’, Wangyal says, “I got the voter ID in 2014 after proving that I was born in India on May 25, 1970. The Regional Passport Officer (RPO) at Shimla asked me to bring a ‘citizenship certificate’. Can you please tell me which office in India issues ‘citizenship certificates’ to people born in India? Do you have any such certificate? I told the officer about Citizenship Act but they did not listen. I went from one government office to the other…from deputy commissioner to the local SDM…they all said there is no such document (citizenship certificate). That is where I felt that I still wasn’t in my own country. I moved court,” says Wangyal.

The court on September 22, 2016 gave a verdict in his favour. Disposing of his writ petition, the court said, “Section 3 of the Act very categorically lays down the conditions under which a person acquires citizenship by birth… The petitioners are Indian citizens and entitled to all benefits and privileges, as are available to Indian citizens. The petitioner cannot be denied passport by the respondents on that ground…and should be issued within four weeks.”

What followed was a bigger victory. A notification issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on March 17, 2017 citing Wangyal’s case it read, “All passport issuing authorities in India/abroad, in compliance to court orders, shall process all pending applications of TR applicants born in India between 26/01/1950 to 01/07/1987, for the issue of passports treating them as Indian citizens by birth under section 3(1)(a) of the Citizenship Act, 1955.’

Later in another notification on September 17, 2018, the MEA extended the right to have passport to Tibetans born in India after 1987 as per condition under section 3(1)(b) and 3(1)(c) of the Citizenship Act.

Rules for surrendering RCs and ICs are very clear when Tibetans apply for Indian passport. They are made to sign an undertaking, which says that they agree to give up all privileges given to Tibetan refugees, shall not continue to stay at Tibetan settlements, that they do not hold any other citizenship or nationality except status of Tibetan refugee among others.

So what does it mean for a Tibetan to have an Indian voter ID?

Wangyal, who voted in Lok Sabha polls in 2014, and civic body and Assembly polls in Himachal in 2017, says, “I am not an alien. If my parents come from Tibet, it doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to have a say in the country where I was born and brought up. I feel the power, that sense of belonging after getting voter ID….”

And like any other citizen, Wangyal has his own set of complaints with his country. “What is this hype about Digital India? The MEA still takes a year to process the ICs that Tibetans get to travel abroad. Then you face embarrassment at airports when they do not even recognize these ICs. It happened with me in the US, Japan, Australia, Europe.. even some Indian officials fail to recognize it…this condition that people who are born after 1987 cannot be citizens by birth if one of their parents is not so. Is it their fault if they were born after this deadline? Can they really help it? So many of my friends who want to apply for voter ID or passport can’t because of this condition… Is this how progressive countries work? Officials here are so unaccommodating and unwelcoming to new people. Is this how we are going to compete with China….,” asks Wangyal.

He also denies and rejects the notion that Tibetans applying for Indian documents dilutes ‘Free Tibet Movement’.

“Can someone really take Tibet out of me? Is it that I will stop speaking Tibetan or leave hanging out with my Tibetan friends? Will I stop following Buddhism or forget my homeland? It is a fact that Tibet is not a free country as of now and to solve our daily problems, we need to get these Indian documents. Can you escape it?,” asks Wangyal.

“Tibet has been going through a very difficult time. I don’t have anything that I can call home. The injustice happening with Tibet is constantly in front of my eyes. Despite all this we have hope because of our culture, conviction and a great leader like Dalai Lama. We will continue to fight for it,” he says. And for India, Wangyal has many things to love too.

“I love the diversity of this country, the ancient Indian thoughts, which the ‘New India’ is seemed to have push aside. I don’t like Indian bureaucracy, the lack of civic sense, constant blowing horns, garbage strewn everywhere and intolerance that has seeped in politics. India’s core issues with regards to Tibet wouldn’t change, whichever party comes to power but day to day life of Tibetans can change because of government policies,” says Wangyal.

But one thing that has certainly changed for Wangyal after getting his voter ID – his importance in the eyes of local politicians. “It feels great when different leaders approach us also now and say ‘Lobsang ye hamara symbol hai, hamara bhi dhyaan rakhna… koi pareshaani ho to batana…’ Okay, yeah so that feels like my own country now….” says Wangyal, smiling and posing with his voter card, standing in front of Dalai Lama temple at Dharamshala.

Indian citizens by birth: Voting rights for Tibetans in India, its complexities

Even as they are referred to as ‘sharanarthi’ (refugees), on paper, the Tibetans living in India are given the status of ‘foreigners’. They are issued two documents by the central government as per provisions under the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939 and Foreigners Act, 1946 – a Registration Certificate (RC) which acts as a permit for them to live here and is renewable every one or five years and an Identity Certificate (IC) – a yellow booklet for travelling abroad.

To be or not to be: Voting rights for Tibetans decoded Chime Dolma at her school. (Express photo by Divya Goyal)

After getting an Indian voter ID or a passport, they have to surrender their RCs and ICs, which means giving up ‘foreigner’ status and some of the benefits attached to it in health and education and living in Tibetan colonies.

It was following a landmark judgment by the Karnataka High Court in 2013 which asserted section of 3 of the Citizenship Act, 1995 that the ECI issued a notification in 2014 saying that “Tibetans born in India have to be treated as Indian citizens and cannot be denied the right to vote”.

The section 3 of the Citizenship Act, 1955, under the title ‘Acquisition of Indian Citizenship’, reads,’ (1) Citizenship by Birth: Except as provided in sub-section (2), every person born in India – (a) on or after the 26th day of January, 1950, but before the 1st day of July, 1987; (b) on or after the 1st day of July, 1987, but before the commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 and either of whose parents is a citizen of India at the time of his birth; (c) on or after the commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003, where-(i) both of his parents are citizens of India; or (ii) one of whose parents is a citizen of India and the other is not an illegal migrant at the time of his birth, shall be a citizen of India by birth.’

In the judgment dated August 7, 2013, the Karnataka High Court ruling in the favor of Tenzin Choephag Ling Rinpoche, whose application to get an Indian passport issued was rejected on the basis that he was not a citizen of India and was asked to apply for it separately under section 9 (2) of the Citizenship Act, ordered (citing similar orders by Delhi High Court on December 22, 2010), “The cut off date of January 26, 1950 and July 1, 1987 is to be taken into consideration and any person who is born to the parents in India between the said two dates is to be automatically considered as a Citizen by birth in India. The mentioning of the nationality as Tibetan in the application is of no consequence…Seen that the petitioner was born on November 18, 1985 i.e. before January 1, 1987, certainly the petitioner also would be entitled to claim the status of an Indian Citizen by birth….”

Following the judgment, the ECI issued a notification on February 7, 2014. “As per the section 3 (1)(a) of the Citizenship Act, 1955, the children born to Tibetan refugees in India shall be treated as Indian citizens based on their birth in India on or after 26th January 1950 and before 1st July 1987. The commission clarifies that Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) concerned should not deny enrollment to children of Tibetan refugees where they are satisfied that (1) applicant was born in India (2) he/she was born on or after January 26, 1950 but before July 1, 1987 and (3) he/she is ordinarily residence of constituency in which enrollment has been made,” the notification reads.

Later, issuing another clarification, the ECI extended the voting right to children of Tibetan refugees even born after 1987 but before December 3, 2004, however with a condition that ‘either of his parents was a citizen of India at the time of their birth’, as per section 3(1)(b) of the Citizenship Act.

And then, in what can be termed as a complete bureaucratic mess, there was no clarity on rules regarding surrendering of RCs and ICs by Tibetans who got Indian voter IDs – a mess that continued from Lok Sabha polls 2014 to Himachal Pradesh Assembly polls 2017. Most Tibetans continued to hold both. Finally, on February 3, 2018, Kangra Superintendent of Police (SP), citing a letter of Ministry of Home Affairs, issued orders in all Tibetan settlements to surrender their RCs if they have voter cards. The orders also said that around 1,000 Tibetans registered themselves as voters and 296 exercised their franchise without surrendering their RCs. “The possession of RCs indicate their foreign status whereas acquisition of Indian voter ID cards would enable them to prove their Indian identities, which have security implications,” it read.

Ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Harbans Lal, chief assistant electoral officer, HP, still maintains that ECI rules nowhere say that they have to get RCs of Tibetans surrendered before giving them voter ID. “Our work is only to check that they fulfill the criteria (birth in India and citizenship of parents) if born after 1987. That we do by checking birth certificates and residence proofs or local enquiry. ECI rules do not talk about getting RCs surrendered so that is not our job. Police must be doing at their level,” he says.

The stand taken by CTA on Tibetans applying for Indian IDs is diplomatic – it neither objects nor encourages. “If a person is eligible to apply for Indian voter ID or passport, we have no objection to it but then they have to surrender their RCs. We cannot comment on what Indian rules are on accepting him/her as their citizen,” Sonam Norbu Dagpo, secretary, department of Information and International Relations, CTA told The Indian Express.

But according to a Tibetan source, “The officials in Karnataka had started demanding No Objection Certificates (NOCs) from CTA before registering us as voters. CTA was reluctant in issuing them. But since Indian rules never demand any such NOC, the practice fizzled out”.


Lok Sabha constituency: KANGRA
What sets it apart: Tibetan voters
How many: Estimated at 1,900
Why does that matter: More than a voting right, it is about an identity crisis

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